Last night I watched Channel 4’s fly-on-the-wall documentary Richard III: The King In The Car Park. I was expecting it to be one of those documentaries that take 90 minutes to give you 5 minutes of information that you already had from that evening’s news, but actually it was engaging, more on an emotional than intellectual level. The woman from the Richard III Society who got the ball rolling was somewhat over the top but she clearly cared deeply about a subject which had, for some reason, captured her interest years ago. Can’t criticise someone for caring. (I don’t want to spoil the fun, but an important note of caution over the DNA results is to be found here.)
Charlotte Higgins’ column in today’s Guardian Online is particularly irritating as a result. Acknowledging that the whole story is “good fun” and “mildly interesting”, she then makes a series of snooty comments whilst looking down her nose and proclaims “it’s not really history, not in any meaningful sense”. She quotes Neville Morley, professor of ancient history at the University of Bristol, who says (allegedly without a trace of bitterness or snobbery) “Of course it must be so much better to be the Man Who Found Richard III’s Lunchbox than to be the Man Who Discovered Interesting Things About Late Medieval Spinal Injuries: heroic, romantic and interesting, rather than actually useful in the cause of developing knowledge and understanding”.
I mean, what a load of rot. Scientists, it would seem, are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Forever criticised for failing to communicate in a way that engages the public, and pilloried precisely for spending their time researching “Interesting Things About Late Medieval Spinal Injuries” without being able to explain to the public why this research is important, they are then castigated by some (thankfully only a relative few) for doing something that actually resonates, engages and excites people other than those sitting at the next desk in the library.
99.9% of what research scientists do goes unnoticed, unappreciated and misunderstood. A significant proportion of it is important nonetheless, but for reasons that fail to connect with the non-scientist. This lack of connection impacts both private and public funding and ultimately, as a result, our scientific standing as a country and the corpus of human knowledge. Every discipline needs the occasional Richard III moment, or Higgs Boson moment for that matter, just to enable all of the other worthy but invisible research to continue. Higgins’ can’t grudgingly acknowledge this point, as she does, then go on to criticise the conduct of the press conference and other publicity activity. She is part of the media, and the media wrote the rules. The University of Leicester is just trying to play by those rules so a group of fields which aren’t as obviously commercial as engineering or medicine or even physics, get some attention in the public domain. The Research Excellence Framework, like it or loathe it, is a real monster that needs to be fed.
Is it history? Maybe not to Higgins or to the lofty Professor Morley. But it is to everyone else. History isn’t just for the likes of them. It is also for those who want something to interest, excite or inspire them. The story of the discovery of Richard III’s remains fits the bill quite nicely thank you.