This page is a continuation of In Memoriam: Dept of Pharmacology, UCL. A diary..
2 June 2008 Went to Phillipe Sands lecture. He’s the UCL International lawyer who has done so much to unearth the illegal behaviour of the Bush regime. A wonderful man. I bought his book, The Torture Team.
4 June 2008 Another “training course” advertised by HR, from Catalyst Business Dynamics again. This time it’s “Coaching for the Research Marathon”,
given, no doubt, with someone no experience of research (apart perhaps, from failing at it). Sounds pretty typical of the mind-numbing vauousness that seems to characterise all HR incursions into matters of intellect.
6 June 2008 Off to Scotland for a week, Train to Aberdeen, then overnight ferry to Lerwick in Shetland Isles. Lerwick is almost as close to Bergen as it is to Aberdeen. Later to Haroldswick,on the northernmost island in the Shetlands, Unst. Halfway to London from Haroldswick is close to St Andrews, and Edinburgh is about halfway between Lerwick and London, In fact Haroldswick is almost as close to Reykjavik as it is to London (distance calculator here). There are some pictures here.
15th June 2008. Back home. Today’s Point of View programme on Radio 4 was by the Financial Times journalist, Lucy Kellaway. It was a beautiful demolition job on the sort of vacuous management-speak that has engulfed universities [play the mp3, 2.7 Mb].
She referred to the Local Government Association’s list of 100 banned words.
Something for every HR department and academics suffering from Knight starvation.
16th June 2008. More 4 TV News phoned to ask if I’d do an interview about proposals to regulate herbalists and acupuncture. According to first reports, the proposals are as daft as you’d expect from a committee riddled with vested interests. But then they pulled the item because they couldn’t find a herbalist who was willing to appear with me. I must be doing something right. Well, I will keep using unacceptable words like ‘evidence’ and ‘efficacy’.
See some good comments on this item, below.
19th June 2008. At last, I got the Windows versions of our programs for single ion channel analysis on to the web. They are the culmination of many year’s work and they are free for anyone who needs them. But that is the day job.
23rd June 2008. Corrected proofs for a paper, but that is day job too.
I’m still chuckling about the piece in the Tines Higher Education ” ‘Performance management is a waste of time,’ claims HR professor“. Its is always good to hear the views of the sensible insider.
Speaking to Times Higher Education in advance of the meeting, Professor Sheehan, himself a former HR manager, said the idea that individuals need to be motivated by managers was “nonsense”.
But the truly shocking bit is the amount of taxpayers’ money that has been wasted in inflicting HR-bollocks on harrassed academics.
“The sector has been handed £880 million since 2000 under the Government’s “Rewarding and developing staff” initiative.”
£880 million?! That is almost as much as the US Taxpayer has wasted on (mostly) bad research. It is about 25 percent of the MRC’s budget. What on earth is Gordon Brown thinking about?.
Just to check the details, I took a look at some local stuff. It seems that what you need to be a manager is to have mastered a swathe of vacuous management gobbledygook. You must be able to take seriously those absurd lists of competences.
Pomposity is compulsory, but the ability to write plain English is clearly a disqualification. Fulfil those qualifications and you can get a professorial salary much younger than any real professor.
An excellent column appeared today in the Independent. Dominic Lawson writes about the Pittilo report: “So now we will have degrees in quackery. What, really, is the difference between acupuncture and psychic surgery?“. I put some quotations here.
25 June 2008. It is UCL’s Open Day. On the way in to the lab at 06.10, I picked up the leaflet with the title “Neuroscience”. It is written for potential undergraduates. According to the introduction, Neuroscience is about the nervous system. But according to the contents it encompasees also Genetics, Molecular Biology, Cell Biology, Developmental Biology, Physiology and Pharmacology. Of course very large sections of these subjects have little or nothing to do with the nervous system. This is the sort of intellectual nonsense that results when trendy names take precedence over common sense.
26 June 2008. Yet more from HR, this time on the new Concordat for (contract) Research Workers. Anyone, at least in the biomedical sciences, knows that the vast majority of research is done by Postdoctoral Fellows on short contracts. In some cases, the boss does little more than attach their name to the paper. (That isn’t universal of course, but it is not uncommon in very large research groups that we are under pressure to have.) The problem is that there are not enough ‘permanent’ jobs for them all to move on to one. Brilliant people get cast aside. They have a hard time.
Sadly the concordat is simply a statement of the bleedin’ obvious. Heaven knows how much time and money went into producing a document that really says nothing very useful at all.
The one thing that I can think of that could be done is to have good, high-powered graduate education, of the sort discussed in the previous item (and in comments). In my own field, for example, there could be courses in advanced receptor theory, or advanced ideas about ion channels, or some real statistics and nonlinear curve-fitting. These things are not dealt with in undergraduate courses and the researchers are left to learn from themselves. Guess what? Nothing even vaguely like that appears in the concordat. All we get is the usual HR-bollocks courses in self-reflection, assertiveness and advanced powerpoint. Perhaps that is because the people who wrote it don’t seem to be involved in doing research themselves.
29 June 2008. In Edinburgh for a couple of days. On Monday, a talk to the European Conference on Mathematical and Theoretical Biology, The conference was excessively commercial. They wanted invited speakers to pay £250 registration (though I beat them down a lot from that). Not surprisingly, the South American speaker in our symposium didn’t turn up (pity, I wanted to meet him). This sort of meeting means that only the well-off can publicise their work. I don’t want the “free” glass and leather conference case, just to talk science with friends.
Some excellent stuff, but also some that seemed a bit out of touch with reality. One poster described an attempt to model the entire metabolic network of yeast.
“81 of the 662 intracellular concentrations were defined . . . The remainder were set to the median concentration of c. 0.2 mM.”
The next day a talk about ion channels to a smallish group of interested students. Then a delusions talk to an overflowing Gaddum Theatre (being in Edinburgh, the talk featured the book written by their Professor of Medical Education).
George Square, was raped (architecturally speaking) in the 60s by rhe university’s unspeakably ugly concrete buildings, so I thought it was improved by the new coffee stand (a Tardis, for Dr Who fans).
George Sq & Appleton Tower
George Sq. Tardis
2 July 2008. The Royal Society soirée. Posh exhibits, posh food, and some posh people. “Decorations will be worn” so lots of gongs on show. A few years ago I saw the indomitable Gertrude Falk at one of these does with a medal round her neck. Closer inspection showed it to be the “Erasmus High School Economics Prize” medal, So next year I went wearing my London Marathon medal. Nobody seemed to mind.
3 July 2008. http://dcscience.net reached half a million hits. Amazing.
Also today, I see in the Times Higher Education an advertisement an advertisement for an interesting UCL job. “Director of Grand Challenges” (for the rather grand salary of £85k-plus). Yet another highly paid job for someone not doing either research or teaching.
According to the Office of the Vice-Provost (Research)’. it seems that “We are positioning ourselves to build exponentially on our contribution to date. We are forming alliances and collaborations, across multiple disciplines, focused on issues of global significance”.
UCL’s research strategy defines our Grand Challenges in the following four areas:
- Global Health
- Sustainable Cities
- Intercultural Interactions
Sounds terrific and let’s hope something useful comes from it. I can’t find much in the way of concrete guidance about what the fine words mean in real life. “Wellbeing” in particular sounds astonishingly vague. It is the name you see in fancy hotels for the people who provide aromatherapy and Ayurvedic massage to the rich and gullible. I hope it turns out not to mean that.
The letter we got doesn’t define it. There’s a surprise.
6th to 12th July 2008. Holiday part 2, in Yorkshire Dales (not far from Settle). A lot of rain but three good walks. Wonderful relaxation and beautiful scenery, There are some pctures here.
Then straight to Cambridge for meeting of the Physiological Society on Monday 13th and 14th. We (Lape, DC and Sivilotti) had a poster.
We drafted something and the professional media man hyped it up appallingly and got the science wrong. In the end we had to re-write it ourselves, It isn’t easy to explain single channel results to arts graduates (and it isn’t obvious why we are paying people to write over-hyped and inaccurate news items). It will be out in print on 7th August.
The my old friend ans mentor at Yale, J. Murdoch Ritchie died ( a Yale friend wrote “the agony is over”. He had had Alzheimer’s for a few years. I wrote some reminiscences for his obituary. And dealt with the editorial for the New Zealand Medical Journal.
21 to 25 July was occupied wall-to-wall by our Graduate School course. Excellent group of people again this year. The course photograph is here.
21 July 2008 The Provost’s Newsletter starts
A couple of items in my last Newsletter inspired a lively postbag. The first, on the responsibility of human resource management in a university like UCL prompted a range of comments and suggestions, for many of which I am grateful.
