The Climategate clarion call – is it time for another?
Having read Kevin Grandia’s recent Huffington blog on ‘Climategate: 5 years later’, I reflect on a missed opportunity from a public engagement perspective.
In 2006, UEA’s Executive Team asked me to write the bid for the university to become one of six national Beacons for Public Engagement and to invite Professor Keith Roberts, a public engagement exemplar, to be our champion. Having agreed to do so, Keith co-authored the business plan and following our success, chaired our Beacon steering group and acted as my mentor throughout the four-year programme, from 2008 to 2012. We would not have secured the Beacon status without Keith’s endorsement and I’m indebted to him for his support. Keith also kindly secured Paul Nurse (then president of the Rockefeller Institute) as a bid referee, to accompany Mike Tomlinson (former Chief Inspector of Schools) and Frances Cairncross (then Chair of the BA Festival of Science 2006 which had just taken place in Norwich).
The Beacon Funders Group, comprising the Higher Education Funding Councils, Research Councils UK (RCUK) and the Wellcome Trust, took an active interest in the progress of all six Beacons via regular updates, evaluation reports and by their representation at bi-monthly Beacon Coordination Group meetings. In September 2011, leading up to the end of the programme, the Beacon project directors and their champions attended a Funders Group panel in London. During our presentation I was asked why I had chosen to continue in my role as the Beacon for Public Engagement Project Director, despite particular challenges,
‘was it altruism that kept you going?’
The Funders were referring to two factors, both of which feature strongly in the higher education sector and both of which have particular resonance for UEA during this period; first, the continuing rise and dominance of the enterprise discourse and second, the imperative to maintain a positive institutional reputation.
At UEA this manifested itself in a discourse and managerial structure controlled by enterprise and an emulation of the business world. The then ‘Knowledge Transfer’ Executive was the formal internal accountable body for the Beacon that UEA was hosting. Whilst I had the opportunity as the Project Director to present regular progress reports to the Executive as a standard agenda item, meetings were mainly consumed by the calculation of income generated by consultancy and spinouts, the management of intellectual property, and the accumulation of prizes.
Ron Barnett, reflecting in 2011 on the possibility of the authentic university, refers to a ‘dominant self-deceiving mode of being’ whereby a university exhibits ‘bad faith’. For example, when it persuades itself that it can do none other than orient itself towards income generation as its dominant mode of being. At UEA, a prime example of Barnett’s ‘dystopia’, engagement was drowned out by the din of the dollar discourse.
In April 2010, halfway through the Beacon programme, the independent evaluator reported that at senior leadership and management levels, public engagement at UEA had certainly been put on the agenda but it had been largely ‘tolerated’ rather than actively endorsed. 2010 had been a challenging year for the university’s reputation. Any external assessment that could be construed as negative or an outright criticism would have been unwelcome, particularly in this context. A few months previously, in November 2009, it had emerged that the computers at the university’s climatic research unit had been hacked, resulting in what became known as ‘Climategate’.
UEA has never acknowledged any direct association between public engagement and Climategate. This was not the case outside the university, however, where across and beyond the Beacon network, people at all levels in the sector were making the connection between the idea that someone would want to hack a university research unit and the perceived need for a more open dialogue about research between researchers and society (a colleague at the Open University, Rick Holliman, has since aptly described Climategate as an ‘unstructured’ form of public engagement (Holliman 2011).
Alan Thorpe, then Chief Executive of the Natural Environment Research Council and RCUK Public Engagement Champion, in his keynote address to the first national Engage Conference in December 2010, described the incident as a ‘clarion call for public engagement’. Unfortunately, his intended audience from UEA arrived late and did not get to receive the message that the Beacon Funders so wanted them to hear. However, in the context of the national Beacon programme, there was no avoiding the issue.
A criticism, therefore, in a relatively unimportant evaluation of a relatively unimportant externally funded project may not, in more normal circumstances, have caused a great deal of consternation on the part of those inside the university. In fact, when the 2010 evaluator’s report was discussed at a high level meeting in April of that year, it was acknowledged by almost all of those present that engagement was indeed ‘tolerated’ as described.
Meanwhile, the Beacon Funders offered Keith and me what support they could in dealing with the fallout at a corporate level though what they could actually do was limited. Universities remain autonomous in many respects, which from a broader perspective is no bad thing, and I have always described the Beacon initiative as a ‘government intervention’. What this situation needed was someone at a senior level on the inside to get the bigger picture. Clearly, the reluctance at an institutional level for self-reflection prevents the possibility of self-understanding.
Barnett asks whether the university misunderstands the truth about itself or perhaps it understands the truth but blocks it out? He concludes that it is neither one thing nor the other and recognises that authenticity is acted out every day both in tiny occurrences at an individual level and in large activities. It is perhaps this more than anything else that enabled me to carry on with the Beacon role in spite of many political (with a small ‘p’) skirmishes. It was a privilege not only to work with Keith but also many other colleagues at UEA who were and remain committed to engagement and co-production in their day-to-day academic practice.
Whilst UEA may have recovered its pre- Climategate composure, assuring everyone that the incident has served to improve its reputation, the enterprise discourse is stronger than ever and the university continues to be a place of rigid hierarchy and patronage. Perhaps these characteristics inevitably apply to universities. Earlier this year following the appointment of its new Vice-Chancellor, UEA’s Executive decided to remove ‘Engagement’ from the title of Pro-Vice Chancellor so it is now just PVC for ‘Research and Enterprise’. Members of the Engagement Executive who were not consulted, or indeed notified, were concerned about the message this change would send to our community partners. At the same time phrases such as ‘altruistic but enterprising’ were starting to appear in the official narrative about engagement in university marketing materials.
It was at that point I decided to move on from those ever-decreasing circles and focus on the research and the writing.
Five years on from the Climategate clarion call, is it time for another?
Barnett, R. (2011). Being a University. London & New York, Routledge: Taylor & Francis
Grandia, Kevin Climategate: 5 years later
Richard Holliman (2011). Advocacy in the tail: Exploring the implications of ‘climategate’ for science journalism and public debate in the digital age. Journalism: Theory, Practice and Criticism, 12(7) pp. 832–846.