Out-of-touch academy is unfit for grant role, says former fellow

British Academy must change age profile or lose public money, philosopher argues. John Gill writes

April 16, 2009

The British Academy has been called on to urgently overhaul its "grossly unrepresentative" membership, as one former fellow claims that the academy may no longer be fit to distribute public money for research.

An analysis by Hugh Mellor, a philosopher at the University of Cambridge and fellow of the British Academy for 24 years, reveals that less than one in five of its UK-based fellows is aged under 60 and in a full-time academic post.

In only two of the British Academy's 18 discipline-based divisions is the proportion of younger fellows above 30 per cent. One division has just one fellow aged under 60 and in a full-time UK post.

Professor Mellor said the British Academy, which last year distributed £20.3 million in grants, was "a club with a self-perpetuating membership" that had ignored attempts to increase the intake of younger blood in the past.

He warned: "It is trusted by Government to allocate public money to support research ... I now think that trust is misplaced: the academy is not fit for this purpose. To become so, it needs to reform itself in a way that, though obvious and easy, it has so far refused to do. Unless it does so, the Government should seek other ways of distributing the money it now entrusts to the academy."

The 70-year-old said the issue of ageing membership had been raised in the early 1990s by Sir Anthony Kenny when he was president of the British Academy. However, proposals tabled to tackle the problem were ignored and the problem has grown worse, he said.

Simon Blackburn, another Cambridge philosopher and British Academy fellow, also raised concerns about the organisation's age profile, but for different reasons.

"I speak as someone who is 64: we manage PhD students and departments, and I'm director of graduate studies; I defy anyone to be more 'in touch' than my job makes me," he said.

"But I do agree that it's possible, or even likely, that older people are less sensitive to new directions in research. The human mind is a very sticky thing, and people tend to stay in their groove, so it is desirable to have a spread of ages."

He added: "The academy needs people who are prepared to do a lot of hard work; it requires a lot of energy and a lot of unpaid hours in many cases. If you elect a 68-year-old, you're not going to get that."

Professor Mellor said a simple way to address the age problem would be to create a category of emeritus fellow, members of which would not vote in fellowship elections, and increase the academy's annual intake of 34 ordinary fellows. The arguments he had heard against the proposals were "quite spurious", he said.

"(One) objection I've been given is that the academy's standing would suffer if it elected more fellows each year than the Royal Society. This strikes me as both false and irrelevant," he said. "Even if the Royal Society could not elect more young fellows without lowering its standards, which I doubt, the British Academy certainly could."

He added: "Until it makes these simple changes, it is hard to justify continuing to trust it to distribute public money for research in the humanities and social sciences."

Professor Blackburn disagreed strongly with this suggestion, as did the British Academy.

Its chief executive and secretary, Robin Jackson, acknowledged Professor Mellor as a "distinguished philosopher", but said that had he not resigned last year, "he would have seen that action is already well under way to address the age structure of the fellowship, through, for example, the creation of an emeritus fellow category".

In a statement, he said: "Academies across the world recognise lifetime achievement, which in the social sciences and humanities is not normally demonstrated (with some exceptions) until scholars are in their fifties, and election is for life.

"But as a matter of fact, the academy's work on the distribution of grant is carried out by its active and younger fellows - the average age of the 200 fellows involved as grant assessors and relevant committee members is 60, an age I venture to describe as at their prime (I note that a recent Canadian study found that academic productivity remained steady at its peak from 50 until 70 or later).

"This places a heavy burden on these fellows, undertaken without financial reward, but they seem to take the view that it is a task that goes with recognition as a fellow of the academy. In any event, I would hope that these days, the academy would be applauded, not criticised, for resistance to ageism.

"I might also point out that the academy has been active in discussions of a 'Young Academy', now under way across Europe, in which discussions we can point to the 600 alumni of our flagship postdoctoral fellowship programme, which has for 20 years recognised and supported the most outstanding young scholars in the humanities and social sciences.

"We are developing training in peer review and progressively involving the more experienced of this group in grant assessment."

The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills declined to comment on the matter, saying only that it was appropriate for the academy to defend itself.

john.gill@tsleducation.com

British academy ordinary fellows, 2008-09
 SectionFellows UK post & %3C60%3Csup%3Ea%3C/sup%3E 
NumberNameNumber%3Csup%3Eb%3C/sup%3ENumber%3Csup%3Eb%3C/sup%3E%
H1Classical Antiquity57611
H2Theology and Religious Studies14
H3African and Oriental Studies30(+2)%3Csup%3Ec%3C/sup%3E517
H4Linguistics and Philology33721
H5Early Modern Languages and Literatures36411
H6Modern Languages, Literatures & Other Media631016
H7Archaeology49918
H8Medieval Studies65812
H9Early Modern History to circa 18005148
H10Modern History from circa 180061915
H11History of Art and Music38616
H12Philosophy42410
S1Law681421
S2Economics and Economic History712130
S3Anthropology and Geography531325
S4Sociology, Demography and Social Statistics5916
S5Political Studies: Political Theory, Government and International Relations48817
S6Psychology31(+1)%3Csup%3Ec%3C/SUP%3E1342
Total 882(+3)%3CSUP%3Ec%3C/sup%3E15818
a “UK post & %3C60” means holding a full-time academic position in the UK and under 60 at the end of 2008.
b To avoid double-counting, fellows in more than one section are counted only in their primary section.
c Bracketed numbers are for fellows of publicly unrecorded age who may be more or less than 60.

ANCIENT WISDOM: HUGH MELLOR ON THE ACADEMY'S ILLS

"The problem is that too few fellows are young enough to know as much as the British Academy needs to know about the present state of their subjects to allocate funds to them.

"The grossly unrepresentative age distribution imposes too great a burden on the few younger fellows sufficiently in touch with their colleagues to be competent to allocate the academy's funds.

"The academy's officers recognised this problem years ago, and have long asked its sections to take account of the age of their nominees for fellowships.

"Yet the problem ... has got worse, as too many older fellows, who do nothing else for the academy, promote the election of near contemporaries.

"The problem has a simple two-part solution: create a category of emeritus fellow, exempt from the academy's decision-making and fellowship elections, and increase the annual intake of 34 new ordinary fellows.

"The only reasons I've heard for this proposal's rejection are quite spurious.

"The academy needs a younger active fellowship to allocate its public funds properly, and until it makes these simple changes, it is hard to justify continuing to trust it to distribute public money for research in the humanities and social sciences."

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