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This is an old joke which can be found in many places on the web, with minor variations. I came across it in an article by Gustav Born in 2002 (BIF Futura, 17, 78 – 86) and reproduce what he said. It has never been more relevant, so it’s well worth repeating. The title of the article was British medical education and research in the new century.

“The other deleterious development in UK research is increased bureaucratic control. Bureaucracy is notoriously bad for all creative activities. The story is told of a company chairman who was given a ticket to a concert in which Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony was to be played. Unable to go himself, he passed the ticket on to his colleague, the director in charge of administration and personnel. The next day the chairman asked, ‘Did you enjoy the concert?’ His colleague replied, ‘My report will be on your desk this afternoon’. This puzzled the chairman, who later received the following:

Report on attendance at a musical concert dated 14 November 1989. Item 3.
Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony.

  • The attendance of the orchestra conductor is unnecessary for public performance. The orchestra has obviously practiced and has the prior authorization from the conductor to play the symphony at a predetermined level of quality. Considerable money could be saved by merely having the conductor critique the performance during a retrospective peer-review meeting.
  • For considerable periods, the four oboe players had nothing to do. Their numbers should be reduced, and their work spread over the whole orchestra, thus eliminating the peaks and valleys of activity.
  • All twelve violins were playing identical notes with identical motions. This was unnecessary duplication. If a larger volume is required, this could be obtained through electronic amplification which has reached very high levels of reproductive quality.
  • Much effort was expended in playing sixteenth notes, or semi-quavers. This seems to me an excessive refinement, as listeners are unable to distinguish such rapid playing. It is recommended that all notes be rounded up to the nearest semi-quaver. If this were done, it would be possible to use trainees and lower-grade operatives more extensively.
  • No useful purpose would appear to be served by repeating with horns the same passage that has already been handled by the strings. If all such redundant passages were eliminated, as determined by a utilization committee, the concert could have been reduced from two hours to twenty minutes with great savings in salaries and overhead.
  • In fact, if Schubert had attended to these matters on a cost containment basis, he probably would have been able to finish his symphony.

In research, as in music, blind bureaucracy has the effect of destroying imaginative creativity. If that is truly valued, it must remain free from bureaucratic excesses. And indeed, the great strength of British science has always been the ability of curiosity-driven individuals to follow up original ideas, and the support that these individuals receive from organizations such as the MRC and the Wellcome Trust. This has given research workers the possibility to twist and turn in following up intuitions and ideas in other fields as well as their own. This freedom has been significantly eroded by job insecurity in universities and in commercial enterprises.”

Later in the article, Born talks about innovation in the pharmaceutical industry

“This ‘urge to merge’, which is affecting the pharmaceutical industry worldwide, is almost always claimed to be justified by the need for a larger research budget to sustain innovation. The actual evidence indicates that such mergers hide -for a while failure of innovation. An almost universal response to this problem has been to ‘streamline’ and ‘commercialize’ the process of research, with ultimate control vested in accountants rather than in pharmaceutically informed scientists. This has meant that the industry’s research and development programmes are being driven by technical novelties, notably computer- aided drug design, combinatorial chemistry, high-throughput screening and genomics. All these techniques are very cost-intensive and, what is worse, are superseding individual scientists with profound appreciation of disease mechanisms and knowledge of biochemical and pharmacological mechanisms. It is they whose ability to ask the crucial, often seemingly simple questions, that have led to blockbuster drugs. Outstanding British examples are James Black’s discovery of the gastric acid secretion inhibitors, and Hans Kosterlitz’s question whether the brain might perhaps contain some analgesic chemical like that in -of all things the poppy plant.”

“The fact is that drug discovery, like all discoveries, is more an individual than a team achievement, at least at the beginning. With a few notable exceptions, the trouble with the industry is summarized by a group research director at one of the leading pharmaceutical companies:

“Creative individuals are being driven out of the industry and being replaced by functionaries wbo parrot strategic maxims. Research is being driven by lawyers, financial experts, salesmen and market strategists who are completely unable to develop new ideas. It is doubtful whether there are any senior executives who understand the problem” (Drews, J., 1999 In quest of tomorrow’s medicine, Springer-Verlag, New York).

