Oliver Ellis on ivory towers and elevator music

I had the good fortune to attend the Don and Dusted debate at the British Library on Wednesday (9 October). Up for debate was whether traditional scholarly work, where dons have wide academic freedom to do more or less as they please, is being replaced with impact measured and outcome driven research, and whether this is a good thing.

On the panel were: Mary Beard, professor of classics at Cambridge; Colin Blakemore, professor of neuroscience at Oxford and Warwick; Colin Lawson of the Royal College of Music, Gloria Laycock, professor of crime science at UCL; and David Sweeney from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE).

I felt quite sorry for David Sweeney, as he tried to explain why he couldn’t just write blank cheques, giving money to academics for them to do with as they will.

Those in the humanities were the worst for it. They dismissed anyone who called for them to be accountable, saying that anyone who asked them to prove that they were delivering value for money were “bean counters.”

One audience member warned academics against giving the impression that they have a sense of entitlement.

I don’t want to give the impression that I am against speculative research (some of the most important advances in medicine have come out of lines of enquiry that seemed to have little practical value at the time) nor am I suggesting that publicly funded humanities research isn’t a good idea – it is as important for the soul of society as medicine is for the corporeal bit. But, especially in a recession, we need to be sure we aren’t just throwing money away.

Ultimately the taxpayers are paying the piper, and they will want at least some say as to what is on the playlist. Or at least a guarantee that they aren’t just funding elevator music.

Oliver Ellis is a medical student at Leeds University and BMJ Clegg Scholar.