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Remembering Brian Flowers
August 16, 2010 - 12:00pm

Brian Flowers, 1924-2010

I've just said by last farewell to a former boss while welcoming a new one.

Brian Flowers -- The Lord Flowers FRS -- died at the end of June. I worked for him as an administrator when he was Vice-Chancellor of the University of London from 1985 to 1990. Before that, he had played in central role in British scientific policy, starting with his work in the immediate post-war period at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment where he led research in nuclear structure physics, before going on to chair the newly-created Science Research Council, and then becoming Rector of Imperial College London. His scientific and academic administrative work, which would have been a lifetime achievement for most people, was in fact the icing on the cake after centrally-important theoretical work in the 1950s, which led to the award of Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1961, at the remarkably early age of 37. I had known that, as a new Cambridge physics graduate in 1944, Flowers had gone to America to work on the atomic bomb: I had assumed that this had been part of the Manhattan Project, but in fact it was a separate Anglo-Canadian project, based in Ontario. Dismayed at the direction world politics had taken, he later worked through the Pugwash conferences for the peaceful use of nuclear power. As his obituary in the London Guardian (29 June) remarked, he was "a true giant of his time".

Flowers became an undergraduate at a time when British higher education was a tiny, elite enterprise: fewer than 5% of school leavers went into higher education, and in 1939, on the outbreak of World War Two, the total number of full-time academics was just over 5,000 – about the size of two or three large British universities today. As a university leader, Flowers went on to help manage a rapidly-expanding system in the 1980s and played a particularly important role in making aspects of the old system fit for modern needs. London University had a large number of small, hospital-based medical schools – mostly older than the University itself – which were unable to provide the basic scientific resources needed for modern medical training. Flowers saw that they had to be amalgamated with larger colleges which already had strengths in the life sciences, and the structure he designed remains the basis of medical education in London today.

At the time Brian Flowers was being made a FRS, our new Director at the Institute of Education was being born. Professor Chris Husbands takes over as my boss at the Institute on 1 January, when our present Director, Professor Geoff Whitty, retires. Chris, with experience at Warwick and East Anglia Universities, has spent his academic career in the mass higher education system that Britain now takes for granted, and which administrators such as Brian Flowers helped to shape. He takes over at a turbulent moment in UK higher education, with big cuts in public funding expected from the financial year beginning in 2011: but there is no sign that Ministers are likely to propose a smaller higher education system. Higher education expansion is a ratchet mechanism – it goes up easily enough, but it is very hard for elected politicians to tell voters that their kids will not be going to university after all. Even so, reduced public spending is likely to affect particularly institutions such as ours, highly dependent on a range of publicly-funded research projects. We wish Chris well in his new leadership role.

 

 

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