Well, guess what turned up in a brown envelope this morning. A copy of the Society of Homeopaths’ Newsletter
It makes interesting reading, not least when the homeopaths’ discussion group are abuzz with talk of the demise of homeopathy
“The Society is urging its members to be cautious when responding to phone calls and e-mails following reports of enquirers appearing to be trying to catch out homeopaths”
“It seems to be part of an organised campaign to discredit homeopathy, with enquiries focusing on AIDS, malaria and vaccination. Members’ responses are then being used on anti-homeopathy blogs and web sites”
Dead right there. And the reason that the answers are being used on anti-homeopathy web sites because they are very often utterly irresponsible. Now we see they are being told to tone down their claims in public, so if you want to know what a homeopath really recommends, the only way to discover is to ask them in private.
” . . . the Society is asking all members to check that their [web] sites adhere to the code of ethics and practice, and clearly differentiate between ‘evidence’ and ‘speculative theory’ “
Well of course that distinction is very rarely made – that alone shows that the SoH’s “regulation” is utterly ineffective.
“Chief executive Paula Ross said: “it is a sad state of affairs when members have to be suspicious of every call or e-mail, and it’s important not to let it cloud genuine interaction with people who are interested in having homeopathic treatment”
All this can have only one meaning: if a homeopath suspects that the enquirer is a sceptic, tell them one story, but if they are a paying customer tell them a different story.
Why on earth should the SoH make such a fuss about enquiries from anyone if they have nothing to hide?
Later, on page 21, the theme continues.
“Members urged to be wary when questioned” (by Trish Moroney, their Professional Conduct Officer)
“Case histories are useful and you can always preface your comments with ‘it is my opinion’, this makes it clear that what you are saying is opinion not fact.”
That comment is certainly well-worded. Indeed most of the advice you get from homeopaths is “not fact”.
“The Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) has clear guidelines for what may or may not be used in written advertisements, but this does not cover the web.
Words like ‘cure’ and ‘treat’ are not allowed to be used in advertising in any published form.”
Not allowed? You must be joking Ms Moroney.
You yourself are quoted thus: “Trish commented: “One of our products is a homeopathic birthing pack and I complement this with a treatment programme tailored specifically to the requirements of the individual.”. Or here ” She [Moroney] has also found that homeopathy is useful for treating a number of women’s problems including heavy or painful periods and the menopause. It can also help with a number of ailments in pregnancy including tiredness and nausea.”. Or how about this. “I was suffering from high blood pressure,” she [Moroney] said. “I went to a homeopath and after taking the right remedy my blood pressure dropped, even though my work situation had not changed. Homeopathy really can help.” If that is not a claim that homeopathy can treat high blood pressure, what is?
Moroney ends her article, by modestly comparing herself with Galileo
Yet again, one must quote Robert Park
“Alas, to wear the mantle of Galileo it is not enough that you be persecuted by an unkind establishment; you must also be right.”
But Moroney’s claims are very mild compared the those of people like Jeremy Sherr. Read all about him at gimpy’s blog. Sherr is (in)famous for his “provings” of hydrogen, plutonium and chocolate, and for his advocacy of homeopathic treatment of malaria and AIDS And look at the results of a complaint against the dangerous fantasies of homeopath Sue Young here.
The fact that Sherr is a Fellow of the Society of Homeopaths shows very clearly that the Society of Homeopaths’ attempts at regulating professional conduct are a no more than a pathetic sham.
A letter from the Chief Executive Paula Ross
The letter on page 5 starts “It’s been a tough few weeks for homeopathy” and it continues the grumbling about the number of complaints the SoH has been getting. More remarkably, Paula Ross boasts about the legal action that SoH took against the quackometer site (which she mistakenly confuses with the US site, Quackwatch). When one realises the major disaster for SoH that this legal action caused, it’s a bit surprising that the Chief Executive hasn’t been fired. The banned page, the Gentle Art of Homepathic Killing, popped up on at least 60 sites around the world, and a Google search for “the Society of Homeopaths” soon produced eight out of ten results on the first page of results that pointed to the banned page.
Is there a homeopathic remedy for shooting yourself in the foot?
Institute launch marks a new era of research
The Newsletter has this headline on page 4. “The aim of the Homeopathic Research Institute (HRI) is to promote and facilitate high-quality scientific research, and communicating about the science relating to homeopathy” . Don’t hold your breath, I suggest. Neither of the two projects they list addresses the main questions . Their publications page lists only two papers, both by Clare Relton. The first of them is Patients treated by homeopaths registered with the Society of Homeopaths: a pilot study C Relton, K Chatfield, H Partington and L Foulkes Homeopathy 2007 Apr 96 (2):87-9 This paper concludes
|This was an uncontrolled study and participants were self-selected; there were no checks on whether homeopaths returned all MYMOP forms for consecutive patients. Despite the apparent improvement overall in MYMOP2 primary symptom scores and MYMOP2 profile scores reported by patients, due to the uncontrolled design of this pilot study we cannot draw any firm conclusions regarding the improvement that patients gain from homeopathic treatment with SoH homeopaths.|
Are medical homeopaths any better?
The same brown envelope that contained the SoH newsletter also brought me a copy of Health and Homeopathy, the magazine for friends of the British Homeopathic Association. This magazine, unlike SoH’s Newletter is available to anyone. Try it yourself. Mostly it reads like a medical textbook that was written at the beginning of the 19th century. Which, of course, is exactly what it is. So 200 years and no progress.
The British Homeopathic Association is a quite different outfit from SoH because it is allied to the Faculty of Homeopathy, which is for the small number of medically-qualified homeopaths. Needless to say, it has far fewer members than the non-medical Society of Homeopaths.
The Winter 2006 edition already had references to the declining support for homeopathic fantasies (as I would put it) . They had a whole article by Sally Penrose, Homeopathic Hospitals under Threat. Tunbridge Wells Homeopathic Hospital has gone. The Royal London is under great threat, and the Bristol Homeopathic Hospital is endangered. The only outposts of delusion that seem safe (for the moment) are in Glasgow and Liverpool.
This magazine may emanate from medical homeopaths who balk at claiming to be able to cure malaria and AIDS, but is in other ways no less delusional. For example eczema, it seems, can be cured by eating tiny amounts of common salt, as described here.
|“He prescribed six powders of Nat mur in increasing potencies to be taken on consecutive days and my eczema got better within a matter of weeks,”|
You couldn’t make it up.
No longer are we just told what to do from the top. Important decisions are preceded by a long period of consultation. That is a wonderful contribution to democracy. Sometimes. But in truth, these consultations are only too often totally sham public relations exercises. Here are a couple of examples. The first is a government consultation, followed by consultations within universities.
Consultations on nuclear power stations
I am not using this example to propose a particular view on muclear power stations, but rather as an example of sham consultation.
The background is this.
The government was obliged to run the “fullest public consultation” ( pdf ) before changing its policy on nuclear power. In 2006 they tried to run one but it was descibed by a high court judge described it as “unfair”, “misleading”, “very seriously flawed” and ” procedurally unfair ” and he ordered them to do the whole thing again. In May 2007 the government announced a new nuclear consultation that would remedy all the
judge’s concerns. It has recently finished.
The government (again) paid a large amount of public money to an organisation called Opinion Leader Research (OLR) to run the consultation. One does not need to go further than their own web site to discover that, as its name suggests, this organisation exists not to discover public opinion but to influence it in whatever direction it is paid (in this case by the government) to do. Here are some of OLR’s own words.
|“Opinion Leader believe that research is an active part of the communications process enhancing the client’s reputation by positioning them as open, engaging, listening and responding.”
“We develop bespoke approaches to help our clients develop clear actionable insights.”
“Opinion Leader draws on the widest range of approaches to design research based solutions to address client challenges. Our work is tailor-made to suit the specific needs of our clients. We continually innovate and develop new approaches and thinking to help our clients achieve their ambitions.”
According to reports of what happened, that is exactly what OLR did. Here is what Channel 4 News said.
“In nine day-long meetings across Britain two weekends ago, nearly a thousand people were shown a series of videos, presentations and handouts – and their opinion on building new nuclear power stations canvassed.
The government got the result it wanted – 44 per cent said power companies should have option of building nuclear, 36 per cent said no. But day before, the environmental group, Greenpeace, along with other green groups, had pulled out, alleging the questions were loaded and the information biased, partial and factually inaccurate.
Greenpeace would say that, you could argue. But, independently, 20 senior academics too have come forward and will be writing to government with similar reservations.
They say the consultations were deliberately skewed by linking nuclear to fears about climate change – because the government knew past research had shown it’s the only way to get people to accept nuclear, albeit reluctantly.”
“In the videos – alternative viewpoints had doom-ridden music in the background. The government’s view was then given against calm, relaxing music. I feel I have been mugged.”
“Not at all a consultation, merely a sleek marketing ploy.”
“I went in with an open mind… myself and others felt we were being misled and manipulated.”
Channel 4 News also spoken to someone involved in the events. They want to remain anonymous but told us “…repeating the government view, on page after page, on videos and in handouts, acted to almost bludgeon it into their heads.”
You can see some of the slides that were used here. One of them reads thus.
“In the context of tackling climate change and ensuring energy security, do you agree or disagree that it would be in the public interest to give energy companies the option of investing in new nuclear power stations?”