And further:

“Partly as a result of mismanagement and partly as a result of a search for solutions which takes no account of disease mechanisms and biomedical complexity, substantial parts of the pharmaceutical industry are failing to innovate at a rate which is needed for their health and for the health of the general public. Research management needs to be rethought with a much greater emphasis on creative individuals with a broad knowledge of biology and medicine, a lower emphasis on market research, and a greater openness to the information to be gained from clinical studies (Horrobin, D.F., 2000, Innovation in the pharmaceutical industry. J. R. Soc. Med. 93, 341 – 345. ).”

For more on keeping univeristies honest, see the excellent new blog, The storm breaking upon the university.

When one thinks of the cult of managerialism, one name that comes to mind is Howard Newby. During his time at HEFCE, research funding became enormously concentrated, rather than being spent on good work wherever it occurred. But Newby is not a scientist, so I suppose he just doesn’t understand how it’s done. Some recent developments in his career seemed worth noting. I make no comment on the changes that left staff at the University of the West of England (UWE) so demoralised, because I don’t know enough about them.

In Nature (December 2001), Newby was quoted as saying

“The improvements in performance since the last RAE are a direct result of institutions managing their research strategically,”

Anybody who thinks that is totally out of touch with how science works. What actually happened, of course, is that universities learned out to fiddle their submissions better. It is just another example of Goodhart’s law.

But what about the following facts?

In the Guardian, Stephen Bates writes thus.

“Sir Howard Newby is continuing his progress through the groves of academe like a ballbearing in a pinball machine, with the announcement yesterday that he is to become the next vice-chancellor of Liverpool University, barely a year since he took up the same post at the University of the West of England [UWE] in Bristol. Sir Howard is gathering such titles – he was previously vice-chancellor at Southampton, before becoming chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England and president of Uni versities UK.”

The Guardian in “Will the Newby broom sweep clean?” shows the quality if the argument.

“”Steven West, the university’s deputy vice-chancellor, who officially takes over
as acting vice-chancellor on September 1, said that the plans set in place by
Sir Howard would be taken forward and delivered.

“The strategy is right and many
other universities are now going down this road. That’s testimony to the fact
we have got it right,”

Everyone is doing it so it must be right? Ahem, just one problem there surely. Everyone is doing it, but nobody has bothered to try to discover if it has done any good, West’s argument is only too typical of the circular, and data-free, argument so beloved of the management-speak folks, It seems that fashion, rather than results, guide what happens in the world of management bollocks.

The Guardian continues

” . . . university officials said staff were consulted, academics
felt decisions had been made ahead of any conclusions, particularly regarding
the reconfiguring of faculties and a controversial new policy on intellectual
property.”

Uhuh. Decisions made before the consultation? Sounds familiar?

But it gets worse,

“The use of management consultancy firms linked to both Sir Howard and his wife, assistant vice-chancellor Lady Sheila Newby, also caused concern.

“They were private companies with no idea about university or academe telling us how to do things and what to do. People got upset because he was running the university life a little fiefdom and giving very big contracts to his mates,”

said one academic, who preferred not to be named.”

And. from Wikipedia, we learn this.

“He was appointed as the vice chancellor of the University of the West of England , starting in March 2006. In May 2007 Private Eye (Eye 1185) reported that Sir Howard has used his position at the University to secure a highly paid job for his wife and to contract services to a company, Carter and Carter, of which Sir Howard is a non-executive director.
Following these revelations it was announced in July 2007 that he will be taking up the post of Vice-Chancellor of the University of Liverpool from September 2008. “

The Bristol Blogger puts it rather more bluntly.

“UWE Vice-Chancellor Sir Howard Newby is quitting the university, less than two years in to the job, after becoming embroiled in a major conflict of interest scandal between the university and his private education business Carter and Carter. The episode is said to have caused “disquiet” among many on the university’s governing body.”

