The View From Here

The absent-minded professor is turning into the well-organised professional
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The Independent Online
T here is an enduring and endearing image of the academic as a distracted and inefficient boffin, a fumbling amateur at dealing with The Real World. The problem is that although many of my colleagues still do seem to pride themselves on not acknowledging correspondence, not being punctual, and taking at least a fortnight to "reflect" on even the most straightforward and trivial of issues, the nature of the job in these parlous times is starting to demand a change in attitude.

We are now becoming used to living with Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) audits, both in research and in teaching: but as a consequence we can no longer linger on committees out of sheer goodwill, when we know that rivals will be in there in the lab or library, notching up those precious publications.

The scientists, at least, are also getting used to becoming entrepreneurs: up to 50 per cent of one's time might be spent writing grant applications to obtain a slice of the ever-dwindling cake of public sector funding, or courting industry to evolve a mutually agreeable package.

In any event, there are budgets to be balanced, along with all the other management trials of running research groups large and productive enough to be prominent in the fast lane of today's hi-tech research. The dovetailing of all these multifarious activities means that the absent-minded professor is transforming with increasing frequency into the efficient and well- organised professional.

But there is still a further, vitally important activity that many of us are pursuing, which might prove too much even for the wannabe Dr Efficient.

Everyone agrees that the Public Understanding of Science initiatives are among the most important for the education not just of the new generation, but for late twentieth-century society. There are some notable full-time professionals who write books and, via the media, reach out as never before to excite those for whom the word "science" used to be the ultimate turn-off.

But there are also people like me, who want to make their own passion for discovery intelligible to everyone, but at the same time try and do the job of a research scientist, competitive on the international scene, as well as continuing to slog on with all the teaching and administrative loads of the foot-soldier university academic.

As I desperately pull on one hat after the other, I am asked: "So have you given up science, then?" No, and no again; I would be horrified to relinquish the challenge of finding, in my particular case, an improved approach to neurodegenerative disorders.

Others who are a little more close to the situation might venture, "But surely it is impossible to do everything well? Surely your research must be suffering?" The answer is that by a sheer fluke of circumstance I have, temporarily, had access to that ultimate of professional underpinnings, a secretary - well actually, a PA.

The traditional academic stance would be to abhor the streamlining of one's time that occurs when you have someone to type your letters with more than two fingers, do your photocopying, deal with routine problems and, above all, think for you and cover while you are doing what you are best at. And it is especially those of us who participate in the public understanding of science - who visit schools, give external evening lectures, attend public literary and science festivals, and need free time to write columns, articles and books and send replies to a large postbag - who need this assistance.

For me, it is a simple equation. The time saved by my PA is time that I am free, without jeopardising my research and other activities, to contribute to the public understanding of science. Which leaves one minor problem: who pays?

For I have been casting my bread upon the waters. Sadly, the development office of my own university, a very wealthy biomedical charity and a very large pharmaceutical company - all of which claim to support the wider publicising of science and to this end have benefited from my efforts - have all had pretty much the same attitude.

When it comes to backing up sentiments with hard cash, I have been disheartened and demoralised to find a curt Nimby attitude - "Yes, a worthy request of course, but since it has never happened before, there is no obvious pot or budget allocation from which to draw."

How much easier, more glamorous, to fund an event, even though such a one-off might have far less net effect than the sponsoring of an individual who promotes science all over the country.

I can of course sympathise with single bodies who might wonder why they should pick up the tab for a portfolio of activities for which there is no single beneficiary, apart from the nation. And perhaps not stated, but presumably there as a dark thought, lurk the horrors of a precedent being set ...

I would like to argue that a precedent should be set. If we are serious about the public understanding of science in this country, do we really want a sharp distinction between the handful of very talented, full-time professional publicists and the mass of ivory-tower purists who never communicate with the taxpayer?

Secretarial costs are relatively modest for the results that they would buy. Surely it is not beyond the not inconsiderable talents of the relevant private and public sectors that profess interest in science education to start thinking up some sort of scheme or schemes for encouraging and supporting career scientists happy and willing to give up time to spread the word.

The author is Professor of Pharmacology at Oxford University.