“Many of which”;. Not so subtle response -pity there are no details. I have no idea if my response was read. If it was, I’m pretty sure it will be ignored
26 July 2008. My first ever trip in a hot air balloon (birthday present). Magnificent early morning mist and sun. Click the picture to see album.
1 August 2008. I’ve been sent a link to a rather beautiful essay, “Change in Universities, ‘Technology Transfer’, and the Commercial World: An Irreconcilable Clash of Cultures?”. It was published in June 2008, by Robert Miller of the University of Otago. There is a summary by Miller on the ‘Storm breaking on the university’ site, and the whole essay can be downloaded from Miller’s site, or as a pdf file here.
2 August 2008. A rather interesting article on modern management ideas in the New York Times today.
“Decentralizing the hierarchy opens the door to creativity, giving workers the leeway they need to make significant decisions without first jumping through executive management hoops. “The idea,” he says, “is to enable a creative environment where there’s a good degree of experimentation.” “
How odd that this should appear within days of getting an email to tell us that our excellent and friendly local support services will have gone by Christmas, to be replaced by distant centralised services. It isn’t management that one objects to, but out-ot-date bad management.
Of course it could yet turn out that the centralisation that is going on will work tolerably well. Time will tell. It isn’t even the worst part of what we are suffering now. The worst part is the disempowerment of anyone doing original work, That has already happened and that, above all, is what could, in the long term, do a lot of damage to the scientific reputation of UCL.
3 August 2008. That’s nice. Just stumbled across and unsolicited testimonial for our “Matrix algebra for single ion channels” course. it’s a lot of work for us and for the students so good to know they get something out of it. The tutors get paid nothing for all the extra work. It is the sort of thing people take on out of loyalty to the department and UCL. I’m not sure that sort of loyalty will survive under the managerialistic culture now imposed on us, because it discourages any sort of altruism.
4 August 2008. A correspondent reminds me of a lovely quotation.
“If a person is (a) poorly, (b) receives treatment intended to make him better, and (c) gets better, then no power of reasoning known to medical science can convince him that it may not have been the treatment that restored his health”.
(Medawar, P.B. (1969:19). The Art of the Soluble: Creativity and originality in science. Penguin Books: Harmondsworth).
That really is almost all you need to say about why people believe so many things that aren’t true.
16 August 2008 Well well, the very handsome slate nameplates -thick, heavy and substantial, that labelled the medical sciences building, have been replaced by cheap looking plastic creations bearing the logo in a bilious orange colour. Well. I guess than expense (and aesthetics) count for little when it comes to advancing the corporate image (if you think plastic notices do that).
20 August 2008. We are being deluged with documents about public engagement in science, For example, the vacuous list of truisms issued by Research Councils UK has today been circulated to all staff
I’m all for public engagement in science, and this blog is intended for that purpose. The problem is that there is often a confusion between public engagement in science and running a marketing operation for the university. This surfaced in the Times Higher Education this week
"The University of Nottingham’s definition of “public engagement” as an activity akin to marketing has raised academic eyebrows."
The controversial definition appears in a memo from pro vice-chancellor Chris Rudd to heads of schools seeking academics to take part in an audit of the university’s public and employer engagement activities.
The memo defined public engagement as: “The range of activities of which the primary functions are to raise awareness of the university’s capabilities, expertise and profile to those not already engaged with the institution.”
That’s odd. I’d always thought it was to do with getting people interested in scientific questions and the scientific approach. The definition in appeared in a memo from pro vice-chancellor Chris Rudd to heads of schools. Professor Rudd appears to have forgotten what universities are there for.
I’ll be going to the Science Blogging 2008, meeting to be held at the Royal Institution, London, August 30, 2008. I’m hoping it will encourage real education, but judging by the questionnaire at the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, it may me just another but of the government’s attempt to mix business with academia.
Business ethos ‘a blight on research’, also in in THE refers to a superb essay by Robert Miller of Otago. His essay, Change in Universities, ‘Technology transfer’, and the Commercial World: An Irreconcilable Clash of Cultures? is available here.
“In the past 20 years in Britain and New Zealand a style of university administration has developed, with excesses of both managerialism and demands for accountability, which prevent real innovation from emerging. In their research role, this has placed short-term aims above more fundamental, long-term initiatives,”
Yet another report in THE touches on the same topic. Make scholars see the value of marketing? It’s a hard sell
“A “cultural clash” between academia and business is preventing marketing from fulfilling its potential in higher education, a new report suggests.
The study, What Vice-chancellors Really Think about Marketing, sets out the difficulties university marketing managers face as they attempt to fully exploit opportunities in a sector that still harbours suspicion of the commercial world.
This strikes me as just plain silly. It isn’t a matter of “cultural clash” of “suspicion”. It is simply thet the marketers and universities have different aims, The aim of the marketer is to sell something with as little regard for truth as they can get away with. The aim of universities is to discover the truth. Of course they don’t mix.
22 August 2008. One of the fun things about blogging is that people start sending you things. Today was a bumper day. First a plain brown envelope in the mail. Later, two separate emails both with some fascinating documents attached. Watch this space.
1 September 2008. Graduation day. Proud parents everywhere. What a pity about the blind that adorns the cloisters
Anybody knows what a “sustainable degree” is? Answers on a postcard to Lord Gnome (‘embarrassing PR spin’ is not a valid answer). I point this out entirely in defence of the real UCL
And that is right opposite to a (generally good) China exhibition which includes this.
That may be the embassy line, but it’s wrong. As the evidence piles up that acupuncture is no more than a theatrical placebo, it is becoming less accepted, not more.
2 September 2008. Got some ideas about that that sustainability poster from a friend in a distant university.
As a household with 3 “sustainable” degrees from UCL between us we are very uncertain as to how we should proceed to ensure they are further “developed sustainably” (not “sustainably developed” as stated on the blind – poor English no?).
We offer the following suggestions:
1. We go out to the small wood in [location censored, Ed] where we have three trees planted in our names and plant our degree parchments alongside them “to ensure vigorous growth for future generations”. Hey, how about that last phrase for PR nonsense – better send it to the Publicity Office?!!
2. We send them back to UCL to be recycled and offered to a new lot of graduands to save a bit of printing – just tippex out the names/dates/degree class/subject etc.
3. Donate them to other institutions who aspire to have such management-bollocks PR slogans banded about their education establishments so as to make themselves look as foolish as UCL.
11 September 2008. Hmm an article in Times Higher Education by my very own boss, Malcolm Grant, The real sting of the QAA whip. Putting aside the rather tasteless prolonged deliberation on the flaggelatory analogy, the message is that criticism of degree classification might harm our reputation overseas (and we all know how dependent universities are on overseas students who pay high fees). Unfortunately though, he didn’t consider the important question, namely are the crticisms of standards justified. As one of the commenters quickly pointed out “the writer ducks the issue he raises”.
18 September 2008. This week’s issue of Times Higher Education carries three more responses to Malcolm Grant’s article. One of them says “When will vice-chancellors consult evidence obtained through impartial expert research, rather than the economic interests of their institutions, when pronouncing on major policy issues?”. I have some sympathy with that view. Very much the same comment could be made about vice-chancellors who award BSc degrees in quackery.
18 – 19 September 2008. To Plymouth for the course Microelectrode Techniques for Cell Physiology, for my annual two lectures on single channel methods and theory. This is the 25th year the course has been run with selfless energy by David Ogden (and I’ve missed only one). Most UCL people have tutored on the course at one time or another (this year Remigijus Lape, Marco Beato and Stephanie Schorge were there. This is hard work with little reward for the people
who do it. That requires a loyalty and altruism among postdocs and young faculty that are being eroded rapidly by the cult of managerialism. Sadly, HR people and vice-chancellors simply do not understand how the system works.
Plymouth Hoe. Smeaton’s tower on left, Citadel lab of Marine Biological Association on right, from Cawsand ferry, 2002.
20 September 2008. At last, my video, Integrative baloney @ Yale, reappeared on YouTube, a month or so after Yale’s lawyers were persuaded that it didn’t after all breach their copyright. Now Yale needs to address the problem of why the video was made.
22 September 2008. Repeated power failures because of electrical checks. Whose bright idea was it to maks computers unusable on the first day of term (and misinform us about which areas would be affected)? Don’t you just love “efficient centralised administration.
A particularly ill-informed and silly piece by Mark Lawson in the Guardian today, about the pseudo-row abour creationism. But what do you expect from someone who writes for The Tablet (a catholic newspaper)?
