'Experts! Who needs them': Philippa Tomczak's Response to Glyn Davies MP

Philippa Tomczak responds to a recent tweet by Glyn Davies MP in the context of the current political climate which seems particularly skeptical of those with experience and expertise, particularly if they are critical of government policy.



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3 Minutes


Dear Mr Davies

I must admit to being rather upset and angry when I saw this tweet on Sunday morning. It seemed to totally discredit my professional existence and also insult the validity of my personal lived experiences of 'the real world'.

Amongst many workstreams, my academic life currently involves analysing 100 Fatal Incident Reports from the Prison and Probation Ombudsman. Each of these reports describes a prisoner who has succeeded, often after multiple brutal attempts, in taking their own life. This analysis forms part of a larger research project examining responses to self-inflicted deaths amongst prisoners.

Each and every one of these 100 reports describes the circumstances, illnesses, misfortunes and deprivations that led a person to such utter despair that they could not face living any more. The reports describe the bereavement of families and friends, often along with the desperate attempts made by prison staff and paramedics to resuscitate these people before they died.

This process affects me. The sheer misery and pain encapsulated in every one of these reports is inevitably draining. Doing this research certainly feels like 'the real world', indeed it feels like the sharp end of human experience at times.

The journey I've been on to get to a position where I can do this research has been pretty real too. I had to fund and pass two degrees, then find funding for my PhD and manage that enormous research project with absolutely no prior experience. Then when I thought it was over and I'd typed more pages than I'd ever imagined, I had to find myself a job. It isn't easy to get an academic job and most of us have worked damn hard to be able to call ourselves an academic.

Many of us also really care about what we do. Sitting writing 85,000 word books about something you think is utterly pointless over the course of years would be a pretty miserable way to live. We are no more worthy than many other professions, but often life experiences have sparked our desire to do the research that we do. I lost two friends to suicide within four months of each other between 2014 and 5. So, when I'm reading about those prisoners, and the Officers who tried to save them, and the cell mates and family left behind to 'deal' with the aftermath, it isn't with an icy air of detachment up in my lavish ivory tower. It is with the hope that some day, with a fair wind and the right group of motivated people behind the cause, things in prisons might get better and we might see those suicide rates reduce just a little.

Nevertheless, it is rare that academics are able to do utterly pointless research. We usually have to justify why and how we do what we do many times. We don't have abundant resources thrown at us to allow us to ponder esoteric topics which have no impact on anything or anyone. We have to fight for the time and money to do our research time and time again, and if it is silly, or pointless, or utterly divorced from that shaky entity that you term 'the real world', we simply won't get it.

Sadly it can be culturally acceptable to mock or scapegoat those experts who have worked their socks off for years to claim an iota of expertise in the harsh and competitive world of academia. Michael Gove made that comment and the government and opposition do a pretty good job of tearing into each other and making nasty ad hominen arguments whenever I see Parliament on the tv. But this just isn't getting us anywhere.

I'm sorry that your engagement with academics has been frustrating and unhelpful. There are some, albeit a small minority, academics who are fixated on their own agenda and somewhat blinded to that of different interest groups. But not all of us are like that. Many of us are lovely. Even if it can be hard to find the common ground on which we can have a proper conversation, both politicians and academics have to keep trying really hard to start and thensustain that conversation, even if it goes a bit wrong and we all come away feeling frustrated. Neither of us can solve the sort of problems with which we grapple without the other, and even if we seem to speak different languages we have to keep trying our best to engage. That means being respectful of each other and being unfailingly nice and polite, even when we disagree. And it means trying a different means of engagement when we don't succeed at solving problems. Rubbishing each other just makes everyone feel horrid and achieves absolutely nothing in the long run. Given the difficulties that we have a collective responsibility to address, this just won't do.

Philippa tweets from @PhilippaTomczak