Thursday, 11 December 2008

Loss of autonomy. Or bureaucratic amnesia. Or the Disturbing side of Parliamentary democracy. Dawkins.

The following is a quote from a public servant interviewed for oral history purposes regarding the Dawkins reforms, kept in the National Library (this links to the full reference).

What I found disturbing about this quote is the discussion of the need for an advisory body. Originally, of course, it was considered to be important to put an independent body between government (as source of funds) and universities to ensure the ongoing autonomy of universities. This is because it had long been felt that universities could not do their job properly unless they are autonomous, as it protects knowledge from being influenced, especially by money.

"He [Dawkins] suggested or I suggested did we need an advisory structure at all, given that he knew what he wanted and by and large he’d be hard pressed to find people who would give him advice which exactly coincided with what he wanted to do.

Could we in fact defer the whole idea of an advisory structure for a substantial period of time until he’d got in place what he wanted?

His reaction to that as I recall iwas that it wasn’t a bad idea but we’d never get away with it because, particularly the higher education sector having viewed CTEC as basically its own creature would not put up with at least the veneer of consultation, even if Dawkins was basically going to be doing what Dawkins wanted to do.

In the end I think I’d have to say that I came to the view that I think it probably would have been quite good to put off having an advisory structure for a while because the advisory structure itself was going to absorb a great deal of time and effort in putting it together and really we had bigger fish to fry at the time. But John’s judgment was that no we had to, particularly on the higher education front have something that was acceptable to the sector and give him an ongoing consultative arrangement which would if you like replace the purple circle, which caused a great deal of pain out there in the sector as a whole. It was fine for those who were in it, but for those who were outside it they felt excluded and marginalised."

No kidding.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Leisured inquiry and heroic discovery: Eric Ashby's descriptions of academic work: paper

I have distributed web links (on paper) to as a way to find a draft of the written version of the paper I gave at the postgrad conference and will give at ANZHES next week. You can get to that draft at

Due to size restrictions in googledocs, the footnotes are here

I am still working on this paper (thus it is still a "draft"). Please feel free to email me comments.

Problems created by knowledge. Science and Applied Science in the 1930s

This is an Ashby post in disguise. But nice quotes from Flexner.

"The theoretic consequences of scientific discovery may thus be very disconcerting; for the scientist, bent perhaps merely upon the gratification of his own curiosity, periodically and episodically destroys the foundations upon which both science and society have just become used to reclining comfortably.

We listen nowadays not to one Copernicus - a voice crying in the wilderness - but to many, and their voices are magnified and transmitted through the entire social and intellectual structure.

Physics and chemistry, viewed as merely intellectual passions, will not stay "put"; they have an elusive way of slipping through the fingers of the investigator."

Abraham Flexner, Universities, American, English, German. 1930. p.18

But so much at least is clear: while pure science is revolutionizing human thought, applied science is destined to revolutionize human life.

We are at the beginning, not at an end, of an epoch. Problems therefore abound and press upon us - problems due to ignorance, problems created by knowledge.

They must be studied before intelligent action can be taken. Hand to mouth contrivance does not suffice. Who is going to study them? Who and where?

Ibid. p.19