One very apt comment on this was
“Guess what, a majority of people agreed, and when you count the “neither agree or disagree” (which will be tacitly taken to mean “go for it now, build build build!”) the figure goes well into an overall majority. You can’t beat a good loaded question to elicit the desired response.
It’s a bit like asking someone allergic to cats: Do you like fluffy kittens, or are you a Nazi?”
Opinion Leader Research. A family affair?
There’s some very interesting background about OLR here.
“According to this morning’s Independent the energy giant EDF has gone on a public relations offensive to promote it’s new reactors in conjunction with another supplier, Areva . They have launched a website with a generic design assessment called EPR Reactor , which is of course perfectly timed with the consultation upon which the Government appears to have already made up it’s mind.
What’s odd (given what you’d exepct the Indy line to be on things like nuclear) is that they don’t mention that Gordon Brown’s brother, Andrew, is the Head of Media Relations at EDF. Unbelievably good timing for a web site though, don’t you think? The Government makes an announcement of a nuclear consultation on Friday and in the space of two days the big boys have designed and completed
a new website to tell everyone all about the wonders of nuclear? They must have been whipping those Indian developers in Bangalore good this weekend.
It’s worth noting as well that they also don’t mention that Brown’s protege, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, Ed Balls, has a father-in-law, who just happens to be the former Chairman of the Nuclear Industry Association, and is now a non-executive director of the Government quango known as the Nuclear Decommissiong Authority .
If you’re thinking right now “father-in-law?” and “Cooper?” the answer is yes. He is the father of the Minister of State for Housing (attending Cabinet) at the Department for Communities and Local Government, Yvette Cooper. Purely as an aside, you have to love the doublespeak style in the name of the NDA don’t you? It makes it sound like its interests are somehow opposite to the interests of the nuclear industry. “
There is more on this at the Guido Fawkes blog
“Gordon’s pollster Deborah Mattinson sits on the board of Gordon’s think-tank, the Smith Institute. Her relationship with Gordon has been very profitable for her firm, OLR. According to today’s Sunday Telegraph , government contracts totalling some £3 milllion have
come her way. ”
“the taxpayer is paying OLR £153,484.38 for one-day seminars “
“On Saturday 8 events were run across the UK to consult 1,100 people on the future of nuclear power. This was the second time the government had run the consultation. The previous being judged to be “seriously flawed” and “manifestly inadequate and unfair” by the high court. The inadequacies stemmed partly from poor management and a lack of time for people to state their views, but also because leading politicians had publicly made up their mind to support nuclear which critically undermined the consultation.
The same problem rose its head again on Friday when Britain’s leading environmental groups formally withdrew from the second nuclear consultation, citing serious concerns with our new Prime Minister, Gordon Brown telling parliament that a decision to continue with nuclear power had been taken “and that is why the security of our energy supply is best safeguarded by building a new generation of nuclear power stations”. The prime minister qualified his remarks a week later after a warning letter from Greenpeace’s lawyers.
The green groups were also concerned that the “ [consultation] document was full of pro-nuclear opinion masquerading as fact …
This document is fundamentally flawed and cannot form the basis for a full public consultation.” “
Sham consultations in universities
In universities one might hope things would be done better. But sadly, it is not so. We too have become accustomed to sham consultations. In many places, for example Edinburgh, staff have been consulted, but what they say has had little effect. The same has happened at UCL. As a matter of historical record, it is worth giving a very abbreviated account of our own sham consultation.
For two years meetings were held. It was made pretty clear at the outset, what the plans were. Few people had the courage to oppose them in a public meeting. Those who did were largely ignored. Most people didn’t even come to the meetings anyway. Most people cynically, or perhaps just realistically, presumed it would be a waste of time and effort. As a result, the voices of our top scientists were rarely heard, and had little influence.
The next stage was external review. Surely that should provide an independent voice? Four possible plans were put to the external review committee. It was made clear to the external review committee that plan 1 (the least disastrous one) was what “we” preferred, though in fact none of the plans had been agreed or even properly discussed by most of the people who do the research and the teaching. Plan 1 involved removal of all existing departments, with consequent destruction of brand names that, over a long period, have reflected well on the reputation of UCL. The external review obligingly said that plan 1 was OK, though they made one (very important) criticism. They said that the size of the research groups was too big. That criticism was rejected by UCL’s senior management team (SMT). We therefore ended up with precisely what the SMT had put to the external reviewers in the first place. With a fine bit of spin. this is represented as following the advice of the external reviewers.
So far, the whole procedure has born an eerie resemblance to the Blairite idea of what constitutes consultation. But the changes had, according to UCL’s statutes, to be recommended to Council by the Academic Board (which consists of all professors and many non-professorial representatives). That safeguard proved ineffective. At the Academic Board meeting of May 24 2007, the consultation stopped, with jaw-dropping speed. In an item that was not even marked for discussion, Academic Board was persuaded to relinquish its statutory powers, and to leave all future decisions about organisation of the Faculty of Life Sciences to the SMT. After three years of talking, it suddenly became apparent that no opposition would be tolerated. No wonder so few people turned up at the Academic Board meeting on November 7th. What point would there be in going, when all power had already been removed from them?
A report on the meeting of the Academic Board on May 24 was sent to a member of UCL Council (at his request). In the interests of completing the historical record I have now made it available to download (with names removed).
The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education: part 2.
|Scientists are no longer perceived exclusively as guardians of objective truth, but also as smart promoters of their own interests in a media-driven marketplace.
Haerlin & Parr, Nature, 1999, 400, 499.
University of Sheffield and Proctor & Gamble
Dr Aubrey Blumsohn MBBCh, PhD, MSc, BSc(hons), FRCPath was, until 2006, a senior lecturer and honorary consultant in metabolic bone diseases at Sheffield University. He, and his boss, Richard Eastell, were doing a clinical study of a Procter & Gamble Pharmaceuticals (P&G) drug, Actonel (risedronate), The work was funded by Procter & Gamble.
Richard Eastell is Professor of Bone Metabolism, and was Research Dean.
Proctor & Gamble refused, from 2002 onwards, to release the randomisation codes for the trial to the authors whose names appear on the paper. After trying to see the data for years, and getting little support from his employer, Blumsohn subsequently got hold of it in 2005, and then discovered flaws in the analysis provided by P&G’s statistician. P&G wrote papers on which the names of university academics as authors. Blumsohn did the only thing that any honest scientist could do: he went public with his complaint.
The result? Blumsohn has had to leave Sheffield Richard Eastell remains.
Attempts to find out what has been done by the University of Sheffield meet with silence.
Compare and contrast these two extracts (the emphasis is mine).
The first one is from Eastell, Barton, Hannon, Chines, Garnero and Delmas, 2003. (Barton and Chines were employees of Proctor & Gamble, who paid for the study). Read the full paper here
We would like to acknowledge the help of Dr Simon Pack and Lisa Bosch of Procter & Gamble Pharmaceuticals, as well as the help of Oldham Hospital Clinical Chemistry
Department for measuring urinary CTX and creatinine. This study was supported by grants from Procter & Gamble Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (Cincinnati, OH) and Aventis Pharma, Bridgewater, NJ. Employees of Procter & Gamble Pharmaceuticals and Aventis Pharma participated in the design and execution of the study, the analysis of the data, and the preparation of the manuscript. All authors had full access to the data and analyses.
|In the original paper,(1) one of the authors, a statistician working for P&G (IB), had full access to all data. P&G (like most pharmaceutical companies we contacted over this issue)
used the PhRMA guidelines in relation to publication of clinical trial data, and these restrict the release of original data to investigators (http://www.phrma.org/).At the time of writing (2002/03), not all the original authors were given access to the raw data. In 2006, the American Association of Medical Colleges published recommendations regarding access to raw data. These proposed that the sponsor may conduct all the analyses but that the investigators should be able to conduct their own analysis if they deem it to be necessary, and we endorse these recommendations.
“The only thing that we have to watch all the time is our relationship with P&G. Because we are… we have the big Sheffield Centre Grant which is a good source of income, we have got to really watch it. So, the reason why I worry is the network within P&G is like lightning. So if Ian [Barton] is unhappy it goes to Arkadi [Chines, global medical director of P&G Pharmaceuticals] and before we know it, there is an issue, there is a problem.”
Just listen to the audio recording, and weep for academic integrity
More detailed accounts of this story
This is a particularly interesting case because so much information about it is now available. A particularly good edition of the BBC Radio 4 programme, You and Yours, gave a lot of the evidence. Martin Bland. Professor of Medical Statistics at York University, explains that there is actually no evidence for the plateau effect claimed by P&G and by Eastell, an effect which, if real, would allow P&G to claim that Actonel was as good as its Merk rival, Fosomax. Your can read Martin Bland’s report here.
The presenter, Vivienne Parry, concludes
“But, what it very much looks like here is that we have a company buying independent scientific expertise to give its research that veneer of credibility, only for it to withold the data generated from independent scrutiny when the results don’t suit its marketing objectives”.
Blumsohn commented thus.
“Following a protracted period of trying to contact a number of university officials to discuss this problem, I realised that raising of the problem within the university was going to prove impossible. I then engaged a lawyer and very shortly after the university suspended me from my position on the principal grounds of disobeying a supposedly reasonable mangemant instruction by communicating with the media.”
Here are some links..
