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November 12, 2012

Beyond Lowlands: academics alone should not set the agenda for research

by Tom Wakeford

To researchers who have started working in UK academia during the last two decades, the caricatures painted by Sir Keith Thomas and his colleagues in their launch statements for the Council for the Defence of British Universities this week must seem a little antiquated. To give them some historical context, I’d like to recommend them a Christmas stocking-filler: the DVD box set of the BBC series A Very Peculiar Practice.

Seeing CDBU’s statements through the eyes of those at the fictional Lowland University depicted in the series, will make it easier for newcomers to understand the context for their views – campuses that were still stuck firmly in the ideological trenches that pitted the ivory towers versus the free-market.

The quirky BBC comedy drama, written by Andrew Davies and broadcast in 1986, portrays confrontations between academics defending their belief in an scholarly independence unfettered by government directives, and a vice-chancellor hell bent on adopting a business model.

For those of us who remember the struggles that engulfed almost all UK campuses in the 1980s - with the partial exception of Oxbridge - Lowlands reminds us that that Conservative-led governments always carry with them the threat of a complete privatisation of universities. The CDBU has rightly criticised our senior university managers, who have a habit of unquestioningly accepting each new Ministerial whim, while valuing relationships with private corporations more than those with their most eminent scholars and scientists.

Lowland’s fictional researchers stood largely aloof from the concerns of the rest of society. Like Thomas and his colleagues, they would have believed academics alone are ‘best qualified to determine the direction that intellectual enquiry should take’. But  the environment in which academics work today has fundamentally different dimensions than those that the CDBU appears to perceive.

The CDBU’s argument that academic freedom should be free from political or commercial interference ignores the revolution taking place on campuses in the UK and around the world. Academic researchers, supported by a variety of government and charitable funders, are allowing the knowledge and expertise that exists outside the university-industry nexus to co-determine their research agendas. These additional perspectives include the experience and understandings of expert patients, farmers, lay epidemiologists, amateur naturalists and young carers. Strategies for a dialogue with those people in society whose expertise comes through their experience, rather than formal training, are now beginning to be being incorporated in research and knowledge exchange programmes funded by the Research Councils and other HE funding bodies.

Though inevitably patchy in their results, the recent Beacons for Public Engagement pilots and Research Catalysts schemes are already demonstrating the potential for dialogue with civil society to shape UK academic research in ways that improve its accuracy and societal benefit. Co-designing research with people who exist outside the academic or commercial realm dates from the ‘action research’ movement of the 1970s.  Participatory plant breeding, in which farmers guide researchers in how to formulate research questions that lead to improved agricultural livelihoods, has been influencing mainstream agronomic research for twenty years. The UK’s Alzheimer’s Society’s Quality Research in Dementia Network, which involves dementia patients and their carers in designing medical research is over ten years old.

Some academics may find the very notion of valuing the knowledge of people who they see as their intellectual inferiors hard to grasp. At the height of the GM food controversy in 1998, Richard Dawkins - a founding member of CDBU - suggested that the only views to be taken seriously on a scientific topic should be those expressed by people who had at least the equivalent of an A-level in a statistically based subject, such as maths or economics. Fourteen years and many international studies later, it is clear that it has been smallholder farmers and others whose analysis is grounded in grassroots understandings of agricultural systems who have developed the most accurate comprehension of the complexities of the issue.

In public health, academics using traditional methods of studying prevention programmes for HIV/AIDS have often struggled to generate usable evidence about young people’s sexual behaviour. Dutch researcher Miranda van Reeuwijk has responded by co-designing a research programme with young people in Tanzania. They have become her co-researchers, producing ground-breaking insights that could allow future interventions to succeed. In addressing issues of global climate change, engagement with indigenous people’s complex understandings of their environment are now seen as being a vital complement to the perspectives provided by traditional approaches to science.

