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Are the grey philistines really in charge?

Recently there’s been an exchange in the Irish media about the decline of intellectuals in universities and calling into question whether universities are still fit for purpose given their funding and management structures. The fundamental question seems to me to be far deeper, and impacts on the UK and elsewhere as much as Ireland: what is  — or should be — the relationship between academics and their funding sources? To what extent does the person paying the academic piper call the research tune?

The opening shot in this discussion was published in the Irish Times as an op-ed piece by Tom Garvin, an emeritus (retired but still recognised) professor of politics at UCD, Ireland’s largest university, although perhaps his intervention was triggered by a rather more supportive editorial in the same paper a few days before. The piece is something of a polemic, but revolves around the lack of support for curiosity-driven (“blue skies”) research within the university system. “A grey philistinism [Garvin writes] has established itself in our universities, under leaders who imagine that books are obsolete, and presumably possess none themselves.” He then goes on to attack the application of science-based research methods such as team-based investigation to humanities, and observes that even for sciences there is no longer scope for free inquiry: “Researchers are being required by bureaucrats to specify what they are going to discover before the money to do the research is made available.” The article provoked a large number of supportive comments from readers and a rather narrow response from UCD’s management team.

The questions Garvin raises deserve consideration, and he should be commended for raising them. Indeed, they cut to the heart of whether universities are fit for purpose. Does the linking of funding to student numbers (whether under- or post-graduate) and to the pursuit of State-guided research programmes, the desire to profit from commercially significant results, and the need (or at least desire) to excel in international league tables impact on academics’ ability to investigate the world and pass on their results freely?

(For full disclosure, I should point out that I’m a computer science academic who, until last year, worked at UCD.)

There are, of course, major differences in topic area and research philosophy between research in sciences and in humanities, and I’m sure it’s fair to say that the same research approaches won’t translate seamlessly from one to the other: studying and commenting on the writings of others wouldn’t constitute computer science, for example. Having said that, though, there are advantages to be had from considering the ways in which techniques translate across fields. I’m sure some projects in history (to use Garvin’s example) would benefit from a team-based approach, although clearly others wouldn’t — any more than all physics research is conducted in large teams with large machines.

As a science researcher I have to point out that the crux of this argument — specifying results before being granted funding — is of course nonsense. When I apply for a grant I’m required to describe what I intend to investigate, the methods I’ll use and the expected benefits of the investigation. This of course is a long way from specifying what I’ll find, which of course I don’t know, in detail: that’s the whole point, after all. I don’t find this to be the mental straitjacket that Garvin seems to think it is: quite the contrary, spelling these matters out is an essential planning phase to design and manage what is likely to be a complex, elongated and collaborative endeavour. If I can’t explain what I want to do in a research proposal, then I don’t know myself.

But the real question isn’t about management: its about justification. Research proposals can (and probably should) be written for any research programme, but they’re typically used to get funding. And it’s here that we encounter the constraints on blue-skies research. A funding agency, whether public or private, will only fund research from which they’ll get an acceptable impact and return on investment. Different agencies will judge that return differently. Commercial funding usually follows topics that will lead, directly or indirectly, to future profits: it’s hard to see how a company’s board would be meeting its fiduciary duties if it did otherwise. Private foundations and State agencies such as research councils generally have a different definition of impact, for example the abstract scientific significance of a topic or its ability to effect social change. So to that extent, an academic who takes on research funding agrees, at least tacitly, to support the funder’s chosen model for assessing their research. There are some nasty examples where this causes problems, the classic case being research sponsored by tobacco companies, and taking funding doesn’t excuse from their duties as scientists to collect and report their findings honestly and completely, but in the main the system doesn’t cause too many dilemmas.

Given that many universities derive a large fraction of their income (approaching 100% for some) from the State, it is natural that the State will have an interest in directing resources to topics that it regards as more significant. To do otherwise would be to neglect the State’s responsibility to the electorate. Academics are not democratically accountable: it is unreasonable to expect that they should be responsible for the allocation funds they have no authority to collect.

However, there’s another point that needs to be made. Most academic appointments centre around teaching and conducting research, and not around getting funding. This has important implications for Garvin’s argument. The UK and Irish university systems are such that there is absolutely no constraint on an academic’s ability to do curiosity-driven research: I can conduct research on whatever topic I choose, and publish it (or not) as I see fit, at my absolute discretion (absent ethical considerations). I would be meeting fully my obligations to my employer, since these relate to my meeting my teaching and research commitments. But I can’t expect an external agency to fund me additionally, and it would be surprising if it were otherwise. Put another way, my academic position is my opportunity to conduct my own  curiosity-driven research, but if I require resources beyond my own I have to justify the wider benefits that will derive from that additional funding. There may be other side-effects: certainly in sciences, anyone without a significant funding profile would struggle to be promoted. But a requirement to justify the value one expects from a research programme before it’s funded is hardly a crimp on academic freedom.

There’s also a mis-understanding in some circles about how science is conducted: a perception that scientists go rather robotically about the conduct of the scientific method, collecting data and then drawing conclusions. This is hardly a surprising mis-perception, given that it’s almost implicit in the structure of a typical paper. But it nonetheless mis-states the importance of intuition and curiosity in deciding which hypothesis — amongst the infinite possibilities — one chooses to explore. (Peter Medawar. Is the scientific paper a fraud? The Listener 70, pp. 337-378. 12 September 1963.) Without curiosity there can’t really be any science: in fact one could go further and say that science is simply curiosity with a bit of useful structure attached.

Garvin’s other point, about the lack of influence of academics on public life, was picked by Kevin Myers in the Irish Independent as evidence of cowardice and a disinclination to risk-taking. From the perspective of the humanities this may be true, and it’s not for me to comment, but from the perspective of the sciences academics have become more engaged over time in the big issues: climate science, online-privacy and evolutionary biology are the three highest-profile examples of where science academics have stepped into the public realm. It’s also important to note that these three examples are first and foremost social in their impact: the science is there to inform public understanding, debate and policy.

It’s unfortunate that in many of these discussions “academic” has been taken tacitly to imply “academic in the humanities” — as though scientists were somehow less “academic” (whatever that means). In the past it was perhaps more expected for humanities academics to engage as public intellectuals, but a lot of the modern world’s problems simply can’t be understood, let alone be debated and addressed, without the serious and deep engagement of the scientists themselves in the debate.  This, perhaps, is the biggest challenge: to capture, leverage and pass on the excitement for learning and for research into the wider community. As long as that continues to be a central goal, universities remain fit for purpose.


2 Comments

  1. Simon Dobson’s observations are very interesting. I work in UCD in the humanities area and what I am wondering is this: do my colleagues in the Sciences feel that the managerialist culture of most universities today has little or no (negative) impact on their work and working lives as teachers as well as researchers? From Simon’s observations, it would seem that they feel relatively unoppressed! If that is so, then the sciences and the humanities are definitely worlds apart. I felt that Tom Garvin’s analysis really did speak for me and for my experience of teaching management in UCD and it was a great relief and a pleasant surprise to read the truth about all this in the Irish Times of all places.

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