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The last email of Stephan Grimm has had more views than any other on this blog. “Publish and perish at Imperial College London: the death of Stefan Grimm“. Since then it’s been viewed more than 210,000 times. The day after it was posted, the server failed under the load.

Since than, I posted two follow-up pieces. On December 23, 2014 “Some experiences of life at Imperial College London. An external inquiry is needed after the death of Stefan Grimm“. Of course there was no external inquiry.

And on April 9, 2015, after the coroner’s report, and after Imperial’s internal inquiry, “The death of Stefan Grimm was “needless”. And Imperial has done nothing to prevent it happening again“.

On September 24th 2015, I posted a memorial on the first anniversary of his death. It included some of Grimm’s drawings that his mother and sister sent to me.

That tragedy led to two actions by Imperial, the metrics report (2015) and the bullying report (2016).

Let’s look at the outcomes.

The 2015 metrics report

In February 2015 and investigation was set up into the use of metrics to evaluate people, In December 2015 a report was produced: Application and Consistency of Approach in the Use of Performance Metrics. This was an internal enquiry so one didn’t expect very much from it. Out of 1338 academic staff surveyed at the College, 309 (23% of the total) responded
another 217 started the survey but did not submit anything). One can only speculate about the low return. It could be that 87% of staff were happy, or it could be that 87% of staff were frightened to give their opinions. It’s true that some departments use few if any metrics to assess people so one wouldn’t expect strong responses from them.

My position is clear: metrics don’t measure the quality of science, in fact they corrupt science.

This is not Imperial’s view though. The report says:

5.1 In seeking to form a view on performance metrics, we started from the premise that, whatever their benefits or deficiencies, performance metrics pervade UK universities. From REF to NSS via the THE and their attendant league tables, universities are measured and ranked in many dimensions and any view of performance metrics has to be formed in this context.

In other words, they simply acquiesce in the use of measures that demonstrably don’t do what’s claimed for them.

Furthermore the statement that “performance metrics pervade UK universities” is not entirely true. At UCL we were told in 2015.

“We will evaluate the quality of staff contributions appropriately, focusing on the quality of individual research outputs and their impact rather than quantity or journal-level metrics.” .

And one of the comments quoted in Imperial’s report says

“All my colleagues at MIT and Harvard etc tell me they reject metrics because they lead to mediocre candidates. If Imperial really wants to be a leader, it has to be bold enough to judge based on quality.”

It is rather shameful that only five UK universities (out of 114 or so) have signed the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA). I’m very happy that UCL is one of them, along with Sussex and Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool. Imperial has not signed.

Imperial’s report concludes

“each department should develop profiles of its academic staff based on a series of published (ie open and transparent [perhaps on the College intranet]:”

There seems to be a word missing here. Presumably this means “open and transparent metrics“.

The gist of the report seems to be that departments can carry on doing what they want, as long as they say what it is. That’s not good enough, in my opinion.

A review of Imperial College’s institutional culture and its impact on gender equality

Unlike the metrics report, this one was external: that’s good. But, unlike the metrics report, it is secret: that’s bad.

The report was written by Alison Phipps (Director of Gender Studies and Reader in Sociology University of Sussex). But all that’s been released is an 11 page summary, written by Imperial, not by the authors of the report. When I asked Phipps for a copy of the whole report I was told

“Unfortunately we cannot share the full report – this is an internal document to Imperial, and we have to protect our research participants who told us their stories on this basis.”

It’s not surprising that the people who told their stories are afraid of repercussions. But it’s odd that their stories are concealed from everyone but the people who are in a position to punish them.

The report seems to have been commissioned because of this incident.

“The university apologised to the women’s rugby team after they were left playing to an empty stadium when the coaches ferrying spectators back to campus were allowed to leave early.”

“a member of staff was overheard saying that they did not care “how those fat girls” got home,”

But the report wasn’t restricted to sexism. It covered the whole culture at Imperial. One problem was that only 127 staff
and 85 students participated. There is no way to tell whether those who didn’t respond were happy or whether they were scared.

Here are some quotations from Imperial’s own summary of the secret report.