23 September 2008. How nice to be able to record something good. Scientists need to talk to each other. That’s how you learn things. But the UCL refectory has turned into a branch of Euston station and has been abandoned by academics. And one of our senior common rooms, the Haldane room, has been removed. Administrators don’t understand how science works -they seem to be under the delusion that merging everyone into an enormous department will make people interact but the effect is precisely the opposite. But recently the Print Room Cafe opened in the South quad. And it’s run by the students’ union, not a branch of MacDonalds. It is a long overdue step in the right direction.
“drinking coffee with people cleverer than oneself is not a waste of time, but one of the best ways of expanding horizons. The ‘sandwich at the desk syndrome’ is not just unsociable: it may seriously harm your career.”
Stephenson, affinity and efficacy in 2005. pA2 online , volume 3 Issue 4 pp. 5–8. [ Get pdf ]
25 September 2008. Surprise! The Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council advertised jobs on its Conduct and Competence committee, So I applied because I was interested to see what excuses they would use to turn me down. They didn’t, so now I am a member of that committee. It should be interesting. And I shall no longer be able to refer to the CNHC as “OfQuack“.
29 September 2008 The new café seems to have emboldened the local wildlife too.
3 October 2008. Well, who’d have thought it? Today we were sent an email by the Deputy Faculty Administrator to apologise for the fact that mail was being delivered to the wrong place. It is over a year ago since the absurd mega-department now known as NPP was foisted on us (contrary to the advice of just about every active researcher, and contrary to the advice of Alan North’s external review). Incredibly, at this late stage, there is still no complete list of who is in what (pseudo-) department. I recall that one of the first things everyone was saying at the time was “I wonder if anyone has thought about little details like where the mail will go”
It seems that this little detail was indeed neglected. Another testament to the “efficient centralised management” that we were promised. It seems to me that such monumentally incompetent management should result in resignation of all those concerned.
It seems that the post room needs another member of staff to cope with the chaos. In the unlikely event that anyone is keeping track of what this costs, I hope that they remember to count the cost of yet another non-scientist in the efficiency calculation. When I sent a friendly email to the Deputy Faculty Administrator in response, I was rather surprised to find she was “on leave” for ten days, right at the beginning ot term.
1 -10 October Students are back and give my (now few) third year lectures (two on single molecules, one on non-linear curve fitting). Like any lecture with equations, they are not popular with most undergraduates Sad. But also spoke to first year students on an excellent new course that combines biological sciences and maths/physics: they like equations.
8 October 2008 Talked to an HR person and it seems that they may accept my offer to provide one of the “Roberts Agenda” training courses. My title, “how to spot bullshit” was not acceptable, but the idea that this was the ultimate transferable skill seemed to got down better that I’d expected.
13 October 2008. Preparing stuff for a debate on creationism at the Trinity College Dublin Philosophical Society on Thursday. It is said to be the oldest paper-reading society in the world and this is its 324th session.
14 October 2008. Yet another email from on high, asking for information for yet another web site It has an absurd list of fixed keywords that contains ‘glutamate’ but not ‘glycine’, and which does not contain ‘stochastic processes’. Another good effort from the small-minded bureaucrats who now run us, and who seem to think we have nothing better to do than fill in endless forms. The boss just had to fill in one for the MRC for which the instructions alone were 50 pages long.
15 October 2008. More communication with the head of division about the absurdity of having a department with 500 or so people in it. His reply was quite remarkable.
“One thing I am worried about is ensuring young staff have a supportive environment to work in and this may be a challenge for HoDs of such large groups.”
“Ten to twenty is probably about right. There are ways of achieving this in the current Departments but no evidence of it happening yet”.
How odd, that is precisely what I was saying before the managerial revolution. Ten or twenty is, of course, much the same as the Pharmacology Department that has been abolished. You couldn’t make it up.
20 October 2008. Back at work after a debate about creationism at Trinity College Dublin (the creationists were wiped out) and a debate on homeopathy at UCL (we won again). I may report on both debates in more detail later.
21 October 2008. Some really good news today in the Provost’s Newsletter. Richard Frackowiak has, at last, left UCL for good. He is the person who got an Ig-Nobel prize for the infamous taxi-driver paper. He was demoted by Derek Roberts when Roberts returned as temporary provost after the departure of Christopher Llewellyn-Smith. He was a strong supporter of Roberts’ subsequent misguided attempt to sell UCL off to Imperial College, a battle that he also lost. But he remained on the Senior Management team. and allegedly had great influence on our present provost. Most of us have little doubt that he bears much of the blame for the present collapse of morale in Life Sciences. The takeover attempt launched by Imperial for UCL is what got me into blogging. It looks very amateurish now, but it worked. My
blog can still be seen as
it was on victory day. As a matter of historical record, I’ve also tried to recreate the the much funnier and more stylish student blog (though some of the links no longer work). The “Ask Jeremy” section is particular hilarious.
23 October 2008. One of our many administrators reports on the latest from the BBSRC.
“There was a lot of emphasis on impact, impact, impact! Think impact from start of grant writing; – Describe and capture impact, and acceleration of
delivery of impacts will be key. “
“Need to encourage the research community to think about the strategic focus of their applications and ensure to capture the impact of the outcomes.”
So no shortage of policy-bollocks there. All the emphasis on short term outcomes, the death of originality and innovation.. Just write a highly-cited paper about acupuncture and hit the headlines.
30 October 2008. First Academic Board meeting of the year. It has been moved to a smaller lecture theatre now, presumably because even fewer people go, not that AB has been deprived of the few powers that it had, A couple of hours before the meeting, a colleague discovered another item hidden in an appendix, not for discussion This appears to remove yet more powers from AB, by giving advance permission to various people and committees to take decisions on its behalf. I gather that a vote was forced, but as usual, hardly anybody dared to put up their hands. The removal of power from academics is almost complete and most have acquiesced in it. There hasn’t even been a faculty meeting for a long time now, and there has never been a staff meeting for the new “department”. There is no lecture theatre big enough to hold a staff meeting if everyone were to turn up. But there is not much point in having one anyway since the head of the “department” has himself been deprived of most of his power. Now everything is directed by a few apparatchiks from distant central offices.
4 November 2008. There is a big exhibition from HR department in the cloisters today. Some colleagues braved the cold to avoid it, but not me. It gave me a chance to enquire about the fate of my proposal to run for them a ‘training course’ in the ultimate transferable skill, How to spot bullshit (see October 8). It seems to be still on the cards. Decisions are slow when every little item has to be preceded by twenty meetings and an awayday in Majorca.
A good starting point might be the large poster and bunch of expensive looking pamphlets produced to advertise UCL’s “Management Competencies”. In case you forgot, a “competency” in HR-speak is a list of theoretical attributes that you must have to do a job, and does not refer to any actual ability in real life. If you doubt that, check the Competency in Distant Healing priduced by Skills for Health. When I asked them if they were going to produce a competency in talking to trees (that was a joke, geddit?) they replied, in all seriousness, that talking to trees was the job of LANTRA, the Land based Skills Council. That is the sort of mentality we are dealing with. And they are, no doubt, written by people who have never done the job they are lecturing us on. You can read the “management competencies” here. The list consists of a mixture of banal truisms mixed with some very undesirable ideas.
- Develops and delivers the strategy of the team/division/department/faculty/UCL
- Maintains an awareness of the wider context (UCL wide, national and international as appropriate) and responds accordingly
- Promotes excellence in areas of teaching, research, administration and the provision of support services
- Addresses challenges and manages change in support of corporate and local objectives
- Promotes the activities of the team/division/department/faculty both internally and externally as appropriate
- Demonstrates effective self management and focus
Point 3 is just what we have always done. Why on earth are we paying people to write it down now. Point 6 is pathetic psycho-babble, Points 1, 2, 4 and 5 say you must not think for yourself but behave like a corporate zombie. It is deeply insulting to be lectured at in this childish way. The whole point of having a university is to have people who can think foi themselves, and not behave like an obedient servant of Wal-Mart. I am deeply loyal to UCL
but I deplore its corruption by rubbish like this.
5 November 2008. Then the next day, yet another email from HR, just as one was feeling happy about Obama. This time it was a lecture about work-life balance, from thoise folks who are never there when you phone at 10 to 5).
The Working Time Regulations require that an employee does not exceed 48 hours work per week on average over a 17 week period and has a rest period of 11 hours in every 24. Where UCL is the main employer it has a responsibility to ensure as far as possible that the Regulations are not exceeded by their staff.
I don’t know any successful academic who works only 48 hours a seek, and it would be impssoble for most of us to meet the demands placed on us if we did. The stuff about ensuring that we do is sanctimonious rubbish. There is nothing that they can do, and if there were, the place would fall apart.
These HR people simply have no comprehension of what doing research is like. Why should they? It isn’t their job. The very idea of having some fixed number of hours per week is ludicrous. If I have an algebraic problem, it nags away for every waking moment.
