Time can play tricks on minds

Some practices thought to be long established are anything but, while others considered novel have lengthy histories

June 25, 2015
John Gill, editor, Times Higher Education
Source: Peter Searle

There are certain things that are a given in higher education. Everyone knows, for example, that hell hath no fury like an academic denied a parking space.

Another academic truism is that teaching plays second fiddle to research, and ’twas ever thus. Or was it?

Writing in this week’s Times Higher Education, Bruce Macfarlane, professor of higher education at the University of Southampton, argues that this may not be as “traditional” a view as many believe.

Sifting through old journal articles on the topic, he returns to a seminal study published in 1971 that reports that in the mid-1960s only one in 10 academics was even “interested” in research, let alone blinkered in the pursuit of it.

Most were “elitist teachers”, it says, who would have had little truck with 50 per cent participation targets, but would have been equally nonplussed by the research excellence framework.

Macfarlane blames the separation of public funding for research and teaching for this change in priorities, but his wider point is that higher education may be too quick to believe that things are as they have always been.

A similar theme is explored in our features pages by Aileen Fyfe, reader in modern British history at the University of St Andrews, who delves into the history of peer review.

It is commonly believed that peer review is as old as academic publishing (the first scientific journal was launched in 1665), but for much of the past 350 years it has been journal editors, not referees, who have been the gatekeepers, Fyfe says. This distinction is a subtle but important one, she argues, and it brings home the fact that the practice was not peer review in the sense that we understand it today.

For Fyfe, the implication is that peer review should not be seen as a “sacred cow”, but rather as a system that has developed over time, with the potential to develop further.

To flip these examples on their head, there are also instances of “new” pressures that on closer examination aren’t new at all.

One of the most impassioned debates of recent years has been about research impact, and the concern that with the introduction of impact into the funding formula, scientists are being forced to try to pick winners or to pursue only economically valuable lines of enquiry.

The tweaks to funding mechanisms may be new, but attempts to predict outcomes are not.

Speaking this month when he was awarded a global health award for his work on the Ebola virus and HIV/Aids, Peter Piot, director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, described the start of his career. “I was not supposed to work on infectious diseases,” he said. “When I was in my last year of medical school…I was told there was no future in infectious diseases. Didn’t we have antibiotics? Didn’t we have vaccines? Didn’t we have sanitation and hygiene? But I’m a bit of a stubborn person, so I went for what I was interested in, and I was interested in the science of microbes and their interaction with people and animals.”

Not long after, he found himself in an African field laboratory, looking through a microscope at Ebola for the first time. Nothing more need be said about the impact his work went on to have.

john.gill@tesglobal.com

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