No Marks for Free-Thinking

By Allison, Lincoln | The Independent (London, England), April 6, 1994 | Go to article overview
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No Marks for Free-Thinking


Allison, Lincoln, The Independent (London, England)


IN A LIFETIME devoted to fomenting controversy it has taken me some time to discover the topic that causes maximum apoplexy. Running well ahead of sexism, racism or the teaching of English literature, it is the "research" activities of university academic staff.

My view is that research is greatly overrated: what most academics do can only misleadingly and mischievously be described as research. We theorise, we argue, we take the broad view, we speculate and we practise scholarship. And sometimes, but only sometimes, we engage in the kind of systematic knowledge gathering which might unambiguously be described as research. The trouble with the word "research" is that it is ambiguous between this fairly narrow meaning and its use as a word to cover all of academic life.

The reason why this distinction has become important is that our "research" is now "rated". There is one very good reason for this: if you have a hundred universities but you only have the money, for example, to run three "state-of-the-art" physics laboratories, you have to decide who should run them. But, in spite of the fact that this need to prioritise applies only to some natural scientists, it is being suggested that rating be applied to everybody. This stems from the fashion for appraisal, assessment, ranking and performance-related pay which swept through American business in the Seventies and British administration in the early Eightiec.D)jU(CCQperience has now taught us that you cannot really assess most people's performance other than subjectively and that the main effects of attempts to do so are schism and a diversion of energy away from production. Indeed, the mania for appraisal is widely attributed with the evolution of a certain kind of shyster who is good only at being appraised, as many schoolteachers or civil servants can tell you. Nevertheless, such nonsense allows the Government to fool itself into believing it is doing something about the efficiency of public sector finances.

The case against research as it is coming to be defined can be boiled down to four major arguments.

Research is the bureaucratisation of intellectual activity. If you want to study a subject you should read widely, look seriously at different approaches, have some direct experience in the area, draft ideas and seek new information. On the other hand, if someone agrees to pay you pounds 34,540 to study "The Televised Behaviour of Public Figures", to take a real example, you have to devote a great deal of extra effort to securing the money, justifying it, accounting for it and making sure you spend every penny.

The serious consequence is a loss of intellectual independence. If you (ie, a university or government bureaucrat) declare intellectual activity to be "research" - which must be funded and assessed - you control it. The unfunded, unassessed activity that was genuinely autonomous is frowned upon and lacks kudos.

Research is not a distinct activity. In the humanities, particularly, it is very difficult to know what research means. "Interviewing" people is research, but travelling widely and having a wide variety of contacts and conversations isn't? Reading unpublished documents is, but reading books isn't?

I have often claimed that I don't do research, but the claim is fairly fraudulent. I have read lots of documents, interviewed many people and been a part of many institutions involved with "the environment".

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