“For most, the meaning was restricted to excellence in research despite the fact that the College’s publicised mission statement gives equal prominence to research and education in the excellence context”

“Participants saw research excellence in metricised terms, positioning the College as a top-level player within the UK and in the world.”

Words used by those critical of Imperial’s culture included ” ‘cutthroat’, ‘intimidating’, ‘blaming’ and ‘arrogant’ “.

“Many participants in the survey and other methods felt that the external focus on excellence had emphasised internal competition rather than collaboration. This competition was noted as often being individualistic and adversarial. ”

“It was felt that there was an all-consuming focus on academic performance, and negative attitudes towards those who did not do well or who were not as driven as others. There was a reported lack of community spirit in the College’s culture including departments being ‘played off against each other’”

“The research findings noted comments that the lack of communal space on the campus had contributed to a lack of a community spirit. It was suggested that the College had ‘an impersonal culture’ and groups could therefore self-segregate in the absence of mechanisms for them to connect. ”

“There were many examples given to the researchers of bullying and discriminatory behaviour towards staff and students. These examples predominantly reflected hierarchies in work or study arrangements. ”

“The researchers reported that many of the participants linked it with the ‘elite’ white masculinity of the majority population, although a few examples of unacceptable behaviour by female staff and students were also cited. Examples of misogynistic and homophobic conduct were given and one interviewee expressed concern that the ‘ingrained misogyny’ at Imperial was so deep that it had become normal.”

“Although the College describes itself as a supportive environment, and many positive examples of that support were cited, a number of participants felt that senior management would turn a blind eye to poor behaviour if the individual involved was of value to the College.”

“Despite Imperial’s ‘no tolerance’ stance on harassment and bullying and initiatives such as ‘Have Your Say’, the researchers heard that people did not ‘speak up’ about many issues, ranging from discrimination and abuse to more subtle practices that leave people feeling vulnerable, unheard or undermined.”

“Relations between PIs and contract researchers were especially difficult, and often gendered as the PI was very often a man and the researcher a woman.”

“It was reported that there was also a clear sense of staff and students feeling afraid to speak up about issues and not receiving clear information or answers due to unclear institutional processes and one-way communication channels.”

“This representation of Imperial College as machine rather than organism resonated with observations on a culture of fear and silence, and the lack of empathy and community spirit at the College.”

“Some of the participants identified a surface commitment to diversity and representation but a lack of substantive system processes to support this. The obstacles to participation in the way of doing things at Imperial, and the associated issues of fear and insecurity, were reported as leading to feelings of hopelessness, demotivation, and low morale among some staff and students.”

“Some participants felt that Athena SWAN had merely scratched the surface of issues or had just provided a veneer which concealed continuing inequalities and that events such as the annual Athena SWAN lecture were little more than a ‘box ticking exercise.’”

The conclusions are pretty weak: e.g.

“They [the report’s authors] urged the College to implement changes that would ensure that its excellence in research is matched by excellence in other areas.”

Of course, Imperial College says that it will fix the problems. “Imperial’s provost, James Stirling, said that the institution must do better and was committed to gender equality”.

But that is exactly what they said in 2003

“The rector [then Richard Sykes] acknowledged the findings that came out of the staff audit – Imperial College – A Good Place to Work? – undertaken in August 2002.”

“He reinforced the message that harassment or bullying would not be tolerated in the College, and promised commitment from Council members and the Executive Committee for their continuing support to equal opportunities.”

This was eleven years before the pressure applied to Stefan Grimm caused him to take his own life. As always, it sounds good. But it seems that, thirteen years later, Imperial is going through exactly the same exercise.

It would be interesting to know whether Imperial’s Department of Medicine is still adopting the same cruel assessment methods as it was in 2007. Other departments at Imperial have never used such methods. It’s a continual source of bafflement to me that medicine, the caring profession, seems to care less for its employees that most other departments.

Other universities

Imperial is certainly not unique in having these problems. They are endemic. For example, Queen Mary, Kings College London and Warwick University have had similar problems, among many others.

Managers must learn that organisations function better when employees have good morale and are happy to work. Once again, I quote Scott Burkun (The myths of Innovation, 2007).

