Professor on the right track

March 3, 1995

Happy the academic who can say "If I'd written my own job description, I'd have come up with something like this".

Colin Divall will still be subject to such blights on life as research selectivity, but he clearly feels that the delight of his new post as professor and director of the Institute of Railway Studies at York University and head of research at the National Railway Museum far outweighs any drawbacks.

Professor Divall, 37, is a lifelong rail enthusiast - as a teenager he campaigned to save a goods line close to his home town of Wimborne, Dorset. He tends to fashionable ties rather than to anoraks, and admits to being rather irritated when a regional newspaper described his post as every train-spotter's dream.

But it is the perfect next step in an academic progression he describes as a "weird mix", starting with an undergraduate degree in physics and philosophy and now featuring a chair located within a history department.

He also spent a year as a British Rail manager, but supervising traffic in Pontypridd left him with insights into rail management rather than a taste for it.

The common factor in many cross-disciplinary CVs is Manchester University, whose Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine can add yet another name to its list of alumni with chairs.

Professor Divall, a Bristol graduate, went to Manchester in 1979 to take an MSc in the structure and organisation of science and technology, wrote his doctoral thesis on Julian Huxley's philosophy of science, and has since worked on the history of engineering education.

He intends the institute to be cross-disciplinary and to link the academic and non-academic worlds. "The challenge is to appeal to the wider market, while retaining academic credibility. At one level this will be a straightforward academic research institution like any other. But I also want to draw on the huge amount of enthusiasm outside the academic world, where there are large numbers of people with an interest in railways," he says.

One element of that will be his work at the museum, where he expects to take part in the planning and organisation of displays. Another bridging element will be a certificate-level course in railway studies.

"This will be aimed at people very often with little or no experience of higher education. For many it will be the only qualification they take, giving them the basic research skills. But I hope that it will also identify and encourage people with the ability to go on to higher levels," he says.

A masters course is planned and funding from businessman Michael Peagram has provided two research posts.

These will be advertised in the near future. "There will be no limitations on choice of research, apart from excluding policy. With several very good transport policy research institutions already in universities there seems very little point in replicating what they do."

But he does hope that insights from institute research will be noticed by policy-makers. "Too much policy discussion takes place in a historical vacuum. When the Foreign Office appoints somebody to, say, their Russian desk, they expect that person to know about Russia's history. Shouldn't we similarly expect people giving policy advice in the Department of Transport to know something about how our transport system evolved?"

Among the debates he intends to tap into is that about the role of research in British industry - an interest which predates his work on railways. Among the assets available to the institute is the museum archive, including the records of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway, the largest of the four companies who ran the British system before nationalisation.

As a historian of technology, Professor Divall argues that this is a little understood area, and sees the joint university-museum appointment as a means of advancing understanding in both academic and popular terms.

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