Department of Pharmacology, UCL
1905 – 2007
On June 13th 2007, UCL’s Council endorsed the wish of the provost to disestablish all departments in the Faculty of Life Sciences at UCL.
100 years of history and a world-wide brand name have gone. It remains to be seen what will rise from the ashes. Is this a far-sighted step into the future, or is it just another sign of the removal of power from academics to managers? Only time will tell.
Holders of the established UCL chair of Pharmacology (now known as the A.J Clark chair).
A.R.Cushny, FRS (1905 -1919), A. J. Clark FRS (1919 – 1926),
E. B. Verney FRS 1926 – 1934), J. H. Gaddum FRS (1935 – 1938),
F. R. Winton (1938 – 1961),
H.O.Schild, FRS. (1961-1973),
J.W.Black, FRS. (1973-1978), H.P.Rang, FRS. (1979-1983),
D. Colquhoun FRS, (1985 – 2004), L.G. Sivilotti (2014 – )
Heads of department (from 1983)
Donald H. Jenkinson (1983 – 1987), David A. Brown FRS (Astor Chair of pharmacology) (1987 – 2002), Trevor G Smart (Schild chair of pharmacology) (2002 – )
The web site for the new merged departments tells you what we are now. The 100 years of history.that were described on the web site of the pharmacology department have now vanished. You can download here The Department of Pharmacology at University College London,1905 – 2007. A short history
The Department consistently achieved the highest ranking in the UK in the Research Assessment exercise. What more could UCL ask of us? Here is a very abbreviated history The Department was founded in 1905, The first holder of the established chair Arthur R Cushny did amazingly prescient work on the actions of calcium on the strength of the heart, and was a pioneer in the investigation of the effects of optical isomers (some of his work on optical isomers of hyoscine was used by ‘Student’ (W.S. Gossett) in his famous 1908 paper “The probable error of the mean” (Gossett was working at UCL with Karl Pearson at the time). A.J Clark, who succeeded Cushny in 1919 was a great pioneer of quantitative pharmacology. His book, The Mode of Action of Drugs on Cells (1933) is a classic. His quantitative work on antagonism paved the way for the solutions provided by his successors, Gaddum and Schild. His textbook, Applied Pharmacology (1926) is still in existence in the form of Pharmacology by Rang, Dale, Ritter and Moore, which itself is in its 5th edition. The names of Gaddum and Schild are central in the development of pharmacology. The Schild equation is still the standard method for analysis of competitive antagonists from pharmacological data. His approach to receptor classification is what inspired Sir James Black’s work on adrenaline and histamine antagonists, work that got a Nobel prize in 1988.
What happens next? A brief diary
Here is a diary of what is happening.
2nd August 2007. Nothing is happening. Our department, of which we were so proud, has gone. Nobody has yet said what will take its place. Welcome to limbo.
10 August 2007. Limbo continues and it is causing problems in submissions for BBSRC studentships. Those who think about these things are demoralised to an extent I have never seen before. Those who don’t think about them just bury themselves in their work and wait. That, of course, is one of the big problems with the over-large groupings that are about to be created: they encourage warring PIs and discourage altruism. It is not just me who thinks that the new groupings will be over-large. The external reviewer’s report said so, but his advice has been ignored.
16 August 2007 Still in limbo. Tea room deserted. There is a feel of death about the place.
27 August 2007 Nothing changed, apart from the discovery of some actual experience in Edinburgh which has not done much to fuel optimism.
12 September 2007. Still no word about our fate. The business of applying for studentships is having to be done under the name of our non-existent department, because otherwise they would be lost. Active researchers are being diverted from productive work by spending hours in committees to decide where the post should go.
23 September 2007. Back from conferences and a short holiday, to find no obvious change. Some chagrin is being expressed by research-active staff at the discovery that the Faculty is advertising for a “Research Facilitator” who is to be paid as much as, or more than, they are. This is presumably another 9-to-5 job for a failed-postdoc who is good with Google, for a professorial salary. Is it any wonder that the people who do the research and teaching are so demoralised?
27 September 2007. Students everywhere, but a lot of staff are spending a lot of time doing neither research nor teaching, but sitting on committees. It seems that most of the present departmental administrators are less interested in streamlining administration than in seeing themselves as managers (of whom?) with lots of assistants to do tedious things like entering data. That certainly does not include the administrators in the erstwhile Pharmacology Department where we had evolved a superbly efficient system run by dedicated and helpful people.
30 September 2007. Got a very nice letter from a former student.
“I read about your various websites this morning in the BMJ and have enjoyed the last hour reading some of your stuff, particularly your opinions about the institutional causes of bad science – keep up the good fight!”
” I am very sorry to read about the closure of UCL’s Department of Pharmacology. What mindless vandalism.”
11 October 2007. Now some progress. Two letters from on high announce the appointment of two more layers of administration that we did not have before. First the Faculty Administrator, then today the new Heads of Division. I haven’t quite mastered this style of English myself, so I’d better quote verbatim. It seems they
” . . .will help us to exploit more fully the exceptional scientific excellence of a mission-critical area of our academic activities and ambitions.”
Aha. So that’s clear now.
16 October Lunch hour lecture today. Told that 80 people turned away, so at least I must have got the title right. “Science in an Age of Delusions: Some Examples from Scientific Fraud, Quackery, Religion and University Politics The absurdity of metrics and the folly of corporatisation. (And a few words about the abolition of good departments.) You can See the lecture here.
