I love academia. I love it for the sake of it, because the pursuit of knowledge for its own ends results in a better world. To educate and study purely with the furtherance of knowledge as a goal leads to a better informed, empowered and more innovative society. I believe that, in turn, engenders compassion, empathy and concern for the people and things that surround us. It has led and will continue to lead to great discoveries, from directed research and serendipitous leaps of faith. I have plied my trade at my current university, in one guise or another, for a decade – a decade that has seen a marked change in the higher education sector in the UK, moving towards a more commercialised model from the introduction of tuition fees to the wider market changes in the progressively more monetised arena of higher education provision. I’ve been on the receiving end of salaries from a variety of funding sources and experienced the peaks and troughs of the funding landscape first hand with a series of short-to-medium term contracts with no continuity guaranteed, often running to the final moment before any final funding decision has been made. I don’t necessarily think that this is the best way to foster scientific progress or that it is the best use of the funding council’s money that they so kindly spent on my PhD qualification, but it is something that I accepted before I embarked on this career track. I also accepted that the extremely hard work I put into requalifying in science as an older student and worker would likely go ignored in an area where that kind of dedication and obvious ability is discounted in the face of younger workers with longer publication records and no periods of career redirection. They are the lucky ones, to have found their career track straight from university and followed a more conventional route. They will be the future lectures and professors but that’s fine by me. I love getting my hands dirty and working at the lab bench and I’m quite happy to remain tied to it. I have even accepted without much rancour that my choice to have a family makes me often less valuable as an employee, again a break in my work history but a choice I am proud to have made when I realise the potential of this next generation that we’re raising. It is not until my most recent contract that I came across practices in academia that are so worrying that it moved me to blog about it.
Imagine a hypothetical university where, instead of academic research, staff are employed to service external commercial contracts, where experienced lab workers with good research pedigrees and PhDs are prevented from advising students or collaborating with staff outside the direct department. Imagine, if you will, the dystopia that would result from this lack of communication and collaboration – surely it would be an alternate world working in a completely contrary fashion to the cross-discipline environments that led to the discovery of things like DNA, where enthusiasm and engagement with a problem draws people in from the wider academic field and brings novel perspectives to research questions. It wouldn’t be much of a step from such a negative environment to predict that work could soon be locked away behind non-disclosure agreements where the university’s research time and facilities are put to work investigating scientific questions, not with a view to improving the global scientific knowledge-base, neither with the aim of high quality publications in the open research community, but instead to serve organisations that fund and have their own vested interests in the data generated, organisations who hold the ultimate sway over whether or not researchers are allowed to make their findings public. I’m sure the cry from such an organisation would be that the funders have a right to withhold information from the public as they have paid for the time, but what responsibility do researchers have to the country that trained and funded them and to the principles and ideals of universities as academic institutions not private data generating sources. Would these researchers bear some form of culpability? In the real world, I’m sure that they would be the first to acknowledge that their position is not an ideal one but often this could be the result of a choice between using their training in some way or wasting the years spent achieving the highest level of academic and technical excellence in fields unrelated to their chosen career. There may also be an element of devotion to the attempt at least, to keep academia academic, something that is impossible to achieve should they leave the sector altogether. In whose hands would it then rest and would they be trustworthy guardians?
I’m sure that this model of academic science would please our incumbent government, one that lacks an understanding of the process involved in good research and fails to understand that not everything can have a price tag attached to the end result from the outset. Their failings are exemplified in the attitude that academic research should be a business and that big business should serve as a model for best practice. I don’t wish to imply that nothing can be learnt from commerce or that academia is perfect – it has its flaws and there is a lot of good that can be distilled from a commercial model – but I do caution against the attitude that things without obvious commercial potential lack worth.
I think by now you may have guessed that this hypothetical dystopian academic world is not some kind of dismal prediction for the future but a very real description of the present. As scientists and academics, the question remains whether we will choose to accept this or whether we will fight to retain academic independence and the ideal upheld through history of academic seats of learning as places driven by the desire to forward knowledge not lock it away. I know which side of the fence I fall on.