Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

A Birthday Party...





     On a wonderfully sunny afternoon this March, there was a party in Corpus Christi College to celebrate the 10th birthday of the European Research Council (ERC). In case it has passed you by in all the noise about the Brexit vote, the ERC is the EU’s pioneering research funding agency. In the past decade, it has disbursed E12 billion and created jobs for 50,000 researchers, with a distinctive focus on blue-skies, excellence-driven research questions – the UK has been the most successful of all EU member states in winning these fiercely competitive grants, and the single institution which has won the most ERC funding is Oxford University.

            So it is no surprise that, as we gathered to toast the ERC’s next decade (or century!) the UK’s Brexit vote was the ghost at the feast. We watched a video birthday message recorded by Oxford University for the ERC: somewhat bitter-sweet. Grant-holders, post-docs and senior university staff enjoyed canapes and drinks beneath the portrait of Corpus’ founder, Bishop Richard Foxe (d.1528), fittingly enough a patron of the international scholarship of the European Renaissance. Presiding over the event was Professor Alistair Buchan, Oxford’s Brexit Strategy tsar. One of the key demands put to the UK government by British universities is that it preserve our access to the EU’s world-leading research funding programme: the current success of the UK’s top universities has been built with international talent and, in no small measure, with pooled European funds. This is a shared British and European achievement, across science, social science and humanities alike.

            The fears at the party were in part, of course, about money: we heard from heads of departments whose budgets risk (to use a current phrase) falling off a cliff if ongoing access to the ERC is denied. But it is about much more than money, as speakers at the party so passionately conveyed. ERC funding brings to Oxford and the UK a vibrant population of postdocs from all over the world; it enables us to ask cutting-edge questions without being forced to shoe-horn these into the often politicised agendas set out by national funding bodies; its grants are so large that their impact on a field, or in creating a field, can be transformative; in setting such high standards for new ideas, it raises standards everywhere, with a ‘halo effect’. 
          
        Research funding on this scale, of this ambition, is an obvious good in itself, generating knowledge, discoveries and international dialogue at an accelerated rate, to the benefit of very many people across the globe – there are ERC-funded British-led projects in the Amazon and Antarctica. But, to speak in different terms, the dozens of ERC grants which have come to Oxford have also poured millions in the local economy – creating jobs for researchers and administrators, creating business for local hotels, caterers and conference facilities, with all the people whom they in turn employ. I think of the voter I met on the streets of Oxford on June 23rd, who was open mouthed to hear that the EU awarded so much money to the university, or that the UK won more money out of this scheme than we paid in.


            So at Corpus we thanked the ERC, and over drinks crossed our fingers that this door was not about to be slammed in our face – that this community of British, European and international talent in that medieval hall, in a small city near the middle of England, would find a way forward, would not dissipate or disperse, not allow the impoverishment of its intellectual vision and international horizons, not resign itself to an externally-imposed decline. One-to-one, we had conversations about managing uncertainty, contingency planning – and about speaking truth to power, whether loudly or sotto voce. Because if we do not, who will?


Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Arriving at Somerville: Ten Years On

           
Somerville: you can walk on the grass, but please don't drive across the quad.
          Yesterday marked ten years since the day in January 2007 when my husband and I loaded all my books into a car, and drove it illegally (unwittingly) across the paths of Somerville quad to my new office and job, pursued by shouting porters. In Oxford terms, a decade is a mere blink of an eye. Nonetheless, here are a handful of tentative reflections, from just one college tutor and university lecturer’s perspective, on how life at Somerville and the Oxford History Faculty has evolved in this past decade.

            The college itself, graced with award-winning new buildings, with more designs by the same architect in the pipeline, and major academic initiatives in the form of the Oxford India Centre for Sustainable Development and Margaret Thatcher ScholarshipsTrust, feels shinier, more confidently outward-looking, with an ever clearer sense of a shared college purpose among the Fellows – all of these years in the making. Watching this academic community coalesce more fully has been educational in itself, and timely as Governing Body at the start of this New Year embarks on the election of a new Principal. For our undergraduates, who seem cleverer every year, the world after Somerville is however seemingly getting tougher: compared to 2007, more of those graduating in History choose to do a Masters, often to maximise their employment chances, and always at great financial cost. It is now rarer for students to take Finals in Trinity and start a secure ‘milk-round’ job with the civil service or in the City three months later. Instead, since the 2008 financial crisis, we tend to hear about periods of unpaid internships, more opaque pathways into careers, and longer waits for a permanent contract.

            The History Faculty, in its recent reforms to the BA syllabus, research strategy and appointments, has also become even more outward looking with its embrace of global history. In 2007, to work on Poland was still regarded as weirdly exotic by some colleagues; today, there is an expectation that historians in their overall intellectual panorama will look further afield, beyond Britain’s Atlantic shores, beyond Europe. Another significant change in how we conduct historical research has been the growing importance – intellectually and financially – of the major external research grant, from British, private or (most generously) EU funding bodies. In 2007, entire funded teams of history researchers working on funded projects (such as Robert Gildea’s 1968 project) were rare as hens’ teeth; today, the Faculty hosts at least 5 European grants each with a value of over £1 million, employing clusters of top postdocs from around the world. This kind of collaborative research (long of course the norm in science and social science) is thus becoming a more common experience for Oxford historians. This change is, in turn, further complicating the rapidly evolving role of the traditional college tutor, a role which even since 2007 has grown more variegated, accumulating competing demands.


Perhaps it is no surprise that, from the particular vantage point of January 2017, one can look back on that grey and nervous January day in Somerville quad a decade ago, and detect in both college and the Faculty the trends which dominate public discourse and global politics today: the ongoing legacies of the 2008 financial crisis, but in particular the paradoxical twins of growing uncertainty, and growing international inter-connectedness.