Alongside the purely profit-driven forms of academic entrepreneurialism identified by the CDBU, UK Research Council funding schemes are now encouraging researchers to think more imaginatively how such contributions can be made. Earlier this year, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council adopted a strategy for public engagement, promising a new collaborative model in which citizens engaged in co-operative inquiry with researchers. And far from abandoning its duties to the public, as some recent coverage has implied, the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) recently announced a new initiative under its Conncected Communities programme to support research teams who collaborate with civil society groups in ‘co-creation and co-design processes’.

Last month, members of the AHRC Peer Review College discussed how it might improve the quality of research and knowledge exchange that is supported through the Council’s funding process. Some College members believe that the current format of grant applications – dating from the pre-participatory era – should be re-designed to address the Research Council’s desire for dialogue with non-academic communities to be at the heart of grant proposals.

Seventeen billion pounds of public funds will spent on academic institutions this year. However much the CDBU may wish to return to a previous era, we now live in a resource-constrained society where such levels of resources can only be morally justified if build on the basis of a two-way conversation with society about the direction of research agendas. Its call for a ‘reflective enquiry’ could be useful, as long as it begins with a set of assumptions that are better informed than the ones they seem to have adopted so far.

In A Very Peculiar Practice, the hilarious Vice-Chancellor Jack Daniels and his Americans in dark glasses brought ‘co-production money’ to the Lowlands campus from sinister military-industrial corporations. The CDBU need to look beyond Lowlands-era stereotypes and see the more complex, and in some ways more hopeful, scenario in universities today. In the week in which the government’s chief ecologists invited the public to enrol as citizen scientists in order to help save Britain’s 80 million ash trees, the CDBU should be welcoming a fundamental strengthening of the reliability of knowledge through genuine co-production.

Instead of clinging to the pre-democratic scholastic ideals, Professors Thomas, Dawkins and Dame Byatt should support the wide range of organisations, from NESTA to the UCU, who support researchers having a more equal dialogue our fellow citizens. If they put their weight behind such a collaborative approach to setting research priorities, they would provide universities with more ethical and intellectually robust justification for their substantial budget, while bolstering their ability to remain independent from the agendas of private corporations.


Tom Wakeford, is a member of Peer Review Colleges of both the ESRC and AHRC. On November 29 is launching a new course, Community Participation in Professional Practice, at the University of Edinburgh.


May 15, 2012

Polarisation helps no one

by Tom Wakeford

As yet another genetically modified food dispute emerges, Tom Wakeford calls for the two sides to start talking if they want to avoid damaging public confidence in science and in scientists

Two projects that aim to bring a fresh approach to debates concerning the future of food and farming are gathering pace this month.  One is Democratising Agricultural Research, based at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). The other, Our Food, is run from the University of Edinburgh.

Etched into the mind of anyone working in the food or farming sectors in the late 1990s was the controversy over GM. It came in the wake of the last Conservative government’s well documented failure to communicate the risks of new food processing methods exposing humans to mad cow disease, BSE.

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September 01, 2011

Call me a Luddite

by Tom Wakeford

To address the social crisis behind this summer’s riots our research culture needs to change.

Those looking for historical parallels to this summer’s riots might encounter the bicentenary of another set of disturbances. Beginning in Nottingham in 1811, they sparked six years of civil disorder across the industrial regions of England. Their target: feral capitalists and their application of emerging technical knowledge to manufacturing.

As with this August’s unrest, the 19th century rioters were largely made up of members of an economic underclass whose social networking went undetected by the authorities. Spreading across the Midlands and North in a matter of weeks, the protest movement became known the Luddite uprising, named after their mythical leaders Ned, and often Eliza, Ludd.

There is more than just an anniversary that links the machine breakers of 1811 to the high-street window breakers of 2011. In the past few weeks events across the UK summer festival circuit have used the bicentenary as a starting point to explore new ideas for the post-collapse, and now post-riots, era. Often based in civil society groups, rather than in the academic mainstream, these neo-Luddites are particularly active in developing a critique of the naïve adherents of scientism and their proposed techno-fixes for the planet’s social and ecological problems.