17 November 2008. More evidence of style mattering more than content. A colleague spotted an advertisement for an NHS job at our partner hospital, UCLH. Associate Director – Communications, to “undertaking proactive PR” among other things. In other words, a spin artist. It isn’t the top jb but “unique opportunity to develop your communications career”. The mind-boggling think is the pay, £68,275.00 to £83,117.00 for a 37.5 hour week. That is far more than most scientists get for working a lot longer. It seems that PR pays better than honesty. But I suppose you have to be paid well to promote the homeopathy and herbal activities at the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital (watch this space).
18 November 2008. Took the train to Preston, to give evidence to the
review committee set up by the University of Central Lancashire. The committee was set up to “To review the issues associated with Homeopathy, Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine”. Those giving evidence were still denied access to what is actually taught on the courses, but enough is known now about what is taught on similar courses elsewhere that this was not a serious impediment. Time will tell, but I came away with s firm impression that the review is genuine,
not just a whitewash.
The bad news is that they are not due to report until April 2009.
21 November 2008. More evidence of bad management. I learned to day that the pharmacology department had seven authorised signatories,
and that the entire vast biosciences division (over 1000 people) has only ten All our local people who for years have signed orders, can no longer do so. Everything will be slower and more time-consuming. Services are not more efficient, they are worse (despite the same number of people being employed).
We were told by Malcolm Grant that the aim was to get more efficient services. The effect so far has been to disempower academics entirely and to make services worse. The problem with academics who go into administration because they are not very good at research is that, only too often, they are not very good at administration either.
17 to 23 November. The week has been dominated by lending long-distance moral support to my PI. Lucia Sivilotti. Her 87-year old father drove from home on Monday 17th, and vanished. Lucia left for Italy on Tuesday morning to hunt for him. The carabinieri found the car on Thursday, broken down on a country lane in Friule, but failed to find her father. Lucia went back to the area on Friday morning to re-search the area that carabinieri were meant to have searched the previous day. and found her father lying in a ditch, in dead leaves, hypothermic but conscious. Thirty minutes later a helicopter arrived to take him to intensive care in local hospital. He recovered so quickly that he’ll probably leave hospital on Monday. “Dad says of his time in the ditch that he could hear the birds singing and see the stars shine high above him among branches and brambles.”. Lucia says “he will get a bit better- and then go on deteriorating, I know but he’ll drink wine and eat good food and stroke GG [Girolamo Gatto] and listen to the birds and watch the stars only in hte summer one hopes.”. What a saga. Friulians are made of stern stuff. Reported in Il Gazzettino.
10 December 2008. Out to dinner. I was told that a staff member on our clinical school (now known, ludicrously, as Biomedical Sciences) had been summoned by Department head and told “we think your work is crap”. I have no idea what the work in question was like. I do know I would not care to work in a place that treats anybody in that way. the department head in question, I was told, routinely puts their name on every paper that comes out of the department. This is beginning to sound like Imperial.
11 December 2008. On a related topic, I was sent a link to this.
This came with a link to yet another futile and self-serving exercise in ranking universities, this time from the European Union. As my correspondent said
Even supposing that it was possible tio construct such a ranking, what conceivable use would it be? Wouldn’it be cheaper to produce a booklet advising prospective students “What to look for in a good university”.
Just more edubollocks.
13 December 2008. The new chair of Universities UK has been elected (UUK is what used to be called the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Prinicipals, before it changes its name to something meaningless) It is Steve Smith, VC of Exeter, the man who disgracefully failed to defend Edzard Ernst against harrassment by the Prince of Wales. I suppose that he will be no more unhelpful than the present chair when it comes to preventing umiversities teaching new age nonsense as fact, The only consolation is that the rival candidates were likely to be even worse. The inimitable Laurie Taylor says it all. I quote
‘I’m your man,’ says Sutton Coldfield’s Stubbins
“I believe it is vitally important that at this critical historical moment in time all universities should work together,” says Roger Stubbins, the prematurely comatose vice-chancellor of Sutton Coldfield University and chair of the Universities Left Over from all the Other University Alliances Alliance.
Then to the Maths department christmas party. The head of Maths, Dmitri Vassiliev, shows his Santa side.
15 December 2008. At last a reply from the Department of Health about the much-delayed consultation on the Pittilo report.
Dear Mr Colquhoun,
Thank you for your email of 2 December to the Department of Health about complementary therapies. I have been asked to reply.
The Minister of State for Health in England, Ben Bradshaw, is due to meet with the Health Ministers from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in mid-January to discuss the consultation following the publication of the Pittilo report. The consultation will be launched after this meeting has taken place.
I hope this reply is helpful.
Customer Service Centre
Department of Health
The DoH is the only place I know apart from the Daily Mail who send emails that appear almost illegible in a standard email program like Eudora, Politicians seem to have a lot of trouble with IT.
The British Library wrote.
“The British Library would like to archive the following website: http://dcscience.net/ for Blogs Collection ”
“The British Library has a responsibility to preserve national documentary heritage to the future generations. Our collecting responsibility extends to UK non-print material including websites, and we are now selecting some key sites of research interest to form the basis of the Blogs Collection. As blogs represent an innovative means of communication, the collection will be a valuable resource for researchers now and in the future.
We would like to invite you to have your site(s) included in this important collection. There are benefits to you as a website owner in having your publication archived by the British Library such as having a historical record of your website(s). We aim to develop preservation mechanisms to keep your publication permanently accessible as hardware and software change over time.”
18 December 2008. Results of the Research Assessment Exercise are out. UCL lies anywhere from third to fifth in the UK, depending on what sort of average you take. Not bad at all, but we knew that anyway. Another enormously expensive and time-consuming exercise to state the obvious. It isn’t really possible to compare this outcome with the top rating that Pharmacology had in the past, because of the different way the ratings were presented this time. We did well compared with other places in our ‘unit of assessment’ but Cambridge apparently were not competing. It is all a bit of a game-playing exercise. But nearly as much of a game-playing exercise as the next one will be, The REF, as far as we know now, will be based on citations. That will give a direct incentive to triviality and dishonesty Tim Birkhead puts it well in today’s THE.
Of course it is far too soon to tell whether the progressive disempowerment of academic staff that we have experienced will harm UCL’s science (I mean by ‘academic staff’ those who do the research, not those who used to). That is something that will take a decade to decide. All I know is that I here a great deal of discontent aired about the managerial cult that we are living through.
It’s a good job that I’m not looking for promotion since one of the criteria is that one must act like corporate man. My loyalty to UCL is as great as ever. My confidence in its present temporary management is not very high. I am not convinced that they know how to get good science . I cannot understand why they failed to learn from the Edinburgh experience . We have never been lectured so much about loyalty, but the actions have all had the effect of reducing loyalty. Who can feel loyalty to a vast and disparate department known by an acronym? Both staff and students feel rather lost in NPP. The only people who like it are those who already had little loyalty too, or interest in, UCL. They realise, quite correctly, that it will be easier for them to act in an entirely self-interested way in such a structure.
I really hope that some good will come of the changes that are going on. I can see one or two good things already. but mostly I see more bullshitting, more grandiose statements, more documents, more paper, more meetings, more alphabet soup, more condescending lectures and more web sites telling us that we are “vibrant and exciting”. At the moment the administration shows every sign of becoming less efficient, less convenient and more expensive than we had before. The new centralised administration takes full effect next January. Watch this space.
It is all rather reminiscent of the time when Imperial tried to take over UCL (the archives are here and here ). I was not in great favour with the management then either, but after we won I was made a Honorary Fellow of UCL .
25 December 2008. Did a lot of scanning of old photos, to make an album chronicling the birth of my son, as part of a tribute to UCH. It’s really just for family and friends but at least one blog picked up on the wider significance.
31 December 2008. Deliver son to New year party, laden with drinks, and returned to cold-infested household and settled in to watch again Chocolat. What a beautiful film, visually and intellectually.. The black-suited puritan and hypocritical mayor, the Comte de Reynaud, and the spineless priest directed by him, are very satisfactory hate figures, The secular heroine, played by Juliet Binoche is gentle, kind but also a bit radical and hedonist. Of course the goodies win in the end, but in a satisfactorly gentle way, not by the god-justifed violence and intimidation of the baddies. If you haven’t seen it, do as soon as you can.
