Who needs state funding, anyway?

A research centre has been set up at Sussex that will rely entirely on private money
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The Independent Online

It's the dream of many a frustrated postgraduate student: throwing off the tyrannical shackles of departmental politics and research guidelines and doing exactly what you want for once. But then, you remind yourself, it is only a fantasy. Maybe not any more.

Two University of Sussex postgraduates have gone and done it, setting up a new research centre, the Sussex Centre for the Individual and Society (SCIS). The aim is to take a fresh look at that very common dichotomy. The first research centre to focus on this question in the UK, what is really different is that they are going it alone, running the centre themselves with dons only in an advisory role, and looking for funding from private investors instead of research councils.

Erich Kofmel, a DPhil student from Switzerland, set up the SCIS with Alexander Higgins, who has just finished his MA, in frustration with the way research is funded in the UK. When funding is distributed through university departments rather than directly to individual projects, argues Kofmel, internal politics rather than good ideas are the main decider in getting funding. Strong disciplines like sociology which have more members on the funding panel get the lion's share while the interdisciplinary approaches that Kofmel sees as being essential to new ideas lose out.

Dons' control over the purse strings also encourages an orthodoxy that limits fresh thinking, says Kofmel. "Universities tend to reinforce certain lines," he says. "Sussex is a left university so people are chosen who fit within that line. When I applied here I asked if there was anyone who was not influenced by Marx. They said there was one once but he left. That's not very conducive to a multifaceted approach."

All this may sound like the kind of primal scream against the academic establishment common in postgrads who have just had a funding proposal rejected. In fact the SCIS was set up after co-founder Higgins had a proposal rejected. Higgins is convinced that it is the system and not his proposal that is at fault.

Despite his low opinion of Sussex's liberal consensus, Kofmel marks his target as British academia generally, not the university. "Sussex is the most likely place to set this up," he says. "It's more open than other universities." The pair say they have received encouragement from dons at the university and they have convinced professors at Harvard and Berkeley to back them by joining their advisory board.

Sussex is still to be convinced, though, and has not yet recognised the centre. Kofmel says the opposition is from a secretariat worried about procedure, not academics.

Another university has been keener to develop ties with the centre. Buckingham University, the UK's only private university, is considering taking in the SCIS in if Sussex rejects it. "We liked the sound of these people so we thought we should get together and explore options," says Dr Terence Kealey, vice chancellor of Buckingham University. " Iconoclasts are always welcome at Buckingham."

Even if Sussex does accept the new centre as part of the university, Kofmel says they still hope to pursue links with Buckingham. Which throws up the intriguing prospect of the UK's most notoriously left-wing university, Sussex, in partnership with Buckingham, founded by Baroness Thatcher. " We want to integrate both," says Kofmel. "We want to bring the best both sides, bang heads together, challenge left and right and come up with new solutions."

For now it is still early days and without external funding the researchers themselves are paying for the running of the centre. But while the centre's institutional and financial status remain uncertain, it has nevertheless started work.

A fortnight ago it arranged a meeting to discuss a new project being organised by the World Policy Institute, a research centre based at New York's The New School, home to Christopher Hitchens.

"The SCIS exuded the kind of curious mind and energy to want to take the initiative that I'm looking for," says Farzin Illich, who heads the project.

The aim of the project is to use the media to connect peoples in the West and Middle East and present a new narrative of international co-operation to replace the neo-conservative narrative of a clash of civilisations. In a world where many in the West believe that Islamists commit acts of terror because they hate our freedom and many Muslims believe 9/11 was an American Zionist plot this is not going to be easy. But Illich is optimistic. " This is how the end of the Cold War happened," he says. "People started seeing each other as human beings."