Meeting of minds: we still need that room in Bloomsbury, say UCL vets

Loss of Housman Room would deal grievous blow to interdisciplinary work. Hannah Fearn reports

May 26, 2011

It is credited with having forged friendships, impressed guests and - most importantly - sparked countless ideas that proved the making of impressive careers.

But now academics at University College London fear that a room that they say sits at the heart of the institution's scholarly life will be lost - and with it a crucial space to mix with colleagues.

A campaign has been launched to protect the Housman Room, a common room open to all senior academic and administrative staff at UCL, both serving and retired, as well as selected staff invited from other institutions.

Under plans to overhaul its Bloomsbury campus, UCL has proposed that the room be used for special library collections instead. The staff common room would move to several smaller rooms elsewhere.

David Colquhoun, former A.J. Clark chair of pharmacology at UCL, said he owed his career to surprise relationships struck up in the Housman Room.

When considering "a problem about the relationship between what is observed and the behaviour of single molecules" over coffee early in his career, he asked a statistician for help. He was pointed to another lecturer in the room, Alan Hawkes, who solved the riddle and showed him how it related to a well-known theory in statistics.

"My problem was solved in one serendipitous lunch hour," Professor Colquhoun said.

This collaboration continued and the scholars published a joint paper in 1982, which Professor Colquhoun said had led to his election to the Royal Society.

In a letter to UCL's director of estates, Andrew Grainger, Professor Colquhoun warns that closing the room would pose a "serious danger for the future of UCL".

He describes it as a place "where a geneticist can meet a mathematician, or a pharmacologist can meet a physicist, or a scientist can meet a historian, and where anyone can meet an administrator".

"At the moment we are continually being harangued about the importance of interdisciplinary work," he adds. "The biggest catalyst for interdisciplinary work is to meet and talk to people in areas very different from your own."

An online petition has been launched to defend the Housman Room.

Mehri Eghtessad, lecturer in dentistry at UCL, said that it was "not just a common room - it provides you with opportunities to meet with like-minded people and exchange ideas". Moving it could contribute to the "disintegration" of this process, she argued.

Steve Miller, professor of science communication and convenor of the committee of the academic staff common room, agreed that it offered "a social space that helps the academic life of UCL".

"It's very impressive and quite a beautiful place. It's somewhere we can take important people if we want to impress them. It's easy to see who's in the room and you can go and chat to people who you don't normally come across," he said.

"There are people who can genuinely claim that it made their career."

A UCL spokesman said: "No decisions have yet been taken on the provision of social spaces for staff, and the consultation on the 'Bloomsbury masterplan' is continuing."

A decision by UCL's council is expected in July.

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