“Serious concerns were raised about Newby when it was revealed recently he had concluded a deal on UWE’s behalf with a private sector training company, Carter and Carter. Newby, however is a director of the company and was therefore effectively awarding himself a lucrative public sector contract! Questions have also been asked about his relationship to the university’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor. Her name is Lady Sheila Newby!”

“As for Newby’s big idea to turn UWE into a piece of jargon called a “knowledge exchange” that lies well and truly in tatters. The only exchange that’s gone on at UWE recently seems to be public cash into Newby’s private hands.”

Well, at least the UWE’s “knowledge exchange” doesn’t extend to promoting anti-scientific quackery. But it seems that they may be working on that omission.

More on Newby can be found at Eco-Logic, from someone with first hand experience.

The saga of the excommunication of this page, and its de-excommunication, is described here, and here, and here.

I am supposed to be on holiday, but the Red Lion in Grasmere has a wireless network, and this is just too good not to post at once. So, after a distinctly moist walk over Loughrigg Fell, and an excellent dinner, here goes.

Panorama from half way up Loughrigg Fell, with Grasmere on left and Rydal Water on write, taken just before the downpour started.


Loughrigg Fell and Rydal Water on left. Grasmere Lake above and Grasmere village (right) with GPS track.


The main trigger for the allegations of defamation seems to have been the fact that I said (and still say), apropos of Dr Ann Walker’s description of red clover, “What on earth is a “blood cleanser” or a “cleanser of the lymphatic system”. This is so much meaningless gobbledygook”.


This set me wondering about the origin of the term “blood cleanser”, and who better to ask than the erudite Micheal Quinion of the wonderful World Wide Words site. His weekly newsletter is invariably fascinating. And buy his books.


Michael Quinion has kindly given permission for me to reproduce his “non-definitive” investigation into the use of the term “blood cleanser”. It seems to have been a favourite of snake oil salesmen in thw 19th century. Of course, none of them defined what it means. You are just meant to know that it’s something good.

Quinion on “Blood Cleanser”

“The exact phrase “blood cleanser” is known no later than the nineteenth century. The earliest I’ve found is from an advertisement in the Ohio Democrat for 30 June 1871 (it ran regularly from then on) “D.B. FAHRNEY’S Blood Cleanser or Panacea, for sale by Miller & O’Donnel, is becoming a popular family medicine.” There was also Prof. Chapins’ Blood Cleanser, advertised the following year.

But the concept of cleansing the blood is very much older, of course. I have found another advertisement, in the Milwaukee Evening Courier of Wisconsin, dated 22 March 1847: “As a SPRING and FALL PURIFIER it cannot be surpassed, working its way through the system with a silent and effective force,–Cleansing the BLOOD; Removing DYSPEPTIC INFLUENCES;
Soothing the NERVES; Removing INTERNAL Obstructions and diseases that would otherwise cause injury to the LIVER and LUNGS.”

Variations on the phrase also occur several times in Culpeper’s Herbal (1653 edition) in the section on hops: “In cleansing the blood they help to cure the French diseases, and all manner of scabs, itch, and other breakings-out of the body; as also all tetters, ringworms, and spreading sores, the morphew and all discolouring of the skin.”  Another example is: “The roots of this Bastard Rhubarb are used in opening and purging diet- #drinks, with other things, to open the liver, and to cleanse and cool the blood.”

It also appears earlier still in The Anatomy of Melancholy by Richard Burton (1621): “And because the spleen and blood are often misaffected in melancholy, I may not omit endive, succory, dandelion, fumitory, &c., which cleanse the blood, Scolopendria, cuscuta, ceterache, mugwort, liverwort, ash, tamarisk, genist, maidenhair, &c., which must help and ease the spleen.”

No doubt a more thorough search will turn up still earlier examples. (My sources are poor before the eighteenth century.)”

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
From: God

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

Naturalness

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.