31 October 2007 We all know rankings are rubbish. Nonetheless one can’t help but be pleased to see that UCL was ranked seventh in the world for Best Places to Work. I hope that ranking survives the present demoralisation in Life Sciences.
1 November 2007. According to Nature, Imperial is going one further and lumping all life sciences into a single enormous department with 1oo research groups (even bigger than the rumoured size of those we are still waiting to hear about) . Its head says “If they end up feeling like worthless cogs in a big department then we’ve really screwed up”. I expect that will be the result. Well. always nice to see one’s rivals screwing up.
2 Nov 2007. Enjoyable visit today to give a seminar at the University of Westminster, about single ion channel work (our new ideas about partial agonists). I had originally been asked by their biomedical people to talk about quackery. The title was to be “What is is the evidence for Alternative Medicine?”. But then I got an email from them saying
“I was surprised to be sat on heavily on return from said trip by the VC, Provosts and Deans (including Peter Davies the leader of the Alt Med School !) once news of your talk leaked out. Could you give a talk on your research instead- yep I know its pusilanimous of me and yep I know unis stand for freedom of speech and yep I know that fellow members of staff suggested you come and others were keen to listen to your views on quackery.”
Of course all the excellent staff whom I met agreed with me about the embarrassment that having degrees in homeopathy etc . But saying so is, it seems, not allowed at Westminster. How sad.
5 November 2007. Aha is seems from the minutes of the Research Strategy Committee that, rather sensibly, they thought a “Research Facilitator” was not needed in Life Sciences. It also seems that they were overruled by the Senior Management Team.
7 November 2007. I see from the agenda for the Academic Board that the rules have been interpreted in a way that prevents me from going to their meetings. It does seem odd that a university should go to such lengths to avoid the possibility that some dissent might be expressed. Of course there isn’t much point in going anyway, since Academic Board relinquished what little power it had last May 24th.
13 November 2007. The latest rumour to circulate is that UCL is to employ three “change managers”, whatever they are. It seems that no expense is spared when it comes to appointing more managers. What a shame that they can neither do research nor teach. It isn’t hard to imagine the effect on the morale of hard-working postdocs (or even on hard working readers and professors) of all these appointments of pen-pushers on professorial salaries. Just more demoralisation, of course. Yet again, someone today likened the process to redisorganisation in the NHS.
14 November 2007. At lunch, I bumped into a senior person from the Life Sciences Faculty (nowhere near Pharmacology). This person brings in big bucks in grants, but spent the most of the lunch time ranting about the way things are going, and wondering if they’d be better off somewhere else where academics still had some control over their own fates. How very sad, and how unnecessary.
23 November 2007 Why does one cringe whenever one sees an email from the personnel department, known now by the noxious name “Human Resources”. The last one was about bullying and harassment so the rest of the day was occupied with everyone that one met making the usual ‘joke’ about HR being the main source of bullying and harassment.
Today’s was about Organisational Change Procedure. A couple of bits are worth quoting.
“UCL is committed to consulting on and implementing change within a reasonable timeframe to minimise uncertainty while ensuring sufficient time for meaningful consultation. “
Well you could have fooled me. As far as I can tell the consultation in Life Sciences has been essentially sham.
Much more ominous though, is this one.
UCL expects managers to review activities for which they are responsible to ensure that they support UCL’s corporate goals and faculty/departmental plans and aspirations. Examples of such changes may include moving into new areas of research, . . .
Hang on, managers (who are they?) will tell academics to move into new research areas? It does seem that we are no longer a university, but a corporation.
This document, remember, is signed by someone who knows nothing about science and who has never done research or teaching And does it show. This sort of procedure would kill original and innovative work, but how would he know? An enquiry about what these words actually mean in practice elicited an emollient and content-free response.
Later, conversation with some colleagues over lunch revealed that not one of them had even bothered to read the email. They just assume that anything that comes from HR will be some sort of officious harassment, and prefer to spend their time on something more productive. Who can blame them?
26 November 2007. Recently we got told about one of those “skills courses” that elicit such derision from most of the people who are compelled to attend them. This one was called “Communication and Learning Recent Theories and Methodologies” (why, oh why, can’t they just say “methods”). This one was advertised as teaching “Neuro-Linguistic programming” and “Thought Field Therapy”. These are both forms of quackery roughly on a par with homeopathy. Here are some links about them.
and, for NLP,
and both listed at
29 November 2007. Got some science done at last. A paper on the Schild method appears.
29 November 2007. Later: bad news. Our excellent mechanical workshop man is leaving. But that’s what happens when you don’t allow good people to get on with their job in peace. The only way to get good science is to create the sort of atmosphere in which good scientists want to work. That does not include having to report the several different “line-managers”. Since there are rather few top rate scientists to go around, they will naturally end up in the places that treat them best. In contrast, there is no shortage of managers.
1 December 2007 Now it is official. Pharmacology is downgraded to an afterthought. We are to be part of a monstrous agglomeration to be know as the “Research Department of Neuroscience Physiology and Pharmacology”. The Pharmacology department ‘brand name’ as been destroyed, and one would have thought that any decent marketing person could have said that you can’t make a brand name out of such a long and unmemorable title as we are now saddled with. And, after six months of blood on the floor, we still haven’t been told exactly how big we’ll be, or who will head it (could they be having trouble finding people willing to go along with the management plans?).
