Friday, September 29, 2006

Bad news: terror bill passed

This is dreadful news (BBC report here) that President Bush is about to approve legislation removing protections for terrorist suspects. We may feel nothing wrong with immediately locking up actual terrorists (although all are due a fair trial), but there is something very wrong about a system that would rather imprison the innocent than acquit the guilty. This safeguard is a bedrock of common law. Bush and our political leaders are about to tear this to pieces. (Excellent commentary at Crooked Timber and Leiter Reports.) Expect torture against US hostages to rise in response.

Life is never easy for the biggest kid on the block: there are plenty of nasty states. However, when you're the most powerful, you set a powerful example to others. If your conduct is (let's just say) less than exemplary, it's a green light to others and undermines your (moral) authority to do the right thing. What a mess.

Monday, September 25, 2006

The kindness of philosophers

One topic I rarely see discussed is the kindness of philosophers. We are an oft overworked, unpaid lot spending our time trying to solve puzzles and rethink timeless issues and concerns. From the beginning, I have been genuinely blown away by the generosity (in advice and time) by all members of the profession, both in individual conversations and in scholarly matters (pertaining to journal/book refereeing). What is most rewarding about being a philosopher? Being part of a wonderful and oft supportive community of philosophers. This more than compensates from the weak financial incentives to join.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Balzan Prize: Quentin Skinner

Quentin Skinner (Cambridge) has been awarded one of four Balzan Prizes for 2006 for his contributions to political thought (access is subscription only).

Metrics to hit the Arts and Humanities in Britain...?

The Times Higher reports that a working group has recommended a metrics based system to assess arts and humanties departments in future. At the present, these departments are assessed through peer review. Peer review panels decide, effectively, the quality of departments such that the higher a department's quality, the higher funding the department will receive from the government. Over recent years, higher quality meant higher funding only with scores of 5 (and 5* and 6*) out of 5.

The government has been looking for ways of bringing metrics into the mix. The current proposal is the latest version of this. It is worrying. We learn:

"Research output productivity---the number of publications, performances, exhibitions or books---would also be worth up to 30 points. Organising research conferences or editing collections of essays would also count here."

This is worrying because whereas the RAE has concerned itself with quality through peer review, this metrics approach brings in only a worry about quantity. I doubt this is the best way to see getting the most out of what little public money we receive. It is true that peer review has some place---grants awarded (normally peer reviewed) will also be given much weight---but one must be sceptical about trying to come up with fixed numbers for something that defies such quantification....

It always astounds me. British universities try so hard to compete successfully with American universities. Yet, the time we spend in Britain worrying about standards may well be best spent on improving the standards of our work...instead of constantly spending more time on thinking about how best we might try to assess the standard. Harvard and Yale don't use a RAE---why us? All that extra time we lose is spent by competitors doing what we want to do--produce first rate work. Some things I have sympathy for---such as second markers---but some things I do not.

(Full story is here.)