- BBC Radio 4: You and Yours (2 February, 2006). ” [download realplayer file]
- Investigative Journalist, by Jennifer Washburn gave an excellent account of this whole sorry affair ” Rent-a-Researcher. Did a British university sell out to Procter & Gamble?”. It has links to many of the emails that were sent.
- Observer (4 December 2005) How the drugs giant and a lone academic went to war.
- The Alliance for Human Reserach Protection. An account from this New York-based organisation, “Scientific fraud and corruption” , and an earlier (Nov 2005) report.
- Aubrey Blumsohn’s own account, with original data and links to many sources, Proctor Research Shenanigans
- Freedom to care, “Drug Company’s Pretence“
- The Times Higher Education Supplement published a series of reports on the case. They are available only with a subscription, but click here for the latest,”Expert admits he did not have full access to data“
- A collection of media reports can be seen here.
Many of the emails make you shudder. For example, the following are extracts from an invitation to have a paper ghost-written by the Company that was sent to Eastell and Blumsohn by the company’s statistician (see the whole mail here). The emphasis is mine.
|To: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
CC: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
Date: Thu, 24 Apr 2003 14:36:41 +0100
Dear Richard and Aubrey
I wanted to introduce you to one of The Alliance’s external medical writers, Mary Royer.Mary is based in New York and is very familiar with both the risedronate data and our key
messages, in addition to being well clued up on competitor and general osteoporosis publications.. . .. . are you thinking of drafting the publications first and then let Mary take over or would you like Mary to write from the beginning? I’m very flexible. Mary and I have just finished writing a publication with Steven Boonen (Richard you will be contacted as you’re a co-author!) and Mary was involved at the very beginning and wrote from scratch.
If you could let both Mary and I [sic] know how you envisage us all working together that would be extremely helpful.
Why has the University of Sheffield done nothing about it?
It is one thing to find that some individuals are less than honest about reporting research. It is far more serious when the University does nothing about it. On the contrary, Sheffield effectively fired the wrong person, the person who was too honest to go along with the lies. Blumsohn eventually managed to get complete evidence, and indeed Eastell himslef, in the 2007 paper, admits that he’d lied about having complete access to the data. Yet nothing happened when Blumsohn wrote to Eastell, his Dean, his vice-chancellor or his personnel manager (the links show you the letters he sent). Because the university seemed intent on covering-up the wrongdoing, Blumsohn, very properly, did the only think that was left to him, and went to the media (e.g. THES).
This was then used by the university as an excuse to fire him.
Sheffield University has behaved abominably in this matter. And they refuse to say anything about it. After I wrote to the (new) vice-chancellor. Keith Burnett, this is what I got.
|I would like to reassure you that the University of Sheffield takes very seriously its responsibilities in the area of research integrity and always strives to act in a manner that upholds this, in accordance with its reputation.|
What can be done about corruption in universities?
Nature this week (1 Nov 2007) published an editorial, “Who is accountable“. Here are some quotations.
We suggest that journals should require that every manuscript has at least one author per collaborating research group who will go on record in a way that collectively vouches for the paper’s standards. Each would sign a statement with reference to Nature ‘s publication policies
“I have ensured that every author in my research group has seen and approved this manuscript. The data that are presented in the figures and tables were reviewed in raw form, the analysis and statistics applied are appropriate and the figures are accurate representations of the data. Any manipulations of images conform to Nature ‘s guidelines. All journal policies on materials and data sharing, ethical treatment of research subjects, conflicts of interest, biosecurity etc. have been adhered to. I have confidence that all of the conclusions presented are based on accurate
extrapolations from the data collected for this study and that my colleagues listed as co-authors have contributed and deserve the designation ‘author’.”
Misconduct investigators go out of their way to spare anyone apart from the direct perpetrators, but they have indicated concerns over the degree of oversight within collaborations. If the damage to reputations were more widespread in the event of fraud, researchers would be even more fastidious about the data emanating from their labs and the due diligence they would impose. The chances of major frauds, with their disproportionate impact on the reputation of science as a whole, would be diminished.”
Wakefield, MMR and the Royal Free Hospital
This has been written about endlessly. Wakefield’s bad science has resulted in deaths from measles, and the safety of MMR has been investigated very thoroughly.
Again, the odd bad scientist is inevitable. What I would like to have seen investigated more openly is the complicity of the medical school (all this happened, thank heavens, shortly before the Royal Free Hospital Medical School became part of UCL). According to the very thorough investigation by Brian Deer:
“This “finding”, and massive publicity that the Royal Free hospital and medical school encouraged for it [through a press release , video news release and a televised press conference] launched a worldwide scare over the vaccine’s safety, triggering falls in immunisation rates, outbreaks of potentially fatal or disabling diseases, and an epidemic of unwarranted self-recrimination among parents of autistic children. ”
“Although Wakefield had performed no research upon which to credibly base such a recommendation, this attack on MMR had been orchestrated through a 20-minute video news release , prepared weeks in advance and issued to journalists by the Royal Free hospital’s press office. In this video, which doctors knew was likely to cause public alarm, and damage to immunisation rates, Wakefield four times claimed that single shots were likely to be safer than MMR, which he said should be withdrawn by the government. ”
“Unknown to the public prior to the Dispatches investigation, nearly nine months before the press conference, Wakefield and the Royal Free medical school had filed the first in a string of patent applications for extraordinary products which could only have stood any chance of success if MMR’s reputation was damaged. These included, firstly, a single vaccine against measles – a potential competitor to MMR – and, secondly, purported remedies, perhaps even what they bizarrely called a ” complete cure “, for both inflammatory bowel disease and autism. “
May 2005. Eastell was suspended from his NHS post after allegations that he had wrongly charged the health service for lab tests carried out for his university work outside the NHS. He resigned before a verdict could be delivered and thus escaped judgement.
November 2009 Eastell faced a General Medical Council “fitness to practice” hearing. The GMC evidently does not consider that lying in a scientific paper is misconduct (no, really). The hearing said that Eastell’s actions had not been “deliberately misleading or dishonest”, although he may have been negligent in making “untrue” and “misleading” declarations; the council did not make a finding of misconduct.. There is no "may have been", It is in print, in black and white. The GMC were utterly pusillanimous in this case. Another example of a useless regulator.
18 February 2010. A young radiologist in Sheffield, Guirong Jiang, found results which suggested that the field of osteoporosis might be distorted by the over-diagnosis of vertebral fractures (a finding that might reduce the sales of osteoporosis drugs). She was told by Eastell not to publish it. She had to go through disciplinary proceedings. Like Blumsohn, she got no support from the university: quite on the contrary. The university said her actions breached the terms of a 2007 contract with Sanofi-Aventis, an agreement that she had neither seen nor signed.
When universities behave like this it becomes hard to believe anything published by the University of Sheffield.
“More efficient administration” seems always to generate a lot of highly paid jobs that are for people who do neither research or teaching. Everywhere you look. there are advertisements for Faculty Administrators and Division Heads
I was about to say that ‘only time will tell whether the benefits of all these administrators exceeds their considerable costs’. But it is unlikely that time will tell, because nobody will look. I wonder how one could assess whether an adminstrator is worth the cost of 2 or 3 postdocs doing research? I’d be willing to bet that nobody in authority has even given a moment’s thought to that question.
The next wheeze is Research Facilitators
Here is an advertisement, somewhat shortened (the emphasis is mine).
|School Research Facilitator (3 posts) £44,075 – £49,607 p.a., plus London Allowance £2,572
We have 3 vacancies for the new role of School Research Facilitator. They will each take responsibility for research within one of the following groupings of Faculties (to be known in the future as “Schools”):
-Biomedical and Life Sciences
-Arts and Humanities, Social and Historical Sciences, Laws
– Engineering, Architecture and Mathematical and Physical Sciences
The role of each Facilitator will be to provide an interface comprising two main facets – an inward-facing relationship with the academic communities that they service, providing support for the application process, and an outward-looking role, interacting with, and providing intelligence about funding available from, the principal agencies relevant to their “School”, Governmental and private (charitable), UK and international.
This is a new exciting high profile role requiring someone with a good knowledge of funding priorities, policies, schemes and processes with the ability to take a lead on determining research priorities within the designated area. The successful candidate may have an academic background or experience of making grant applications and knowledge of appropriate funding agencies or experience of working within a funding agency.
So it seems that are research priorities are to be determined by administrators who are not scientists, and that these people will be paid more than most of the people who do the real research and teaching.
I find this genuinely baffling. In the Life Sciences most people who are any good get their funding from the MRC or the Wellcome Trust. There are endless web sites that list smaller charities. Why do we need a highly paid person to do what any competent researcher has always done, quickly and simply, for themselves?
This advertisement elicited the following comment from a correspondent (just remember, I never reveal my sources).
Xco Recruitment. Stuck in a rut? Overworked and underappreciated? Capable of reading and operating a world class search engine such as Google? Can you fill in a form? Then our clients – a Global but supposedly impecunious University have the job(s) for YOU!
SCHOOL RESEARCH FACILITATOR REQUIRED.
The post has two main facets so the applicant must be thin, one facet looks in and the other out, so the applicant probably shouldn’t dabble in Zen or other esoteric schools, as meltdown may occur positing which in is in or which out is out or is in in fact out. (,,,,,, I’m sorry I’m on job experience, please distribute these commas as you see fit in the previous phrase).