6 December 2007. One bit of good news. The government will fund the new UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation (UKMRI), and UCL is involved. It will be near the British Library and St Pancras station, and will replace the National Institute for Medical Research. If it manages to keep up a fair share of basic research, and if it can stay free of the managerialism that is now strangling universties, it should have a great future. At best it could become like a Max Planck Institute (MPI). In Germany the MPIs have a superb record in basic research, though they have denuded German universities of many of their best scientists.
There could be a warning there for UCL. It remains to be seen how many of the top researchers will want to escape.
7 January 2008. We learn, at last, that we are to become the Research Department of Neuroscience, Physiology and Pharmacology. Pharmacology has been reduced to an afterthought. This new department will be far too large (around 60 PIs at the moment, covering a vast are of interests). This was pointed out by the last external reviewer, but his advice was ignored. Very odd, really, because at the same time there is to be a Research department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment, This shows some sign of appreciation that the abolition of the genetics department did untold harm.
11 January 2008. An email from HR. Unlike many of my colleages who routinely bin them without opening them, I read it. This one is urging us to go on courses to become corporate-man. I fear that HR people have not the slightest idea what makes a university great. I think it is something to do with originality, the antithesis of the corporate ethic.
16 January 2008 While at the Gordon conference in Ventura California I got an email from UCL’s “Neuroscience data analyst”. This appears to be yet another administrative job, but a letter asking what on earth the job of this person might be has so far gone unanswered. Thus far I’ve resisted the temptation to send them a single channel record for analysis.
25 January 2008. And yet another administrator for UCL to pay for. When I opened my email in my Toronto hotel room, this is what I saw.
“I would like to take this opportunity to introduce myself to you. I have recently been appointed to the post of Neuroscience Strategic Co-ordinator in the School of Life and Medical Sciences”
The email notified us that there is such a thing as the European Research Council. So far, it seems to be a case of teaching your grandmother to suck eggs. It seems that Life Sciences has not one, but two ‘research facilitators’. Let’s hope that they find something more useful to occupy their time eventually.
18 February 2008. In the mail today I found The HR Division Staff Development and Training booklet. “Training” is what now passes for education (Education. “Elitist activity. Cost ineffective. Unpopular with Grey Suits. Now largely replaced by Training.”).
The booklet lists a vast number of courses, most of them given by people who have never had to do the job that they purport to be teaching you to do,
How about “Innovations for Researchers”,? This one is given by Dr Steve Hutchinson, an ex-scientist who “was a science laboratory demonstrator and lecturer for four years”. Presumably he left research straight after his PhD (Behavioural Ecology, Liverpool University). Quite how that qualifies him to teach about research innovation is not obvious to the casual observer. Indeed the sceptic might say that his subsequent qualifications in “neurolinguistic programming”, and in “Life Coaching” were disqualifications for this role.
Some of the courses appear to contain outright quackery.
|For example, “Communication and Learning: recent theories and Methodologies” includes “the core principles of “neurolinguistic programming” (NLP) and “Brain gym”. (see it here). This course is run by Aidan Matthews.|
“Pop-psychology The human potential movement and the fringe areas of psychotherapy also harbor a number of other scientifically questionable panaceas. Among these are Scientology, Neurolinguistic Programming, Re-birthing and Primal Scream Therapy which have never provided a scientifically acceptable rationale or evidence to support their therapeutic claims.”
And as for Brain Gym, read Ben Goldacre’s demolition “Banging your head repeatedly against the brick wall of teachers’ stupidity helps increase blood flow to your frontal lobes” (also published in the Guardian, under the title “Nonsense dressed up as neuroscience”).
“Brain Gym is a set of perfectly good fun exercise break ideas for kids, which costs a packet and comes attached to a bizarre and entirely bogus pseudoscientific explanatory framework”
“This ridiculousness comes at very great cost, paid for by you, the taxpayer, in thousands of state schools. It is peddled directly to your children by their credulous and apparently moronic teachers”
In fairness, it must be said that I have not (yet) been to either of these courses, so I have no idea what they have to say about the “core principles of” NLP or Brain Gym. Of course it is always possible that they express deep scepticism about them.
The contemplation of this, combined with a visit to the opera, got me versifying, but a more serious post may follow.
26 February 2008. One good thing about the reorganisation is that we have, at long last, got back a department of genetics. UCL has a long and distinguished history in genetics, but the name was lost when the department was merged with Biology. Thar mistake has been rectified at last and we now have a department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment. It will be headed Steve Jones, and, unlike the others it is not too big.
How odd that that the same mistake that was made with Genetics is now being repeated with Pharmacology. Don’t the managerial classes ever learn from history?
27 February 2008 Excellent lecture from Alan Sokal (of Intellectual Imposters fame). He drew together the consequences if irrational thinking over the whole spectrum from homeopathy to WMD and religion. Bought a copy of his new book, Beyond the Hoax. I heard afterwards that he had caused great offence to a senior administrator by daring to mention politics. I could not find out why this was thought offensive beyond repetition of the view that it as “inappropriate”. That’s the corporate mentality for you.