“Creation is sloppy; discovery is messy; exploration is dangerous. What’s a manager to do? The answer in general is to encourage curiosity and accept failure. Lots of failure.”

All big organisations are much the same -dissent is squashed and punished. Committees are set up. Fine-sounding statements are issued. But nothing much changes.

It should not be so.

Follow-up

Jump to follow-up

The "supplement" industry is a scam that dwarfs all other forms of alternative medicine. Sales are worth over $100 billion a year, a staggering sum. But the claims they make are largely untrue: plain fraudulent. Although the industry’s advertisements like to claim "naturalness". in fact most of the synthetic vitamins are manufactured by big pharma companies. The pharmaceutical industry has not been slow to cash in on an industry in which unverified claims can be made with impunity.

When I saw advertised Hotshot, "a proprietary formulation of organic ingredients" that is alleged to cure or prevent muscle cramps, I would have assumed that it was just another scam. Then I saw that the people behind it were very highly-regarded scientists, Rod MacKinnon and Bruce Bean, both of whom I have met.

The Hotshot’s website gives this background.

"For Dr. Rod MacKinnon, a Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist/endurance athlete, the invention of HOTSHOT was personal.

After surviving life threatening muscle cramps while deep sea kayaking off the coast of Cape Cod, he discovered that existing cramp remedies – that target the muscle – didn’t work. Calling upon his Nobel Prize-winning expertise on ion channels, Rod reasoned that preventing and treating cramps began with focusing on the nerve, not the muscle.

Five years of scientific research later, Rod has perfected HOTSHOT, the kick-ass, proprietary formulation of organic ingredients, powerful enough to stop muscle cramps where they start. At the nerve.

Today, Rod’s genius solution has created a new category in sports nutrition: Neuro Muscular Performance (NMP). It’s how an athlete’s nerves and muscles work together in an optimal way. HOTSHOT boosts your NMP to stop muscle cramps. So you can push harder, train longer and finish stronger."  

For a start, it’s pretty obvious that MacKinnon has not spent the last five years developing a cure for cramp. His publications don’t even mention the topic. Neither do Bruce Bean’s.

I’d like to thank Bruce Bean for answering some questions I put to him. He said it’s "designed to be as strong as possible in activating TRPV1 and TRPA1 channels". After some hunting I found that it contains

Filtered Water, Organic Cane Sugar, Organic Gum Arabic, Organic Lime Juice Concentrate, Pectin, Sea Salt, Natural Flavor, Organic Stevia Extract, Organic Cinnamon, Organic Ginger, Organic Capsaicin

The first ingredient is sugar: "the 1.7oz shot contains enough sugar to make a can of Coke blush with 5.9 grams per ounce vs. 3.3 per ounce of Coke".[ref].

The TRP (transient receptor potential) receptors form a family of 28 related ion channels,Their physiology is far from being well understood, but they are thought to be important for mediating taste and pain, The TRPV1 channel is also known as the receptor for capsaicin (found in chilli peppers). The TRPA1 responds to the active principle in Wasabi.

I’m quite happy to believe that most cramp is caused by unsychronised activity of motor nerves causing muscle fibres to contract in an uncordinated way (though it isn’t really known that this is the usual mechanism, or what triggers it in the first place), The problem is that there is no good reason at all to think that stimulating TRP receptors in the gastro-intestinal tract will stop, within a minute or so, the activity of motor nerves in the spinal cord.

But, as always, there is no point in discussing mechanisms until we are sure that there is a phenomenon to be explained. What is the actual evidence that Hotshot either prevents of cures cramps, as claimed? The Hotshot’s web site has pages about Our Science, Its title is The Truth about Muscle Cramps. That’s not a good start because it’s well known that nobody understands cramp.

So follow the link to See our Scientific Studies. It has three references, two are to unpublished work. The third is not about Hotshot, but about pickle juice. This was also the only reference sent to me by Bruce Bean. Its title is ‘Reflex Inhibition of Electrically Induced
Muscle Cramps in Hypohydrated Humans’, Miller et al,, 2010 [Download pdf]. Since it’s the only published work, it’s worth looking at in detail.