Our university campuses appear to operate in increasingly narrow disciplinary silos, that have been worsened by twenty years of the RAE. The academic apartheid that divides scientists from those who embrace the humanities appears to have taken a step back towards the picture painted by the influential post-war opinion-former C.P.Snow, in his 1959 essay Intellectuals as Natural Luddites.

A journalist beloved of many of the most powerful scientists of his day, Snow’s sentiments echoed what they agreed to be a dangerous ignorance about scientific facts among non-scientists. He made the L word a term of abuse that keepers of the scientistic faith soon threw at anyone who dared to question the wisdom of the direction of a particular area of research, raise thorny issues relating to human rights, or look to lessons from history. For Snow as in the current political mainstream, the Luddite label denotes a backward-looking romantic extremist with whom it is impossible to undertake reasoned debate. According to sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson Luddites would rather live “in thatched huts and die young”. Yet, studies of the original uprisings by E.P.Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm and many others allow a new generation to explore the meaning of the radical ideas that inspired direct action in the nineteenth century in today’s infinitely more technologically complex world.

Sharing many of the same character traits as today’s dot.com billionaires, a new class of engineer-cum-entrepreneur was key to the conditions that led to the Luddite revolt two hundred years ago. These industrialists introduced fossil-fuel driven mechanisms into industrial processes of manufacture. Their early factories produced goods that fed consumerism among the emerging English middle class. But by destroying the market for the output of traditional handloom weavers, this innovation crushed the livelihoods of tens of thousands of everyday people. To make ends meet, these artisans had to send their young children into the Dickensian working conditions that the lack of trade unions allowed to continue for many years afterwards. Today a similar scenario is causing a steep rise in death rates inside industrialising societies such as China and India that, like Regency England, lack effective democratic scrutiny of worker health and safety.

The Luddite riots were, like those of this summer, preceded by pleas to Downing Street by respected leaders of the affected communities, asking the government to reverse policies that were destroying the social fabric of the Midlands and Northern England. In a series of leaflets, posters and declarations they petitioned for those factory machines that were proving “hurtful to the common good” to be restricted by law. Neither government nor factory owners took action in the face of the economic destitution the new factories caused to communities, or the terrible injuries to which child workers fell victim.

By the summer of 1811, some Luddite cells had begun to take direct action - breaking those machines that posed an immediate threat to their communities. With such direct action becoming widespread across five English counties by 1812, the Luddite rebellion was largely crushed later in that same year by the government’s deployment of sixty  thousand troops – a larger force than that which had defeated Napoleon in the Peninsular War the following year. Scores of Luddites were hanged or transported to Australia, with the last pocket of activity extinguished in 1817. Yet, as Stuart Hall has said of the Paris Commune of 1848, the May 1968 protests and other struggles for justice that failed to achieve their stated goal, “Life since then has been profoundly transformed [by them]. Our theories have been transformed by revolutions that did not succeed”.

Though Luddites destroyed weaving looms, they stole nothing and gained wide support. Lord Byron saw the aftermath of machine breaking in Nottingham. It had been undertaken by weavers whose case he popularised in his 1816 poem "Song for the Luddites". They were part of the inspiration for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and for heroes in novels by the Brontë sisters.

The individualistic and acquisitive disorder we saw in August has been partly explained by Marxists such as David Harvey in terms of twenty-first century capitalism now being led by a corporate and political elite that is widely seen to be acting in a criminal manner. Ill-informed approaches to complex social problems by the successive governments has also contributed to the current crisis. When we reflect on our own role as researchers in present times, many of us are now shocked at realising our collective inability to effectively and legitimately present persuasive advice to those making decisions.

