A comment on Academic Freedom and the Corporate University by John Holmwood, Jul 4, 2014.
Holmwood’s post refers to a recent blog post by David Browne, Senior Associate on the Employment Team for SGH Martineau, a legal firm whose clients include managers at the University of Warwick, famed for overseeing fair play and protecting academics’ right to dissent. To quote Holmwood, Browne “..argued that universities face the problem that ‘high performing’ academics can damage their ‘university’s brand’ by their ‘outspoken opinions or general insubordination’.” Browne’s post, “Getting your teeth stuck into High Performer Misconduct” compares foul play on a football pitch with expressing an opinion. Initially puzzled, I think I finally saw some vague similarity, and wrote the following comment on Jul 12.
If one football player bites another then the referee blows a whistle and calls “foul”. If, in consequence, the referee is disciplined, then he will find it difficult to do his job. If those who discipline him do so covertly, perhaps manipulating video evidence from which independent observers may decide on whether the bite took place, then we begin to see some sort of parallel with recent events in UK universities.
Truth is the primary and overriding concern of members of a university’s academic staff. To suspend or dismiss them on the grounds that their judgement does not find favour with administrators is to negate the reason for the university’s existence in the first place. Academic freedom is not an out-dated perk. No university worthy of the name attempts to prescribe lines of enquiry, nor conclusions reached, in research, teaching and scholarship.
To quote from one institution’s Ordinances:
“Where there is any issue as to the meaning of ‘academic freedom’ in any proceedings under these Ordinances, regard shall be had to Sections VI and VII of the Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel adopted by the General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in Paris on 11 November 1997.”
I’ve recently had cause to consult the UNESCO Recommendation Concerning the Status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel of 1997.
I recommend it.
The academic, as the referee, must retain the freedom to do what he is paid for.
Otherwise, what do universities actually do?
And what is it that their managers actually manage?
Nobel winners say scientific discovery ‘virtually impossible’ due to funding bureaucracy
Major scientific discovery is being hindered because of the peer preview system, Nobel Prize winning scientists have warned
10:30PM BST 02 Jun 2014
Major scientific discoveries of the 20th Century would not have happened under today’s funding rules, Nobel Prize winning scientists have warned.
More than 30 leading scientists including four Nobel Laureates have written to The Telegraph deploring the current system of granting funding for scientific research.
They said that: “Sustained open-ended enquiries in controversial or unfashionable fields are virtually forbidden today and science is in serious danger of stagnating.”
Lead signatory Prof Donald Braben, professor of earth sciences at University College London, had published a book on how difficult it has become in the last 30 years to get research funded.
He warned that all the major funding institutions now use a system of peer preview in which anonymous members in the same field consider the proposal and decide if it should go ahead.
Prof Braben said: “The major scientific discoveries of the 20th Century would not have happened under today’s rules, they would not get funding now.
“It is very difficult to get a discussion together on this matter because everyone has to acquiesce.”
His book documents the 500 major discoveries of the 20th Century.
He says that Max Planck would not have made his quantum mechanics discoveries and Peter Mitchell would not have discovered the energy currency in biology had they been put through today’s funding rules.
The letter continued: “Peer preview is now virtually unavoidable and its bureaucratic, protracted procedures are repeated for every change in direction or new phase of experimentation or whatever the applicant might subsequently propose.
“Many scientists privately deplore these policies but their professional standing often depends on their acquiescence.”
Prof Braben’s book ‘Promoting the Planck Club: How defiant youth, irreverent researchers and liberated universities can foster prosperity indefinitely, is published by Wiley.
Co-signatories on the letter include: John F Allen, Queen Mary, University of London; William Amos, University of Cambridge; Richard Ball, University of Edinburgh; Tim Birkhead FRS, University of Sheffield; Peter Cameron, Queen Mary, University of London; Richard Cogdell FRS, University of Glasgow; and David Colquhoun University College London.
As well as Nobel Laureates, John Hall, University of Colorado; Dudley Herschbach, Harvard University; Sir Harry Kroto, Florida State University, and Sir Richard J Roberts FRS, New England Biolabs.
The damaging bureaucracy of academic peer preview
Academic funding agencies should support research in unfashionable fields
Peer preview is now virtually unavoidable and its bureaucratic, protracted procedures are repeated for every change in direction or new phase of experimentation or for whatever an applicant might subsequently propose. Consequently, support for research that might lead to major new scientific discoveries is virtually forbidden nowadays, and science is in serious danger of stagnating. Many scientists privately deplore these policies but their professional standing often depends on their acquiescence – a catch-22 that effectively diminishes public opposition to the policies. We call upon funding agencies to support sustained, open-ended research in unfashionable fields.