Miller et al., is not about exercise-induced cramp, but about a cramp-like condition that can be induced by electrical stimulation of a muscle in the sole of the foot (flexor hallucis brevis). The intention of the paper was to investigate anecdotal reports that pickle juice and prevent or stop cramps. It was a small study (only 10 subjects). After getting the subjects dehydrated, they cramp was induced electrically, and two seconds after it started, they drank either pickle juice or distilled water. They weren’t asked about pain: the extent of cramp was judged by electromyograph records. At least a week later, the test was repeated with the other drink (the order in which they were given was randomised). So it was a crossover design.

There was no detectable difference between water and pickle juice on the intensity of the cramp. But the duration of the cramp was said to be shorter. The mean duration after water was 133.7 ± 15.9 s and the mean duration after pickle juice was 84.6 ± 18.5 s. A t test gives P = 0.075. However each subject had both treatments and the mean reduction in duration was 49.1 ± 14.6 s and a paired t test gives P = 0.008. This is close to the 3-standard-deviation difference which I recommended as a minimal criterion, so what could possibly go wrong?.

The result certainly suggests that pickle juice might reduce the duration of cramps, but it’s far from conclusive, for the following reasons. First, it must have been very obvious indeed to the subjects whether they were drinking water or pickle juice. Secondly, paired t tests are not the right way to analyse crossover experiments, as explained here, Unfortunately the 10 differences are not given so there is no way to judge the consistency of the responses. Thirdly, two outcomes were measured (intensity and duration), and no correction was made for multiple comparisons. Finally, P = 0.008 is convincing evidence only if you assume that there’s a roughly 50:50 chance of the pickle-juice folk-lore being right before the experiment was started. For most folk remedies, that would be a pretty implausible assumption. The vast majority of folk remedies turn out to be useless when tested properly.

Nevertheless, the results are sufficiently suggestive that it might be worth testing Hotshot properly. One might have expected that would have been done before marketing started, It wasn’t.

Bruce Bean tells me that they tried it on friends who said that it worked. Perhaps that’s not so surprising: there can be no condition more susceptible than muscle cramps to self-deception because of regression to the mean

They found a business partner, Flex Pharma, and Mackinnon set up a company. Let’s see how they are doing.

Flex Pharma

The hyperbole in the advertisements for Hotshots is entirely legal in the USA. The infamous 1994 “Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA)” allows almost any claim to be made for herbs etc as long as they are described as a "dietary supplement". All they have to do is add in the small print:

"These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease".

Of course medical claims are made: it’s sold to prevent and treat muscle cramp (and I can’t even find the weasel words on the web site).

As well as Hotshot, Flex Pharma are also testing a drug, FLX-787, a TRP receptor agonist of undisclosed structure.  It is hoping get FDA approval for treatment of nocturnal leg cramps (NLCs) and treatment of spasticity in multiple sclerosis (MS) and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) patients. It would be great if it works, but we still don’t know whether it does,

The financial press doesn’t seem to be very optimistic. When Flex Pharma was launched on the stock market at the beginning of 2015, its initial public offering, raised $$86.4 million, at $16 per share. The biotech boom of the previous few years was still strong. In 2016, the outlook seems less rosy. The investment advice site Seeking Alpha had a scathing evaluation in June 2016. Its title was "Flex Pharma: What A Load Of Cramp". It has some remarkably astute assessments of the pharmacology, as well as of financial risks. The summary reads thus:

  • We estimate FLKS will burn at least 40 million of its $84 million in cash this year on clinical trials for FLX-787 and marketing spend for its new cramp supplement called “HOTSHOT.”
  • Based on its high cash burn, we expect a large, dilutive equity raise is likely over the next 12 months.
  • We believe the company’s recent study on nocturnal leg cramps (NLCs) may be flawed. We also highlight risks to its lead drug candidate, FLX-787, that we believe investors are currently overlooking.
  • We highlight several competitive available alternatives to FLKS’s cramp products that we believe investors have not factored into current valuation.
  • Only 2.82% of drugs from companies co-founded by CEO Westphal have achieved FDA approval.

