Independent Thinking

Give independent scholars their funding due, says Peter Geoghegan: while the academy is ‘rethinking’, they are busy doing.


Outside edge

Credit: Miles Cole

A few years ago, I attended a panel discussion on “the challenge of non-university researchers”, held at Queen’s University Belfast. The British Academy-sponsored event boasted a venerable roster of speakers addressing a worthy – if verbose – set of questions: the need “to rethink the central role of the university in the establishment of knowledge”, how “new processes of knowledge creation” are “bypassing established university controls”, and the like.

I arrived at the imposing Sir Charles Lanyon-designed Great Hall at Queen’s with high hopes: Northern Ireland has a strong record of research beyond the academy; Belfast alone houses a plethora of independent researchers, free-floating research units and thinktanks. I left – more than two hours later – thoroughly disheartened, as the catholic sweep of independent scholarship was reduced to a succession of anecdotes about “terrific” amateur historians and retired genealogists.

“Independent scholars come in many shapes and sizes”, a recent Times Higher Education feature noted (“Free-range thinkers”, 3 May). “Some work between disciplines, or in disciplines that are not yet fully established, and so have no natural niche within traditional academic structures.” Others have defined academic loci but find themselves, for whatever reason, operating outside the aegis of a third-level institution.

If the term “independent scholar” smacks of PR-speak, the notion of researchers working outside formal university structures has a long lineage: after all, what was Charles Darwin, who lived on an income from his investments and other non-academic sources, if not an independent scholar?

The independent scholar became a widespread, if often only grudgingly accepted, part of the academic ecosystem in the US in the late 1970s and early 1980s. As universities disgorged ever-increasing numbers of PhD graduates on to a stagnant job market, many highly trained researchers became (by choice or necessity) freelance researchers, working within non-academic organisations or under their own steam to produce scholarly articles, books and discussion papers without university administrators breathing down their necks, or any chance of tenure.

The US’ National Coalition of Independent Scholars (NCIS) has around 200 members and publishes a quarterly newsletter, The Independent Scholar. The Princeton Research Forum boasts some 75 independent scholars, who meet once a month to exchange ideas and critique members’ works in progress.

While a broadly equivalent situation has existed in the UK for almost as long, we have been much slower to recognise the number – and often, the quality – of independent scholars. Their image as bookish retirees or trust fund beneficiaries is no longer fit for purpose. Many, like me, hold PhDs, engage in journalism and other freelance writing, and will have, or have had, unpaid affiliations with universities and academic centres.

Beyond the obvious instability of researching outside the academy – who pays the rent? How do you progress in a career where promotion is almost an oxymoron? – independent scholars face logistical challenges, too: how can you access journals without university affiliation? How can you support independent research?

Bodies such as the NCIS in the US have been able to lobby for greater library privileges for their members, even producing natty membership cards to assuage fastidious bibliocrats. Access to funding remains a significant stumbling block, however.

Regardless of the quality of their ideas or the value of their proposed work, independent scholars often find themselves elided by funding structures, as I discovered recently when attempting to apply to a UK research council for a grant under a scheme to promote know-ledge transfer with non-academic audiences. After several phone calls and emails back and forth, I was told that although my original research had been university funded, I did not meet a crucial funding requirement: I was not in the employ of a university.

Post-financial crash, “small is beautiful” has become a popular motto. Sadly, it is not an aspiration shared by our research councils, where funds are being consolidated into a greatly reduced number of larger awards. This benefits university hierarchies far more than it does researchers, independent or otherwise.

The “challenge of non-university researchers” has still to be met. Nevertheless, research beyond traditional university structures is here to stay: indeed, in subjects where overheads are low and cutbacks are high, such as the humanities and social sciences, we could be on the verge of a new age of independent scholarship. While the academy is “rethinking”, independent scholars are busy doing.

This piece originally appeared in the Times Higher Education, 31 May 2012.

The Troubles at Boston College

Boston College-Belfast Project case and its ramifications for academic freedom and social inquiry. From Times Higher Education.

