The high cost of selling out

August 26, 2005

Pressure on researchers to make a profit could mean the death of some subjects, claims Stuart Sim

Every academic working in the humanities will have noted an interesting change in the research culture of late: the expectation of university managers that research projects should win external funding.

I say "expectation" but it is becoming more of a demand. In fact, it is increasingly the case that research in the humanities is being judged by financial criteria. Research that brings money into the institution is good; research that brings nothing (such as solely authored research monographs on esoteric topics) is bad.

Hence the pressure being applied to form ourselves into teams with large-scale projects that can make bids to bodies such as the European Union, where substantial funding is available. Fine if you happen to fit in with whatever the latest research theme is, not so fine if your interest lies elsewhere.

The team ethic is becoming one of the bugbears of research in the humanities: how many great monographs were ever written by a team, one might well ask? The model comes from the sciences, but it does not map at all naturally onto the humanities. Granted, research teams can be created and can carry out useful work, but the lone researcher following up some quirky idea is still probably the norm - and, I would argue, the source of most of the really interesting work in the field.

External funding in itself is not a straightforward concept either. You might think in the first instance that it means trying the Arts and Humanities Research Council, but, increasingly, this is seen as a "soft" option by university managers. What they really want is money from industry - again, the model is based on the sciences, where there are good reasons for the links. Scientists often need expensive equipment: in the humanities we can still proceed even if no funding is forthcoming (as we have so often in the past).

I suspect I'm not the only academic who is at a loss about how to respond to research managers (notice how an entire tier of these has suddenly emerged) berating us for not exploiting our research.

What are the commercial possibilities of my own main research interest, critical theory, I wonder? I think it has social utility, and that it deals in ideas that can have a profound impact on our culture. But often it is challenging the assumptions of that culture and that is hardly likely to be attractive to most funding bodies, which by their very nature are part of the establishment and somewhat conservative in their outlook.

Perhaps this explains one of the tactics developed by research managers of late, which is to encourage academics in my own field, English, to become more "heritage-conscious". In practice, this means concentrating our efforts on local authors, because then there is a possible tie-up with local tourist boards - and tourist boards have money. One's heart sinks to think of the future of the subject if that becomes the norm. In my opinion, it would be its death, but it is becoming harder to resist as pressure is applied and new recruits to the lecturing staff will no doubt take this into account as a survival mechanism. Bad luck if Milton wasn't born in your university's geographical catchment area.

Promotion in the humanities has traditionally been mainly determined by one's publication record, but that is fast changing too. Now it is publication plus income generation. The notion of universities as places set up to explore the world of ideas because that was for the public good is being eclipsed.

Universities are now turning into places where ideas are being sold to the highest bidder, and that can only change the character of the ideas, most likely for the worse. I cannot believe this is in either academe's or our culture's best interests.

Stuart Sim is professor of critical theory, Sunderland University.

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