The last bullet point refers to Flex Pharma’s CEO, Christoph Westphal MD PhD (described bi Fierce Biotech as "serial biotech entrepreneur"). Only two out of his 71 requests for FDA approval were successful.

On October 13th 2016 it was reported that early trials of FLX-787 had been disappointing. The shares plunged.

fp1

On October 17th 2016, Seeking Alpha posted another evaluation: “Flex Pharma Has Another Cramp“. Also StreetInsider,com. They were not optimistic. The former made the point (see above) that crossover trials are not what should be done. In fact the FDA have required that regular parallel RCTs should be done before FLX-787 can be approved.

Summary

Drug discovery is hard and it’s expensive. The record for small molecule discovery has not been good in the last few decades. Many new introductions have, at best, marginal efficacy, and at worst may do more harm than good. In the conditions for which understanding of causes is poor or non-existent, it’s impossible to design new drugs rationally. There are only too many such conditions: from low back pain to almost anything that involves the brain, knowledge of causes is fragmentary to non-existent. This leads guidance bodies to clutch at straws. Disappointing as this is, it’s not for want of trying. And it’s not surprising. Serious medical research hasn’t been going for long and the systems are very complicated.

But this is no excuse for pretending that things work on tha basis of the flimsiest of evidence, Bruce Bean advised me to try Hotshot on friends, and says that it doesn’t work for everybody. This is precisely what one is told by homeopaths, and just about every other sort of quack. Time and time again, that sort of evidence has proved to be misleading,

I have the greatest respect for the science that’s published by both Bruce Bean and Rod MacKinnon. I guess that they aren’t familiar with the sort of evidence that’s required to show that a new treatment works. That isn’t solved by describing a treament as a "dietary supplement".

I’ll confess that I’m a bit disappointed by their involvement with Flex Pharma, a company that makes totally unjustified claims. Or should one just say caveat emptor?

Follow-up

Before posting this, I sent it to Bruce Bean to be checked. Here was his response, which I’m posting in full (hoping not to lose a friend).

"Want to be UK representative for Hotshot? Sample on the way!"

"I do not see anything wrong with the facts. I have a different opinion – that it is perfectly appropriate to have different standards of proof of efficacy for consumer products made from general-recognized-as-safe ingredients and for an FDA-approved drug. I’d be happy for the opportunity to post something like the following your blog entry (and suffer any consequent further abuse) if there is an opportunity".  

  " I think it would be unfair to lump Hotshot with “dietary supplements” targeted to exploit the hopes of people with serious diseases who are desperate for magic cures. Hotshot is designed and marketed to athletes who experience exercise-induced cramping that can inhibit their training or performance – hardly a population of desperate people susceptible of exploitation. It costs only a few dollars for someone to try it. Lots of people use it regularly and find it helpful. I see nothing wrong with this and am glad that something that I personally found helpful is available for others to try. "

     " Independently of Hotshot, Flex Pharma is hoping to develop treatments for cramping associated with diseases like ALS, MS, and idiopathic nocturnal leg cramps. These treatments are being tested in rigorous clinical trials that will be reviewed by the FDA. As with any drug development it is very expensive to do the clinical trials and there is no guarantee of success. I give credit to the investors who are underwriting the effort. The trials are openly publicly reported. I would note that Flex Pharma voluntarily reported results of a recent trial for night leg cramps that led to a nearly 50% drop in the stock price. I give the company credit for that openness and for spending a lot of money and a lot of effort to attempt to develop a treatment to help people – if it can pass the appropriately high hurdle of FDA approval."

     " On Friday, I sent along 8 bottles of Hotshot by FedEx, correctly labeled for customs as a commercial sample. Of course, I’d be delighted if you would agree to act as UK representative for the product but absent that, it should at least convince you that the TRP stimulators are present at greater than homeopathic doses. If you can find people who get exercise-induced cramping that can’t be stretched out, please share with them."

6 January 2017

It seems that more than one Nobel prizewinner is willing to sell their names to dodgy businesses. The MIT Tech Review tweeted a link to Imagine Albert Einstein getting paid to put his picture on tin of anti-wrinkle cream. No fewer than seven Nobel prizewinners have lent their names to a “supplement” pill that’s claimed to prolong your life. Needless to say, there isn’t the slightest reason to think it works. What posesses these people beats me. Here are their names.

