Thursday, 26 April 2012

Beware the Poets

I'm worried about those clever people at Polaris House. Our great and glorious research leaders, those academic taste makers who hold UK funded research in the palms of their hands, seem to be entering the world of self parody.

A couple of weeks ago I devised the Research Council Priority Generator. This randomly mashed together abstract nouns to create strategic priorities that sounded edgy and thoughtful, but were ultimately empty and meaningless.

Whilst it highlighted how randomness could produce apparent profundity, I thought it was too exaggerated and  stupid to really bear any resemblance to reality. How wrong I was. Within hours of launching the Generator, the AHRC had produced its latest 'emerging theme': 'Care for the Future: Thinking Forward through the Past'.

Beautiful. I couldn't have invented a better nonsense programme myself. But, oh, it got better. The AHRC weaved together a fine piece of poetic prose to explain the rationale of the theme: it was, they gushed, 'an opportunity for researchers...to generate new novel understandings of the relationship between the past and the future, and the challenges and opportunities of the present through a temporally inflected lens'.

'New novel'? Really? 'A temporally inflected lens'? If I had a temporally inflected lens I'd be sure to take it down to Jessops to have it looked at.

But the muse is upon them, and they continue in a stream of consciousness that would make Molly Bloom blush:
'...these include questions around what is meaningful about continuity and change, and the role that narratives, experiences, visualisations, performances and stories have to play in these processes. Issues around understanding modes of cultural learning and intergenerational equity, as well as questions relating to authority, ownership and justice within and across time, may help inform understanding of current and future global challenges faced by society today. Technological development, alternative lifestyle movements, and the nature of ideological and philosophical, ethical and creative, historicised and imagined perspectives jostle for attention and require a diversity of approaches and disciplinary engagements for the theme to reach its full potential.'
It's like a postmodern disciplinary shopping list, complete with an unreliable narrator. It's all there, but it's up the reader to try and make sense of it.

However, the AHRC is not alone in bowing to the creative urge. Following swiftly on this is EPSRC's announcement that it will be running a 'creativity greenhouse'. They've already had us playing in 'sandpits', and the TSB is encouraging us to develop 'catapaults'. What analogy, metaphor or simile will they reach for next? The ESRC Trouser Press? The NERC Hostess Trolley? The BBSRC Kenwood Mixer? Now there's an idea for a new generator...

But should we welcome all this creativity? After all, other great leaders have succumbed to the inner poet. Barack Obama has written poetry, as has Jimmy Carter. But then, apparently, so has Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Ivan the Terrible and Goebbels.

Hmm. On second thoughts perhaps the Research Councils should stick to their day jobs before they take UK research any further into this weird parallel universe.

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