Robot Fish and Invisible Cloaks (posted 5th October 2006 - see also entry for 10th September)

I opened my weekly Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) today, and not one, but two, 32 page A4 glossy colour brochures for the Shortlisted Candidates for the Times Higher Awards for 2006 fell out. The first award that caught my eye was for "Outstanding Contribution to Sustainable Development", this seeming strange given that a small rainforest was probably pulped for the promotional literature alone for this bizarre event. But moving on...

The frist-named nominee for "Business Initiative of the Year" award was puffed as 'looking forward to the day when he can approach a total stranger, point at his or her shirt and say: "That smells nice, doesn't it? And then explain that his technology made it possible'.

Ye ...eee...ssss. And the next scene is in the police station where the nominee is pointing to his mobile phone and telling the nice police sergeant how Mr Vodaphone has made it possible for him to phone his nice lawyer friend.

The "Lifetime Achievement Awards" ... well, let's let them speak for themselves. The brochure records that one nominee exclaimed "Its the Jane Fonda award, isn't it?" No dear, it's the Times Higher Education Supplement Lifetime Achievement Awards. Got that? The Times Higher Education Supplement Lifetime Achievement Awards, dear ... TIMES HIGHER - oh, forget it. Not a Jane Fonda in sight. Now, go and have a nice cup of tea .... Meanwhile, further down the nominees there is a man who "in 1998 risked imprisonment when he refused to destroy a library book by photographer Robert Mapplethorpe deemed by police to contain obscene immages. This courageous defence of academic freedom won (him) the Maverick of the Year Award for the Maverick Club of Great Britain". Well, good for him - a serial achievement award nominee. Maybe he can combine the awards and become Lifetime Maverick...

Meanwhile, back at the "Outstanding Contribution to the Local Community" award, there is a university which has partnered with a local football club. Trouble is, this was done before, it's not a first. Only catch is that it was done as a satire, one of the best ever (in my view, the best) campus novel Coming from Behind by Howard Jacobson which twinned the university with the local football club.

And I haven't even got to the Robotic Fish and the Invisible Cloak yet. These are the first-mentioned in the "Research Project of the Year Award". What's that I hear about the invisible cloak? "I suppose it was all down to J. K Rowling (and her Harry Potter Books)". No, that's not me speaking, it's one of the researchers. But the happy-clappy atmosphere was rather dimmed when one of the researchers on the Invisible Cloak said; "The first applications will, unfortunately, be military, as with all these things". Gosh, yes, good old Harry and his Hogwarts chums were forever bombing the hell out of these nasty Islamic fundamentalists and making the world safe for George Bush and his pals. At least the Invisible Cloak might help the Maverick of of the Year if the police come looking for him again to burn off stocks of male erotica. See you on the podium, creator of Weapon of Mass Invisibility.

The last picture on the inside back page before the Message from Our Sponsors is of an academic with a bow tie, he is someone with a very creditable research record, but the fact is that if you could not find an bowtied academic and his obsolete but sterotypical image to finish off this farrago, you would have to invent one.

So why am I, let's be polite, less than impressed with these awards?

It is not just because that, while many of these people have done good things, many put themselves forward for the awards, in at least one case an academic was nominated by a former student.

It is not just because of the expense, though someone is paying taxes or fees - and sponsors expect nought for nought - for all this.

It is just not because of the arbitrariness, though I am sure that history will record that the greater good will be served by projects other than robotic fish and invisible cloaks for military adventures (never mind robotic fish as torpedoes).

It is not just because it is just about impossible for non-specialists to compare the apples and oranges of robotic fish and invisible cloaks, assuming one wanted to. Interestingly, the THES this same week carried an article which found that not only is it impossible to compare the performance of students at different universities, there is often little point in trying to compare degree results from the same university. Not much hope then for comparing the likes of research projects as different as mechanical ocean dwellers and magical apparel.

It is because of the sheer trivialisation of a major sphere of human intellectual endeavour, reducing it to the level of a game show. If a project on, say, DNA-sequencing was up against invisible fish or robot cloaks, guess what would be shortlisted every time? Most academics I know would wince at the idea of having themselves put up foward such awards, and indeed underneath the THES's puff and fluff these nominess are all clearly serious and committed individuals and groups . The host of the awards ceremony is Laurie Taylor who writes an excellent satirical column in the THES. I am sure he will be able to make great play of robotic fish and invisible cloaks in his presentation of the awards and there will be loud guffaws from the dinner-jacketed and perfumed audience who may not know one end of a robotic fish or an invisible cloak from another, but can tell a good port from a fine cigar. And perhaps at some point some of the nominees, win or lose, may realise that this was all a big mistake.