Amateur ethos

May 10, 2012

There are several aspects to the question of independent scholarship ("Free-range thinkers", 3 May): G.B. Shaw's "All professions are conspiracies against the laity" is one argument; another is the more obvious territorial imperative, whereby amateurs are often derided for meddling in others' domains. Plumbers do this, too: having said that, Wickes has made a decent enough business providing tools and materials to the DIY fans.

Imagine that rogue universities or academics broke ranks and extended themselves to facilitating amateur and small-scale research projects whose main targets were finding solutions to specific problems rather than garnering kudos and funding...well, it's a nice dream.

Actually, I've done this for years now with small(ish) companies and even interested individuals. It can be problematic matching speeds between big, lumbering, inflexible organisations and small, nimble companies that are sometimes so focused on the solution, they want to skip lightly over analysis of the problem. There's also a difference in attitude to information - businesses often want to play their cards close to their chest to protect their revenue. Academics (although not necessarily their managers) want to give stuff away, thinking that in an ideal world, all information would be free: but then, their revenue stream comes from having a salary.

With interested individuals, the situation is different: they would like recognition of the fact that they are intelligent, enquiring and capable of scholarship. They sometimes come up with interesting questions because they are not deafened by the self-interested yammering of the business, or conversely because they have a powerful personal interest in a particular problem (eg, Lorenzo's oil).

To both sets of "outsiders", traditional academia can seem daunting, even forbidding. Really, academics should get out more.

Peter Lennox, University of Derby

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