There’s a very interesting (in my opinion) article by George Monbiot in the Guardian today. The article is called Oxford University won’t take funding from tobacco companies, but Shell’s OK. The basic premise is that universities should be acting for the common good, or as George Monbiot puts it
the need for a disinterested class of intellectuals which acts as a counterweight to prevailing mores.
I have to say that I agree completely with this. It has always surprised me how disinterested UK academics can be. I had always assumed that university academics had a role to play in defining what is acceptable in our societies. They are meant to be the intellectual members of our society; the people who think. If academics are reluctant to be involved in this, then who else is going to do it? This isn’t to say that everyone should bow to the views of academics, simply that academics should feel free to question what is accepted in our societies.
There are probably many reasons why UK academics are reluctant to engage in discussions about our society. One may simply be that academics have become very focused. They see themselves as experts in quite specific areas and so don’t see it as appropriate to engage in areas outside their expertise. There is some merit to this, but it is a bit disappointing – in my opinion. Another may be that there is now quite a lot of pressure on academics. Universities have become very bureaucratic and there is quite a strong publish-or-perish attitude. Academics don’t have much spare time to contemplate the merits – or lack thereof – of our societal mores. Universities have also become much more like businesses. The goal is to maximise teaching and research income and, hence, academics are discouraged from doing anything that doesn’t enhance a university’s ability to generate income.
Personally, I think the latter is the main reason why universities (in the UK) are no longer hotbeds of dissent. We are publicly funded and hence need to do what is expected of us. I’m often very critical, for example, of the Research Excellence Framework (REF2014) and even though most seem to agree, the typical response is “we just have to do this”. Well, yes, but do we have to do it happily. If we think it is damaging what we regard as strengths of the UK Higher Education system, shouldn’t we be making it clear that we’re doing it under duress. There’s also this view that we have to do what is best for UK PLC (i.e., what will best help economic growth in the UK). In a sense, I agree with this. What I disagree with is how we’re influenced to do this. University research has, for many decades, had a very positive impact on economic growth. However, this didn’t happen because politicians told universities to do this. It’s because people recognised the significance of some piece of research and used it to develop something that had economic value. It’s also largely unpredictable. It’s certainly my view that telling us to start predicting the economic benefit of our research will do more harm than good.
The final thing I was going to say regards the main thrust of George Monbiot’s article. If there is increasing evidence that global warming is happening (as there is) and if there is evidence that such warming could lead to life-threatening climate change, shouldn’t the universities where this research is taking place act as though it’s important. Maybe universities shouldn’t be accepting funding from oil companies, if their own research indicates that we should significantly reduce our use of fossil fuels. I have heard some argue that we shouldn’t worry about the provenance of our funding as we’ll typically do good things with whatever money we can get. I think this is naive. The idea that one can take funding from oil companies without being influenced by the source of this funding seems highly unlikely.