It set me reflecting on how it is that the word “suits” has become a term of abuse. I’m old enough to remember (just) “city gents” lined up with bowler hats and umbrellas, waiting for the train into the city. Obviusly I was never one of them. That sort of conformity is not really compatible with original
thought. But I did trust them. They said their word was their bond and by and large it was true. So what went wrong? I think that it dates back to the endarkenment that started around 1980, with the deregulation mania of Thatcher and Reagan. Greed was all that mattered and honesty fell by the wayside. I suspect that many people thought Francis Wheen was exaggerating when ne included the world of finance in his list of delusions. Well we have just seen how right he was. Perhaps that is why now, when approached by a black-suited man (or woman) the reasonable assumption is that he his lying.
Never mind pill hucksters and homeopaths from whom one expects little anyway. What is really disturbing is the intellectual dishonesty, and wilful ignorance, of some politicians, vice-chancellors and senior academics. It never ceases to amaze me. There are lots of examples on this blog. Or try Monbiot on Northern Rock, or the observe Richard Sykes begging for taxpayers’ money to prop up biotechs. Or Nutritional Fairy Tales from Thames Valley University, or Another worthless validation: the University of Wales and nutritional therapy, or the maze of quangocrats described in Teaching bad science to children: OfQual and Edexcel are to blame (the net result of their expertise in regulation is that school children can be taught about crystal healing). Or Universities Inc in the UK. Or Morals in high places.
Happy new year.
13 January 2009. I was amazed to learn that last year, UCL gave an honorary degree to the notorious postmodernist writer, Luce Irigaray. I learned of her through reading Sokal & Bricmonts wonderful book. Intellectual Imposters Short of a full post, I can’t do better than quite from Dawkin’s review of that book.
“The feminist ‘philosopher’ Luce Irigaray is another who gets whole-chapter treatment from Sokal and Bricmont. In a passage reminiscent of a notorious feminist description of Newton’s Principia (a “rape manual”), Irigaray argues that E=mc 2 is a “sexed equation”. Why? Because “it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us” (my emphasis of what I am rapidly coming to learn is an ‘in’ word). Just as typical of this school of thought is Irigaray’s thesis on fluid mechanics. Fluids, you see, have been unfairly neglected. “Masculine physics” privileges rigid, solid things. Her American expositor Katherine Hayles made the mistake of re-expressing Irigaray’s thoughts in (comparatively) clear language. For once, we get a reasonably unobstructed look at the emperor and, yes, he has no clothes:
The privileging of solid over fluid mechanics, and indeed the inability of science to deal with turbulent flow at all, she attributes to the association of fluidity with femininity. Whereas men have sex organs that protrude and become rigid, women have openings that leak menstrual blood and vaginal fluids… From this perspective it is no wonder that science has not been able to arrive at a successful model for turbulence. The problem of turbulent flow cannot be solved because the conceptions of fluids (and of women) have been formulated so as necessarily to leave unarticulated remainders.
You do not have to be a physicist to smell out the daffy absurdity of this kind of argument (the tone of it has become all too familiar), but it helps to have Sokal and Bricmont on hand to tell us the real reason why turbulent flow is a hard problem: the Navier-Stokes equations are difficult to solve.”
We have had a bit of trouble from this sort of incoherent postmodernist rambling in the alt med business (check these). At least homeopaths are less pretentious, though every bit as deluded.
I learned that postmodernism is still alive at UCL through an email announcing that UCL will stage ” an international conference at UCL on the work of Luce Irigaray in Autumn 2010; the first in a series of events that we wish to organise on issues of sexual difference, gender, aesthetics and ethics”. It was signed by the Vice Provost, (Academic and Internationa), and by people from the Slade Art school, French, and the Bartlett School of Architecture,
14 January 2009. As of the beginning of this year, the new efficient central administration of everything takes effect. We are told that books must be cleared from the Starling Room library. to make room for coffee and for mail pigeon holes. The Starling Room used to the the Physiology Department Common room. I’m all for drinking coffee with colleagues but with the new vast and spread-out department, it is both too small and too far away from most people to work (I predict).
And it takes real administrative genius to put mail pigeon holes on the top floor of a building. Work it out.
An exasperated colleague commented
“First the death of democracy. Now the burning of the books. What on earth is happening to this place?”
21 January 2009. The Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC) is up and running. Since, to my amazement. I find myself
on their Conduct and Competence committee, I am leaving comments to others. There has been plenty of it.
22 January 2009. At last I manage to get a clear statement from Salford about what courses they are dropping. The post can be finished
and it’s up.
22 January 2009 The Private Eye editorial is priceless -go out and buy the magazine.
The Royal Bank of Gnome
We welcome the government’s decision to make a further contribution to the “Save the Banks” national appeal. As readers are aware, banks perform an invaluable service in refusing to lend money to people in need. That is why you, the taxpayer, must give us a further £1 trillion to enable us to lend back the money in order to spend your way into more debt. (Is this right? Ed.)
This might not sound a very clever idea to you the layman, but rest assured we here at the Royal Bank of Gnome have years of experience in the complex world of international finance and we are confident that the new £1 trillion bail out will tide us over for at least two weeks thus giving us time to shred all the incriminating documentation about toxic loans and book our flights to the Cayman Islands.
24 January 2009. The hilarious Radio 4 programme, The News Quiz (play the mp3) had a good joke. Jeremy Hardy was asked “which patients are hoping for a more robust constitution?”. This referred to the £1m PR exercise mounted by the NHS to launch the NHS constitution. Hardy said that in the week when Barack Obama was inaugurated, and “the word constitution have a whole different sort of gravita in a week like that.”
“I think the constitution should open with the words ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident REFLEXOLOGY IS BOLLOCKS”
27 January 2009. Went to lunch hour lecture, “President
Obama and America in the World: from inauguration to action“. It was given by the wonderful UCL International Lawyer, Philippe Sands. He is a major hero of mine. The lecture isn’t on line yet. When it appears, watch it.
28 January 2009. Seminar at the London Center for Nanotechnology. Single ion channel molecules are, arguably, the first sort of biological nanotechnology (and no grey goo in sight). It’s an impressive place, if you can get in. The security arrangements do far more to hinder interdisciplnary talk than departmental boundaries ever did.
29 January 2009. Our letter appears in the Times. And a colleague sends me this rather telling comparison. Plus ça change.
Fact: Mr Madoff
With his alleged victims asking why US regulators failed to query what was going on, it seems that the way in which Mr Madoff operated was key to the success of his venture. While those who knew him describe him as “affable” and “high-profile, but not in a loud way”, he went to great lengths to cultivate an aura of exclusivity.
Many of his richest clients were recruited in private chats at upmarket country clubs in New York and Florida, giving them a sense of belonging to a privileged circle of those in the know.
Then he used those big names to attract other investors, until his influence extended to international banks, hedge funds and even charitable foundations.
Fiction: Mr Merdle
(from Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit)
Mr. Merdle was immensely rich; a man of prodigious enterprise; a Midas without the ears, who turned all he touched to gold. He was in everything good, from banking to building. He was in Parliament, of course. He was in the City, necessarily. He was Chairman of this, Trustee of that, President of the other. The weightiest of men had said to projectors, “Now, what name have you got – have you got Merdle ? ” And, the reply being in the negative, had said, “Then I won’t look at you.”
……… He did not shine in company; he had not very much to say for himself; he was a reserved man, with a broad, over-hanging, watchful head, that particular kind of dull red colour in his cheeks which is rather stale than fresh, and a somewhat uneasy expression about his coat-cuffs, as if they were in his confidence, and had reasons for being anxious to hide his hands. In the little he said, he was a pleasant man enough; plain, emphatic about public and private confidence, and tenacious of the utmost deference being shown by everyone, in all things, to Society
30 January 2009. Some of the best bits of management googledygook yet (outside the postmodernist world) came my way (from an email about rubbish disposal).
“Example 3 – Sealing with radioactive tape designates that bag radioactive. From that point forward the bag is in breach of legislative compliance and will result in many negative externalities including additional costs to UCL.”
Not to mention
“Clinical waste is collected during unsociable hours in the morning to reduce the risk posed by vehicle movements to stakeholders of UCL.”
That reminds me, I was rather amazed when I discovered that a colleague at another university was using this as part of his email signature.
Lesson #1: Never trust anyone who uses the word “stakeholder”.
[David Colquhoun, UCL – DC’s Improbable Science, http://dcscience.net/ ]
Did I say that? Well, sounds plausible.
Then came the news that “Slade students create site-specific installations around UCL”. I fear that prompted the uncharitable thought “how do you distinguish between an installation and a member of the senior management team?”.
2 February 2009. Snowbound at home The inimitable John Humphrys, on the Today Programme, shares our cringing at the jargon of the weather forecast people, who insist on talking about “snow events”. He referred to “the snow event scenario situation”. Give him a job in senior management. Click the picture for an album.
3 February 2009. An interesting letter arrived from Shanghai “I have learned that you are a worldwide well-known professor in the field of alternative medicine. I am very interested in your research work and eager for participating in it.”. Ahem.
