Letters: The true value of GRADschool

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Your article highlights the value of the UKGRADschool programme, but also points out the drawback that only Research Council students (and a few others) are eligible("From the lab to the workplace", Postgraduate, 6 March).

Scientific organisations such as the Society for General Microbiology (SGM) have been aware of the need to assist postgraduate members as much as possible. This is especially true as many non-Research Council-funded students are possibly in smaller research groups with more limited contact with their peers.

To this end, SGM has ensured that at its scientific meetings, it has various sessions for postgraduates on career development and opportunities, and so on. Regional postgrad meetings have also been organised. While not attempting to emulate the GRADschool, this does give students contact with others, advice and information.

Ian W Sutherland, Emeritus Professor of Microbiology, Edinburgh University, (former Professional Affairs Officer, SGM)


nnn I entirely agree that Britain needs academics to give policy advice (Comment, EDUCATION & CAREERS, 6 March). I also agree that one of the reasons that this does not happen as frequently as it once did is because of university finances.

Governments certainly used to think that this resource could be freely drawn upon. When I was a head of department in the mid-1980s, one of my staff was asked to lead a policy group for the then Department for Education and Science. I remember the sharp intake of breath when I telephoned the relevant senior official to say that I would expect compensation for one day a week for the 12 months or more that the inquiry was expected to take.

I was told that the honour of one of my staff being chosen should be recompense enough. I pointed to his Secretary of State's recent admonition to universities to cover the costs of their activities, and said that my budget could not stand the loss of 20 per cent of a staff member's time.

The payment of direct and indirect salary costs was made (for my member of staff only– none of the other higher education institutions whose staff served as members had thought to ask for salary repayment).

However, I do not think that the proposal to make advice to the government eligible for research funding, apparently through a revised Research Assessment Exercise, is the best way to ensure academic involvement in policy advice. The law of unintended consequences is likely to apply.

A research assessment judgement needs to evaluate published output; not all advice, on national-security issues for example, lends itself to publication at the time. Placing a funding premium on published advice may inhibit the willingness of institutions to allow staff to give confidential advice. The best advice is not always based on new knowledge, but the judgments of research quality will almost certainly value the most novel, thus potentially biasing the advisers against giving strong messages based on old knowledge. And so on.

Fundamentally, however, I abhor the idea of using a measure needed for deciding about underpinning research activity as a surrogate for measures aimed directly at promoting policy advice. To do so risks distorting both desired outcomes. Let the advice be directly paid for, and also be given esteem through internal procedures such as promotions and job evaluations.

A M Lucas, Principal, King's College London, 1993-2003, Wymondham, Norfolk


Mr Moriarty's article (Against the grain, EDUCATION & CAREERS, 28 February) raised a number of pertinent issues, notably, what should the objective be of academic, publicly funded science, and whom should it benefit?

Mr Moriarty decries the modus operandi of academic research, whereby the increasing intrusion of the private sector is eroding the founding principles of academic institutions and allowing, in effect, taxpayer subsidisation of corporations and their profits.

This is as, if not more, common in the field of drug development. Universities contribute a significant proportion of basic drug research, which is often sold to private pharmaceutical companies with significant royalties to the university in question. While this process is positive in that it broadens the range of medical therapies available, there is a more pernicious side. Patents are placed on the drugs by universities and pharmaceutical companies, which hampers patients in developing countries from accessing them, as patents raise drugs' costs and thus price poor patients out of the market.

If universities specified licensing provisions that allowed for generic manufacturing in developing countries, they would lose no source of income while making their innovations more widely accessible. We believe that they should reform their practices so that they are more conducive to global public health.

Jonathan Currie, Mori Mansouri, Rachel Herbert, Gauri Verma, Abi Smith, Marie Williamson, Sophie Epstein, Vasundhara Verma
Universities Allied for Essential Medicines-UK


I spent over 40 years working in universities, and I wouldn't know an ivory tower if it fell on my head. Alas! In the same education supplement in which Geraldine Van Bueren explains why universities are marginalised when it comes to giving advice on public policy, you perpetuate on the cover of the postgraduate section the mindless cliché that universities are not an integral part of the real world. That is precisely the excuse politicians use to neglect them as a source of public-policy advice and to ignore it when it is given.

Giovanni Carsaniga, Emeritus Professor of Italian Studies (Sydney), Hove


Your editorial on the UCU vote not to proceed with new pay-bargaining proposals argues that it leaves the union in a hole (Leader, EDUCATION & CAREERS, 6 March). Perhaps, but democracy is sometimes inconvenient. True, the turnout could have been higher but those who enthuse about the democratic importance of postal ballots may reflect that workplace balloting actually involves more people and often leads to higher rates of participation.

Beyond that, perhaps there were some UCU members in the Russell Group of universities who simply did not like the idea of pay talks involving all university staff including lowly cleaners and porters, without whom universities wouldn't work for very long.

Most, I suspect, were more concerned about how "free" the collective bargaining on offer was, and whether apparent restrictions on taking action if negotiations did not work were not in any case likely to lead to de facto pay imposition by the employers.

I am not a UCU member but I am a trade unionist, and these kinds of issues can be found across industry, not just in academe.

Keith Flett, Tottenham, north London

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