A comment on Academic Freedom and the Corporate University

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 perhaps 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.

What, otherwise, do universities actually do?

And what is it that their managers actually manage?

Nobel winners say scientific discovery ‘virtually impossible’ due to funding bureaucracy – Telegraph

Source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/10870995/Nobel-winners-say-scientific-discovery-virtually-impossible-due-to-funding-bureaucracy.html

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 – Telegraph

Source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/letters/10870609/The-damaging-bureaucracy-of-academic-peer-preview.html

The damaging bureaucracy of academic peer preview

Academic funding agencies should support research in unfashionable fields

 10:35PM BST 02 Jun 2014
SIR – Under current policies, academic researchers must submit their proposals to a small group of their closest competitors – their peers – for consideration before they might be funded. Peers selected by funding agencies are usually allowed to deliver their verdicts anonymously. They assess the proposal’s suitability for funding, whether it would be the best possible use of the resources requested, and determine, if it were successful, the probability that it might contribute to the national economy in some way. If the answers are satisfactory the proposal has roughly a 25 per cent chance of being funded.

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

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;

David Colquhoun FRS
University College London;

Rod Dowler
Industry Forum, London

Irene Engle
United States Naval Academy, Annapolis;

Felipe Fernández-Armesto
University of Notre Dame

Desmond Fitzgerald
Materia Medica

John Hall
University of Colorado, Nobel Laureate

Pat Heslop-Harrison
University of Leicester

Dudley Herschbach
Harvard University, Nobel Laureate

H Jeff Kimble
Caltech, US National Academy of Sciences

Sir Harry Kroto FRS
Florida State University, Nobel Laureate

James Ladyman
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

Beatrice Pelloni
University of Reading

Douglas Randall
University of Missouri

David Ray
Bio Astral Limited

Sir Richard J Roberts FRS
New England Biolabs, Nobel Laureate

Ken Seddon
Queen’s University of Belfast

Colin Self
University of Newcastle

Harry Swinney
University of Texas, US National Academy of Sciences;

Claudio Vita-Finzi FBA
Natural History Museum

Ursula Mittwoch – “Be kind to colleagues”

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

What do universities actually do?


Now with comments. The question remains. “How should they do it?” makes little sense without it being answered.

Originally posted on John F. Allen's Blog:

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…

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