View from landing window at home
7 February 2009. Snow clears enough for an easy trip to Oxford, for talk at the Town Hall on How to Detect Bullshit. Stavros Isaiadis has done a write-up on Journey through a Burning Mind. Andy Lewis of Quackometer was on great form and enough cash was taken in the collection to send a donation to The Treatment Action Campaign – a South African charity that campaigns for evidence-based treatments for those with AIDS Thanks to Lee who runs the ‘ Through a Glass Darkly ‘ blog for organising the event.
13 February 2009: size matters. A colleague has drawn my attention to a statement made by the President and Provost of UCL. Malcolm Grant. The statement was made before what used to be the Parliamentary Science and Technology Select Committee but is now known as the Committee of Innovation, Univeristies, Science and Skills. You can see the whole thing in
Q2 Chairman: I wonder therefore if I could start with you, Professor Grant. This is really trying to look at higher education from the students’ point of view and it is mainly about undergraduates. Two weeks ago, Times Higher Education published its annual Student Experience Survey and, for the third year running, it was Loughborough University that came top. I wondered if you could briefly say what do you think matters most to students, and which universities in your view do you think are giving the best all-round student experience? What matters to them and who, in your opinion, is the best?
Professor Grant: Forgive me if I pass on the second part of your question but, on the first part of your question, I think that a number of things appeal to students and you can measure them by a number of indicators. My congratulations go to Loughborough, but I think that the choice of Loughborough as one of the most popular universities is down to being a relatively small institution that can create a sense of intimacy and personal relationships between students and the faculty who teach them…….
This does make one wonder why the policies forced on the Faculty of Life Sciences have moved UCL in exactly the opposite direction. We now have vast and anonymous ‘research departments’, run from Faculty level, and the “sense of intimacy and personal relationships” has largely gone. At one of the (sham) consulation meetings, a second year Pharmacology undergraduate made an excellent speech expressing her concern that under the new regime, undergraduates would lose the “home” that they valued. She, like the rest of us, was ignored.
22 February 2009. That’s nice. This blog has popped up in the Times “A Guide to the 100 best blogs“. But what’s this? They say
“The endarkenment” is the prime target for the irascible pharmacologist professor David Colquhoun
25 February 2009. My longest ever lunch, 13.00 to 16.30 Presumably because of my contribution to Crystal Balls, I got invited to a Private Eye lunch. Fantastic conversation with a lot of people I knew form the magazine, TV and books, and some I didn’t know before.
2 March 2009. Got the file for a telephone interview that I did about Chinese herbal medicine. It went out on the BBC World Service and the BBC Chinese Service last Wednesday [Play the mp3 file]
5 March 2009. Back from the Biophysical Society meeting in Boston. Slept for about 2 hours on the plane. Meeting was excellent. Our symposium was on the last day, but got quite a good crowd anyway. About 8 inches of snow in a single night -spectacular (by London standards). Here are a few pictures (click on pictures to see album).
6 March 2009. Just got an email about the latest edition of the UCL prospectus, so I checked the Pharmacology degree entry (we still have a degree, though no department and so no way to ensure its future). I was amused to see that the prospectus has a testimonial.
UCL stood out because of the reputation it has. At my interview and open day, If ound that my department was very accommodating and professional as well as having a very good research and teaching rating. I enjoyed the fact that the department was small and that I would be able to feel part of a community and get to know the staff. Pharmacology will enable me to use my knowledge and skills to help people by doing research and possibly creating new medicines. The programme is very stimulating and interesting.
That’s lovely. But sadly it is no longer true that “the department was small and that I would be able to feel part of a community and get to know the staff”.
9 March 2009. Much fanfare about the staff survey The provost said “We need to obtain an accurate picture of how staff feel about working for UCL and what could be improved”. Sounds good. But when the survey arrived it turned out to be, with a single exception, an MCQ-style box-ticking exercise. And needless to say, in many cases the option your preferred was not there to be ticked. Much of it seemed to be devoted to asking if you thought you were fulfilling the corporate objectives of your division or of UCL. It was clearly written by someone who hasn’t the faintest idea about how science is done. One should not be surprised because that is true of most people who now have any power. After trying to fill in the survey, I wrote to the people who produced it, ORC International, thus.
I can’t imagine that anything very useful will come from this survey, because there is no opportunity to give the reasons for the reply, Also there are some obvious options missing -for example under harassment, the highest ;person you can blame is ‘line manager’, while I detect a rather widespread perception that the biggest course of harassment for academics is the HR director and some deans.
Similarly, answers to questions like “are you proud to work at UCL” (I said ‘strongly agree’) and “would you recommend UCL as a place to work” (I said ‘no’) can be interpreted only if there was room to give reasons for answers that might, at first sight, look contradictory
I fear that the survey shows signs of being another sham consultation.
10 March 2009. The interview with Margaret McCartney came out. She’s is a Glasgow GP who writes a wonderful column in the Financial Times.
And another Glasgow GP, Desmond Spence, wrote a beautiful piece in the BMJ. Here’s a quotation.
“So when I am sent a circular for courses with names like “Reach for the StarsLeadership in the NHS” my face flushes. In the past I was conscripted into attending. The courses were all flip charts, team building exercises, and propagandist slogans: “Communicate, motivate and innovate” and “Win hearts and minds.” Normally I try to hit the sleep trance zone, eyes open and nodding occasionally but brain switched off, but this is impossible with the repeated intrusion of participation. Then there are presentations on “change theory” and “leadership styles” seeking to define the indefinable. Management consultants with soft bony hands creep across the carpet, stating the bleeding obvious for £1500 a day. You want to ask why they aren’t running their own international business from a yacht in Monaco rather than boring health professionals at a Travelodge in Swindon. The truth is that those who need to go on a leadership course will never lead.”
12 March 2009. The two pages of ‘ecoonomic impact’ that one is now required to fill in on grant applications can be seen on the EPSRC web site, together with the expected bollocks about how to fill them in. More government sponsored lying is all they’ll get in most cases. It seems impossible to make polliticians (or reaseach council staff) realise that the things that have the greatest economic impact are not predictable in advance
This was the subject of a letter to THE, signed by 18 people (including me) which siggested a modest revolt. Since referees on grants are no more capable of assessing what the economic impact fo the work will be in 10 or 20 years time, we suggested that they should say so honestly, and decline to review that part of the grant. So we weren’t really proposing a revolt at all, just honesty.
12 March 2009. Nature (like the BMJ) has started to choose some comments on blogs that it likes and to ask the author to convert them into letters for publication. One such comment that I left got this treatment. It was from a comment that I left on a discussion of whether it was sensible to study the relation between race and IQ.
The arrogance of trying to sum up abilities in a number
SIR — Rose, Ceci and Williams ask whether scientists should study race and IQ. The problems with such studies seem to result, as they have done since the 1930s, from the near impossibility of defining the word ‘intelligence’. The introduction of IQ tests has always seemed to be one of the best examples of the great political and social harm that can be done by the mind-boggling arrogance of scientists who think that they can sum up human abilities in a single number.
The same sort of problem exists with the present generation of bibliometrists. So far they haven’t managed to inflict as much damage but, left to themselves, they will.
David Colquhoun, Pharmacology, University College London
No sooner had this appeared I got a stern letter from Bruce Charlton “I think you have made a mistake in publishing your letter on intelligence in Nature”. Well, one of us has. Bruce Charlton is now Professor of Theoretical Medicine, University of Buckingham and editor of Medical Hyoptheses.
13 March 2009.. The UCL email has been down for the whole day. Weird feeling and the worst failure I’ve known. What happened? We are told “There has been high impact overarching institutional filestore failure”. Ouch, What’s the translation into English?
17 March 2009. Being something of a numbers freak, I have been trying to find out what the redisorganisation of the Faculty of Life Sciences has cost (or saved). Since the main justification was “more efficient administration” it seems a reasonable thing to ask. There is an unoffical estimate of £300 000 per year for the additional cost of the new system. This is based on the salary grades of new jobs that have been created, faculty adminstrators (on professorial pay scale), ‘research facilitators’ and the rest, plus the cost of upgrading existing administrative jobs. I asked a vice-provost if this figure was correct. I was told that
“The figure you have quoted below is not known to the Dean, the Faculty Administrative Manager, the Faculty Accountant nor the UCL Director of Finance.”
Shortly afterwards I was told that this was meant to be a polite way of saying that I’d been misinformed.
Naturally, my reponse was “quite possibly – in that case please inform me”. But so far I have not been informed. It seems that nobody has actually added up the cost (and if that is the case, how do they know £300k is wrong?). Sigh.
