The truly unchanging thing about university research, at least in engineering and the applied sciences, is the endless quest for research funding, grant money and miscellaneous financial support. Research apparatus of all kinds - especially, these days, leading-edge computer equipment - is hugely expensive and undertaking any kind of original - or at least publishable - work in these areas inevitably requires a substantial investment in state-of-the-art machinery.
Even more importantly, acquiring a big research grant is an exceptionally good way of gaining kudos in a university. It is a considerable source of clout, even real power, over one's colleagues in the Schools and Faculty, and an essential pre-requisite to becoming a full Professor. The ability to offer scraps and titbits - such as occasional access to your machines and facilities - indubitably strengthens one's position of influence over those poor unfortunates who are reliant on crumbs and handouts from the well-funded research group next door.
So it is no real surprise that academic researchers are always on the lookout for The Next Big Thing to fund their insatiable appetite for resources. Right now, of course, that Big Thing is on the intercept of green politics, economic and cultural globalisation, and the biophysics and geophysics of climate change.
When one looks back at the last century's history, the doomsayers of yesteryear were, it seems, always wrong. Remember all that hoo-ha about the threat of Nuclear War and World Peace? While the world is still manifestly not an entirely peaceful place, no-one seriously expects World War III to break out any time soon.
Or take world hunger: it is not particularly well-known that the planet already has enough food for all of the population, a benchmark we quietly passed some time in the 1970s. Admittedly the foodstuffs are not always well-distributed, with rather too much being consumed by overweight westerners. Worse still, much more than one might have liked is still wasted, either because of unnecessary purchases from supermarkets or spoilage from vermin and lack of refrigeration in African villages.
Nevertheless, the principal observation remains: the dire predictions of history did not come to pass. Of course, the wilder forms of these prophecies did indeed result in changes to both public policy and personal perceptions. On population growth, for example, the rate of which has slowed in recent times: in some cases, because of fairly draconian government (like in China) but elsewhere more so due to changing social expectations.
Similarly, it has been deliberate policy of many Western governments, especially in the period since the Second World War, to become self-sufficient in food for political reasons. This is still an underlying principle of the European Union's infamous Common Agricultural Policy, with its unbalancing effects on the economics of crops and harvests the world over.
It is not easy to get an overall picture of the effect of policy changes in the interrelated areas simply because of the large number of complex interactions. So, to give you an idea of just what can be discovered with sufficient application, I need to introduce you to Doctor - well, here I better refer to him only as Dick, for reasons which will become apparent - who was a Senior Lecturer in the School of Computing at my University.
Doctor Dick was a man in his early fifties but, thanks to some quirk of genetics, could easily have been mistaken for someone ten years younger. He was of only medium height, but with unusually broad shoulders which he emphasised by habitually wearing well-tailored suits in an environment where the typical academic staff member rarely wore anything more elaborate than sweatshirt and jeans.
Dick had managed to avoid running to fat in his later years, although exactly what exercise he took was always something of a mystery. He had a thick head of hair, even now barely greying at the temples, and a bushy moustache that gave him a passing resemblance to Mario the Plumber. He displayed what he probably liked to think of as an affable, sociable disposition, one happy to stop and chat to anybody. To anyone who knew him well, in fact he came across as a bore, one who was likely to buttonhole you with gossip and triviality in the corridor.
Dick enjoyed a certain reputation with the ladies - not usually students, if only because there are even now very few female students in Computing - but several of the secretaries and administrative assistants from the Faculty seemed unable to resist his blandishments. These affairs never lasted long, presumably as the lady in question tired of his manner and mannerisms, but long enough to ensure a certain amount of - well, jealous, I rather think - speculation that his attentions to the female of the species was the missing exercise that kept him fit in middle age.
This same characteristic allowed Dick to be a successful salesman, at least outside the School, of the kind frequently referred to in the corridors as a bullshit merchant. He had not yet made it as a full Professor and was not personally popular in the School or Faculty, having been the butt of impudent remarks like "Dick by name and Dick by nature". Neither had he, until now, managed to acquire the kind of seven-figure research grant which these days more-or-less guarantees the creation of a Chair in the University of your choice.
Nevertheless, he had kept up a steady stream of not-particularly distinguished contributions to the state of the art, and had managed to keep himself - and a tight coterie of research assistants and postgraduate students - in paid employment. This work had been funded by a series of minor research grants and University awards, the latter being issued grudgingly and frequently against the opinions of the more senior members of the School.
The topic Doctor Dick had been working on for many years was self-assembling computer models, although he personally promulgated the rather grander title of Synthetic Computational Modelling with Semantic Matching and Heuristic Optimisation.
Following the trend, Dick came up with the idea of applying his pet research interests to the confluence of interests around climate change: not because he particularly believed in Global Warming, or disbelieved it, for that matter, but simply as a trendy vehicle of his particular flavour of computer modelling. Such modelling was notoriously demanding of processing power, and Dick had claimed for many years that his research was serious hampered by a lack of machine time and resources. For decades, he had energetically applied for research funding from every plausible source and, if the local gossip is true, from quite a few unlikely ones, too.
It was to the considerable surprise of most people in the School and - I suspect - to Dick himself that he managed to get a major Combined Boards grant from the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council together with a consortium of European Union bodies. Dick, I feel sure, must have applied to the Combined Boards as a matter of course, undoubtedly recycling portions of previous, unsuccessful proposals to rapidly assemble a case for support. The bulk of the grant was represented by the provision of a medium-sized supercomputer and a handful of networked workstations, with just enough left over to engage a clutch of new research associates and post-doctoral Fellows, and even fund a few bursaries for research students.
Admittedly, this was at a time when everyone knew that both UK and EU governments wanted to be seen to be doing something - anything - about global warming, no doubt leading directly to the announcement of an initiative on Climate Change and, coincidentally, a separate one on the Management of Natural Resources.
To the consternation of the senior staff, Dick suddenly became the effective possessor of the most powerful computer in the School. The formal organisation of the Science Faculty rapidly swung into action to perform its core function: that of prioritising the spending of government largess above the petty rivalries of academic staff. So it was not long before both the supercomputer and Dick's coterie of research students were installed in a separate suite of rooms within the School's buildings, just down the corridor from Dick's own office, with access jealously guarded with doors fitted with the latest in key-pad locks.
Now of course there are vastly more potent machines for shared academic use - teraflop processors hundreds or thousands of times more powerful that the machinery Doctor Dick had acquired. Nevertheless, just getting a two-hour slot on one of these behemoths meant writing a case for support in itself, completed a massive amount of paperwork and enduring a two month waiting list. By contrast, the new computer - inevitably known as Dick's Tool, with the kind of puerile and bitchy humour so prevalent amongst the really intelligent - could be dedicated to any one task twenty-four hours a day. The new machine was widely understood to be running at or near full capacity from almost the moment it was installed.