Beyond Lowlands: academics alone should not set the agenda for research
by Tom WakefordTo 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.