18 March 2009. I came across this lovely quotation from the 16th century physician Ambroise Paré It was on the literary blog, The Pequod. Paré is described as “chief surgeon to Henry II, Francis II, Charles IX and Henry III, and arguably the most prominent and well-known medical man of his era (a sort of Renaissance Robert Winston)”.
“Now just exactly as the Devil, chief and sworn enemy of man, often (yet through God’s permission) afflicts us with great and diverse maladies, so do sorcerers, tricksters, and wicked men – through ruses and diabolical tricks – torture and abuse countless men; some invoke and adjure heaven knows what spirits, through whispers, exorcisms, imprecations, enchantments, and bewitchments; others tie around the neck – or else carry on them in some other way – certain writings, certain characters, certain rings, certain pictures, and other such claptrap; others use certain harmonious chants and dances. Sometimes they use certain potions, or, rather, poisons, suffimigations, perfumes, charms, and enchantments. Some are found who, having contrived the image and likeness of some absent party, pierce it with certain instruments, and boast of afflicting – with any such illness as pleases them – the one whose likeness they are piercing, even though he may be far away from them; and they say that this is done by virtue of the stars and of certain words that they hum while piercing such an image or likeness made of wax. There are, in addition, an infinity of such villainies which have been invented by these rascals to afflict and torment men, but it would weary me to say any more about it.”
The Pequod goes on to say
“Indeed, the ultimate detox solution of all time has to have been the Catholic indulgences which promised absolution for all your sins (moral, as well as dietary).”
20 March 2009 An exasperated colleague sent me this prime bit of management bollocks.
It’s from the Staff Review Development Form, used as part of UCL’s “Appraisal, Review and Development Scheme”. “I’ve just had to fill one of these in. One section has this rubric:”
3. Major activities, tasks and priorities anticipated in the coming review period and any training or other support that you will need to assist you in achieving them. In planning your priorities and development activities for the coming period you should take account of UCL’s management competencies and expectations regarding academic excellence, as they relate to your role.
He was naturally puzzled by what on earth this might mean if it were translated into English. Actually I suspect it refers to the offensive and condescending HR-bollocks that I noted on November 4th. This is the sort of stuff that destroys the morale of a great institution like UCL. Where is Ted Wragg when you need him?
20 March 2009
Went to Edinburgh for the day for a talk to the Students’ Humanist Society. Wonderfully active group of students, a decent audience. and lively questions. Cafés with free wifi, and sun in George Square, and managed a bit of science in the morning about the difficult problem of telling whether choline is really a partial agonst.. Wonderful day.
In 2002, Edinburgh had a managerial revolution which swept away departments and disempowered academics. I was interested to see how things were going on the management front. There is good interaction within each building, but little sense of a wider academic community. Since the closure of the magnificent Staff Club in Chambers Street (in 1997 I think) there has been no easy way for a pharmacologist (oops neuroscientist) to meet an engineer a statistician or a historian, What a shame that UCL failed to learn from Edinburgh’s experience. Perhaps UCL should take heart from the fact that I was told thar the things are no longer as bad as was reported three years after the managerial takeover.
|Short haul flights are an ecological abomination, so travelled both ways on the Caledonian Sleeper train. Straight from Euston to Edinburgh overnight with an elegant saloon car and breakfast brought to you in bed, The only way to travel.||
24 March 2009. As threatened, the pigeon holes for mail are no longer nextt to the front entrance, but on the top floor, cleverly arranged to maximise inconvenience. All this for only £300 000 per year in extra administrative costs. And how is this as a sign of the times. No name, just numbers.
I am Number 8. Here is a clip of “I am not a number”
31 March 2009. Went to my first CNHC Committee meeting. No real business so just two solid hours of process and procedures.
2 April 2009. Talk on Alt. med. to UCLH Oncology Department. Good audience and lively discussion. It’s good to talk to people at the real sharp end of medicine. They have to deal with a lot of desperate frightened people. I think that most, though not quite all, accepted the view that it would be more honest to employ a massage person than a ‘reflexologist’, and just as effective. As usual, not many seemed to care very much about the secondary consequences of employing a ‘reflexologist’, namely that some poor kid has to memorise a bunch of lies to get the piece of paper demanded by HR (and the taxpayer has to fund it).
3 April 2009. Laurie Taylor hits the nail on the head yet again in Times Higher Education.
Lapping tops Kant
Our Vice-Chancellor has “warmly welcomed” the news that Professor Gordon Lapping of our Media and Cultural Studies Department triumphed over Immanuel Kant in the newly published league table of the most cited authors in the humanities. Lapping’s position in the table also left Martin Heidegger, John Rawls, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Marx trailing in his wake.
Lapping himself was quick to deny the rumour that his citation count had been boosted by the Reciprocal Citing Agreement recently adopted by the Association of Media Researchers and attributed his success to a lifetime of working “at the cutting edge of soap-opera content analysis”.
The “Reciprocal Citing Agreement” is still (I think) a rather informal arrangement. It is precisely the sort of dishonesty that is actively encouraged by the managerial approach to science. In the long run it is a more serious betrayal of the values of science by vice-chancellors who encourage it than homeopathy degrees ever used to be.
Friday 10 April 2009.
Why I’m not a christian
When I was about 15 I went to a Summer camp which turned out to be run by christian evangelists (my parents swore they didn’t realise that it was a brain-washing camp). I was converted and became rather earnest. Then, at 18, I met a nurse. Being on Merseyside, she was Irish. And being 18, I was rather interested in sex. The price of sex was to go with her to mass, so of course I went. It was Easter and they were doing the Twelve Stations of the Cross. I still recall watching this, with mounting horror. The priests were just enjoying it too much. It was almost like a sado-masochistic orgy. The priests seemed to be almost masturbating. It was simply sick.
I haven’t been able to stomach religion of any sort since that time. Any sort of religion. It is just plain weird.
Once I complained to the Italian Tourist Bureau that I found it rather offensive that every time one gets to the top of a mountain walk in the Alps one finds a graphic portrayal of a scene of torture. It is simply unhealthy.
“To be fair, much of the Bible is not systematically evil, but more just plain weird, as you would expect of a chaotically cobbled-together anthology of disjointed documents, composed, revised, translated, distorted and ‘improved’ by hundreds of anonymous authors editors and copyists, unknown to us and mostly unknown to each other, spanning nine centuries. This may explain some of the sheer strangeness of the bible. But unfortunately it is this same weird volume that religious zealots hold up to us as the inerrant source of our morals and for
Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion , p. 237
Monday 13 April 2009 More Easter stuff. Came across
a BBC item about how David Attenborough gets hate mail from religious people because his superbly beautiful nature films don’t mention god enough.
Talking about his own beliefs, Sir David said he was astonished at manifestations of Christian faith.
He said: “It never really occurred to me to believe in God – and I had nothing to rebel against, my parents told me nothing whatsoever.
“But I do remember looking at my headmaster delivering a sermon, a classicist, extremely clever… and thinking, he can’t really believe all that, can he? How incredible!”
Precisely my view. It is just boring and fruitless. There are better things to do than to worry about whether or not there are fairies at the bottom of your garden.
14 April 2009. Good heavens! A few days ago I got this letter. No idea why.
We’d like to invite you to join us on the weekend of July 10-12 for Science Foo Camp (or “Sci Foo”), a unique, invitation-only gathering organized by Nature, O’Reilly Media, and Google, and hosted at the Googleplex in Mountain View, CA.
Now in its fourth year, Sci Foo is achieving cult status among those with a passion for science and technology. Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek wrote of last year’s event:
“SciFoo is a conference like no other. It brings together a mad mix from the worlds of science, technology, and other branches of the ineffable Third Culture at the Google campus in Mountain View. Improvised, loose, massively parallel–it’s a happening. If you’re not overwhelmed by the rush of ideas then you’re not paying attention.” ( http://tinyurl.com/3e82u8 )
As before, we will be inviting about 200 people from around the world who are doing groundbreaking work in diverse areas of science and technology. Participants will include not only researchers, but also writers, educators, artists, policy makers, investors, and other thought leaders.
16 April 2009. Laurie Taylor hits the nail on the head, yet again.
23 April 2009. Off to Oxford again next week.
24 April 2009 . Thought for the day, on euphemisms, from a colleague
Professional Interrogation is when you send another country’s citizens to a country that practices the former to avoid getting blood on your hands, and because it’s illegal in your country. Harsh Interrogation is when you decide to do it yourself (albeit somewhere else because it’s still illegal) Now wait a cotton-picking minute isn’t Guantanamo Bay US Soil? Sorry, Harsh Interrogation is what used to be called torture but that’s illegal so you change the name.
