April 1st comes a few days early

Most of the time I’m reasonably proud to be British. Not in an excessive way I hope: indeed, to be too unquestioningly proud to be British is somehow not British — part of our national character is to take a kind of masochistic pleasure in the country’s failures, such as being beaten to the South Pole by the Norwegians, never winning a tennis Grand Slam, regularly going out of the soccer World Cup at the quarter-final stage, letting other countries derive the economic benefit from research we do that has practical applications, etc. etc.

But recently two things have happened that are highly relevant to academic life and that make being British a straightforward embarrassment. One is that an immigration quota system has recently been introduced that has absolutely nothing to do with national interest and everything to do with pandering to the unsavoury instincts of certain kinds of voter. As a result of this system, many academics who would like to visit this country have been unable to do so because they have been denied visas, and others have had to be removed from shortlists for academic jobs (sometimes not because they have been denied visas but because the appointments committees in question cannot afford to offer a job to somebody who might discover a few months later that they are unable to accept it).

But my main reason for posting is to publicize a proposed measure that I heard about today. Usually when I feel outrage of the kind that it provoked in me, I suddenly realize that it is April 1st and I think to myself, “You had me there!” But this one appears to be real. The background is that David Cameron has a big idea (or so he perceives it) that he calls The Big Society. He unveiled it during last year’s general election campaign, and my guess is that it lost him votes because it was so embarrassingly naff. Nobody, least of all David Cameron himself, seemed to be able to say what would be done differently if the Big Society was in full swing. It has something to do with everyone chipping in, a lot of voluntary work, a new ethos, slogans like “We’re all in this together,” and so on. But a policy (or perhaps what I mean is a general framework for setting policy) that depends on the hypothesis that there are vast untapped reservoirs of altruism is a policy that needs fleshing out with some detail, to put it mildly. Government exhortation certainly won’t do the job. After all, much of the country voted against the government, and many who voted for it are now angry about cuts, so a large proportion of the country has no interest in the Big Society succeeding. (There is one policy that David Cameron likes that makes some kind of sense, which is to give government money to charities that are doing good work, to help them expand. However, it seems that the general effect of cuts is in the opposite direction.)

The proposed measure is to force the Arts and Humanities Research Council, which distributes £100m of government money to support research in the arts and humanities, to make The Big Society a “research priority”. If they do not, then their grant will be withheld. I don’t know the precise details of this, and perhaps the reality is less bad than that sounds. But on the face of it, an academic research council is being told that it is obliged to promote a party political idea. (In theory it could fund research that would end up showing that The Big Society doesn’t work, but something tells me that isn’t what the government has in mind.) If you want to know more, then you can read about it in this Guardian article.

Update: it now seems that it was an early April fool after all. So my main irritation becomes the much smaller one that the AHRC doesn’t know the meaning of the word “refutes”. You had me there …

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21 Responses to “April 1st comes a few days early”

  1. Philip Gibbs Says:

    Looks like the thin edge of a wedge. The research councils will soon regret that they rolled over instead of protesting against erosion of the Haldane principle

  2. Richard Elwes Says:

    It’s particularly embarrassing that footballers are considered important enough to be exempted from the visa system, while scientists and academics are not.

  3. Sam Nead Says:

    I was chatting with a non-EU person, now a postdoc at Oxbridge. Appling from their home country their visa was rejected twice. Applying from Harvard they had no problems. The job offer and other details didn’t change at all in-between applications. Each application costs 2 or 3 hundred pounds which I think the host university had to front.

    I may have mis-remembered some of the details, but the outline is essentially correct. I was pretty shocked to hear the story.

    Perhaps one should start a website to collect such stories? Once academics realize that this policy is affecting not just them as individuals, but the entire community, they could present a more unified front?

  4. gowers Says:

    Thinking further about the AHRC statement, I do find it fairly depressing, even if the story about Big Society studies isn’t accurate. Why do they need to devote significant funding to six “strategic research areas”? Presumably this will mean embarrassing and time-wasting efforts by researchers in the humanities to demonstrate that the research they were going to do anyway fits into one of them. It looks very much like bureaucrats feeling that just identifying and funding the best research is somehow not doing enough.

  5. Yiftach Says:

    Tim maybe you should write about the insane use of impact in the REF. I think that if we, the academic community in the UK, would have refused to take part in the REF committees unless the impact is abolished, then we would have had a reasonable chance to achieve it or at least minimize it.

  6. Uwe Stroinski Says:

    Some years ago, I was working for 2 years in the UK and can only say the best about this time. Hopefully the populistic views you mention don’t prevail.

  7. Chris Campbell Says:

    I amcurrently an undergrad and several foreign student friends have already decided not to continue for postgrad in the UK because of the proposed changes. It is incredibly depressing to see talented people who have already given up on the UK for research. I am proud that the universities here attract a huge number of foreigners for education, I’m very surprised that the government seems not to share my pride…

  8. gowers Says:

    Yesterday there was an article in the New Statesman about the Observer article and the AHRC statement that followed it. It adds some interesting background to the story.

