The ‘Great Stink’ and the Russell Group of universities

In her review of Rosemary Ashton’s One Hot Summer: Dickens, Disraeli and the Great Stink of 1858 (in the London Review of Books, 4th Jan. 2018), Rosemary Hill recalls the last day of June 1858. The day when the unbearable stench of the Thames, then little more than a gigantic open sewer, finally made it impossible for the British Government to carry out its business as usual. Although the problem of the Thames had been under review for at least a decade, vested interests and administrative inertia had ensured that nothing was done. Only when the politicians themselves could no longer stand to work in an atmosphere so fetid that they gagged, was the Thames Purification Bill introduced, a process that then only took fifteen days to complete. The legislation passed into law on August 2nd, 1858, a reminder of just how quickly those in power can act when they have a mind to.

Which brings me to the Russell Group of universities.

On its official web site The Russell Group claims that its membership of research-intensive universities are world-class institutions that share certain distinguishing characteristics. These include a commitment to: “maintaining the very best research”; something which enables them to have: “huge social, economic and cultural impacts locally, across the UK and around the globe.”

This claim interests me because the Group includes Bristol University which, as I’ve reported before, has been trying to prevent Dr. David Tuller from further exposing the fact that, far from: “maintaining the very best research”, Bristol and other member universities have benefitted financially from protecting ‘research’ that, as Tuller and others have shown, is both bad and socially irresponsible science. In a blog post of 23 Dec., Tuller notes that Bristol has recently tried to use its “close and valued collaborative relationship” with Berkeley, where he has a post, as leverage to get him disciplined. Berkeley, to its credit, has reviewed the matter and confirmed not only that Tuller has done nothing wrong, but that it is his right, as both a public health academic and a journalist, to pursue his current line of enquiry.

Like the MPs in the Houses of Parliament during the decade prior to the Great Stink of June 1858, the Russell Group will no doubt try to ignore the bad odour Tuller has exposed. However, Bristol’s attempt to co-opt Berkeley in its bullying of Tuller has backfired, since it has allowed him to further illuminate just how low a Russell Group institution will go to protect the pseudo-science from which it benefits financially. This, in turn, gives the lie to the Group’s claim to represent world-class institutions that share a common commitment to: “maintaining the very best research”. For those of us with noses to smell, this Great Stink gets worse with every institutional attempt to suppress the fact that there is something deeply rotten in the whole system of validation that has allowed this situation to arise.

One obvious lesson to be learned from the events of the Great Stink of 1858 is that it’s only when a stench becomes so overwhelming that even those in authority gag on it that anything gets done. So we need to do whatever we can to draw The Russell Group’s attention to the stench some of its members have created.