The University of Surrey has started doing something rather innovative.
With the commonly held assertion that large higher education institutions are so large that most of the inhabitants have no idea what is going on, the Marketing department has come up with an idea entitled ‘Brief Encounters.’
The premise is that a series of short speakers from various walks of life in the University community will come every few weeks to a lecture theatre and talk for no more than 10 minutes about what they are doing at the University. It could be anything from a fascinating piece of academic research to a charitable endeavour, from a challenging initiative to student activities.
The first of these events was held on Wednesday 24th March with various speakers including a student talking about Fair-trade policy and a nutritionist explaining her intriguing cook book aimed at Prostate cancer sufferers.
A few interesting factoids came out during the event that I wasn’t expecting. Of them one struck me as being rather odd: we know little about the affects of caffeine on the human body.
Hold on. Pardon?
Can this really be true? One of the oldest known stimulants in the world has very little known about it at all? Coffee is rumoured to have been discovered in Ethiopia by a goatherd called ‘Kaldi’ around the 9th Century BC. That’s almost 3,000 years ago. In all that time pretty much the only thing that experts sort of accept about the worlds favourite ‘morning drink’ is that it may wake you up. That’s all.
Kummer (2003) says: ‘Findings have been contradictory as to whether coffee has any specific health benefits, and results are similarly conflicting regarding the potentially harmful effects of coffee consumption.’
If something as common as coffee can be unknown – an everyday object that is purported to be the second most traded commodity in the world - then what hope do we have of understanding the vastly more complex subjects that surround us on a minute by minute basis?
We can launch satellites into space; come up with fascinating philosophical treatises and discover untold wonders about our environment. But something as simple as caffeine remains unknown. Why? Is it a lack of interest? Apathy? (e.g. it’s been around for 3,000 years and it’s done us no harm so do we need to bother?) Or is it too difficult for our elite academics to fathom?
Whatever the reason; surely more funding is needed in the sciences to ensure that everyday issues such as this are assessed for their impact on human life? If the goal of science is to help society develop and improve itself, then these things cannot be ignored.
If faith is to be reinstated in the public that Universities are worth public and private investment, then the sector must demonstrate that it is thinking about the public and the services that it consumes. If we ignore the little things then how can we hope to progress on the international stage?
This is not political – it is practical. Without public backing and support, academia will struggle to breathe.