Personally, I found it much more offensive that the meeting was chaired by Matt Ridley, the recently disgraced chairman pf Northern Rock (who happens also to be better as a popular science writer than he is at running a bank). I’m surprised he dares to show his face in public, Here’s why.
28 February 2008 More good news. Work is to starting on a new cafe area in the South Junction. I have always thought that communal areas were people meet informally were far more important for the progress of science than the departmental boundaries that obsess administrators, In the last few years UCL has seen a great loss in such places when it should have been going the other way. This is a welcome reversal in that policy. The only problem is that there are now three such areas. One would be better. The importance of communal areas was stressed in a recent piece in Nature, and it was stressed by Max Perutz that it was one of the reasons for the success of the LMB. Why don’t managers listen to those who made it work?
Also today, a brief piece in Times Higher Education that discussed the changes in Life Sciences and expressed some of the disquiet about oversized departments and the divorce of research from teaching.
29 February 2008 Here’s another good bit of good news. UCL’s HR department had, until very recently, a page of links to all sorts of alternative medicine sites: every form of battiness under the sun was featured (well quite a lot anyway). But now they have vanished, So, well done, HR. I wonder what brought about this change of heart? By the way, the page as it was on 19 February is still in the Google cache if you are interested in history.
In the evening, I went to the studio of Resonance FM, a radio station that is funded by the Arts Council. Did a live 30 minute programme called Little Atoms, run by Neil Denny and Richard Sanderson. In their words “If the show has a dominant and recurring theme, then it coalesces around the ideas of the Enlightenment, by which we mean freedom of expression, free inquiry, empirical rationalism, scepticism, the scientific method, secular humanism and liberal democracy.”
If you have nothing better to do, you can download the interview [mp3 file, 20 Mb].
5 March 2008. Next Monday there will be a meeting of Academic Board to ‘discuss’ new proposals for professorial pay. Since I’m now a research assistant, I have no vested interest in the outcome. The system so far has been wrapped in mystery, Every year you got a letter to tell you what your pay would be for next year. The proposed system is available here. There are some good things about it. Unlike many of my colleagues, I have always felt that it should be possible for pay to go down in late life for people who cease to be productive. As long, of course, as people who remain productive after 65 can continue to make contributions (UCL has implemented the latter in a manner so stingy that there must be doubts about its legality).
The most striking thing about the proposals is that they are such that it’s doubtful whether most of the really eminent people on which UCL’s reputation is based, could rise beyond the lowest pay band. The proposals are a positive incentive to give up doing research yourself and turn in to a “corporate man”. Once again, adminstrators have failed to realise how one gets good science, and failed to realise the basis of UCL’s reputation.
It was very obvious on my recent tour of the USA and Canada that UCL has got a good reputation. It was equally obvious that its reputation depends on a small number of people who have achieved great distinction in a particular field. The people who are responsible for our reputation are, of course, quite different for someone in English Literature from someone in Pharmacology. They are even quite different for people on cognitive neuroscience from someone in. say, ion channels.
The reputation of a university is simply the sum of the reputations of many individuals in different fields. The institution itself has little or no reputation, and that can’t be altered by any number of visionary mission statements.
The other thing that the proposals fail to take into account is that the people with the best reputations tend to be those who are directly involved in research themselves rather than those who lead (buzzword of the moment) large groups of inadequately supervised people. Of course the latter may have bigger grants, but the view that that is all that matters is one way of ensuring you don’t get the best science.
As the proposals stand at present, it would be difficult if not impossible for anyone who was doing (rather than ‘leading’) research to get beyond the lowest band. That is a recipe for destruction of UCL’s reputation, not for improving it.
There is also the potential for abuse in the implication that you must be a good corporate man to get promoted. It could be very easily abused as a way to suppress any sort of dissent. An example comes to mind. When Imperial College tried to take over UCL in 2002, the idea was backed by the then provost, Derek Roberts, and his senior management team, Since I was running the web site that opposed this utterly barmy idea, I was, for a while, considered by senior management to be a dangerous dissenter and I was told so in no uncertain terms. I was not being a good corporate man. So not much chance of promotion for me. My view was, naturally, the opposite. I thought that I was acting in the interests of UCL (a place to which I am very attached) and the senior management team were set on destroying it. Of course, after the battle for UCL was won, and Roberts left, the story was quite different, and I was made an honorary Fellow of UCL.
The moral of that seems to be that dissent is too much in the eye of the beholder to be used as a criterion for promotion.
6 March 2008. Times Higher Education has an article by our provost, Malcolm Grant, “The cost of excellence”. Mostly it is sensible stuff about the under-funding of the teaching of the vastly-increased number of students we now accept.
One statement is, though, pretty dubious.
“The research assessment exercise has driven remarkable improvements in research quality since 1986. Our institutions are infinitely more alive to research than they were 30 years ago”
I’m aware that this is the standard line for UUK, but where’s the reference? Most people who are actually doing research, as opposed to talking about it, seem to think that the number of papers and number of citations may have gone up but quality has fallen accordingly. In other words we see Goodhart’s law in operation. I’m not aware of any careful study of this question, but I am sure that subsituting quantity for quality is a short-sighted.
Simon Caulkin had a good article in the Guardian about the harm done by the audit culture, from the business point of view. In any case it is quite mistaken to suggest that academics were not research orientated 30 years ago. I was there, and we were as conscious as we are now that promotion depends largely on the quality of your research. We just had a bit more faith than they have now that the quality would be assessed well.