You will be responsible for advising Departments and Individuals (possibly “Schools” but these appellations are getting beyond me) what they should research into/on though you have to have no specialist knowledge in any field. (look I’m paraphrasing, I didn’t write the description – but if I were you I’d go for the Arts and Humanities one – it’ll be piss easy).
You will be paid a “relatively” large amount of money for trawling through a couple of internet sites and reading a specialist magazine called “Charities Today” or some such, you will then ‘phone up a few people and inform them that, “the Xco Cardifasterization Trust has a spare Â£5000 to give to anyone willing to mention them in a paper, Â£3000 for a typo” sadly after the university takes its overheads this will leave them owing the Â£450. Oh, yes, in the light of the larger Research Funders you may have to enterprise multitasking amongst a host of recalcitrant divas, therefore some diplomatic/railroading skills may be essential.
From a correspondent
A few days after posting this, I got the following comment from a correspondent,
|At our place creation of these jobs has been popular with HoDs and Grand Professors, as well as senior administrators. The reason is that the incumbents take work off the Grandeees, although their impact on the lives of lesser mortals is marginal.
Apart from trawling websites and compiling “Bulletins” (usefulness borderline), sitting in meeting about “research strategy” (usefulness negligible), helping compile Departmental advertising (usefulness hard to quantify) and being able to nag other tardy bits of the admin about things on your behalf (occasionally useful), the other thing these folk do is spend time as amanuenses / PAs to the Leading Grand Professor(s).
This is most notable when a Major Bid is in the offing – leading and fronting Major Funding Bids being, of course, just the kind of thing the research-intensive Univs think their leading Profs and HoDs should be spending their time doing.
For instance, imagine DC is set to lead a multi-million ” Major Initiative to establish an Interdisciplinary Centre for Trans-species Proteomic and Genomic Analysis of the Ion Channel-ome”. Apart from a science case, this will require collection of loads of statistics and lots of generic highly-spun writing about the College’s “unmatched array of leading talents in ion channel research”, “21st century leading-edge facilities” and “peerless intellectual environment” etc etc. This is where the Research Support Person comes into their own, as they take on all work associated with the bid except drafting the main scientific case Â¬ including writing the flannel. Keep an eye open for ex-postdocs of Deans, HoDs and senior Professors “transitioning” into such positions, is my tip.
“This free market has generated a whole new breed of employee, especially in further education, the Bid Writer. In education nowadays the pen can be mightier than the chalk. Bid Writers are a special breed who can weave together and launch back at policy wonks all their own buzzwords, with the deadly accuracy of a guided missile, sending them into the sort of sustained ecstasy that loosens both critical judgment and purse strings.
“This synoptic overview summarises the operational strategy for delivering the procedural and content objectives to a world-class standard, within the parameters delineated in Annex A of Initiative 374B, glob glob, oodle oodle, turge turge.” Wonderful. Give that school a few hundred grand. “
Worthwhile policies graft seamlessly on to schools and eventually become their own. An ephemeral policy is merely a headline grabber, a wheeze, demeaning to both begetter and recipient. Who needs a physics teacher, when among today’s most highly esteemed pedagogues are wordsmiths who can deliver world-class meaningless bollocks to order?”
This post is nerdy university politics stuff, but it matters a lot to some of us.
I have always been impressed by the lack of interest that management theorists, and education theorists, show in subjecting their ideas to empirical tests. Edinburgh University was one of the first to go down the path down which other places (including UCL) are now heading like so many lemmings.
Edinburgh abolished their departments in 2002, and, in 2005 they conducted a review of what had ensued, The responses make interesting reading (not least because much of what they say is remarkably similar to points that I have made again and again, to no effect).
Sadly, I have only just come across these documents. I wonder if our own managers have read them?
Let’s start with quotations from the university’s 2005 review document
“In 2002 the University made some radical changes to its structures. It abolished its previous structure of Faculties and Departments for academic purposes and Faculty Groups and Planning Units for planning and resourcing, and replaced these with a single integrated structure consisting of three Colleges and 21 Schools. Previous arrangements for electing Heads of Department and Deans were replaced by competitive appointment to the new management positions, after external advertisement for Heads of College.”
. . .
The Review Group found, from the evidence provided and gathered, that the implementation of a new organisational structure in 2002 had been strategically astute, leading to clear benefits to the institution as a whole.
. . .
This is not to say that feedback provided by colleagues to the Review was wholly positive
That last quotation must rank as as the understatement of the decade. You can read the responses at http://www.aaps.ed.ac.uk/restreview/responses/. Here are some quotations from them,
Professor R G M Morris, FRS, School of Biomedical & Clinical Laboratory Sciences
Like the Principal, I also think there are merits in the new arrangements that have already and will continue to yield benefits.
However, I think we should also have the courage and self-confidence to recognise a major downside. As I write, Harvard University is in uproar about some reported comments of their President, Larry Summers, about the paucity of women in science.
It would never happen at Edinburgh because – bluntly – we have become comatose. Perhaps I am not in the right place, but no one seems to discuss openly about anything that really matters to the University. We simply keep our heads down and try to get on with our teaching and research. Perhaps that is a good thing, and the debate at Harvard is but “hot air” when everyone would be better spending time in the lab or the library. But ‘m not sure. For there is a confidence and elan about the Harvard academic staff that, presently, seems to have been lost in Edinburgh – a loss that has coincided with the introduction of the Schools.
This loss is particularly reflected in the very few responses you have received to date to this circular. It is as if no one cares. And that, frankly, is deeply worrying. In the old rough and tumble of the ostensibly “inefficient” Departmental system, we would have regular staff meetings and actually debate things – and we did this because the voice of everyone in a Department mattered. We had postdoctoral staff and postgraduate students at our staff meetings – their voice mattered too and we listened to what they had to say. It feels to me that this overt recognition of the value of the academic community in Edinburgh is no longer the case. The School of which I am now a member has had two meetings in three years, and with so many people present in a large lecture theatre, the atmosphere was not conducive to discussion and debate.
In conclusion, Edinburgh University is at risk of becoming a place where bland, respectable comment replaces genuine debate. I am wary of this absence, because I am deeply distrustful of the credibility of anyone unprepared to debate openly and honestly. The senior management may, of course, be so busy juggling their managerial role with continuing academic life that they are unaware of this developing problem. Surely the business model can work hand-in-hand with a managerial framework that supports genuine intellectual debate?
Richard Morris, D.Phil., F.R.S.
Professor of Neuroscience
Division of Neuroscience
School of Biomedical & Clinical Laboratory Sciences
Dr Ian Astley, School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures, 18/02/05
I hardly know where to start with all this. It is abundantly clear, both from my own meditations and from discussions with colleagues — academic colleagues — that the recent changes to the university’s structure have been a radical contravention of everything which a university should stand for. Real opportunities for debate and democratic determination have been stifled, all in the service of a dogma of efficiency which it is impossible to describe or account for.
Professor Alan Murray, School of Engineering and Electronics, 4/02/05
One aspect of the old system that has, sadly, been largely lost, particularly in areas where modestly-sized departments have been merged in to larger schools, is the feeling of community and common purpose across research and teaching activities. The replacement of Departments by Research Institutes (and I am head of one) has not created new communities of the same nature and size. One particularly unfortunate result of this change has been the effective marginalisation of colleagues whose primary focus is on teaching and support of teaching activities.
Professor Alan F. Murray,
Head of the Institute for Integrated Micro and Nano Systems,
School of Engineering and Electronics,
Dr Don Glass, School of Engineering & Electronics, 14/02/05
The restructuring has transformed the University into a rather top-down structure with a much smaller number of much larger administrative units.
The Research Institutes do not yet provide the sense of identity, cohesion and support that the old departments (whatever their failings) did. The Heads of Institute have done their best but are hampered by the physical dispersion of their staff and by restricted budgets.
Academic staff in particular, and technical and clerical staff to a lesser degree, feel that they are much less in control of their lives than was previously the case. This leads to stress and poor morale.
The Teaching Organisation has worked well at the strategic level (compliance with the requirements of the Curriculum Project, for example) and at the most basic level of timetabling, classroom allocation, collection of completed coursework, recording of marks etc. However, the diversity of the engineering disciplines and the curriculum requirements of the professional institutions have meant that accreditation, curriculum development and the allocation of teaching duties have fallen to the Heads of Discipline. These individuals have no budget at their disposal, no formal authority, no clerical or other support, no formal reward and little recognition. It is surprising that anyone can be found to take on the job.
Heads of School are expected to act as Line Managers for units containing in most cases over 100 academic and support staff. In industry or the civil service, this would be regarded as ludicrously burdensome, and I am at a loss to understand why the university feels that it can expect this level of output from its senior staff.
Improvement of the dissemination of information to ordinary members of staff would improve morale. In the old days, heads of department would ensure that their staff were kept abreast of developments: this does not happen to the same extent now. Equally, inclusion of more staff at an earlier stage in decision-making would not merely improve acceptance of change but would also possibly deliver better thought-out policy My suggestion would be to recognise the Disciplines as bodies responsible for professional representation, curriculum development and accreditation. They would provide a ‘home’ for staff excluded from the Research Institutes.
Professor Andrew Barker, School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures, 14/02/05
‘The process has been generally been well received and, as Principal and Vice-Chancellor Professor Timothy O’Shea points out, “has aroused interest (and even emulation) in other institutions”.’
