The Scientific Activist

Robert May on the State of UK Science

Recently I came across a Nature commentary article (subscription required) by Robert May, former president of the Royal Society. Published in June of this year, May’s article commented on the state of UK science as the government transitioned from the leadership of Tony Blair to Gordon Brown.

As I read it I couldn’t help but wonder whether Robert May had been reading my mind. A better explanation, though, is that May is actually in touch with the issues that UK scientists face on a daily basis and has summed them up in a comprehensive and thoughtful way. This article is an excellent read for academic scientists currently in the UK (or anyone else interested in UK science).

In addressing the question of why UK scientists seem so glum, May writes:

Even more important, in my opinion, than higher teaching loads and the increasingly fierce competition for grants, is the extreme growth of bureaucracy — too often masquerading as accountability. The ballooning of the civil service since 1997 means that there are now more conscientious administrators who hold meetings and send out forms to be filled in. And universities have matched or exceeded the growth in bureaucrats seen in the civil service. This growth is only partly justified by need. One issue that Brown might address is that the current number of central administrative staff is roughly equal to the number of faculty for four major UK universities (J. Enderby, personal communication); this would certainly raise eyebrows at many top US universities.

(Emphasis added.)


I don’t know what it’s like for other scientists in the UK (and in the US and elsewhere), but from my dealings with the administrative staff in my department, I get the distinct impression that they consider us researchers a major inconvenience. There seems to be little recognition, at least, of the fact that they are here because of (and for the benefit of) the department’s researchers and the students… not just to conjure up new forms to be filled out.

May also makes a good point about university leadership:

A rather different issue that has emerged during the Blair decade is the tendency to invite people from the world of business to advise on the management of universities, or to head them. Given that UK universities still stand significantly higher on international league tables than does most of the UK business sector, this seems odd. In a recent study, Amanda Goodall of Warwick University looked at 55 UK research universities and showed that improvement in RAE scores (from 1992, 1996 and 2001) is significantly correlated with their head’s academic record. I think there is an important lesson to be learnt here.

A poignant example of this at Oxford is the tenure of current vice-chancellor John Hood, who was imported from the world of business. Although he has proposed some, in my opinion, much needed reforms at Oxford, he has not been able to build confidence and consensus and has thus met primarily with failure. The leadership methods he learned from the business world have not been particularly applicable at Oxford, and someone more familiar with the system would have likely had more success.