A few years ago, I attended a panel discussion on "the challenge of non-university researchers", held at Queen's University Belfast. The British Academy-sponsored event boasted a venerable roster of speakers addressing a worthy - if verbose - set of questions: the need "to rethink the central role of the university in the establishment of knowledge", how "new processes of knowledge creation" are "bypassing established university controls", and the like.
I arrived at the imposing Sir Charles Lanyon-designed Great Hall at Queen's with high hopes: Northern Ireland has a strong record of research beyond the academy; Belfast alone houses a plethora of independent researchers, free-floating research units and thinktanks. I left - more than two hours later - thoroughly disheartened, as the catholic sweep of independent scholarship was reduced to a succession of anecdotes about "terrific" amateur historians and retired genealogists.
"Independent scholars come in many shapes and sizes", a recent Times Higher Education feature noted ("Free-range thinkers", 3 May). "Some work between disciplines, or in disciplines that are not yet fully established, and so have no natural niche within traditional academic structures." Others have defined academic loci but find themselves, for whatever reason, operating outside the aegis of a third-level institution.
If the term "independent scholar" smacks of PR-speak, the notion of researchers working outside formal university structures has a long lineage: after all, what was Charles Darwin, who lived on an income from his investments and other non-academic sources, if not an independent scholar?
The independent scholar became a widespread, if often only grudgingly accepted, part of the academic ecosystem in the US in the late 1970s and early 1980s. As universities disgorged ever-increasing numbers of PhD graduates on to a stagnant job market, many highly trained researchers became (by choice or necessity) freelance researchers, working within non-academic organisations or under their own steam to produce scholarly articles, books and discussion papers without university administrators breathing down their necks, or any chance of tenure.
The US' National Coalition of Independent Scholars (NCIS) has around 200 members and publishes a quarterly newsletter, The Independent Scholar. The Princeton Research Forum boasts some 75 independent scholars, who meet once a month to exchange ideas and critique members' works in progress.
While a broadly equivalent situation has existed in the UK for almost as long, we have been much slower to recognise the number - and often, the quality - of independent scholars. Their image as bookish retirees or trust fund beneficiaries is no longer fit for purpose. Many, like me, hold PhDs, engage in journalism and other freelance writing, and will have, or have had, unpaid affiliations with universities and academic centres.
Beyond the obvious instability of researching outside the academy - who pays the rent? How do you progress in a career where promotion is almost an oxymoron? - independent scholars face logistical challenges, too: how can you access journals without university affiliation? How can you support independent research?
Bodies such as the NCIS in the US have been able to lobby for greater library privileges for their members, even producing natty membership cards to assuage fastidious bibliocrats. Access to funding remains a significant stumbling block, however.
Regardless of the quality of their ideas or the value of their proposed work, independent scholars often find themselves elided by funding structures, as I discovered recently when attempting to apply to a UK research council for a grant under a scheme to promote know-ledge transfer with non-academic audiences. After several phone calls and emails back and forth, I was told that although my original research had been university funded, I did not meet a crucial funding requirement: I was not in the employ of a university.
Post-financial crash, "small is beautiful" has become a popular motto. Sadly, it is not an aspiration shared by our research councils, where funds are being consolidated into a greatly reduced number of larger awards. This benefits university hierarchies far more than it does researchers, independent or otherwise.
The "challenge of non-university researchers" has still to be met. Nevertheless, research beyond traditional university structures is here to stay: indeed, in subjects where overheads are low and cutbacks are high, such as the humanities and social sciences, we could be on the verge of a new age of independent scholarship. While the academy is "rethinking", independent scholars are busy doing.