The View From Here

Many `inactive researchers' are not inactive at all ...
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The label "inactive researcher" has become a term of abuse in universities. "Fortunately we had only two inactive researchers," people mutter to each other in corners, "and they've both decided to take early retirement." Phew. So that's a relief then. Another couple of wimps consigned to multi-channel TV hopping and Tesco, instead of taking up valuable desk space. If there is one phrase that will be absent from the advertisements for their replacements, it is: "Wanted - inactive researcher".

Having visited and studied several university departments as a member of funding council raiding parties, and having also chaired a subject panel in the Research Assessment Exercise, I am not convinced that the matter is quite so simple. On the surface, at any rate, inactive researchers are seen as feckless, no-good layabouts who have failed to fulfil their contracts and should thus be shown the door. The reality is more complex.

Far from being of one kind, inactive researchers are varied in nature. Many are not "inactive" at all, and the term "active researcher, unsuccessful publisher" would be a more accurate description. Words beginning with the letter B come to mind, such as "baffled", "barred", "beleaguered" and "beset". In my experience, "bone idle" describes only a minority of cases.

The "baffled" have chosen a research field that is more intractable than others they might have selected. Some masochists take on a challenge that the faint-hearted would eschew. I talked once to a senior American academic, highly respected but with only a shortish list of good quality publications. "If I had my time over again I would opt for something simple and straightforward," he said, "not the hornet's nest I've got myself into." Topics should not be regarded as equally easy. If everyone played it safe then no one would ever take on the difficult, the obscure, the tortuous or the problematic.

The heading "barred" covers those active researchers who count as inactive because their university chose not to submit them. Certain departments played for prestige, rather than cash, and put forward only their top "international" researchers in an attempt to secure a grade 5 or 5*. This was a gamble that worked for some. There were departments that did obtain a higher grade than before, but now receive less money, as they submitted so few people. The victims of this strategy were those who had written grade 4 publications, but were categorised as "inactive", because their department sacrificed them in their grade 5 bid.

The "beleaguered" are the workhorses who carry heavy teaching and administrative loads which reduce their time for research. In many departments three- quarters or more of the income is earned through teaching. While some people in this category are not especially good teachers either, and might indeed do more research, others are heroic figures rather than liabilities. They more than earn their keep, yet they are stigmatised as parasites.

The "beset", for want of a better term, are academics who are simply too scared to publish. Perhaps they have been criticised in a review, or are basically terrified, but they do their research and then block writing it up. A few years ago a young colleague, ashen-faced and badly shaken, brought me a copy of a bad review of a book he had written. He was distraught, wondering whether he should resign his post. Even when I suggested that a savage reviewer might be compensating for having a small willy, he was still inconsolable.

Fear of shaming from peers is a serious obstacle for some people. The tough and phlegmatic recognise that if you stick your head over the battlements you may well be shot at, but the less robust find it hard to face. The worldly-wise also know that, although some negative criticisms may be justified; others come from people who are envious, or who are expressing an anxiety that what they regard as their own exclusive territory has been invaded. When I was a member of a research council I was always amused by referees who wrote back saying, more or less, "Don't give a varlet like Scroggins the money. Invest instead in one of the leading experts in the field, such as, for example, me."

I had two pieces of advice for my over-anxious colleague. The first was from Henry Kissinger who, when attacked for some stroke of statesmanship, replied that critics never built a cathedral.

The second inspiration for those too fearful to publish, lest their more aggressive peers emerge from their bunkers, comes from a former lord chancellor. Asked how on earth he coped with chairing the House of Lords week after week, year upon year, having to listen to interminable and sometimes tedious speeches, he replied, "I just sit there, thinking `bollocks to the bishops'". That thought has always kept me goingn