Another euphemism closer to home and nicer: Centralised, everyone will be moved together into an office that will be by no means big enough, and which in fact won’t be in a central location. Benefits of centralisation: Everyone including dissenters will be under scrutiny at all times. Dis-benefits* : Everyone will be miles (well, metres) away and nothing will work.
25 April 2009 . That’s good, I was asked to give the W.D.M. Paton lecture at the summer meeting of the British Pharmacological Society in Edinburgh, It was to be only just before the Science Foo meeting at Googleplex, but managed to get it changed to Wednesday 8th July which leaves a bit more time to talk at Stanford before Google. Phew. The Paton lecture is meant to be historical rather than scientific, so the title will be
“The past present and future of pharmacology: successes, failures and threats from managerialism and quackery”
26 April 2009.
London marathon day. Perfect weather for a run but all I got was a walk. Oh for 21 years ago. That’s the finish of the 1988 race (3 hours 51 min)
27 April 2009. On 26 June last year I sighed at the vacuousness of the Concordat that had been published in an attempt to improve the difficult plight of many research workers who live on short contracts. It gets worse. Today research staff were circulated with a glossy pamphlet about UCL’s first Research Staff Conference, “The Bigger Pictur. Expanding your Horizons”. It seems we can ensurw “researchers are equipped and supported to be adaptable and flexible in an increasingly diverse, mobile, global research environment” (gawd, who writes this stuff), by sitting for a day listening to speeches by Susan Greenfield (described as “the first woman to lead the prestigious Royal Society of Great Britiin”. Ouch.
Prose like this seems to me to be profoundly anti-educational. It teaches people that empty vacuous words are an acceptable substitute for being able to do something. A bit like homeopaths really.
It seems that there is a bit of a battle brewing about how best to go about public engagement with science. Ben Goldacre’s current column, “Chilling warning to parents from top neuroscientist” shows why. The fact that the government has spent £600,000 setting up a web site for science, Science So What? So Everything, seems rather amazing. Nobody seems to have heard of it, and this site is written at a cost of £0 to the taxpayer, as are many others by practising scientists.
Then the bells rang. The old tradition seems to be more to do with getting drunk than about christianity. I am invariably puzzled by the attitude of Oxbridge to its ecclesiastical past. Hearing grace recited before dinner by people you know don’t believe a word of it seems to be considered quite normal.
I don’t know how the well known heathen festival of May Day got hijacked by christians. In its incarnation as Walpurgis Nacht it has an interesting statistical connection (must write about that sometime).
12 May 2009. There was a teaching “awayday” today. Not in Majorca though, just a few blocks away. I wasn’t there but it was apparent from the documents that two problems have materialised, precisely as I predicted three years ago. They are all based on the increased centralisation and consequent reduction in local responsibility in the new system.
- “The separation of research departments and teaching baskets” looks like the thin edge of the wedge for separation of research and teaching (and whoever thought up the term “teaching basket” -absurd abuse of the English language). For example, we have, as before, a pharmacology degree, but no pharmacology department to take responsibility for it. At present, the same people teach the same things, but in the future there isn’t the slightest guarantee that there will be competent pharmacologists to teach it.
- This happens because the creation of huge ‘research departments’ and disempowerment of academics leads, in real life, to power devolving to the heads of the most powerful research groups. They lobby for new jobs and teaching is not their priority.
- It is apparent that more people are now simply refusing requests to do teaching. Again this was expected, partly because of the de facto influence of big research groups in the new system, but most of all because of the lack of the altruism and morale that was engendered by a department of reasonable size, strong brand name and long tradition. That morale has been squandered, and along with it, the altruism. It is one thing to be asked to teach a course by a respected colleague. It is quite another to get a phone call from someone you’ve never heard of from a distant office.
- If this had lead to saving of money, it could have been essential. In fact the best estimate that I have is still that the Faculty of Life Sciences is spending £300,000 more per year on administrators. It seems that nobody has costed the exercise. It seems to have been largely ideological. It has squandered good will and it costs more. That is what I’d call bad management.
“Non-elected managers were appointed (vice-provosts, for example), whose responsibilities were upwards, to the chief, not downwards to teaching colleagues. Their posts, and bumped-up salaries, depended not on votes of colleagues, but satisfying their superiors.”
15 May 2009. Almost two weeks lost in coping with viruses (computer, not swine flu), and in moving blog to a new server. Today it went public again, at least in Yorkshire and Moscow. DNS servers seem slower to update in London and I couldn’t see it until the next morning. It was really frustrating when the BMJ phoned this morning for some information and there was no blog to refer them to.
17 May 2009. Buzzwords are a problem, not just in management-bollocks (much of which consists of little else), but also within science itself. I suppose that’s why, in 2005, I was moved to write a letter “Too many ‘omics“..
“A few of the more ghastly examples are foldomics, functomics, GPCRomics, inomics, ionomics, interactomics, ligandomics, localizomics, pharmacomethylomics and separomics. None of these refers to areas of work that did not exist before the coining of the new word. Perhaps, as an electrophysiologist working on recombinant ion channels, I should dub myself an expert on ohmomics.”
“This habit of coining fancy words for old ideas might be thought harmless, merely a source of endless mirth for thinking scientists. I’m not so sure though. Apart from reinforcing the view of scientists as philistine illiterates (at least when it comes to etymology), actual harm is done to science as the public becomes aware that some among us seem to prefer long words to clarity of thought.”
Nevertheless, it’s an admirable ambition to try to put together the pieces to see how they function as a whole. It has been done by Denis Noble, whose model of the heart has been remarkably successful. But he worked from the bottom up. He used the detailed electrophysiology of single cells to build a whole (computational) heart. I’ve often wondered if there are any other such successes in the buzzword worlds of systems biology or proteomics. In most other cases there seems to be far too little information to start on such ambitious projects (there is as example above). “Top-down” modelling seems to me to be doomed to failure.
These thoughts were triggered by getting an email with the title “Snake oil”. Nothing unusual in that, but this time the mail was not about chiropractors, but about the “carnage” in metabolomics. The paper by Broadhurst & Kell (2006) draws attention to the very real statistical problems that beset people who measure a large number of variables, not least the problem of causality (in fact the mail had been triggered by the discussion of the problems of causality in diet and health studies).
My correspondent also suggested that the problems are even worse in proteomics. He pointed me to a fascinating web site, the Fixing Proteomics Campaign. This was set up by proteomics people themselves to address the problems of lack of reproducibility, false positives and interpretation, that result in their subject not having lived up to all the hype. So it seems I wasn’t imagining it.
Metabolomics, proteomics and systems biology may have been shockingly over-hyped, and become buzzwords for research council policy zombies, but the Fixing Proteomics site shows exactly the sort of critical self-appraisal that distinguishes real science from pseudo-science. That is what’s missing entirely in quacks.
19 May 2009. Missed a dinner that I’d paid for to go to the meeting in support of the great science writer, Simon Singh whose persecution by lawyers acting for chiropractors is a disgrace and a danger to freedom of speech. It was a really excellent meeting, and I felt for him having been threatened by chiropractors myself. I was able to use a vote of thanks to read out the following passage from a newspaper.
“A crank on magnetism has a crazy notion hat he can cure the sick and crippled with his magnetic hands. His victims are the weak-minded, ignorant and superstitious,those foolish people who have been sick for years and have become tired of the regular physician and want health by the short-cut method he has certainly profited by the ignorance of his victim. His increase in business shows what can be done in Davenport, even by a quack.”
That was written in 1894, about the founder of chiropractic, D.D. Palmer in the Davenport (Iowa) Leader. Far less criticism in the UK in 2009 could lead to you being bankrupted in a court of law. It is hard to imagine a more disgraceful state of affairs. The New Scientist magazine put it well.
“I once believed I lived in a country where freedom of speech and freedom of the press could be taken for granted. I now know I was wrong.”
25 May 2009. The piece by Richard Tomkins was the cover story in Saturday’s Financial Times magazine. It seems to have got quite a lot of publicity, largely because it reproduced in full my Patients’ Guide to Magic Medicine. As a result of a suggestion by Jack of Kent, the guide now has a new entry, on Libel.
A beautiful weekend split between watching real birds, walking a little and watching the gorgeous BBC birdcams in the corner of the screen while investigating the latest betrayal of reason. This time it came, from all unlikely sources, NICE. Really sad.
Lots of stuff going on behind the scenes: the Sikora saga is amazing. It is far from obvious at the moment what the consequences will be. Probably not much.
And the Streisand effect seems to be kicking in nicely. The British Chiropractic Association is going to get so much bad publicity from its shameful decision to sue Simon Singh that it will be the loser, whatever happens in court. Just like malaria and the Society of Homeopaths.
The diary for 2008 -2009 continues here..