10 March 2008 Good day out to speak at the Warwick Mathematical Institute. They have got open areas everywhere with tables and blackboards (not whiteboards, so they work). The communication within the department looked excellent. But, despite much emphasis on collaboration with biologists, communications with the rest of the campus a lot less good.
12 March 2008 An email from one of the many new administrators, the ‘Neuroscience Strategic Co-ordinator’. He wants me to spend a day filling in my biographical details, publications etc for yet another “neuroscience” web site. I protest in vain that I am not a neuroscientist. I’ve spent much of my life on the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor that is find in muscle, not nerve, I’m a pharmacologist/biophysicist. Moreover I have only just acquired a second home page, as well as my original one, and I already have a two publications pages, here and here. But this one is to have a “”professional look”, which I take to mean corporate and boring. So another half day taken from the paper I’m trying to write by an administrator.
18 March 2008. A fun evening out at a “Skeptics in the Pub” evening. A double act with me and Andy Lewis of quackometer fame. A big crowd in a large bar area, eating and drinking in arm chairs gave a tremendous atmosphere. Bumped into Simon Singh who will be talking there on April 1st.
19 March 2008. The new chair of UCL’s Counclil is announced. Lord Woolf is to be replace by Sir Stephen Wall. He left his job as Tony Blair’s chief adviser on Europe for a post with Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, archbishop of Westminster.
The Telegraph commented thus.
“In Downing Street, where he had been head of the European Secretariat at the Cabinet Office for four years, colleagues were aware that he was a church-going Catholic. But none thought he would suddenly turn professional.”
Seems. on the face of it, he seems an odd choice for the Godless Institution of Gower Street.
20 March 2008. UCL features on page 1 of Private Eye. I reproduce it without comment.
|University College London has come over all coy about the benefits of the private finance initiative recently. And no wonder.
“. . . “UCL has been researching and teaching on issues of PFI, PFP and the management of major projects for many years now”
boasted Andrew Edkins, director of the new courses. Indeed it has.
As Eye readers well know, the author of the damning report Pump-Priming the PFI, which exposed the inflated costs of PFI projects back in 199, was none other than Professor Allyson Pollock, until 2005 chair of public health policy at UCL.
Prof Pollock has devoted endless column inches and minutes of airtime demonstrating what poor value the privatisation schemes offer.
Nevertheless the bigwigs at UCL have just signed a deal with 4ps, the Government’s PFI advisory group for local authorities to provide . . . training for PFI project directors!
Not only that, but another penetrating insight into the life of the University of Poppleton by Laurie Taylor, in Times Higher Education.
Louise Bimpson, the relatively popular head of our ever-expanding Human Resources Department, asks us to remind all academics that tomorrow (Friday) is the absolute final closing date for the completion and submission of the forty-two page Stress Questionnaire that was mailed to all members of staff yesterday morning. Those members of staff who fail to submit their fully completed questionnaire on time will not be eligible for next term’s Reducing Stress seminars and may be subject to internal disciplinary action.
22 March 2008. Times Higher Education has an editorial about Adavanced Studies Institutes, perhaps inspired by the rather vacuous rhetoric of the government’s Innovation Nation white paper (the way to get innovation seems to be to set up some new quangos).The editorial ends thus.
“It would be ironic, although historically rather symmetrical, if the genesis of future great ideas owed more to the consequences of lunch than to metrics.”
That’s quite similar to the view I expressed in 2005
” . . . drinking coffee with people cleverer than oneself is not a waste of time, but one of the best ways of expanding horizons. The ‘sandwich at the desk syndrome’ is not just unsociable: it may seriously harm your career.”
But is not advice that most universities have followed (including, sadly, UCL).
23 March 2008. Listened to part 1 of Ben Goldacre’s Radio 4 programme on “The Rise of the Lifestyle Nutritionists”. He did a really excellent job about the history of the snake oil salesmen. Best of all, though, was the discussion about the lack of intervention studies. This latter point is at the root of the whole problem. We get constantly conficting advice from naive observational studies. Sometimes I think they do more to confuse than enlighten Hear the programme on BBC iPlayer, or you can download as mp3 [6 Mb]. Also discussed on Holfordwatch..
27 March 2008. Another two letters from on high, about yet another new committee. This time it is the “Health Sciences Research Deanery”. One thing is clear. It is a reaction to the MRC’s Translational Research initiative. The tendency of research council’s to earmark money for their idea of what will be important can’t be ignored, Neither can the almost universal incorrectness of predictions of committees about what will be important.
A senior colleague sent them to me with the subject heading “Meaningless stuff for your website”. So here they are.
The worrying thing about these letters is that it is all but impossible to understand what they intend the “research deanery” should do (other than to prevent anyone who sits on it actually doing research). They appear to be written in English but they have that superb vacuousness that only a course in management-speak can achieve. The first two functions are these.
“Establishment of a structure responsible for integrated planning of research strategy across the spectrum of health sciences activity including UCL FBS, UCL FLS, the Specialist and Comprehensive BRC’s and NHS R+D”.
“Establishment of a structure for coordinated implementation of research strategy.”
What does this actually mean? What will they actually do?
