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Crumbling empires

If a scientific institution wants a long life, it should hang on to its researchers, says John Whitfield.

The 19th century casts a long shadow on science in the UK. It’s when science became an academic specialisation and a profession. It’s when the country led the world in many disciplines and when many of our most important scientific institutions were founded.

So it’s easy to see why there is such anger and sadness about the threats to the University of London’s Millport Marine Station, founded 1885 in Cumbrae, Scotland, and the Royal Institution, born a year before the 19th century began. Besides their distinguished histories, these are beautiful places that people encounter in their formative years. No wonder they inspire devotion.

Each place faces particular challenges, but there’s a common thread to their problems in that each has, by accident or design, moved away from research. As a consequence, I would suggest, they have lost some control of their own destinies and become more vulnerable to outside forces. The lesson seems to be that if a scientific institution wants a long life, it should hang on to its researchers.

The European university has been one of humanity’s most durable inventions. Our readers’ children might see the University of Bologna celebrate its millennium in 2088; France, Spain, Portugal and the UK also have universities that have been in continuous operation since before 1300.

Part of this staying power is surely down to flexibility—to universities’ willingness, down the centuries, to host just about any form of intellectual activity. But the work of a facility such as a field station is more tightly specified. These places are tools, and tools become obsolete when technology or fashion changes.

This is not intended to mark anywhere for closure: somewhere that once schooled young Edwardians in natural history can adapt to teach ecology or conservation biology or climate science to today’s undergraduates. But changing direction requires a conscious decision, a degree of upheaval and someone to guess correctly about what the facility should be providing. It’s a gamble.

In its focus on providing a particular range of services to a particular group of people, a scientific facility is closer to a commercial concern than a university. And as the physicist Geoffrey West, who works to find and explain regularities in social structures, has pointed out, all companies die.

No one knows why, but every globe-straddling giant is a ghost-to-be; one day Google will go the way of the East India Company, and one day Starbucks will be as dimly remembered as Lyon’s Corner Houses. Neither is likely to have a thousandth birthday party.

In comparison, research is an inherently self-renewing activity. Labs change, incrementally but utterly, as people and projects come and go: no one needs to decide to pursue a new mission. And if one research group fails, another will rise in its place. Doing science means keeping one foot in the future.

The RI’s main problem is the sheer cost of its rebuild. But that rebuild also saw the research staff shrink to a quarter of its previous size, as 45 of 60 chemists decamped to University College London.

In doing so, the institution dismantled an engine of renewal and bet its future on science outreach and corporate events. In the process, it made itself more specialised, and more like a business—indeed, it embraced commerce, marketing itself as a venue-for-hire, hosting weddings and opening a restaurant. It was a brave move.

Millport Marine Station’s wounds are less self-inflicted and more down to a combination of austerity, dilapidation, regional politics and changes in what universities teach and how they teach it.

Any number of places could be affected by these problems. But it too has shed its research activities in recent years and focuses increasingly on teaching. That’s made it harder to argue that it does something that can’t be provided elsewhere.

Being called businesslike is usually a compliment, but for academic institutions the label often rings alarm bells. And yet for the past 30 or so years, successive governments have urged, and forced, public institutions to function more like companies, sometimes welcoming the idea that this means they will go out of business.

Instead of trying to support the unique qualities that lead to longe-vity in a university, policymakers have thrust universities into the market, where they are now busy finding their niche, building their brand and so on.

The result of all this business-worship is the distinct possibility that a UK university, failing to attract enough student customers, will go bust. Given the species’ remarkable resilience, that would be quite an achievement.

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