The folk tale about the academic who accidentally deleted his data is older than the PC, but have you heard the one about the researchers who asked their institution to destroy all their work? No? Well that’s exactly what the researchers behind Boston College’s Belfast Project, an oral history of the Northern Irish conflict, have done.

“The archive must now be closed down and the interviews be either returned or shredded since Boston College is no longer a safe nor fit and proper place for them to be kept,” reads a statement issued by the project’s erstwhile director Ed Moloney and former researchers Anthony McIntyre and Wilson McArthur.

The reason for the dramatic declaration is as disarming as it is simple: within the coming weeks, a court in the US is to decide whether interviews with former paramilitaries in Northern Ireland conducted as part of the project should be handed over to the British authorities. All interviewees, including leading figures in the IRA, the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Defence Association, were promised that their recordings would not be released until after their death: now they could form the basis for criminal proceedings.

Trust is the sine qua non of much social research. Informants often participate on condition of anonymity, or sign consent forms clearly stating how their data will be used. In highly sensitive research such as the Belfast Project – which was intended to provide a unique repository of oral testimony about the Troubles from direct participants – confidentiality is paramount, as protection against both prosecution and the wrath of disgruntled former comrades.

When the project was mooted in 2000, Moloney, an award-winning Irish journalist now based in New York, and McIntyre, a former Republican prisoner who holds a PhD in history, say that they demanded guarantees that all information gathered would remain confidential. Boston College, a leading centre of Irish studies in the US, disputes this.

A Boston College affidavit introduced in court avers that the head of the John J. Burns Library, where the tapes were to be housed, cautioned Moloney that “the library could not guarantee the confidentiality of the interviews in the face of a court order”. Moloney and McIntyre contend that such wording is absent from the agreements drawn up by the college and signed all the participants in the project.

Last May, following an interview given by former IRA bomber Dolours Price to a Northern Irish newspaper, British authorities issued the college with a subpoena, demanding tapes of interviews with both Price and Brendan Hughes, a former IRA commanding officer who died in 2008. In August, a second subpoena followed, this time calling for all interviews that contained information relating to the 1972 murder of Jean McConville, a West Belfast mother with 10 children who was believed by the IRA to be a spy for the British Army.

In December, Boston federal court judge William Young upheld the first subpoena. Boston College criticised the verdict but surprisingly declined to appeal: the case now making its way through the US courts was taken by Moloney and McIntyre, not the institution.

Boston College claims that the Belfast Project researchers were told that confidentiality was to the full extent of US, not international, law. It’s a claim McIntyre rejects: “We were given guarantees that everything was completely protected. If we (had) thought for one minute that it wasn’t, we wouldn’t have done the research. We never suspected Boston College would mislead us like this.”

The US university stood to gain substantially from the possession of what would have been an archive of major international significance – but now that the project has run into trouble, it seems to be seeking to disassociate itself from the researchers and their interviewees.

The ramifications of the case are potentially far-reaching. McIntyre is concerned about his own security and that of his informants. A number of Loyalist participants have already asked for the return of their tapes amid concerns for their personal safety.

The irony is that oral histories such as the Belfast Project could potentially transform our understanding of recent conflicts. Indeed, prior to the subpoenas, Owen Paterson, the UK secretary of state for Northern Ireland, called for the work to be replicated across the region.

Now the researchers involved want to see their meticulously collected data destroyed, and academics beyond Belfast are left wondering if they will be able to protect interviewees who divulge sensitive information.

Unlucky Jim fails to find a foothold as Lucky Jim holds firm

I argued that baby-boomers need to be coaxed down from the top of the academic tree in this opinion piece in The Times Higher Education on June 3. There’s been quite a bit of reaction and comment to the piece on the THE site.

A few weeks ago I bumped into an old college friend on a busy London street. We had been doctoral students together. When we had last met, two years before, he had just begun a postdoc at a prestigious institution and had signed a contract for his monograph with a respected academic publisher.

Now he is unemployed.