We’ve heard endless talk about the “research strategy” but I have yet to hear a single example of what the words mean.in real life. The obvious interpretation is they are talking about the sort of thing that happens
in a drug company where you are told what project to work on for the good of the company, and if it suits their purpose you can be switched into another project at a moment’s notice. Of course if you suggest this, you are told very firmly that this is not what they mean. But you are never told what they do mean.
We’ll just have to wait and see (again).
Postscript. A colleague went to one of the meetings that were meant to explain the meaning behind the vacuous prose. “What was your reaction?”, I asked. “I’m looking for another job” was his reply. “We were told that we should be screening new drug candidates that might make money.” The real problem, though, is the MRC’s insistence on applied research, as pointed out very clearly in a trenchant editorial in Nature this week, and a rather similar editorial in Science. Not much chance of any manager reading them though.
31 March 2008. Part 2 of Ben Goldacre’s Radio 4 programme on “The Rise of the Lifestyle Nutritionists”. Another excellent analysis, contrasting the weakness of the evidence for the effects of diet with the certainties preached by supplement hucksters ; Many excellent contributors (plus a short bit from DC). Hear the programme on BBC iPlayer or you can download as mp3 file [ 6.8 Mb]
8 April 2008. It seems that all departmental administrators have been effectively been fired. If you don’t apply for a new job by May 2nd you will be deemed to have resigned. Some exceptionally efficient and versatile people have been told that they can apply only for jobs that have a much reduced job description. This sounds rather like that other spectacular bit of change management, the opening of Heathrow’s terminal 5, as recounted at Flip chart fairy tales. Business bullshit, Corporate Crap and other stuff from the world of work. As an employer cannot legally substantially reduce an employee’s duties/title or salary it sounds as though there could be some very expensive cases of constructive dismissal. An administrator from a distant department tells me “we have been presented with no job descriptions at all. This is part of the ahem ‘consultation process’ which has the same deadline as that for applying for these functional team leader roles for which no job descriptions have been provided…”
There something surreal about this. On one hand we are told that people must be flexible and be able to do more than one job. We were lucky to have two people who have been doing exactly that for years. Now they are being told that that they can’t do that, and must reapply for a much more specialist job (on lower pay). You couldn’t make it up.
The fact is, managers have been so carried away by their vacuous prose that they haven’t actually thought out the detail.
9 April 2008. After a flurry of urgent emails, I decided to go to one of the ten (two-days-non-stop) workshops designed to meet the deadline for the MRC translational research initiative. It all sounds very much like the way Elias Zerhouni was talking five years ago, as head of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH has backed off a bit since, but not here). The meeting about “Devices, Biomodelling and Biophysics” sounded closest to my interests. The discussion covered almost everything but biophysics. We were asked to specify “deliverables” which seemed to mean things that would be ready to market in two or three years. If we knew where we’d be in three years, it wouldn’t be research, would it? There was some talk of UCL being involved in drug development (never mind that GSK with vastly greater expenditure, can’t make it work). I wish them luck, but for me that was clearly yet another hour removed from doing science. A colleague from another faculty summed it up later by saying “We must enhance the UCL brand name by introducing contextually meaningful deliverables”. I don’t think he was being entirely serious.
9 April 2008. Saddened to hear that a colleague in Life Sciences whom I admire greatly is leaving for a prestigous job in an old university. And even sadder to hear ” I’m leaving because we’ve become UCL plc.” And sadder still that this comes as no surprise
10 April 2008 It seems that quite a lot of people enjoyed the piece about HR that came out today in TImes Higher Education. Including even an HR person frm Cambridge University.
16 April 2008. Had a good day in Cardiff to give a seminar at the Welsh School of Pharmacy. Gave a talk there with the title “Ethics in retail pharmacy: can you trust Boots?”. A pleasant walk from the railway station, through the handsome centre of Cardiff , took me past a statue of a hero. Aneurin Bevan, a member of Clement Attlee’s postwar labour government, was founder of the National Health Service.
Also had the customary discussion with fellow scientists about the how hard life is made by constant reorganisations and HR. They produced a much photocopied version of a cartoon that you can find in many places on the web. It seems relevant to out present situation at UCL so here is one version of it.
20 April 2008. Heard some harsh words about the central ordering system in the faculty. Up to now, the pharmacology department has had an efficient and friendly person who did ordering. If something was urgent, you could have a quick word with him, the order would be faxed ten minutes later and, with luck, you’d have it the next day. It seems that the central ordering system is far more bureaucratic and slow -you are lucky if you get the stuff in two weeks. Well, there’s a surprise. It will be interesting to see if it employs fewer people (I’ll bet a small amount that it ends up being more expensive).
22 April 2008. More sadness. A colleague from a distant department said “I used to have enormous loyalty to UCL, but the events of the last year have all but destroyed it. Now it’s about the last place that I’d leave money to.” It strikes me as a major failure of management when you hear people talking like that.
23 April 2008. That’s better. Got a paper submitted to a journal. Science is a lot of fun, when you get time to do any.
24 April 2008.. I heard today that one of our best administrators has applied for a job elsewhere. After the way he’s been treated, I can’t say I’m surprised.
At this late stage it seems that is hasn’t even been decided where the post goes. The latest rumour suggests a room on the top floor in what used to be the Physiology Department. Smart thinking.
