The blackboard and the ivory tower

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The Independent Culture
It is currently the last days of the long summer vacation: a break which is the nadir or zenith of the academic year, depending on how one views one's teaching commitments. For teaching, to a greater or lesser extent, is the fate of most of us scientists in the public sector. Indeed, it is what we are primarily paid to do. But a small consideration like primary job specification does not prevent most of us, at some time or other, from viewing the forthcoming term with a sinking heart.

I am speaking now of us university teachers who are also engaged in active research. This is no moonlighting activity, no sneak bit of intellectual indulgence on the side: rather we are encouraged, nay expected, to be right there on the cutting edge of international research, flying the flag for all that has been so pioneering and imaginative about British science. In the last few years these expectations have become formalised into official audits by the government's Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). The remit of this body is to scrutinise the track record of each university department over a three-year period. The publications in learned journals are placed under the microscope to define levels of quality; each visiting fellowship, book, public lecture is placed on the scales, as is grant income attracted by each department. Every possible index that might give some objective sign is mauled over until finally each department emerges with a score (from one to five) indicating the "excellence" or otherwise of research.

But it is not just government expectations that press us on. Even from the pre-HEFCE ivory tower most of us saw university lectureships as a means of carrying on research whilst having security of tenure. The quid pro quo was always teaching duties. But as research becomes increasingly high-tech and expensive, and available funds ever more strained, more than ever you crave the breakthrough that will clinch your funding for good and, in the burgeoning peer-group rat-race, make you leader of the pack. "Those who can, do, and those who can't, teach" is the order of the day. Time out of research and spent in the lecture hall is time wasted.

The point I wish to make, however, is that teaching can improve research. First, one is forced to look beyond the constraints of one's tiny, highly specialised research area, to appreciate the broader picture. Unlike counterparts cloistered in research institutes, one is able to see large-scale patterns emerge, and this broad perspective can lift one's findings from mere phenomenology to the development of far more fundamental and exciting ideas. Secondly, university students are good sounding boards for new ideas. They are at university because they want to be and are intellectually able to cope with the challenge of sophisticated and controversial concepts.

Finally, by teaching something you end up understanding it deeply. By the time you've explained something in 10 different ways, you know it inside out. And that's not all. During the 10 explanations, you become ever more proficient in clarity of speech, in choosing the right metaphor, the powerful analogy. So that when you go back to the all-important paper to be presented at a conference, or visit a drug company with a view to sponsorship, the message comes across louder and clearer than it could ever have done if exposed only to a few cronies of like mind and the same idiosyncratic interests.

But this perfect world, where teaching and research mesh into a seamless holistic experience of university scientist, is of course a dream. Reduced budgets mean heavier teaching loads and demands to teach way outside even one's general area of interest. Even the most well-intentioned can end up exhausted, demoralised and frustrated at not being able to achieve a truly synergistic balance between teaching and research. There are no easy answers: but surely rather than concede to a two-tiered and divisive academic society, we should chase the dream?

Susan Greenfield is a neuroscientist at the University of Oxford, and Gresham Professor of Physic London