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Top-rated history centre to leave Imperial

Research group likely to head to King’s in London reshuffle

Imperial College London has axed its Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, which ranked as the top UK history department in the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise.

Research Fortnight understands that the centre will move to King’s College London, although both institutions have yet to confirm the transfer.

The move follows the closure of Imperial’s humanities department on 1 August. Parts of the department—including science communication and languages—have already transferred to a newly created Centre for Co-Curricular Studies within the School of Professional Development. This centre will run the recently launched Imperial Horizons programme, which offers undergraduates a broader educational experience and professional edge through courses in subjects such as ethics, philosophy, business and languages.

Imperial decided in April that it would help CHoSTM “transfer to a suitable institution”. A statement from the university says the decision was made following a review that was originally prompted by concerns that CHoSTM’s small size “might compromise its ability to maintain and develop its pre-eminent position”.

Many argue that CHoSTM—whose strong performance in the 2008 RAE was based on the work of only five people—will benefit from going to a university with a bigger history department. The transfer will also be a valuable addition to King’s, which did not perform as well in history as Imperial.

Robert Winston, embryologist and professor of science and society at Imperial, had an office in the humanities department before moving to the engineering faculty. He argues that the history group—despite being of the “highest calibre”—is “terribly internalised” with a poor record of reaching out and collaborating with others at the institution.

“I think if my activities were moved out or axed I would argue that it was my failure, because I hadn’t really engaged the university with what I try to do,” he says. “I have to say that one of my criticisms of CHoSTM actually is that I don’t think it’s really ensured that it has a high profile within the university.”

Despite repeated efforts by Research Fortnight, David Edgerton, professor at CHoSTM, declined to give an interview.

The Imperial Horizons programme is intended to raise student satisfaction at the university, which, according to the 2011 National Student Survey, was significantly lower than at competing universities such as Oxford, Cambridge and St Andrews.

However, John Forrester, head of the History and Philosophy of Science Department at the University of Cambridge, says Imperial’s decision to drop CHoSTM marks a “sad day” for his field. He worries about the amount of humanities research the science-focused university will undertake in the future as a result.

Felicity Mellor, course leader for Imperial’s MSc programme in science communication, argues there are pros and cons. “The bad side for us is the splitting up of the department and CHoSTM moving, because the main academic weight in the former department is going…I’m worried about being de-academicised,” she says. “It’s also good because the new undergraduate programme is about getting students to contextualise science and think critically about the relationship between science and society, which puts us quite firmly at the centre of what the college cares about and possibly gives us a chance to grow a bit.”

Eryl Price-Davies, head of the Centre for Co-Curricular Studies, says the Imperial Horizons programme won’t prevent humanities staff from doing research. “Even when we reach full steam in three years, it’ll only be six hours [teaching] a week,” he says.

Alice Bell, a senior teaching fellow at Imperial’s science communication unit, agrees. “Imperial values the humanities and sees its potential through the training of science students. It’s just unfortunate that it’ll be harder to fit the research in,” she says. “I don’t think humanities research at Imperial is going to die with CHoSTM leaving.”