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Sydney Lenssen The poverty of scholars

Analysis

Academic lobbies are hyperactive. Days after NCE reported that Sir Bernard Ingham's lobby group Supporters of Nuclear Energy (SONE) uses ICE's headquarters for secretarial services, ten university civil engineers combined in a letter of protest. As it happens, their reaction pleased me. I'm not so sure about other recent scholar lobbies.

Early last month Sir Ronald Oxburgh, rector of Imperial College, was drumming up support for a 'K for Skem'. He e-mailed colleagues with details of how to fax or write to Paula McLeod at a private office in Bristol (she apparently looks after such matters as knighthoods). 'The chances of success,' he wrote, 'would be significantly enhanced if as many people as possible wrote brief (or long) letters of support.'

His note came to me a few days after it was written, by which time it had collected the names of Burland, Crawford, Knill and Sutherland among others. The current ICE President, it noted, would be a 'very useful' supporter. Ripples spread fast in the learned millpond.

Now, Emeritus Professor Alec Westley Skempton is a leading engineer by any measure, time or place. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1961. He had already made his mark at the Building Research Station where he worked until 1946. Then he returned to Imperial College as a reader and professor nine years later in 1955.

Soil mechanics students held him in awe; due to him, the behaviour of clays had become more predictable; his lectures at Imperial were famous for being fun as well as super-informative.

Now in his mid-eighties, he still beavers away, not quite so often in the ICE library, following a bad fall last year, but he goes into college every day.

'He's driven by an acute natural curiosity for geotechnics and all matters relating to civil engineering history,' said one admirer this week.

The Millennium honours list will be longer than usual. If it pleases Skem to be commended, that will be splendid. Only in recent years has it become acceptable for any person to suggest candidates for honours, even oneself.

The process now needs to be taken a step further by encouraging open and transparent canvassing. The chances of recognition being based on merit rather than lobby-power would be better.

Andrew Campbell of the Ashridge Strategic Management Centre has a different approach. I enjoyed his recent book on group synergy - enough to write about it last month. As a result he sent me a copy of his latest article on company planning, published in this month's Harvard Business Review. The world's most prestigious management journal gets, according to Campbell, 'about 10-15 letters per article and I am hoping to get noticed by drumming up twice that many'.

Provocatively he continues: 'In case you have writer's block, I have been bold enough to attach three possible samples of the sort of thing you might be inspired to write (please don't use these exact words).' I was pleased to help.

I hesitated before identifying this canvasser. But then I read again the last lines of his letter: 'This may seem like rather a self-serving request. But self-promotion is not something I have ever been shy of.' That is open enough!

Academics should concentrate most on scholarship if they are not to devalue accolades. It is a poor and dangerous excuse to be told that universities have no currency to mark merit other than publications and honours.

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