Today I took a look at the web discussion groups that are there for discussion about reorganisation. There is virtually nothing on them. The reason for that, I fear, is not approval, but simply demoralisation. After s series of consultations that have turned out to be total shams, nobody believes it is worth spending time on them. It is simply so hard to get on with any real work at the moment that a lot of people just trash emails from management without even opening them. How else would you get time to do science?
25 April 2008.. An email today says “In this model the Translational Medical Engineering Centre is constructed around three main conceptual areas – champions, management and pipeline – that are designed to best cover the deliverables . . .”. Just one problem, all vacuous HR-speak and no science at all. No comment.
30 April 2008 Not a great day.
Wrote a reference for our wonderful lab manger/IT person who is trying to get out. The signed a document in support of another wonderful local administrator who does several jobs simultaneously. His removal will harm research but I expect the views of those who depend on his services will be ignored. Watch this space.
It got worse though, Just before going home, and email arrived from the Dean’s PA. It was addressed to all staff in Life Sciences (most of whom do not, of course, run a business as well as doing research teaching and administration (it must be obvious to the weakest intellect that nobody can do four jobs simultaneously).
|For the attention of all Academics:
Do you need more support for your research projects?
UCL Business PLC can now provide a full project management service:
This seems like yet another example of what you get from bureaucrats who seem to be quite incapable of grasping that good research is done by good people themselves. For them, an obvious translation is as follows.
Sick of meeting your staff?
Bored with analysis (or forgetten how to do it)?
Want someone else to shoulder the blame for bad experiments?
Reluctant to read?
Stuck with manuscripts?
Can’t be bothered to make orders?
Results of experiments not coming out to your financial advantage?
WE CAN DO IT FOR YOU
Looks like another good example of why our departing professor said “we’ve become UCL plc.”
1 May 2008 Next morning I had an email from a postdoc, about yesterday’s email.
“This is outrageous!
Does it mean that the departments are full of incompetent PI’s who can not cope with project managing?
Or we are already in a UCL Inc. without hiding it anymore? What is next? Providing patch clamping service or data analysis service?
. . .
PS. do you mind if I start providing patch clamping services to those incapable of doing themselves? For a fee of course. You could save on my salary…”
Our present management certainly knows how to alienate their best people.
11 May 2008. In hotel room in New Haven Connecticut, working on two seminars at Yale tomorrow. An email arrives from a UCL colleague, with the heading “Does it sound familiar?”. It quoted a passage from yesterday’s Guardian.
“Trevor worked as a research scientist and team leader in a laboratory in Surrey (“but not Purbright, ha ha!”) reporting to the Ministry of Agriculture, latterly Defra. There he met Val in 1972 and they married three years later. After the third of their children started secondary school, Val retrained and got a job in a local government housing office. But in the 1990s, the new wave of management consultant involvement in the public sector was to frustrate and demotivate them both. Val found herself increasingly “bogged down in paperwork” and endless accountancy-led meetings about how they should do their work: “‘business process re-engineering’ – a fancy name for yet another reorganisation. We spent whole afternoons being ‘retrained’; I remember us passing around a ball of string and tying ourselves in knots to show how we were all interlinked. Waste of time.”
For Trevor it was even worse. After decades of intense absorption in his work, he now found himself alienated. “I was sent on a ‘smart management’ course: pointless gobbledygook and American ideas imported 10 years past their sell-by date. It was getting me down and I was having problems getting into work. I felt I was no longer pulling my weight. I felt very guilty and more than washed-up.”
16 May 2008. Back home from trip (7 lectures in 7 days, at McGill, Yale, Columbia and SUNY Stony Brook), and wrote up the Yale experience at Integrative baloney @ Yale.
Got straight off the overnight flight and went to the DEMOS event in Portcullis House (Houses of Parliament offices), Is public science a public good?. Had some interesting chats with Philip Moriarty (read his paper), Ian Gibson MP (“Gordon Brown wants to micromanage science”), and Terence Kealey (VC of the UK’s only private university).
Pleased to see that UCL was rated #1 for Pharmacology in one of those silly league tables. What a shame that the current changes mean that in the future the reputation of UCL’s pharmacology could wither, because it now has no focus, and there will be no incentive to employ pharmacologists. The neglect of teaching implicit in the new mega-department is, in my view, irresponsible. Why have we learned nothing from Edinburgh?. I presume it is because the managerial mind-set has no interest in evidence.
And yet another on 16 May. The ZDnet newsletter carried a review of a book”The myths of Innovation” by Scott Berkun. This review should be read by all “managers”. Here are some quotations.
“One myth that will disappoint most businesses is the idea that innovation can be managed. Actually, Berkun calls this one ‘Your boss knows more about innovation than you’. After all, he says, many people get their best ideas while they’re wandering in their bathrobes, filled coffee mug in hand, from the kitchen to their home PC on a day off rather than sitting in a cubicle in a suit during working hours. But professional managers can’t help it: their job is to control every variable as much as possible, and that includes innovation.”
“Creation is sloppy; discovery is messy; exploration is dangerous. What’s a manager to do?
The answer in general is to encourage curiosity and accept failure. Lots of failure.”
What a pity that university managers are so far behind those of modern businesses. They seem to be totally incapable of understanding these simple truths. That is what happens when power is removed from people who know about research and put into the hands of lawyers, HR people, MBAs and failed researchers.
