UK: Profile - Sir Eric Ash, Rector of Imperial College, London. (2 of 3)

UK: Profile - Sir Eric Ash, Rector of Imperial College, London. (2 of 3) - Industry is generous to Imperial - it endows chairs, sponsors students and gives the college millions of pounds of research contracts every year - but, despite that, Ash is still

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Industry is generous to Imperial - it endows chairs, sponsors students and gives the college millions of pounds of research contracts every year - but, despite that, Ash is still very critical of it. He thinks that, unlike its competitors, British industry has never quite understood the nature, or the importance, of research and development. Quite simply, it does not recruit enough top R and D talent for its own laboratories.

"There isn't the depth of strength which you find in the best labs in the States or in Japan. For many years I consulted for the American GE in Schenectady and the thing that struck me there was the way that when they wanted to attack a particular area they could mount an army of people on it, all of whom were pretty good."

It is very difficult to understand the root causes of our failure to take industrial R and D seriously, but Sir Eric thinks that it is at least in part simply a reflection of a more pervasive anti-intellectualism which seems to run through British society. There is a distrust of the intelligentsia and of theoretical learning. Britain, says Sir Eric, must be one of the few countries where being "too clever by half" is regarded as a stinging insult.

"On the whole intellectual sparks are not admired all that much. People tend to admire common sense and strong business instincts rather than going for those who can out-think the competition."

We are paying for it now, he says. The most notorious example is the shipbuilding industry, which did not employ any graduates at all until about 1970. "By the time they discovered that maybe graduates were quite useful people, the Japanese had stolen the industry."

High-tech companies have been a bit better, but even there, says Sir Eric, there is a serious question as to whether they have recruited anything like enough graduates. If you look at the failures in UK high technology, it is arguable that the British companies concerned simply did not have enough able scientists and engineers available to address the problems, compared with their competitors.

He does not deny that some scientists and engineers in British industry are doing world class research - the signal and image processing work at British Telecom's labs is an example, he says - but he would argue that there are no world class labs as such in the UK, nowhere that has attained the kind of critical mass in R and D that Bell Laboratories has in the United States or Hitachi and NEC in Japan.

When Sir Eric was appointed Rector in 1985 everyone was congratulating themselves in the beleif that the financial squeeze on the universities, which had lasted for 15 years, was now at an end and that stable funding was just around the corner. They were wrong of course. Even now there is still no end in sight.

"I think I could take a barrister's brief for arguing that up to, say, 1985 the squeeze was a necessary remedy for the rather free expansion which had taken place in the 1960s and early 1970s," says Sir Eric, "but I don't believe I could even theoretically argue that it has been justifiable since then. I think that since then it has been damaging."

But, of course, because Imperial is scientifically at a zenith, people are reluctant to see that there can really be anything wrong. "I would not wish to make the argument that we're sinking scientifically," says Sir Eric, "but there are signs that the squeeze has gone too far and that any further squeeze - and all the evidence suggests there is another bit of squeeze in store of us this coming year - will do real damage which will not be easy to recover from."

He has in mind things like another increase in the student/staff ratio. A decade ago Imperial had a ratio of the order of 7:1. That has now risen to around 11:1, and if the squeeze goes on it could go even higher.

The irony, of course, is that the figures mean very different things to academics and to politicians. To the politicians the increase in the ratio means that they are getting better value for money, greater efficiency - each student educated is costing fewer taxpayers' pounds. Academics, on the other hand, will argue that beyond a certain point (and there is no agreement as to exactly where it lies) an increased student/staff ratio is bound to mean a dilution in the quality of the product.

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