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Silence of the RAMs


Ivory Tower: Another research return of a celebrity academic

Int. A corridor in a university building that looks like a maximum-security prison.

Moving shot—a young woman walks down the corridor as her footsteps echo. There are surveillance cameras on the walls. She walks past doors on her left; each one has narrow observation slits. Behind them are shadowy occupants pacing and muttering. Suddenly, a figure in the last room hurtles towards her, smashing his face against the slit.

Figure: Institutional environment? It stinks.

The woman flinches before moving on. She stops at a room without a door but a Perspex wall. Inside, the room contains sparse, bolted-down furniture and is decorated with charcoal hand drawings of cityscapes. She stops a distance from the see-through wall and clears her throat.

Woman: Dr Lecter…My name is Clarice Starling. May I talk with you?

Dr Hannibal Lecter is lounging in a chair, in white linens, reading a magazine. He turns, considers her. He rises and stands before her as the gracious host.

Lecter: Good morning.

Clarice: Doctor, I’m from the FBI

Lecter: FBI?

Clarice: Funding, Business and Impact.

Lecter: Oh.

Clarice: Doctor, we are planning for the next Research Excellence Framework. We wonder if you could complete a questionnaire.

Lecter: “We” being the Research Support Office. You were sent by the PVC Research, I expect.

Clarice: I was, yes.

Lecter: May I see your credentials?

Clarice is surprised but points to her lanyard and holds it up for inspection. Lecter smiles.

Lecter: Closer, please… Clo-ser…

She complies, trying to disguise her discomfort. Lecter’s nostrils lift, as he gently sniffs the air. Then he smiles, looking at the lanyard.

Lecter: That expires in June. You are on a fixed-term contract.

Clarice: I’m a freelance impact officer.

Lecter: The PVC sent a contractor to me?

Clarice: We’re talking about the REF doctor, not the senior management team. Can you decide for yourself whether or not I’m qualified?

Lecter: That’s rather slippery of you, Ms Starling. Sit, please.

She sits on a folding metal chair beyond the Perspex wall. He sits opposite her.

Lecter: Now then. What did Miggs say to you?

She offers a puzzled look.

Lecter: Professor Miggs in the next “cell”. He hissed at you. What did he say?

Clarice: “Institutional environment? It stinks.”

Lecter: I see. I don’t think it does.

He sniffs the air again.

Lecter: You use Boots’ own-brand skin cream, and sometimes you use antibacterial hand wash, but not today.

Clarice shifts uncomfortably.

Clarice: Did you do those drawings, Doctor?

Lecter: Yes. That’s the Duomo, seen from the Belvedere. Do you know Florence?

Clarice: We only get to go to Arma; it was in Gateshead this year. They leave the overseas field trips to the academics. Did you draw them from memory?

Lecter: I can’t remember the last time I went on a research trip. Memory is what I have instead of a view.

A pause, then Clarice takes the questionnaire.

Clarice: Dr Lecter, if you’d please consider…

Lecter: No, no, no. You were doing fine, you’d been courteous and receptive to courtesy, you’d established trust with the truth about Professor Miggs, and now this ham-handed segue into your questionnaire. It won’t do. It’s stupid and boring.

Clarice: I’m only asking you to complete your REF return. Either you will or you won’t.

Lecter: The PVC Research must be very busy if he’s asking for help from external contractors. He must be worried about Horizon Europe. Did the PVC send you to tell me to apply for a grant?

Clarice: No, I came because we need…

Lecter: How many European grants have been lost this year?

Clarice: Five, so far.

Lecter: All scoring nine, just under the fundable threshold of ten?

Clarice: Yes, but Doctor that’s pre-award. I’m not involved.

Lecter: Tell me, does the PVC have a plan B?

Clarice: I’ll tell you if you complete this form.

He considers, then nods.

Clarice: The university has been targeting skills funding from the levelling-up department.

Lecter: No substitute for transnational research.

Clarice: Teams are desperate to fund their research assistants.

Lecter: I wasn’t.

Clarice: No. You ate yours.

A tense pause, then Lecter smiles at this small boldness.

Lecter: Send that through.

Clarice pushes the questionnaire through a sliding tray in the Perspex wall. He stands up and reads it, turning a page or two disdainfully.

Lecter: Oh, Ms Starling… do you think you can manage me with this blunt tool?

Clarice: No. I only hoped that with your knowledge of the Resource Allocation Model…

Lecter: The RAM? That’s a phrase I’ve not heard for a long time. Not since I was head of the department.

Clarice: …that you would appreciate the need for research planning.

Suddenly, he whips the tray back at her. She jumps. He looks at her and purrs.

Lecter: You’re sooo ambitious, aren’t you…? You know what you look like to me, with your temporary contract and your grainy lanyard? You look like management. A purchase code for the staff refectory has given you some colour in your cheeks, but you were the first in your family to go to university, post-92, where you got a 2.1 in social science. That accent you’re trying so desperately to shed—pure west country. What was your father? An IT salesman? Did he bring home broken laptops for you to write your essays on? Not enough RAM to save your coursework? While you could only dream of getting out. Getting anywhere—yes? Getting all the way to a graduate trainee programme. All the way to the F… B… I.

Every word has struck her, but she sits resolute and won’t give ground.

Clarice: You see a lot, Dr Lecter. But are you strong enough to point that high-powered perception at yourself? How about it…? Look at yourself and write down your research plan.

She slams the tray back at him.

Clarice: Or maybe you’d prefer to talk to the pensions people about early retirement.

Lecter: You’re a tough one, aren’t you?

Clarice: Are you really a Doctor of Psychology? We could always submit you to social policy or something.

Lecter: I’m a case study.

Clarice: And the questionnaire?

Lecter: A QAA inspector once tried to take my lecture notes. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti… Fly back to the research support office, little Starling.

He retreats from the window, standing still and remote. Frustrated, Clarice walks off, leaving the questionnaire in his tray. She is halfway down the corridor when he calls after her.

Lecter: Ms Starling, Ms Starling….

Clarice: Doctor? You’ll do the questionnaire?

Lecter: No, I was wondering whether there was any internal funding going for conferences. I haven’t been to the British Psychological Association since lockdown.

Clarice: Do the questionnaire and we’ll think about it.

Lecter: Twenty years, they’ve been chewing over my research and spitting it out. I don’t know who is the bigger cannibal.

He picks up the papers. She smiles and walks off down the corridor.

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