Wednesday, 27 February 2013

First Impressions of the New Leverhulme Director

My colleagues at LSE kindly invited me along to listen to the new Director of the Leverhulme Trust speaking to them at lunchtime today. I wasn’t sure what to expect: I’d always been impressed with his predecessor, Prof Sir Richard Brook. He was reassuringly old school, with a glimmer of mischief in his eye. He was the perfect advocate for Leverhulme: enthusiastic, sharp, engaged, and fiercely supportive of the work of the Trust. It was a tough act to follow.

Moreover, the fact that Prof Gordon Marshall had been a Vice Chancellor worried me. You see, VCs have a characteristic desire to imprint their leadership on the organisations they steer. They reorganise, realign. Priorities are shifted, sections amalgamated, faculties split - whether it's necessary or not. Was Marshall intending to do something similar to Leverhulme?

The answer – on the evidence of this talk – was no. In fact I got the sense that Marshall was relishing the refuge that the Trust offered from the wild tornadoes and bleak arctic winds of the current funding environment. There was no need for Leverhulme to go chasing the latest political fad, or hound award holders to demonstrate social or economic relevance. Its only concern, said Marshall, ‘is to increase the sum of human knowledge. It may sound corny, but it’s true.’

And, if your experiments don’t work, or your research goes off piste, then Leverhulme will still be on your side. ‘It doesn’t matter,’ said Marshall. You will have still learnt something. The Trust was the only funder ‘to score risk positively’.

Marshall tried to encapsulate the Trust’s aims in a simple sentence. ‘Tell us (in plain language) what research you want to do, and why it is compelling, and if that sounds persuasive then we will try to fund the work.’

‘I can’t decide whether we’re just very old fashioned, or the last honourable man standing’, concluded Marshall. We clapped, and I came away from the talk reassured that this idiosyncratic funder was in safe hands. Please don't disappoint me, Gordon.

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