September 28, 2009

Draft David Mitchell for Board Membership in a UK Research Council

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Yes, that David Mitchell – the one from the ‘Peep Show’, ‘That Mitchell and Webb Look’ and numerous comedy quiz shows on British radio and television. He’s also a Cambridge history grad and one of the most articulate and insightful commentators on the state of higher education today – professional academics and certainly government officials included.

Beneath the title of this blogpost, I have provided a link to an article that appeared in the Observer this past Sunday (where he has a regular column), which takes comic aim at the proposed standard of ‘practical relevance’ put forward by the Research Excellence Framework, which is the successor to the UK’s Research Assessment Exercise.

What’s most interesting about this piece is that Mitchell only has to tweak the straight version of the story a little to produce massive comic effect. Yes, it is pretty st-o-o-o-pid for the public sector to fund mainly research that demonstrates short-term economic and social utility when that would be precisely the sort of research that would most naturally attract private funding. State funding is supposed to make up for – not contribute to – market failure.

Of course, Mitchell overlooks the possibility that, as in the case of the banks, the state is trying to bail out the charities and other private funders, whose coffers have been depleted by the global credit crunch. It’s a stretch, I know. But given the absurdity of the official policy, why shouldn’t its justification be at least as absurd, if not more so?

Mitchell is also spot-on in associating so-called pointless research with a society that thinks beyond sheer animal survival. Indeed, if we can think only in terms of research for the sake of survival, then we should cut out the research middleman altogether and simply focus state funds on implementing solutions that facilitate survival. Surely, if our straits are so dire, we don’t have time for any research whatsoever!

To end on a constructive note, I would like to invite David Mitchell to put himself forward for membership in one of the UK’s publicly funded research councils, probably Arts and Humanities (AHRC) or Economic and Social (ESRC). These are administered by the ominously named Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (of which Higher Education is a subdivision). Here is the website:

You will see that openings for these councils will be advertised later in the Autumn. Council members are typically people who do not work in academia but are seen as ‘stakeholders’ in the future of academia. Comedians certainly fit that bill, given their large student market – not to mention the source of much of their funniest material!

Pass the suggestion along: Draft David Mitchell!

- 4 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Nigel Gilbert

    David Mitchell (and others) also ignore the history. This is not the first (or even the second or third) time that the issue of relevance of funded research has emerged. I believe it is actually one of those infinite loops: if research funding is perceived to be too ‘blue sky’ then it is attacked as lacking relevance (Rothschild, Keith Joseph and others said just the same); if as a result it becomes perceived to be more applied, it is attacked as being too close to market (see Steve Fuller et al). There is no stable equilibrium point in this debate. Fortunately for our sanity, however, the debate tends to follow perceptions rather than reality and to be focussed on exceptions; it tends to make little difference to what is actually funded or what is actually researched, as far as I can see.

    28 Sep 2009, 11:11

  2. Steve Fuller

    Nigel, that’s quite an admission coming from an insider like yourself! And someone of a less charitable disposition might infer from it that research funding as such is pointless whether it’s done for foreseeable practical gain or simply for its own sake.

    But in any case, I’m not too concerned about Mitchell’s knowledge of the history of UK research policy – after all, I doubt if the non-academic lawyers and business people who normally sit on research council boards are very knowledgeable either. However, what he brings is the right sensibility – or at least a sensibility that isn’t more forcefully voiced even by academics themselves. It also highlights something that at least academics easily forget – that people who work in the arts and the media, the source of an increasing portion of the nation’s wealth, are among the biggest boosters of academia for what we would regard as purely academic reasons. Mitchell is just one of the more articulate and outspoken of a whole class of potentially influential people who do not approve of the bog-standard business models that academia is increasingly asked to follow—at least in word (granting, for the sake of argument, that these things can often be got around).

    28 Sep 2009, 12:29

  3. Philip Moriarty


    Great commentary on Mitchell’s wonderful article. I’d certainly second your nomination of David Mitchell for AHRC or ESRC council!

    I don’t know if you, and readers of your blog, are aware of the ePetition to promote discovery in UK science set up by John Allen, a biochemist at Queen Mary, University of London? It’s at . In five short and sharply written paragraphs Allen puts across the key problems with the research councils’ impact “agenda”.

    The petition has already attracted over 2,000 signatures. It’s open until Oct. 3rd, so there’s still time to sign up!

    Best wishes,


    Philip Moriarty, School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Nottingham

    28 Sep 2009, 13:07

  4. Noah

    Wow! One of my academic heroes on one of my favorite comedians! I just wanted to make a quick correction, however. Mitchell’s column appears in the Guardian, not the Observer…unless it’s both.


    30 Sep 2009, 03:23

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