The week in higher education

December 3, 2009

A British doctor being sued by an American company after criticising research has vowed to fight the action on behalf of his fellow scientists, cautioning that Britain's libel laws are strangling free speech. Peter Wilmshurst, a consultant cardiologist at Royal Shrewsbury Hospital, is being sued by NMT Medical, after making critical comments at a conference in 2007. Speaking on 26 November, he said he was prepared to risk financial ruin by going to trial to protect scientists from "legal bullying", because victory would set a precedent. "There's a fundamental principle of science at stake here. People have to be free to challenge research," he said. A fund to help with his legal costs has been set up by the charity HealthWatch.

The fallout from the sacking of government drugs adviser David Nutt was discussed at a recent event at the British Academy sponsored by Times Higher Education. As Times Higher Education reported last week, several eminent academics described how politicians had ignored their expert evidence. Commenting on their remarks on 28 November, Polly Toynbee said that scholars had to understand that politicians marched to a different drum. "Between social science and politics falls the shadow of public opinion," she said. "Bad politicians follow the focus groups and ignore inconvenient truths. Good politicians persuade the public of the necessary facts. Sensible scientists appreciate that this is a great skill: politics is an art that also deserves respect."

Scaling the roof of King's College Chapel in Cambridge is an old student jape - but never before have all four of its 150ft spires been capped with Santa hats at the same time. The prank, reported on 28 November, prompted college officials to seek the services of a professional steeplejack to return the building to its natural state. In a separate incident in Cambridge, 30 rowers from King's College London are reported to have shocked punters admiring the views on the Backs by stripping naked and jumping into the River Cam. Tom Webb, the KCL boat club captain, appealed for any "transgressions of good grace" to be "taken in good humour".

A climate change expert has come under media scrutiny after endorsing the plastic bag policy of a supermarket that donated £25 million to help set up his institute. Mohan Munasinghe, head of the Sustainable Consumption Institute at the University of Manchester, said in a report published last month that Tesco's policy of rewarding customers who reuse bags with Clubcard points was "more effective" than charging. However, it was reported on 28 November that Professor Munasinghe's institute had been set up with the aid of £25 million from Tesco in 2007, and that employees of the supermarket chain had been involved in compiling the report. Professor Munasinghe said he accepted that the report's conclusion was "somewhat overstated", although the institute insisted it was entirely independent from Tesco.

A speech by an academic billed as David Cameron's "intellectual guru" was seized on by newspaper columnists confused by his verbosity. Phillip Blond gave a talk on "The Future of Conservatism" at the launch of his new think-tank, ResPublica, which was attended by the Tory leader. Bryony Gordon, writing in The Daily Telegraph, said: "Mr Blond seems to subscribe to a school of thought best described as 'Why use five words when you can use 5,000 really long ones?'." The Independent on Sunday hit back on 29 November, chastising journalists for "sniggering and yawning at his high-flown academic language". "What is it with Britain and intellectuals? It is a sad and essentially British prejudice," it said.

As Times Higher Education went to press, a Scottish Government reshuffle saw Fiona Hyslop leave her post as Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning. She will move to a new position as Minister for Culture, with the education role filled by Mike Russell, MSP for the South of Scotland. The National Union of Students Scotland said on 1 December that Mr Russell would have to "face up to some very serious challenges as he takes up the reins".

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