Big advances in small print

August 15, 1997

While researchers rejoice over Dearing there are those who believe that tuition should remain free and that part-time students deserve more support

DEARING, it seems, is good news. Predictably, both the media and the Government have jumped on the student fees issue which is just one of the 24 chapters. Nobody likes to see the principle of free education go but, regretfully, charging fees seems to be the only option, given that no more money can be expected from the Treasury.

While most of the flesh has now been picked off the bones. I would like to chew over some of the less sought-after morsels. My eyes darted rapidly to the bits about research. What first caught my attention is not a recommendation, but the tone-setting theme in 11.2 where it is said that the first reason for supporting research should be "to add to the sum of human knowledge and understanding". The now familiar foresight phrase about wealth creation was relegated to two bullets later, with "to inform and enhance teaching" popping up in-between. Here is a reminder of why people do research, which is like a drop of rain on a parched tongue. I have nothing against creating wealth through my research, but I know of few really effective researchers who start by saying "Now, let me see, what can I do next to create some wealth?" Will the funding bodies now modify or even remove the foresight directive from which all their activities are supposed to stem? Of course, I forget, they do have "responsive modes" for the applications intended to increase the sum of human knowledge.

A further pleasing crumb is the question implied in recommendation 32; is interdisciplinary research getting a fair deal? It is suggested that the question should be studied by a commission. Dearing rightly points out that the situation is confused as research assessment panels claim to give special attention to interdisciplinary research, but those doing such work remain sceptical. The problem is that the funding bodies have been encouraged to move towards directed research. This draws towards the centres of disciplines, while some really good questions linger at the interfaces. Still, the statement that this "is of sufficient importance to merit serious investigation by a body, such as the Royal Society", is wonderful music. But is anybody there to hear it? Perhaps the National Academies' Policy Advisory Group could make a good job of this.

My final morsel of delight came from the suggestion for an Arts and Humanities Research Council. As I write, I hear my science and engineering friends objecting to money being taken away from their own enterprises. They can relax. Dearing is recommending about Pounds 25 million of additional funding which, more or less, doubles that available through the British Academy. This recognises that it is no longer possible to do research just by taking a bus to the British Museum. Workstations provide prodigious access to the very material that is needed and the power needed to do the analyses. Also art itself is becoming involved in transmission and generation in ways that do not escape the silicon chip for very long.

It is crucial that not only the major headlines of the Dearing report be acted upon, but also that the important issues which appear in smaller print receive due attention. It is not always clear that there is someone around to take these ideas forward.

Igor Aleksander is professor of neural systems engineering and a pro-rector at Imperial College, London.

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