Many commentators have identified the prevailing culture of selfish individualism as a factor in the summer riots. It is a social trend that has arisen from government policies that were explicitly based on the selfish gene, a model of animal evolution advocated by talented popularisers such as Richard Dawkins. Opinion-formers have accepted this scientifically flawed and amoral concept, along with even more extreme theories that assert the existence of genes in humans for violence and criminality.

Our politicians can now deploy a pseudo-scientific vocabulary to justify a revival of age-old notions that a proportion of those who commit crime are innately bad. Against almost all the evidence, they propose to divert resources from tackling worklessness towards putting an increasing proportion of the UK population in prison. Their politically expedient reasoning has been partly caused by our own failure as researchers to transcend academia’s narrow and often positivist approach to different areas of knowledge in order to see the big picture.

A neo-Luddite approach forces us to take an holistic view, particularly on issues with a scientific or technological component. Ten years ago the multi-billion pound Human Genome Project promised to cure our leading diseases, yet an increasing number of its past cheerleaders now admit they were naïve and over optimistic. Last month’s report by Sir Patrick Bateson‘s distinguished committee warned that some scientists regularly exaggerate the certainty of benefit that will arise from their particular area of research. Some of the most damaging effects of the Climategate email affair might have been avoided if key scientific organisations had not felt themselves to be above any need for open dialogue with their fellow citizens. Neo-Luddites also remind us that our current banking crisis was partly caused by the use of scientific algorithms allowing super-fast trading, designed by entrepreneurs who, like the factory owners of 1811, were left un-accountable by their close affiliation to the ruling class.

The government continues to ignore advice cautioning against rushing into techno-fixes: that market mechanisms and geo-engineering will not solve climate change, that synthetic biology is unlikely to feed the world and that nuclear power will be far from safe for future generations. Future historians may be horrified that our universities so rarely support scholars who expose the failures of hi-tech magic bullet solutions to problems that common sense tells us are highly complex.

The crises in which we find ourselves in 2011 and the role of technology in addressing them are so profound that we need a new paradigm of practically engaged thinking that works for both local and global issues. The current Research Excellence Framework and the winner-takes-all competitive system for funding research both stifle the long-term inter-disciplinary collaboration needed for this task.

The beliefs behind the Luddite uprising was full of flaws and contradictions. Yet, I am part of a growing number of researchers who support neo-Luddite proposals to re-think the prevailing model of the knowledge economy and facilitate new ways of allowing communities a role in shaping it. In recent months I sense there is growing enthusiasm to take on this challenge among groups of researchers, such as some of those associated with the cross-research council Connected Communities Programme.

Next March, a Canadian-based group ETC  are organising a symposium at Planet Under Pressure - a global forum taking place in London that will help set the agenda for next June’s Rio+20 Earth Summit. The session will focus on the urgent need for greater accountability to citizens in the development of green technologies and will include the perspective of Nobel Laureate economist Elinor Ostrom, one of the organisers of the London event.

Setting the agenda for life beyond the REF, combining an understanding of this summer’s riots with a deeper reflection on the uprising two hundred years is one of many opportunities to support a more holistic and critical style of reasoning to the centre of scholarly and political discourse. It could still rescue our policy-makers from bad science and our own efforts at social engagement from being lost in the oblivion of bean-counting the REF calls “impact”.


Tom Wakeford will be speaking at the Small is… festival this Saturday, 3 September in Warwickshire. He is the co-organiser of a session at the 2012 at the Planet Under Pressure forum.

February 03, 2011

A knowledge economy needs Big Society science

by Tom Wakeford

Ministers aren't the only ones who have yet to grasp the need for a new contract between scientists and society. Tom Wakeford reveals the smoke-and-mirrors behind some recent research-council 'engagement' programmes, and says it’s time to debate some core values. 


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Tom Wakeford

Tom Wakeford

Tom Wakeford is a public engagement practitioner and an advisor to the European Commission on science communication. He is co-founder of the Society for Participation, Engagement, Action and Knowledge Sharing (SPEAKS).