And in so doing you simply add to the disenchantment which, as you must surely know, has followed upheavals of the last couple of years. Could you not have initiated the debate without such self-congratulatory spin?
At the same time as there have been gains, there have also been losses. Above all, and one hears the complaint time and again, it is felt that restructuring has led to a diminished sense of belonging to an academic community. The abolition of the democratic faculty structure has fuelled a feeling of disempowerment and atomisation which does not help morale at a time when colleagues are assailed by new developments on all sides
What is needed, I feel, is a movement to re-engage colleagues with the
university: to let them feel that it is indeed ‘their’ university, that they are not merely a workforce which is expected to respond to a series of diktats from above. At a quite mundane level, provision of common room facilities (so spectacularly absent for those working in the George Square area) would enable us to re-establish contact with colleagues from other disciplines.
Professor Charles Warlow, Professor of Medical Neurology, Molecular and Clinical Medicine, 14/02/05
I start from the position that the structure of a University should enable academics to do research and teach, and have time to think and write which are so important in both.
Clinical academics like myself are -for better or worse – often rather disconnected from the rest of their Universities, partly because we often work way from the centre of the University, partly because we don’t think in terms (or now semesters), and partly because we have patient care concerns. Nonetheless it is good to feel part of and supported by an institution which facilitates and nurtures our research and teaching. I did feel this, when I was in a group then called a Department of Clinical Neurosciences which was part of a faculty then called Medicine, all of which I could naturally relate to and which mapped on to my clinical work and teaching. But now we have Divisions (in my case more or less the same as the old Department), Centres and Schools -two extra layers of management between us in the trenches and the College (was faculty) and Head of College (was Dean). And we do not seem to have any ‘faculty’ meetings any more, one of the very few opportunities to meet up with colleagues from not just my own hospital but with others across town (the Royal Infirmary, Royal Edinburgh Hospital etc). It as an irony that as we have moved to Colleges we have become less ‘collegiate’.
For me there has not only been a loss of collegiality, and so opportunity for cross fertilisation between medical disciplines, but there has been no advantage in terms of teaching or research. As far as teaching goes, the Divisional, Centre and School structure seems to be all about research with an eye on the RAE – not teaching. And it is particularly inappropriate to exclude researchers from Centres, these people may well be struggling and so in need of support. The notion that the new administrative structure encourages inter-disciplinarity – in medical research at least – is just not true.
I cannot see any efficiency gains from where I sit. Personally, I feel more disconnected from the Heads of this and that than ever I did before (but I certainly do not envy them their task, far more complicated, bureaucratic and time consuming than ever it was when I was Head of Clinical Neurosciences)
Sadly however, although I once felt a sense of belonging and so loyalty to the University as a collegiate bunch of academics, in it for teaching and research, this is not so much how I feel now that it seems more of an impersonal business hierarchy.
Professor Jean Duffy, Professor John Renwick, Mr Philip Bennett, Dr VÃ©ronique Desnain, Dr Marion Schmid, School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures, 17/02/05
The new structures were originally presented to us, at the open meeting held by Stewart Sutherland, as a means of streamlining and reducing bureaucracy. Yet, the restructuring has involved the interposition of an extra administrative layer, the creation of a substantial number of administrative posts, including new senior management posts and a labyrinthine bureaucracy.
In an earlier exchange with Senior Vice-Principal Anderson regarding space matters, he commented that it is â€˜virtually impossible to work out in any realistic way what the net cost [of the restructuring] (and the medium-term benefit) has beenâ€™. We find this extraordinary: any organisation employing a large workforce (in this case, 6,800 and Edinburgh’s third biggest employer, according to the web site) and with responsibility for the education of over 20,000 students and large amounts of taxpayers’ money ought to be able work out such sums.
Faculty meetings have been replaced by “plenaries” in which very little, if any, real business is done, no major decisions are ever taken (even in a School which voted to retain decision-making powers), and in which academics are informed about decisions that have been taken elsewhere. The former Faculty of Arts did have the capacity to influence the decisions of Central Management, even if it exercised that power rather too rarely. In the new structures, any power to influence has been effectively diluted, largely because we do not have an equivalent formal assembly designed to encourage or even permit full participatory debate and because the burden of representation falls upon a few individuals. Thus divided, we are much easier to rule, even if that was not the intention.
To be fair to the new Management Team, it did not create the original template for restructuring; as we understand it, it was presented with a fait accompli and a huge task of implementation. No doubt the new structures can be made to work in more user-friendly ways, but the University needs to relearn -and fast – how to listen to its academic staff. This institution has a great many staff who are committed to teaching and to research, who have willingly shouldered heavy administrative burdens often over long periods, and they have to feel that they have a voice.
The good will of academic staff is one of the University’s most precious resources; it is certainly its cheapest: after all, it is that good will which makes so very many individuals start work early, finish late, work every weekend and not take their full annual leave. If the University has common sense, it will invest in it, not exhaust it.
Professor Colin Nicholson, School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures, 18/02/05
In its 2001 Resolution concerning proposed changes to academic management the University Court made its intentions clear. In order to enable the university to respond effectively to the altered economic circumstances in which we must now operate, Court deemed it desirable:
to reorganise the system of academic management in the University “in a way which sustains the teaching and research of the University to the highest standards and which maintains and enhances the quality of the university as an academic community of international standing”.
These sensible priorities were echoed in a Court paper of March 2002 . . .
These intentions have been radically betrayed. In a range of senior voices all across the University, from Kings Buildings to George Square to High School Yards we are hearing the same thing -that an academic community now feels reduced to an atomised and disempowered workforce which is expected to respond to a series of diktats from above.
The expression and experience within and across the academic community, of disaffection, demoralisation, disenfranchisement and alienation that we have been reporting on for several months requires urgent redress.
Dr Sarah Carpenter, School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures, 18/02/05
But for equally practical reasons it actually it seems to have reduced the opportunities for academic co-operation with subject areas beyond the School. As a member of the former Faculty of Arts I encountered regularly colleagues from a range of disciplines across the Faculty, not only in Faculty meetings, but in administrative and other activities from which academic co-operation might flow. There is no longer any forum or space in which I encounter these colleagues.
There is certainly a strong perception among academic staff that the new system is in a phrase many have used “top-heavy”, and in some areas more rather than less cumbersome. In terms of streamlining and simplifying administrative procedure the system is experienced as adding a new layer.
The new structures have not allowed for any forums beyond the School in which staff can express and debate views, and pass them on to those who will make decisions (this is allied to the loss of meeting opportunities).
Probably allied to this is a perception that not only are decisions for implementation handed down from the centre, often by rather tenuous chains of information distribution, but that the university does not recognise or acknowledge the level of effort required to implement them.
Professor Brian Charlesworth, School of Biological Sciences, 04/02/05
I do not regard developments associated with the restructuring at all favourably. This has introduced a far more ‘top-down’ style of management, with over large units whose heads know little of what is going on at the grassroots level. The academic staff are being issued with orders instead of being consulted, and constantly being forced to implement ever more bureaucracy. In the long term, this will lead to creative people leaving the university, and only the mediocrities who are prepared to cringe to the men in suits will remain. I sense that this is already starting to happen.
It seems that little notice was taken of any of these comments. Well well, There’s a surprise.
How irrational thinking in government and universities has led to the rise of new-age nonsense in the name of science.
This article appeared on 15th August 2007, on the Guardian Science web site.
The Guardian made very few cuts to the original version, but removed a lot of the links. If you want to have references to some of the claims that are made, try the original, which I reproduce here. [Download this as pdf]
The Guardian Science site also has a piece on this topic by Alok Jha: Reigniting the enlightenment How do we win back our civilisation from the jaws of darkness?
Comments can be left there too.
A German translation of this piece has been posted at the Mental health blog.
Etymological note. The word endarkenment has been used by several people as an antonym for the enlightenment, but the first time it caught my eye was in an article in 2005 by Gerald Weissman, The facts of evolution: fighting the Endarkenment. The article opens thus.
“Those of us who practice experimental science are living in the best of times and the worst of times, and I’m not talking about A Tale of Two Cities, but a tale of two cultures.”
Science in an Age of Endarkenment
“Education: Elitist activity. Cost ineffective. Unpopular with Grey Suits. Now largely replaced by Training.” Michael O’Donnell, in A Sceptic’s Medical Dictionary (BMJ publishing, 1997).
The enlightenment was a beautiful thing. People cast aside dogma and authority. They started to think for themselves. Natural science flourished. Understanding of the real world increased. The hegemony of religion slowly declined. Real universities were created and eventually democracy took hold. The modern world was born. Until recently we were making good progress. So what went wrong?
The past 30 years or so have been an age of endarkenment. It has been a period in which truth ceased to matter very much, and dogma and irrationality became once more respectable.
This matters when people delude themselves into believing that we could be endangered at 45 minute’s notice by non-existent weapons of mass destruction.It matters when reputable accountants delude themselves into thinking that Enron-style accounting is acceptable.
It matters when people are deluded into thinking that they will be rewarded in paradise for killing themselves and others.
It matters when bishops attribute floods to a deity whose evident vengefulness and malevolence leave one reeling. And it matters when science teachers start to believe that the earth was created 6000 years ago.
These are serious examples of the endarkenment mentality, but I’ll stick with my day job and consider what this mentality is doing to science.
