This was not the post I expected to write this week. I had planned to tell you all about my experiences in Canada and my first keynote speech. But that will have to wait. Because I have astonishing news: I have been made a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences.
In the UK, most academic subject areas have their own Academy. Some have been around for centuries – some are even Royal Academies – and some are newer. The Academy of Social Sciences (AcSS for short) was formed in the 1970s, so it is one of the newest. Its members are learned societies, such as the Social Research Association, the Association of Social Anthropologists, and the British Psychological Society, as well as around 1,000 individual Fellows.
The individual Fellows are almost all Professors (93%), mostly male (70%), and I suspect predominantly white. The first person who explained to me about how the AcSS worked, who was a senior academic and a Fellow of the Academy, said quite matter-of-factly that it wasn’t for people like me. So when a kind Professor and Fellow I’ve been working with asked if I would like to be nominated, I said ‘no, thank you’. He gently suggested that I think about it, which I rather grumpily agreed to do, though I couldn’t really see the point. In the course of my thinking, I telephoned a colleague who is also a Fellow but not an academic, and she told me firmly that I should go for it. So I agreed to be nominated, sent the kind Professor my CV, and heard nothing further.
The selection process involves ‘a thorough process of peer review’ to assess potential Fellows for ‘the excellence and impact of their work in the social sciences’ (quote from this week’s AcSS press release). And it all happens behind closed doors. I couldn’t imagine that they would accept me as a Fellow – but they did. Apparently the AcSS send out letters to new Fellows, to notify them, before the news is released to the public. But I’ve been working in Canada for the last week so I didn’t get the letter. I did get an email to congratulate me on my ‘conferment’ and say the press release had been issued, but there wasn’t much other information, except that I was invited to the President’s lunch where I could receive my certificate. It’s not the kind of invitation I’m used to, because mostly when people invite me to lunch I don’t have to pay £85 for the privilege. EIGHTY-FIVE QUID!!! That’s a fortnight’s food budget in my life. I like eating out, and have even been known to go out for dinner with several courses and drinks on occasion, but I’ve never spent as much as £85 on one of those, let alone on a lunch. Also, I think there is more financial commitment, because there was a direct debit form with the email, but it didn’t say what for; presumably that information is in the welcome pack on my doormat at home.
I guess all those Professors have universities to pay their costs for them because of the prestige it brings. Or, if they have to pay for themselves, they’re on the kind of salary that means it’s possible to spend £85 on lunch. The average salary for a Professor in the UK is around £66,500. Over the last five years, I’ve averaged £14,000 take-home per year, which is approximately equivalent to an employed person’s salary of £16,500 – around a quarter of what a Professor earns. I can live on my income, but it doesn’t support an £85 lunch habit. Though, as a prudent businesswoman, I aim to keep 6-12 months’ running costs in my business account to protect me against lean times. So I could draw from my reserves, treat the cost as a business expense, and set it off against my tax bill. But would that be any kind of ethical?
I want to go to the lunch. I want to advocate for the value of independent researchers in social science, and it seems that eminent social scientists think I’m fit to be their representative. There aren’t many others – in fact there’s only one Fellow who describes himself as an ‘independent academic’, and he used to be a Professor. Those who are not Professors or attached to a university seem mostly to be attached to, or retired from, research organisations or Government departments. So I may be the only Fellow who is, and has been throughout my research career, completely independent of any institution.
I am truly delighted to receive this unexpected honour, but it does bring new ethical dilemmas. Even if I decide I can afford the £85 plus the train fare to Cardiff, is it ethical to spend that much on a glitzy lunch when desperate refugee people are freezing and starving at our gates, and increasing numbers of people within our borders are seeking help from food banks? Which is the greater good, me advocating for independent researchers within the Academy or my £85 providing food for those who have none?