Richard III, history and the pressing needs of a modern university…

I don’t know if you watched it, but C4 had a documentary on the uncovering of Richard III last night. R3, it seems, may have been more significant as a fictional character in Shakespeare than as an significant monarch in the history of the English state. A mere punctuation between prolonged civil war (as the natural condition of English public affairs) and the construction of a modern centralised state under Henry Tudor.

Freakiest of all (isn’t that the trademark of C4 documentaries these days?), it turns out he was buried under the letter ‘R’ inscribed on the tarmac of a Leicester car park in ground that had once fallen inside the walls an old priory church.

At an hour and a half you feel the producers are taking too long to tell what is compelling human story. And it does comprise some strange elements. One of those was the figure of Philippa Langley of the Richard III Society, who having told the diggers exactly where to find him, bit by bit is confronted with the truth that in at least some part Richard was almost exactly as the propagandistic Tudors had painted him, in appearance at least.

But historian Mary Beard writing from New York expresses her own disquiet and asks whether the slow steady and thorough pace of university research is being prematurely chased out into the light in search of publicity, and more to the point, funding:

What put me off was a nexus of things to do with funding, university PR, the priority of the media over peer review, and hype… plus the sense that — intriguing as this was, a nice face to face moment with a dead king — there wasn’t all that much history there, in the sense that I understand it.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I dislike intensely university commercial style marketing — the posters on campus telling you that the Uni of X is a “global leader”/”in pursuit of excellence”/”making great ideas come true” or whatever. We’re universities for heavens sake, not companies — and we will be judged by our results, not by slogans. The first thing I saw when I looked at my screen was an absolute forest of logos proclaiming “University of Leicester”… getting the brand out there.

Now I am sure that any University would have done the same. We (that’s uni’s) are so desperate for cash to fund research that we all think that we need to get our name out to attract funding. And there are hundreds of people in uni press offices throughout the land trying to place (and hype) any research story they can to get publicity for the institution.

I wouldn’t mind if this was really about the dissemination of knowledge, but it’s usually not — it is about column inches. (Indeed I have heard people from uni press offices talk of their success in terms of exactly that, and not minding too much if the account is a bit egged.)

Then I found myself thinking… this is a complicated bit of scientific analysis being given its first outing in a Press Conference, not ever having been through the process of peer review. DNA evidence is tricky and any scientist would want their results peer evaluated before going completely public. OK, I see that there is a tricky dividing line.

We want to have us, the public, informed of what’s been going on — and we dont necessarily think it is a great idea that we should all have to wait for that for months or years, until the academic seal of approval has been granted. But the idea of the publication of research by press conference isnt one I feel very comfortable with (as a member of the public, I want not just a story, but a validated story).

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