One minor aspect of the endarkenment has been a resurgence in magical and superstitious ideas about medicine. The existence of homeopaths on the High Street won’t usually do too much harm. Their sugar pills contain nothing. They won’t poison your body; the greater danger is that they poison your mind.
It is true that consulting a homeopath could endanger your health if it delays proper diagnosis, or if they recommend sugar pills to prevent malaria, but the real objection is cultural. Homeopaths are a manifestation of a society in which wishful thinking matters more than truth; a society where what I say three times is true and never mind the facts.
If this attitude were restricted to half-educated herbalists and crackpot crystal gazers, perhaps one could shrug it off. But it isn’t restricted to them. The endarkenment extends to the highest reaches of the media, government and universities. And it corrupts science itself.
Even respectable newspapers still run nonsensical astrology columns. Respected members of parliament seem quite unaware of what constitutes evidence. Peter Hain (Lab., Neath) set back medicine in Northern Ireland. David Tredinnick (Cons., Bosworth) advocated homeopathic treatment of foot and mouth disease. Caroline Flint condoned homeopathy, and Lord Hunt referred to ‘psychic surgery’ as a “profession” in a letter written in response to question by a clinical scientist
Under the influence of the Department of Health, normally sane pharmacologists on the Medicines and Health Regulatory Authority, which is meant to “ensure the medicines work”, changed the rules to allow homeopathic and herbal products to be labelled, misleadingly, with “traditional” uses, while requiring no evidence to be produced that they work.
Tony Blair himself created religiously-divided schools at a time when that has never been more obviously foolish, and he defended in the House of Commons, schools run by ‘young-earth creationists‘, the lunatic fringe of religious zealots. The ex-Head Science teacher at Emmanuel College said
â€œNote every occasion when an evolutionary/old-earth paradigm . . . is explicitly mentioned . . . we must give the alternative (always better) Biblical explanation of the same dataâ€:
That is not from the fundamentalists of the southern USA, but from Gateshead, UK.
The Blairs’ fascination with pendulum wavers, crystals and other new age nonsense is well known. When their elders set examples like that, is it any surprise that over 30% of students in the UK now say they believe in creationism and “intelligent design”? As Steve Jones has pointed out so trenchantly, this makes it hard to teach them science at all. Welcome back, Cardinal Bellarmine.
Homeopaths and herbalists may be anti-science but they are not nearly as worrying as the university vice-chancellors who try to justify the giving of bachelor of science degrees in subjects that are anti-science to their core. How, one may well ask, have universities got into the embarrassing position of having to answer questions like that?
Here are a couple of examples of how. The University of Bedfordshire (in its previous incarnation as the University of Luton) accredited a Foundation Degree course in ‘nutritional therapy’, at`the Institute of Optimum Nutrition (IoN). The give-away is the term Nutritional Therapy . They are the folks who claim, with next to no evidence, that changing your diet, and buying from them a lot of expensive ‘supplements’, will cure almost any disease (even AIDS and cancer).
The IoN is run by Patrick Holford, whose only qualification in nutrition is a diploma awarded to himself by his own Institute. His advocacy of vitamin C as better than conventional drugs to treat AIDS is truly scary. His pretensions have been analysed effectively by Ben Goldacre, and by Holfordwatch.. See the toe-curling details on badscience.net .
The documents that relate to this accreditation are mind-boggling. One of the recommended books for the course, on “Energy Medicine” (a subject that is pure fantasy) has been reviewed thus.
“This book masquerades as science, but it amounts to little more than speculation and polemic in support of a preconceived belief.”.
The report of Luton’s Teaching Quality and Enhancement Committee (May 24th 2004) looks terribly official, with at least three “quality assurance” people in attendance. But the minutes show that they discussed almost everything about the course apart from the one thing that really matters, the truth of what was being taught. The accreditation was granted. It’s true that the QAA criticised Luton for this, but only because they failed to tick a box, not because of the content of the course.
The University of Central Lancashire ‘s justification for its BSc in Homeopathic Medicine consists of 49 pages of what the late, great Ted Wragg might have called “world-class meaningless bollocks”. All the buzzwords are there “multi-disciplinary deliveryâ€, â€œformative and summative assessmentâ€, log books and schedules. But not a single word about the fact that the course is devoted to a totally discredited early 19th century view of medicine. Not a single word about truth and falsehood. Has it become politically incorrect to ask questions like that? The box-ticking mentality is just another manifestation of the endarkenment thought. If you tick a box to say that you are fully-qualifed at laying-on-of-hands, that is good enough. You have done the course, and it is irrelevant whether the course teaches rubbish.
These examples, and many like them, result, I believe from the bureaucratisation and corporatisation of science and education. Power has gradually ebbed away from the people who do the research and teaching, and become centralised in the hands of people who do neither.
The sad thing is that the intentions are good. Taxpayers have every right to expect that their money is well spent, and students have every right to expect that a university will teach them well. How, then, have we ended up with attempts to deliver these things that do more harm than good?
One reason is that the bureaucrats who impose these schemes have no interest in data. They don’t do randomised tests, or even run pilot schemes, on their educational or management theories because, like and old-fashioned clinician, they just know they are right. Enormous harm has been done to science by valuing quantity over quality, short-termism over originality and, at the extremes, fraud over honesty. Spoofs about the pretentiousness and dishonesty of some science, like that published in The New York Times last year, are too close to the truth to be very funny now.
Science, left to itself, and run by scientists, has created much of the world we live in. It has self-correcting mechanisms built in, so that mistakes, and the occasional bit of fraud, are soon eliminated. Corporatisation has meant that, increasingly, you are not responsible to your conscience, just to your line manager. The result of this, I fear, is a decrease in honesty, and in the long run inevitably a decrease in quality and originality too.
If all we had to worry about was a few potty homeopaths and astrologers, it might be better to shrug, and get on with trying to find some truths about the world. But now the endarkenment extends to parliament, universities and schools, it is far too dangerous to ignore.
Peter A. Lawrence of the Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, and the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge has written a beautifully argued article, The Mismeasurement of Science. It appeared in Current Biology, August 7, 2007: 17 (15), r583. [Download pdf]
It should be read by every scientist. Even more importantly, it should be read by every vice chancellor and university president, by every HR person and by every one of the legion of inactive scientists who, increasingly, tell active scientists what to do.
Here are some quotations.
“The use of both the H-index and impact factors to evaluate scientists has increased unethical behaviour: it rewards those who gatecrash their names on to author lists. This is very common, even standard, with many people authoring papers whose contents they are largely a stranger to.”
“. . . trying to meet the measures involves changing research strategy: risks should not be taken . . .”
“. . . hype your work, slice the findings up as much as possible (four papers good, two papers bad), compress the results (most top journals have little space, a typical Nature letter now has the density of a black hole), simplify your conclusions but complexify the material (more difficult for reviewers to fault it!), . . . .it has become profitable to ignore or hide results that do not fit with the story being sold â€” a mix of evidence tends to make a paper look messy and lower its appeal.”
“These measures are pushing people into having larger groups. It is a simple matter of arithmetic. Since the group leader authors all the papers, the more people, the more papers. If a larger proportion of young scientists in a larger group fail, as I suspect, this is not recorded. And because no account is taken of wasted lives and broken dreams, these failures do not make a group leader look less productive.”
“It is time to help the pendulum of power swing back to favour the person who actually works at the bench and tries to discover things.”
The position of women
Lawrence argues eloquently a point that I too have been advocating for years. It is well known that, in spite of an increased proportion of women entering biomedical research as students, there has been little, if any, increase in the representation of women at the top. This causes much hand-wringing among university bureaucrats, who fail to notice that one reason for it is the very policies that they themselves advocate. Women, I suspect, are less willing to embrace the semi-dishonest means that are needed to advance in science. As Lawrence puts it
“Gentle people of both sexes vote with their feet and leave a profession that they, correctly, perceive to discriminate against them . Not only do we lose many original researchers, I think science would flourish more in an understanding and empathetic workplace.”
The success of the LMB
It is interesting that Peter Lawrence is associated with the Laboratory for Molecular Biology, one of the most successful labs of all time. In an account of the life of Max Perutz, Danielle Rhodes said this.
“As evidenced by the success of the LMB, Max had the knack of picking extraordinary talent. But he also had the vision of creating a working environment where talented people were left alone to pursue their ideas. This philosophy lives on in the LMB and has been adopted by other research institutes as well. Max insisted that young scientists should be given full responsibility and credit for their work. There was to be no hierarchy, and everybody from the kitchen ladies to the director were on first-name terms. The groups were and still are small, and senior scientists work at the bench. Although I never worked with Max directly, I had the great privilege of sharing a laboratory with him for many years. The slight irritation of forever being taken to be his secretary when answering the telephoneâ€”the fate of femalesâ€”was amply repaid by being able to watch him work and to talk with him. He would come into the laboratory in the morning, put on his lab-coat and proceed to do his experiments. He did everything himself, from making up solutions, to using the spectrophotometer and growing crystals. Max led by example and carried out his own experiments well into his 80s.”
Max Perutz himself, in a history of the LMB said
“Experience had taught me that laboratories often fail because their scientists never talk to each other. To stimulate the exchange of ideas, we built a canteen where people can chat at morning coffee, lunch and tea. It was managed for over twenty years by my wife, Gisela, who saw to it that the food was good and that it was a place where people would make friends. Scientific instruments were to be shared, rather than being jealously guarded as people’s private property; this saved money and also forced people to talk to each other. When funds ran short during the building of the lab, I suggested that money could be saved by leaving all doors without locks to symbolise the absence of secrets.”
