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Anger over university bosses vetting scientific research

Sussex scientists have accused University management of impinging on academic freedom after a new centralised vetting procedure was introduced for research funding applications.

Many academics were said to be furious at the changes to the procedure for allocating postgraduate research studentships, which effectively give University managers a veto over what gets researched. It comes after managers gave assurances last year that academic freedom would be protected under their controversial restructuring plan.

Change in the University’s research agenda was one of the most hotly contested elements of the restructuring. Under the plan, new ‘research themes’ would supposedly allow the university to attract more funding. Critics said they would force academics to work on research areas dictated by the government, but university managers claimed that participation in the themes would be optional and academics would not be penalised for working outside them.

Pro-Vice Chancellor Prof. Bob Allison defended the recent changes, saying, “This year, schools have been asked to put forward a list of proposed studentships from departments in ranked priority order. The lists will then be discussed by a panel of the Directors of Doctoral Studies of the key schools involved. Bringing colleagues together from across Schools to discuss the proposals makes good sense. We simply must ensure that we maximise the use and impact of external funds in a way which, rightly or wrongly, the research councils have made explicitly clear that they want to see.”

“Academics were being subjected to barrages of control and researchers’ lives have become bureaucratic nightmares.”

Last month the Nobel prize-winning Sussex chemist Sir Harry Kroto said in a letter to the Times Higher Education magazine that academics were being subjected to “barrages of control” and that “researchers’ lives have become bureaucratic nightmares.” The letter, signed by Prof. Kroto along with nineteen other leading UK scientists, says that in recent years the government has introduced “a host of ever-more stringent controls designed to increase efficiency,” but the result has been plummeting levels of innovation, evidenced by “almost a tenfold decrease in the rate at which researchers at UK universities win Nobel prizes.”

The letter is fiercely critical of the research councils, the bodies that distribute government money to universities, saying that until the eighties researchers were usually given “modest funds” that they could use to tackle any problem that interested them, without the need for external approval.

“In those days, society trusted academics to make the best use of their freedom, and [the research councils] fostered that trust. Above all, they had the courage and ingenuity to defend this system to their paymasters. They seem to have forgotten these talents.”

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