Martin Ince

January 9, 2004

It is clear from recent issues of this newspaper that unpaid recognition by the British establishment, in the form of honours from Her Majesty, has lost none of its appeal in the new century. Some of the tips for those craving such attention are well known. For example, it is wise to ply your trade in a rural location, ideally the Highlands of Scotland, rather than in some English inner city. Another rule of thumb is that biomedicine is among the most direct routes to being noticed by what remains of the empire. A glance at last week's honours suggests that, despite the government's cowardice over acknowledging the achievements of Colin Blakemore, a high-profile supporter of the use of animals in the laboratory, medical research remains a fast track to the honours list. One new knight is a former head of a medical school; another is a professor of mammalian genetics, one job that must be impossible to carry out without a supply of mammals.

But Blakemore - recently appointed chief executive of the Medical Research Council - missed the point when he threatened to quit the MRC over the honours shenanigans. Very few heads of research councils have been knighted - had Blakemore been accorded this honour he would have been alone among his fellow chief executives, just as his predecessor, Sir George Radda, was. Even Blakemore's boss, John Taylor, director-general of the research councils, became a knight only upon retiring, while other heads of research councils expect to receive the CBE (the gong one rung down) when they leave office. There is a clear distinction between honours for achievements, such as those given to academics for their work, and those that reward a term in office.

One major use of the honours system in the modern era is to give the general public an idea of the things that the establishment takes seriously. On this criterion, academic life is undoubtedly one. Research rather than teaching is smiled on, although heads of schools and further education colleges are now appearing alongside professors and vice-chancellors. The authorities are also fond of a nod to modernity. In the ever-gripping overseas list - the place to look for awards to such folk as the head of the British Council in Ukraine - one finds Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the worldwide web, which he developed in Switzerland before moving to the US.

The real objection to these awards is not that they use terminology dating from the era when Britain ruled a vast expanse of the earth. The trouble is that, despite the terse description of the merits that have won each individual their gong, they do not form part of any proper reward system for the people the country values. There are many powerful reasons why people who might become capable academics in UK universities choose to opt out. Low pay, bad job security and poor management are among those most commonly mentioned. The knowledge that people who have battled through the system for several decades have received royal acknowledgement is not much of an added incentive. Much as the musicians who receive awards are usually those whose material has long since moved from Radio 1 to Radio 2, the professors who get them have often ceased to be role models for anyone starting out in the system. A more modest award that came along earlier might be more of an incentive.

Despite these drawbacks, every society has some mechanism for rewarding those who are successful, prominent or merely well connected. In reaction to the excesses of the British empire, Article 1 of the US constitution specifies that "no title of nobility shall be granted by the United States", but that intention has been subverted by a string of presidential and congressional awards. Countries that quit the same empire a little later have sometimes opted out of the UK honours but have gone on to create their own, as with the Order of Australia, complete with UK-style companions, officers and members.

The honours system is so encrusted with antiquity that it is impossible to imagine reforming it to produce something rational and fair. There is something defiantly British about a set-up in which, as happened last week, the first chauffeur of the Royal Mews is given a prize in the same breath as a professor of information engineering at Oxford. However, the honours system is capable of doing good if it is seen as a barometer of society's priorities. Recent lists contain large numbers of academics, but they don't tend to get there by producing creative innovation of use to the rest of the economy. More awards in this area would stress its importance at very little cost. As Napoleon put it, no ruler need lack friends while he has a supply of medals and ribbon.

Martin Ince is contributing editor of The THES .

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