20th November

Research Expenses

What do you need to do a piece of research? In the physical and medical sciences young researchers often need to raise money for expensive technical hardware to enable them just to get started. Laboratory research is expensive. In the humanities it is somewhat different. For the last few years I have served on a University of London small research grants awards committee dedicated to postgraduate students and early career researchers called the Central Research Fund. Up until recently I acted as its chair. The committee is composed of economists, psychologists, geographers, anthropologists, lawyers and specialists in international relations. The relatively small amounts of money awarded - never more than £2,000 - make an enormous difference to the successful applicants, many of whom are self-funding their doctorates.

Each proposal would be evaluated carefully and feedback would often be given to weak applications. The academics gave their time voluntarily. The supportive but vigilantly critical assessments embodied a model of the best values in academic peer-review. Sometimes the committee would look dimly on inflated budgets or cheeky requests. Luxury items would be ruled out as fanciful, expensive moleskine notebooks dismissed in favour of budget reporter notepads; or exception would be taken to their fund being used to acquire the latest 'high spec' laptop computer. The committee's ethos was both generous and frugal. Each year there would be a handful of requests that would makes us


smile or even laugh out loud like the young anthropologist who requested financial support to purchase a camel under the travel section of her budget. Or the student of Stalin's agrarian reforms who requested £130 for half a ton of coal to enable him to heat his room and cook as he travelled through the villages of the former Soviet Union.

Sometimes the requests would reveal ethical differences between the academic disciplines represented around the table. It is entirely normal for psychologists to pay informants to participate in their experiments. Others felt that this was questionable ethically. In one case an applicant asked for £56.30 for sweets and gift bags for interviewees as a 'culturally appropriate' form of remuneration. The request raised eyebrows, particularly from the lawyers and political scientists and indeed sociologists like myself. The process could also reveal some of the different virtues held by academic disciplines. For example, anthropologists would sometimes question requests to pay for translators or research assistants. In anthropology, learning the language and customs of a society through intensive fieldwork is a professional virtue to guard against ethnocentrism and intellectual superficiality. Each meeting provided a rare realisation of interdisciplinary judgement.

The university decided to abolish the Central Research Fund in 2009. To their minds it is too inefficient and time intensive. This is regardless of the fact that members give themselves to the task


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27 November