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Keeping distance, staying involved

Updated Wednesday 20th April 2005

Universities must keep a step back from the world of commerce, says Derek Matravers in response to the third of Lord Broers' Reith Lectures.

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The world Lord Broers describes is one that he obviously finds exhilarating: in which the rewards for success are as high as the chance of failure – a world for stress junkies in which (he quotes Andy Grove) ‘only the paranoid survive’. For some people (and I admit I am one) it is a great romantic ideal: cutting deals (and throats – possibly one’s own) on the new frontier. It is the modern equivalent of the Wild West, or Rhodes’ Kimberley mines.

As Lord Broers has argued, we need technology to solve problems, so all this frenetic activity almost certainly does more good than harm.

In the lecture, Lord Broers gives several reasons why Universities are the best places at which to carry out research into technology, which he sums up as follows: ‘the scope and variety of interdisciplinarity and the constant renewal brought by new, young minds…underpin the achievements of university research’.

There is no claim in the lecture that researching the frontiers of engineering is either the sole or the overriding aim of a University, and Lord Broers himself presided over a University with some excellent non-science departments.

Frank Gehry's Stata Center on the MIT campus [Image: See-ming Lee 李思明 SML under CC-BY-SA licence] Creative commons image Icon See-mingLee李思明SML via Flickr under Creative-Commons license
Frank Gehry's Stata Center on the MIT campus [Image: See-ming Lee 李思明 SML under CC-BY-SA licence]

One might, however, worry about the closeness of the links between a University and industry. There is a lot to be said for ivory towers. By keeping the world at arms length, Universities can be disinterested, contemplative and critical. This worry is not new.

In the 1960s, when government sponsored laboratories first became attached to Universities, a scientist said of a leading American University that it had become increasingly hard ‘to tell whether the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is a university with many government research laboratories appended to it, or a cluster of government research laboratories with a very good educational institution attached to it’. Universities should be of the world, but not allow themselves to be bought.

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