Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Academics in wartime

An item on today’s Today -- BBC Radio 4 -- described a wartime RAF establishment the name of which I didn’t catch. It recruited archaeologists and other academics, as well as gifted amateurs like crossword geniuses, to interpret aerial photographs taken over enemy territory -- thus detecting from an image a millimetre across the presence of a V2 rocket and estimating from its dimensions its possible range, or inferring from the type of goods trucks in a marshalling yard whether foodstuffs or industrial materials were being transported and working out what the answer might indicate about the state of things in the nearby city.

One of the participants, whose name I also missed, was asked if he and his colleagues resented the lack of any public recognition of the work after the war, in contrast with Bletchley. He answered that they didn’t expect recognition: doing the job was the reward in itself because the work was both worthwhile and interesting and the relationships formed during it were enjoyable.

A constant criticism of public policy under every government since Thatcher has been the failure to acknowledge that the worth and interest of the work can be their own reward, and that the motivation to work hard and to the highest standards can be present when there’s no monetary incentive. This particularly applies to work that people chose because it’s interesting and despite the indifferent pay, such as teaching and research. In teaching it can often be a bad idea to reward good work with marks and grades when you want students to come to believe that the exercise of intelligence and extension of knowledge is a good thing in itself. The same applies to teachers, doctors and NHS managers. Might it not even apply to bankers?

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