This morning I had an email from a distinguished colleague (a good deal younger than me), who said
“I am now convinced, as are you, that scientific credentials (whether formally endowed or just publishing some good papers) is a passport to prevent one from being involved in real decision making, which is reserved to those that have none.”
That sort of resignation cannot be good for the function of the university.
20 May 2008 Another “training course” notification from HR. Suppresses groan. Well, it can’t be as bad as Brain Gym. These courses are run by Catalyst Business Dynamics. Perhaps I should try “Creative Problem Solving“, for example?
“Every problem contains the seeds of its own solution”. This course is beneficial to anyone who needs to develop a more collaborative approach to trouble shooting and problem solving.”
One of my problems at the moment is to understand the algebra that allows one to decide whether two mechanisms are indistinguishable in principle. Being told that it contains the seeds of its own solution does not seem likely to help.
Looks like yet more psychobabble aimed at managers with nothing better to do, The sort of thing that oscillates between being a truism and being untrue,
22 May 2008 A bumper issue of Times Higher Education. Try this.
“Universities are promoting the concept of “distributed leadership” as a cloak to hide an increasing lack of consultation with staff, research suggests.”
“The University of Southampton has renamed its managers “process owners”.”
“A Southampton academic said: “This appears to be an attempt by the senior deputy vice-chancellor to make everybody else’s job title as silly as his. It highlights the barking mad managerialism that is rife in this university.” “
We know the feeling.
Or this “Support staff grow at faster rate than academics“. Managerialism marches on.
23 May 2008. The consultation about our support staff is over. As it was put to me recently, the managerial process has three stages.
(2) don’t worry, detail not decided
(3) too late, all sorted
And today I came across an interesting quotation
“Cambridge’s strengths of diversity, democracy and decentralisation may, in their present form, prove to be its fatal weakness.”
Well Cambridge still seems to be doing very well, despite (or perhaps because of) its democracy and decentralisation. The author? Malcom Grant, at that time pro vice-chancellor of Cambridge university.
The deputy faculty manager advertisement surfaced today too. Yet another two administrative jobs. It’s up to about £52k, as much as a Reader who has spent perhaps 20 years or more working 60 hour weeks on research and teaching. If you can tick the two pages of boxes, go for it. It’s much easier than doing science, and pays far more per hour. Never have I seen so many demoralised scientists -no wonder a colleague (above) say that having “scientific credentials . . . is a passport to prevent one from being involved in real decision making, which is reserved to those that have none”.
It is not change that I object to. Some changes were needed. The problem is that the changes being imposed on us greatly disempower scientists. Control has shifted to layer after layer of apparatchik administrators (sorry, managers) who are paid more than most of the people who do the work (teaching and research) and who think that Brain Gym is good “skills training”. That will damage science and it will damage UCL.
27 May 2008. A few more things that got forgotten. The Pharmacology sports day is coming up. What will happen to that now, and what will happen its organiser, the Gaddum Society (the undergraduate pharmacologists’ society)? And what about the Pharmacology Christmas party? The new “NPP” is far too large for any of these events (several 100 people). Cohesion and loyalty have been destroyed needlessly by mindless managerialism. (See comment below on this topic.)
In the evening, went to an event at the British Library, where Tim Birkhead gave a brilliant talk about citatation problems. There is a follow-up on Nature Networks
28 May 2008. Sent in some comments to the Nature Networks discussion. It is an important topic.
29 May 2008. An article about mandatory retirement, by Peter Lawrence, appeared in Nature. I liked it (no surprise there). I hope that HR folks read it, but doubt that.
2 June 2008 Went to Phillipe Sands lecture. He’s the UCL International lawyer who has done so much to unearth the illegal behaviour of the Bush regime. A wonderful man. I bought his book, The Torture Team.
4 June 2008 Another “training course” advertised by HR, from Catalyst Business Dynamics again. This time it’s “Coaching for the Research Marathon”, given, no doubt, with someone no experience of research (apart perhaps, from failing at it). Sounds pretty typical of the mind-numbing vauousness that seems to characterise all HR incursions into matters of intellect.
6 June 2008 Off to Scotland for a week, Train to Aberdeen, then overnight ferry to Lerwick in Shetland Isles. Lerwick is almost as close to Bergen as it is to Aberdeen. Later to Haroldswick,on the northernmost island in the Shetlands, Unst. Halfway to London from Haroldswick is close to St Andrews, and Edinburgh is about halfway between Lerwick and London, In fact Haroldswick is almost as close to Reykjavik as it is to London (distance calculator here). There are some pictures here.
15th June 2008. Back home. Today’s Point of View programme on Radio 4 was by the Financial Times journalist, Lucy Kellaway. It was a beautiful demolition job on the sort of vacuous management-speak that has engulfed universities [download as mp3, 2.7 Mb]. She referred to the Local Government Association’s list of 100 banned words. Something for every HR department and academics suffering from Knight Starvation.
16th June 2008. More 4 TV News phoned to ask if I’d do an interview about proposals to regulate herbalists and acupuncture. According to first reports, the proposals are as daft as you’d expect from a committee riddled with vested interests. But then they pulled the item because they couldn’t find a herbalist who was willing to appear with me. I must be doing something right. Well, I will keep using unacceptable words like ‘evidence’ and ‘efficacy’.
See some good comments on this item. below.
This diary is continued here.