That is how to get good science.
Now download a copy of Lawrence’s paper and send it to every bureaucrat in your university.
- The Times Higher Education Supplement, 10 Aug 2007. had a feature on this paper. Read it here if you have a subscription, or download a copy.
- In the same issue, Denis Noble and Sir Philip Cohen emphasise the importance of basic research. Cohen says
“In 1994, after 25 years in the relative research wilderness, the whole thing changed.
“Suddenly I was the best thing since sliced bread,” Sir Philip said. “We set up the Division of Signal Transduction Therapy, which is the largest-ever collaboration between the pharmaceutical industry and academia in the UK.”
But the present research funding culture could prevent similar discoveries. “In today’s climate that research would not have been funded,” Sir Philip said. “The space programme hasn’t allowed us to colonise the universe, but it has given us the internet – a big payoff that industry could never have envisaged.” (Download a copy.)
- Comments from Pennsylvania at http://other95.blogspot.com
- How to slow down science. Another reference to Lawrence’s paper from a US (but otherwise anonymous) blog, BayBlab.
How to select candidates
I have, at various times, been asked how I would select candidates for a job, if not by counting papers and impact factors. This is a slightly modified version of a comment that I left on a blog, which describes roughly what I’d advocate
After a pilot study the entire Research Excellence Framework (which attempts to assess the quality of research in every UK university) made the following statement.
“No sub-panel will make any use of journal impact factors, rankings, lists or the perceived standing of publishers in assessing the quality of research outputs”
It seems that the REF is paying attention to the science not to bibliometricians.
It has been the practice at UCL to ask people to nominate their best papers (2 -4 papers depending on age). We then read the papers and asked candidates hard questions about them (not least about the methods section). It’s a method that I learned a long time ago from Stephen Heinemann, a senior scientist at the Salk Institute. It’s often been surprising to learn how little some candidates know about the contents of papers which they themselves select as their best. One aim of this is to find out how much the candidate understands the principles of what they are doing, as opposed to following a recipe.
Of course we also seek the opinions of people who know the work, and preferably know the person. Written references have suffered so much from ‘grade inflation’ that they are often worthless, but a talk on the telephone to someone that knows both the work, and the candidate, can be useful, That, however, is now banned by HR who seem to feel that any knowledge of the candidate’s ability would lead to bias.
It is not true that use of metrics is universal and thank heavens for that. There are alternatives and we use them.
Incidentally, the reason that I have described the Queen Mary procedures as insane, brainless and dimwitted is because their aim to increase their ratings is likely to be frustrated. No person in their right mind would want to work for a place that treats its employees like that, if they had any other option. And it is very odd that their attempt to improve their REF rating uses criteria that have been explicitly ruled out by the REF. You can’t get more brainless than that.
This discussion has been interesting to me, if only because it shows how little bibliometricians understand how to get good science.
That is the title of a paper in the BMJ (11 August 2007, 335, 304) by Anisur Rahman (reader in rheumatology, University College London). He points out the strong disincentives to collaborative work that now exist. One disincentive is the enormous amounts of documentation that is now needed for any sort of clinical research. Another disincentive lies in the daft assessment methods that are becoming fashionable, because they give you very little credit for being one among many authors.
“it could be argued that clinical academics who wish to thrive should avoid taking part in such collaborationsâ€”unless they are a lead author”.
Contradictions and stress
This paper highlights one of the things that makes academic life so stressful. We are constantly getting contradictory instructions, often from the same department (usually HR). Here are a few to start with.
- You must produce at least three world-shattering results per year, and everyone must all publish them in the same half-dozen journals. And you must do lots of teaching. And you must fill in all the forms sent to you by HR to say how long you spend on research (but not the hours please, just the percentage). Then the next letter says you must take your full holidays and work a 38 hour week for your work-life balance.
- We must have no bias against the appointment of women. But remember that the rules of the game make it almost impossible for a woman to get to the top in science if she wants to have children too.
- You must do lots of collaborative and interdisciplinary work (because that is the buzzword of the moment for the failed postdocs who staff the research councils and journals. Oh, and remember that you must not submit for RAE purposes
any paper that bears the name of a colleague with whom you collaborate.
- You must employ only the most brilliant postdocs, but don’t be too assiduous about assessing their ability because that might cause bias. And, by the way, remember that it is essentially impossible to get rid of anyone, however incompetent.
- In order to ensure a big grant income (to be used in assessing promotion), you must employ lots of postdocs. That ensures you won’t have time to check too carefully what they do, much less do anything original yourself.
- You must have lots of collegiate spirit, and be able to recite by heart that excruciatingly embarrassing mission statement (oh, and by the way, your department has just been abolished).
The UK government, and UK vice chancellors, are exerting a lot of pressure to increase industrial funding in Universities. So far they haven’t listened at all to suggestions that research and commerce don’t mix well. It is asking too much of human nature to think that judgment about an experiment will not be influenced if you have a financial interest in one outcome rather than another. That is why the best researchers (at least in the biomedical field) avoid industry funding whenever possible: they want their results to be seen as independent.
It is well documented now that clinical trials tend to be distorted when they are funded by the pharmaceutical industry. See, for example, Lexchin, Bero et al,. in the British Medical Journal (2003), and Brennan et al. (2006) in the Journal of the American Medical Association, and the excellent book. The Truth About the Drug Companies, by Marcia Angell.
Brennan’s proposals for reducing this influence were well received on the whole, though they were opposed by a Dr K.J. Meador of Florida. But them Dr Meador’s letter ended with “Financial Disclosures: Dr Meador reported receiving grants from GlaxoSmithKline, Neuropace, SAM Technology, UCB, and the NIH; acting as a consultant to Abbott, Cyberonics, Eisai, GlaxoSmithKline, Neuropace, Novartis, Ortho McNeil, and UCB; obtaining honoraria from GlaxoSmithKline, Ortho McNeil, and UCB; and receiving salary from clinical electrophysiology, patient care, and an endowed chair at the University of Florida.”. Well, there’s a surprise.
It seems that this has dawned on the University of California. Their central administration, according to a report in Nature magazine (July 2007), has attempted to restrict the way the pharmaceutical industry buy favour in academia. The Nature editorial ends thus,
â€œ. . . the latest policy tries to put the brakes on a trend towards heavier reliance on private funding that this fiscal squeeze has unleashed. The universityâ€™s campuses are understandably concerned about their ability to attract funding from all sources so that they can continue to operate at world-class levels. The best course available to them, nonetheless, is to follow the high standards that have recently been set at other academic medical centres, such as those at Stanford University, and to embrace the proposed policy. â€
Quite. It seems that the UK government and UK vice chancellors are going flat out for a policy that is already out of favour at Stanford. They are one step behind again. But then neither are Stanford, Yale and Harvard heading quite so enthusiastically down a path that takes power out of the hands of those who teach and do research.
Of course, Yale still has a Department of Pharmacology. Which is more than UCL has.
Postscript. There is nothing that the quackery industry likes to talk about more than the evils of Big Pharma. What they should remember is that the quackery industry is not only rich, but it is almost 100% fraud. Big Pharma may behave badly at times, but, with on the basis of pure research done largely in universities, they are also the folks who brought you general anaesthetics, antibiotics and all manner of things that have improved and lengthened lives.
- There are some sensible comments about industry funding here. There are always problems, but in some areas they are perhaps not as big as in the biomedical business.
This is a longer version of comments published in the Times Higher Education Supplement, June 1, 2007. This longer version has now been printed in full in Physiology News, 69, 12 – 14, 2007 [download the pdf version].
It has now been translated into Russian.
Download pdf version of this paper.
I should make it clear that the term ‘bean counter’ is not aimed at accountants (we need good honest accountants). Rather it is aimed at a small number of senior academics and HR people who do not understand how to assess people.
How to get good science
David Colquhoun, Department of Pharmacology, University College London (May 2007).
The aim of this article is to consider how a university can achieve the best research and teaching, and the most efficient administration.
My aims, in other words, are exactly the same as every university vice-chancellor (president/rector/provost) in the country. Continue reading
One reason for bad science reporting is that journalists rely too much on press releases from university ‘media departments’. Their output often seems more akin to advertising than to science.
A recent example came from a poor report in the Independent that seemed designed to fuel “electrosmog” hysteria. But the press release from Imperial College was almost as bad. The details are on IMPROBABLE SCIENCE blog.
Using potassium dichromate to treat patients in intensive care (rather than to clean the glassware)?
No, that isn’t a joke. The respectable journal, Chest, official journal of the American College of Chest Physicians, published an article that purported to show that homeopathic potassium dichromate (i.e. water) was a useful way to treat patients in intensive care. [Frass M, Dielacher C, Linkesch M, et al. Influence of potassium dichromate on tracheal secretions in critically ill patients. Chest 2005; 27:936–941].
The title and abstract don’t mention the word ‘homeopathy’ at all. Potassium dichromate, like all hexavalent chromium compounds, is very toxic, but luckily for the patients there was no potassium dichromate present whatsoever in the treatment (it was a 30C dilution). The editor of Chest didn’t seem to think that there was anything very odd about this, but he did publish a response from me: Treating Critically Ill Patients With Sugar Pills, Chest, 131 , 645, 2007 [Get pdf ].
