Monday, 1 October 2007

Playing in the sandpit!

I have been thinking about the sandpit. I really think it is very inappropriately named! The stated purpose is to get researchers and others talking about research in a creative way but the hidden agenda is that it is linked to funding for research from the various research councils. Now, if you are a serious academic then your ability to secure research funding is absolutely crucial to your continued career. You will certainly not get a chance of a job in a top university unless you have been successful in getting serious money for a series of projects and you will never become a professor or dean without a string of publications in eminent and learned journals. After all, this is what keeps the universities financially solvent! Therefore, any mention of money brings out the bounty hunters in full force. So, the people applying to attend the sandpit will consist of the most competitive and ambitious researchers. Any others attending will usually be equally competitive in the voluntary sector; high powered professional advocates, often with an ultimate eye on a political post, or paid representatives of various pressure groups such as Age Concern, who are looking out for their next paid post or alternatively have a deeply personal motivation for being there. The stakes are high and the players are nervous! I would like to think that the main motivation for people to be there is that they are deeply committed to their cause or the research and truly believe that their input will impact positively on the lives of others and I would be being too cynical not to acknowledge that this does play some part. However, sadly, it is not the prime motivator! Having been to conferences and meetings where some of these high-flyers and potential high-flyers congregate I have observed the following:

1. They will always have plenty to say. Often it is rubbish and not related to the topic but they always say it enthusiastically and make sure that everyone knows their name and where they are from before they start. (One of my colleagues was such a high-flyer for a while and I can remember her saying "Lovely, when you are at one of these meetings it is important that you say something; and if you can't think of anything sensible to say stand up and say 'it's awfully hot in here, does anyone mind if I open a window?'" She later became the senior professional advisor to the Department of Health!)

2.They introduce themselves to you in a friendly manner but as soon as it is not rude to do so, ask about your research interests and publications. In their heads they are trying to work out whether there is any potential for them to get more money if they work with you and as soon as they realise there isn't they move off to the next potential target. (I think it is called networking)(They may also have another motive for continuing to talk with you- see point 5!)

3. Despite the public perception of researchers coming straight from the lab with no dress sense and unruly hair, these participants all wear Armani and go to expensive London hairdressers (if they still have hair; if it is thinning then it is shaved off in the designer skin-head look). The men usually have a left-over 80s earring in one ear (by now just a discreet stud) and the women somehow have never managed to loose their shoulder pads!

4. They all claim to vote Labour (not so surprising really as Labour is the new Tory!)The truth is if there were a different government in power they would claim to have voted for them as well.

5. At conferences or other residential events there will be quite a few delegates that seize the opportunity created by a few nights away from the wife/children/partner/husband and have an illicit shag with someone else. There are a lot of sad and lonely people in the higher levels of academia! Maybe there are a lot of sad and lonely people everywhere but somehow the 'deed' seems more shocking in that it is carried out in this rarefied environment. Sometimes these affairs continue from conference to conference and become part of the motivation for people to attend!

So rather than a sandpit I think these events would more appropriately called a snake pit!

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