Donald W Braben
University College London
John F Allen
Queen Mary, University of London
University of Cambridge
University of Edinburgh
FRS, University of Sheffield
Queen Mary, University of London
Richard Cogdell FRS
University of Glasgow;
David Colquhoun FRS
University College London;
Industry Forum, London
United States Naval Academy, Annapolis;
University of Notre Dame
University of Colorado, Nobel Laureate
University of Leicester
Harvard University, Nobel Laureate
H Jeff Kimble
Caltech, US National Academy of Sciences
Sir Harry Kroto FRS
Florida State University, Nobel Laureate
University of Bristol
Peter Lawrence FRS
University of Cambridge
Angus MacIntyre FRS
Queen Mary, University of London
John Mattick FAA
Garvan Institute of Medical Research, Sydney
University of Reading
University of Missouri
Bio Astral Limited
Sir Richard J Roberts FRS
New England Biolabs, Nobel Laureate
Queen’s University of Belfast
University of Newcastle
University of Texas, US National Academy of Sciences;
Claudio Vita-Finzi FBA
Natural History Museum
It was a privilege and a pleasure to attend Ursula Mittwoch’s birthday reception in the Housman Room at UCL on 18 March 2014.
Ursula’s contributions to genetics underly what we know and are even inclined, perhaps, to take for granted today.
Interview by Peter Harper on 2 March 2004
From reading such authors as J. B. S. Haldane and C. D. Darlington, I’d long known the famous names mentioned by Ursula in her interview with Peter Harper. Those personal heroes knew Ursula and her work. The name Mittwoch came up for me many times in subsequent years. I first met Ursula in 2013, whilst on sabbatical at UCL, where Fiona Williamson kindly introduced us. Fiona and Nick Lane knew of our common interests and drew my attention to one recent publication.
Mittwoch, U. (2013) Sex determination. EMBO Reports 14, 588-592. DOI: 10.1038/embor.2013.84
Ursula’s memorable reception speech contained one piece of advice. It is surely a perennial key to scientific success.
Be kind to colleagues…
Happy birthday, Ursula!
Left to right: John Allen, Sue Povey, Ursula Mittwoch, Dallas Swallow, Nick Lane. Photo by Fiona Williamson
Now with comments. The question remains. “How should they do it?” makes little sense without it being answered.
A university is a community of scholars whose purpose is to advance and disseminate knowledge. Research advances knowledge. Teaching disseminates it. Research requires freedom, supportive infrastructure, cooperation, communication, and trust. Teaching is communication and critical examination of existing knowledge within an open society where nothing is beyond question and where knowledge is thus free to advance. Research and teaching are inter-dependent.
Following items in Times Higher Education, good friends currently correspond on Twitter concerning first-hand experiences working in different universities in the USA, Germany, and the UK.
I’ve long thought that what is missing from discussion of topics such “management” and “value for money” is an agreed description of what is a university’s output or “product”. Without this, how can we have any idea of effectiveness in deployment of input? There seems to be some confusion. I can recall the question going back to to the first UK Research Assessment Exercise in 1986, which followed The Jarratt Report. I seem to recall Jarratt being quoted as saying that the loudest objections to the idea of university “management” came from departments notorious for “old Spanish practices”. I think good and honest Spaniards might well have a phrase about “old English practices” with equal justification, and this is not just my attempt at being PC. Anyway, in the department where I worked at that time, I felt I could see exactly what Jarratt had in mind, whichever nationality he chose to sleight. Public money was underwriting personal fiefdoms, thinly disguised protection rackets, and arms for endless and pointless wars over who owned which particular piece of academic territory – what should be taught and researched, and by whom. I was temporarily away in a superb US university, and wished my own UK institution would just grow up and get on with the job.
But what exactly is the job?
A decade later than Jarratt, and in Sweden where the same confusion and waste seemed to hold sway, I found that an eminent German visitor had had exactly the same thought as mine. ”Well, what is all this actually for?” I asked rhetorically. ”What is our product?”
“We have a product” he replied with conviction. ”It is knowledge“.
Back in the UK, I more recently wrote the following as a sort of short manifesto. It didn’t command much support. Another candidate had read my piece, I think, and his own popular manifesto was emphatic that a university does not have a product. One gathered that it was somehow degrading to think so. He was elected with a clear majority. I didn’t mind. He seems to be doing good job to this day.
So, brief manifesto, as follows. What is so controversial?
Universities have a product. This product is knowledge. Research produces new knowledge. Teaching distributes it. Successful universities produce and distribute a quality product at a competitive price. Research requires freedom, supportive infrastructure, cooperation, communication, trust. Teaching requires the promotion of existing knowledge within an open society where nothing is beyond question.
The subject of the header photograph; you; me; the remarkable people who built and sent the camera; all our homes, history, hopes, fears, aspirations:–
Fig. 1 (do view full-screen) includes the evening horizon, giving depth from perspective. Breathtaking. Wish Carl Sagan could have seen this.
“The distance between Earth and Mars when Curiosity took the photo was about 99 million miles (160 million kilometres)”.