“It is one thing to tolerate homeopathy as a harmless 19th century eccentricity for its placebo effect in minor self-limiting conditions like colds. It is quite another to have it recommended for seriously ill patients. That is downright dangerous.”
This was accompanied by an unrepentant response from Frass.
The Frass paper has now received some close attention on the Respectful Insolence blog. Someone posting under the name ‘getzal’ has done a nice analysis which shows that the control group must have contained patients who were were more seriously ill than the homeopathically-treated group.
This is a slightly modified version of some thoughts from the old improbable science page, where they formed part of the review of a BBC2 series on alternative medicine. It has been moved to the new blog because of the comments posted here.
Evolution of plants
Plants didn’t evolve for our benefit. Natural selection ensures that plants, like every other living thing, evolve in a way that maximises their own chance of survival. To ensure that, plants should be as toxic as possible to anything that might eat them. The more harm a plant does to humans, the better its chance of survival. It is sheer luck that some of the toxic principles evolved by plants occasionally turn out to be useful.
|Memo to: The members of the Kansas Board of Education
Re: Your decision to eliminate the teaching of evolution as science
Thank you for your support. Much obliged. Now, go forth and multiply. Beget many children. And yea, your children shall beget children. And their children shall beget children, and their children’s children after them. And in time the genes that made you such pinheads will be eliminated through natural selection. Because that is how it works.’ . . . ;
By Gene Weingarten, Washington Post Staff Writer.
Saturday, August 14, 1999; Page C01
Here are some products of nature. That doesn’t mean they are good for you.
Lead, uranium, radon, arsenic, thallium, strychnine, cyanide (in Sorghum and Prunus species), Stinging nettles, poison ivy, yew, deadly nightshade, castor beans (ricin), tobacco, curare, foxglove, fly agaric, (muscarine), death cap (amanita phalloides), . . ..
Foxgloves, heart failure and biological standardisation
Here is a bit of relevant pharmacological history.
The 24th edition of Martindale’s Extra Pharmacopoeia (1958) describes Digitalis Leaf (B.P., I.P.), also known as Digit. Fol.; Digitalis; Foxglove Leaf; Feuille de Digitale; Fingerhutblatt; Hoja de digital.
|It was defined as “the dried leaves of Digitalis purpurea (Scrophulariaceae).”At that time it was sometimes prescribed as Prepared Digitalis (BP),
which is “Digitalis leaf reduced to powder, no part being rejected, and biologically assayed the strength being stated in units per g. For therapeutic purposes it must be adjusted to contain 10 units in 1 g.”Sometimes foxglove leaf was prescribed as Tincture of Digitalis (B.P., I.P.).
“It may be made from unstandardised leaf, the tincture being subsequently biologically assayed, or it may be made from prepared digitalis, using a quantity containing 1000 units per litre, by percolation or maceration, with alcohol (70 %). It contains 1 unit per ml. I.P. allows also 1 unit per g. Dose: 0.3 to 1 ml. (5 to 15 minims). ”
Although these preparations are now totally defunct, they were still better than the sort of thing that is now advocated by herbalists. Why? They were better because they were standardised.
Foxglove leaves contain several chemical compunds that are useful in certain forms of hear failure. But the margin of safety is quite low. Take a bit too much and it kills you not cures you. One batch of foxglove leaves will contain different amounts of active compounds from the last batch, and that endangered patients.
From the 1930s onwards, pharmacologists developed methods of biological assay that overcame this problem. An international
standard digitalis leaf sample was established. Every new batch had to be assayed against this standard, and diluted to a fixed level of biological activity. This ensured that each batch of digitalis powder had the same biological potency as the last batch. It was a great pharmacological advance in its time. But of course it did involve the use of animals for the biological assay.
All this was solved when the active principles were purified from the foxglove leaves. There was no longer any need to uses animals for biological assays. The right amount of pure digoxin or digitoxin could be weighed out.
Fortunately herbalists are not allowed to prescribe anything as potentially dangerous as digitalis. But in general herbalists are happy to use pre-1930, unstandardised plant extracts.
I can think of no case in which there is the slightest reason to think that the mixture of chemicals in the plant is any better than the purified active principles. Of course there could be such cases of synergy. But that is just idle speculation.
No surprise there then, because idle speculation is the stuff of alternative medicine. It’s a great deal easier than making the effort to find out what works, and probably more lucrative too.
This is the story of my first incursion in to the fantasy world of alternative medicine.
I was asked by the producer of a television programme (QED) to look at a paper that claimed a beneficial effect of homeopathic treatment of fibrositis (Fisher, P., Greenwood, A., Huskisson, E. C., Turner, P., & Belon, P. (1989). Effect of homoeopathic treatment on fibrositis (primary fibromyalgia) British Medical Journal 299, 365-366.) [download pdf].
The homeopath, Peter Fisher, was kind enough to give me the raw data for re-analysis. Curiously. the two medical co-authors (apparently guest authors), neither of them homeopath, were reluctant to hand over the raw data.
It appeared from the paper that the crossover trial had been analysed incorrectly (each patient had been counted twice). When the results were analysed correctly, no significant effects were found.
Astonishingly, the British Medical Journal declined to publish the correction, but their rival, the Lancet, did so with alacrity (Colquhoun, D. (1990). Reanalysis of a clinical trial of a homoeopathic treatment of fibrositis. Lancet 336, 441-442.).[ download pdf ].
Incidentally, the result of this exercise, despite the fact that it had been commissioned by the television producer, was entirely misrepresented in the final TV programme. The producer was evidently less interested in discovering the truth, than in giving the public what he thought they wanted, i.e. wishful thinking. In this he must have been successful, because the first letter that I received after the programme was from a lady in Fulham, who asked me to recommend a source of homeopathic flu jabs for her cat.
It’s interesting, but not surprising that this correction has been universally ignored by advocates of homeopathy. Whether this is incompetence or dishonesty is impossible to say.
Both the House of Lords report on Complementary and Alternative Medicine, and the Government’s response to it, state clearly “. . . we recommend that three important questions should be addressed in the following order:”. (1) does the treatment offer therapeutic benefits greater than placebo? (2) the treatment safe? (3) how does it compare, in medical outcome and cost-effectiveness, with other forms of treatment?
These recommendations seem admirable, but they have not been followed. The money has gone, almost (if not completely) to projects that address the second and third questions, before it has been established that the treatments have anything other than a placebo effect. This interesting case is debated in Debate: UK government funds CAM research (Focus on Alternative and Complementary Therapies , 8, 397-401 (DC’s bit, pp 400-401)).
[Get PDF of whole debate]
Both the House of Lords report and the Government response to it, state clearly “… we recommend that three important questions should be addressed in the following order: . . .
These aims seem admirable, but to what extent do the projects that have been funded match these recommendations?
The answer, sad to say, is that they do not seem to follow the recommended order of priorities at all.
None of the studies in the first initiative (Tovey, Corner and Shaw) appears to address the question that the recommendations specify should be done first. With the possible exception of White, none of those in the second phase (Shaw, Barry, Weatherley-}ones, White and MacPherson) do. (Dr White, like most other recipients, has declined to provide any information about his project so it is impossible to be sure.) None really addresses ,the second priority directly. The third recommendation is worded much more vaguely than the first two, but it is
The rationalisation given by some of the applicants for uncontrolled, or ‘pragmatic’ trials is that they are conducted under real clinical conditions and tell you what the patient actually thinks. It is quite true that, from the point of view of the patient, it does not matter in the least whether they feel better because of a placebo effect or because of a specific effect of the treatment. That is an important consideration but it is not the only one.
If the first priority had been addressed first (which it has not) it is quite possible that the outcome could be that the entire effect could be a placebo effect. Such a possibility has been envisaged by no less a luminary of the CAM world than Peter Fisher (ref 1). If that were to turn out to be the case it might matter little to the patient but it would matter a great deal to universities, which are under continual pressure from CAM people to run degree courses (though only a few have acquiesced).
If the whole effect were placebo, it follows that the ‘principles’ of homoeopathy, reflexology, etc. are mere mambo jumbo and so not appropriate for teaching in universities (or, indeed, anywhere else). The question of courses and ‘training’ cannot be considered until the first question is answered because, until then, we do not know if there is anything real to train people about. That is why it is the first priority. There would however, be a dilemma for clinical practice. The placebo effect does appear to be useful, so the question would then become how best to produce a good. placebo effect without too much intellectual dishonesty. Perhaps that is a question that deserves more research.
The fact of the matter is that the Department of Health has ended up spending £1.3 million of public money in a way that directly contravenes the recommendations of the House of Lords and of the government (with one possible exception). They claim that this happened because very few applications were received that addressed the government’s first priority. That alone says something about the extent to which the CAM world is interested in tests against placebo hardly surprising since a negative result would destroy their livelihood. But, arguably, if few applications were received that addressed the first priority, then the funding should have been postponed until appropriate applications were forthcoming. The reason that this did not happen is, I fear, only too obvious. The judging panel was dominated by CAM people who clearly share the lack of interest shown by the rest of the CAM community in answering the most important question first. If such research must be done, because of public demand for it, it should have been organised by the Medical Research Council using the same criteria they would use for any other treatment.
1 Fisher P, Scott DL. A randomized controlled trial