Away from the noise of traffic, in a nearby cafe, Jim, as I will call him, rather sheepishly told me that despite a first-class CV – including published papers in three of the top-ten cited journals in his field – and extensive experience for a candidate of his age, he has been unable to find a new position since his contract ended in the new year. Jim estimates that he has applied for upwards of 30 jobs in the past 12 months – and is now signing on the dole.

It would be easier to dismiss Jim’s as an exceptional case – a victim of bad luck or poor timing, or involved in a sub-discipline going out of fashion (which he’s not) – were it not for the postgraduate suites across the country filled with dynamic, brilliant doctoral students whose job prospects are equally bleak, and getting bleaker with every passing month. When I began my own PhD, about six years ago, it was still regarded by many as a sure-fire route into continuous, well-paid employment for the vast majority of those who survived the gruelling slog. For most recent graduates, however, the reality proved very different: a Herculean struggle to get on to the job ladder, short-term posts in far-flung places, a merry-go-round of postdoc after postdoc, poor remuneration, the holy grail of a tenured position at a decent university receding all the while.

Why is it so difficult for new graduates to forge an academic career in the UK? One reason, of course, is increased competition in a shrinking job market. Over the past decade, the number of PhD candidates in British universities has increased exponentially, with many recently completed doctoral students searching for jobs at a time when cutbacks in education are beginning to hit hard. But this perfect storm of more (highly qualified) applicants for fewer posts is not the only – or maybe even the main – reason why young academics are struggling to get ahead.

The upper echelon of higher education in the UK remains largely the preserve of professors born in the baby-boom era, who enjoy jobs for life and have, so far, proved very reluctant to shuffle off into retirement. In The Pinch, David Willetts offers a radical critique of the effect that this postwar generation has had on contemporary Britain. Subtitled “How the baby-boomers took their children’s future – and why they should give it back”, the now Tory universities and science minister’s book cogently argues that today’s 55-plus cohort have, through sheer weight of numbers, loaded the dice in their own favour, using their electoral dominance to ensure their own supremacy even into old age, in the form of generous, fiscally cripplingly pension provisions.

These children of the 1960s retain a massive influence on the politics and society of today – nowhere more so than in our universities. The boom in higher education in the 1970s led to the formation of new institutions and the creation of departments in a swathe of previously marginalised disciplines. These new jobs were filled mainly by young, left-wing academics born in the 20 years from 1945.

Forty years on, many members of this once-radical cadre are still employed by universities, as professors, vice-chancellors or ancillary staff. But now, rather than facilitating change, these older academics are standing in its way: the lack of movement at the top of the tree reduces the upward mobility of mid-career academics, preventing juniors getting a foothold on the career ladder at all. Given the baby-boomers’ dominance of the top jobs – and, consequently, the bulk of salaries – young academics have little or no chance of achieving full-time, permanent positions at anything like the age of their 55-plus colleagues.

It is not that the baby-boom generation, in higher education and elsewhere, has been consciously selfish, they merely profited from a huge post-war swell in numbers and opportunities. But there is a need to look closely at how the disparity between older and younger academics can be addressed in the present, especially given the crisis facing university funding.

There are options available – “retiring” chairs to make way for new blood or ring-fencing jobs for recent graduates – but these are not being actively explored. For the sake of Jim, and other dedicated younger academics bulking out job centre queues, perhaps it’s time that they were.

For Anyone Doing A Viva…

A gruelling inquisition or a friendly chat – PhD candidates’ experiences of vivas can vary widely. Preparation is essential, writes Peter Geoghegan, but universities could do more to help, too. Originally appeared in Times Higher Education

I will never forget the day I submitted my PhD for examination. Having spent most of the previous night proofreading the final draft, I rose early that morning, excited by the prospect of moving on from four long and often frustrating years as a postgraduate.

I had envisaged being overcome by a mixture of joy and relief when the dissertation was finally handed over, but as I carried my PhD in loose leaves to the university’s bindery, it slowly dawned on me that submission was not the end of my postgraduate story. It was just the beginning of a new and particularly anxious chapter: the viva.

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