  9. Max Says:

    I know it is not relevant to this particular blogpost, but I just wanted to point out that you have written “Emauel Kowalski” in the blogrol. It’s “Emanuel”, isn’t it? As for the rest of your blog, thank you very much!

  10. Emanuel Says:

    Good evening mr. , my name is Emanuel and i’m a math student in Romania .

    I have a problem , and if it doesn’t bother you too much i would very much appreciate your opinion on the matter.

    Open problem 1 :

    f is a continuous functions for which the limit at plus infinity does not exist but whose liminf and limsup exist and are finite. Then there exist two sequences that converge to infinity x_n and y_n such that x_n1 and f(x_n) , f(a_n x_n) tends to different limits .

    If these propositions are false do you know some restrictions to f that makes them true ? is periodicity the single one ?

    Thank you, best regards from Romania

  11. gowers Says:

    Here’s another article about the Big-Society-research story.

  12. Royal Pain Says:

    “…part of our national character is to take a kind of masochistic pleasure in the country’s failures,…letting other countries derive the economic benefit from research we do that has practical applications, etc. etc.”

    Oh, come, now, let’s not be so coy, shall we? You Brits still hold the distinction (or, is that infamy) of being the most successful, imperial power that colonized most parts of the world, bar none. It’s no accident that English has become *the* international language, despite its atrociously inconsistent grammar, spelling and pronunciation, isn’t it? Put it this way, if, for some reason, you Brits had to find a permanent refuge away from your isles, someday, you’ll have USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and other, former, British colonies that are owned and ruled by the British descendants who will welcome you as close cousins to join them as their new, fellow citizens.

    As for letting others derive benefits from the research that you Brits do, it takes one to know one. You Brits perhaps derived more benefits from research or works done by the outsiders than any other nationals, throughout your history, so you are hardly in a position to protest. Add to that all the plundering, pillaging, looting, and other despiccable acts done at its colonies by Imperial Britain, and you Brits got absolutely no case.

    But, too bad that your economy is busting, like that of your most proud colony, USA.

    Anyhow, enjoy singing along God Save the Queen at Prince William’s Royal Wedding, then, Mr. Royal Professor! (Perhaps no people in the world over-use or abuse the word “royal” more than the Brits.)

    • gowers Says:

      I think the mismatch between past success (or whatever you want to call it) and our current position in the world has a lot to do with the national characteristic I was talking about. And the Royal Wedding illustrates it quite well too. It’s all over the news that most people in this country just aren’t that interested in it: how very British that the one thing we were supposed to be good at has gone so spectacularly wrong over the last thirty years.

  13. Ben G Says:

    This visa issue worries me enormously. The psychological effect massively amplifies the real one. An Iranian postdoc who wanted to come and work with me was denied a 4-month visa and then, immediately afterwards, was allowed into the US for 2 years. I’ve just lost an incredibly promising PhD applicant, who in fact directed me to this blog post as a reason for his decision to go to Princeton.

    If they haven’t already, someone articulate should write an open letter. I bet you one could drum up some heavyweight signatories (large swathes of the fellowship of the RS for example).

    It’s enough to make those of us without too many ties pretty keen to leave.

  14. Yuliya Zelenyuk Says:

    Save Topology in Amsterdam

    http://www.gopetition.com/petitions/save-pure-mathematics-at-the-vu-university-amsterdam.html

  15. Zi Says:

    I don’t think the US is so much of a visa friendly country if ever: the US immigration policy assumes that everyone is a priori an immigrant unless you can prove you are not, and in fact they do reject a sheer amount of visa applications every year. On the flip side problems with UK visa only started very recently.

    That said, I happened to be another living example of a slight variant of the visa issue: last year my visa extension (well, formally, it’s called leave to remain) was rejected for some “technical reason”; I had no right to appeal because I forgot to tick a box on the form (this initiated a bit of a debate in the department whether there is actually someone who’s more nitpicking than the mathematicians).

    Then I faced deportation from the UK, yet to highlight the hospitality of these people: I was told by the UK Border Agency guy that there is absolutely nothing to worry about – all I need to do is to apply for a new visa in my home country. To my astonishment, the UKBA guy was dead right, I apply for a new visa and I did get a new one in….two days! So the whole story ended up being an unexpected Chinese New Year trip….

  16. Jubayer Says:

    “I think the mismatch between past success (or whatever you want to call it) and our current position in the world has a lot to do with the national characteristic I was talking about.”

    Dear God, I hope you aren’t saying what I think you are saying. We aren’t successful anymore because we lack sufficient patriotism (or should I call it, jingoism)?

    In any case, I feel given the current resources, the UK punches well above it’s own weight in such matters. Where it’s headed is another matter – but it’s really not a lack of patriotism that’s the problem.

    • gowers Says:

      I’m not saying what you think I’m saying. The causality is in the other direction: Britain is no longer an imperial power and yet several of our institutions (the monarchy being an obvious example) have a sort of imperial grandeur. Since this is not terribly appropriate, a natural response is a somewhat ironic one.

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