Aaron Ciechanover (Cancer Biology, Technion – Israel Institute of Technology).

Eric Kandel (Neuroscience, Columbia University).

Jack Szostak (Origins of Life & Telomeres, Harvard University).

Martin Karplus (Complex Chemical Systems, Harvard University).

Sir Richard Roberts(Biochemistry, New England Biolabs).

Thomas Südhof (Neuroscience, Stanford University).

Paul Modrich (Biochemistry, Duke University School of Medicine).

Then there’s the Amyway problem. Watch this space.

Jump to follow-up

Today, 25 September, is the first anniversary of the needless death of Stefan Grimm. This post is intended as a memorial.

He should be remembered, in the hope that some good can come from his death.

grimm

On 1 December 2014, I published the last email from Stefan Grimm, under the title “Publish and perish at Imperial College London: the death of Stefan Grimm“. Since then it’s been viewed 196,000 times. The day after it was posted, the server failed under the load.

Since than, I posted two follow-up pieces. On December 23, 2014 “Some experiences of life at Imperial College London. An external inquiry is needed after the death of Stefan Grimm“. Of course there was no external inquiry.

And on April 9, 2015, after the coroner’s report, and after Imperial’s internal inquiry, "The death of Stefan Grimm was “needless”. And Imperial has done nothing to prevent it happening again".

The tragedy featured in the introduction of the HEFCE report on the use of metrics.

“The tragic case of Stefan Grimm, whose suicide in September 2014 led Imperial College to launch a review of its use of performance metrics, is a jolting reminder that what’s at stake in these debates is more than just the design of effective management systems.”

“Metrics hold real power: they are constitutive of values, identities and livelihoods ”

I had made no attempt to contact Grimm’s family, because I had no wish to intrude on their grief. But in July 2015, I received, out of the blue, a hand-written letter from Stefan Grimm’s mother. She is now 80 and living in Munich. I was told that his father, Dieter Grimm, had died of cancer when he was only 59. I also learned that Stefan Grimm was distantly related to Wilhelm Grimm, one of the Gebrüder Grimm.

The letter was very moving indeed. It said "Most of the infos about what happened in London, we got from you, what you wrote in the internet".

I responded as sympathetically as I could, and got a reply which included several of Stefan’s drawings, and then more from his sister. The drawings were done while he was young. They show amazing talent, but by the age of 25 he was too busy with science to expoit his artistic talents.

With his mother’s permission, I reproduce ten of his drawings here, as a memorial to a man who whose needless death was attributable to the very worst of the UK university system. He was killed by mindless and cruel "performance management", imposed by Imperial College London. The initial reaction of Imperial gave little hint of an improvement. I hope that their review of the metrics used to assess people will be a bit more sensible,

His real memorial lies in his published work, which continues to be cited regularly after his death.

His drawings are a reminder that there is more to human beings than getting grants. And that there is more to human beings than science.

Click the picture for an album of ten of his drawings. In the album there are also pictures of two books that were written for children by Stefan’s father, Dieter Grimm.

sg1

Dated Christmas eve,1979 (age 16)

 

Follow-up

Well well. It seems that Imperial are having an "HR Showcase: Supporting our people" on 15 October. And the introduction is being given by none other than Professor Martin Wilkins, the very person whose letter to Grimm must bear some responsibility for his death. I’ll be interested to hear whether he shows any contrition. I doubt whether any employees will dare to ask pointed questions at this meeting, but let’s hope they do.

Jump to follow-up

There can be no doubt that the situation for women has improved hugely since I started at UCL, 50 years ago. At that time women were not allowed in the senior common room. It’s improved even more since the 1930s (read about the attitude of the great statistician, Ronald Fisher, to Florence Nightinglale David).

Recently Williams & Ceci published data that suggest that young women no longer face barriers in job selection in the USA (though it will take 20 years before that feeds through to professor level). But no sooner than one was feeling optimistic, along comes Tim Hunt who caused a media storm by advocating male-only labs. I’ll say a bit about that case below.

First some very preliminary concrete proposals.

The job of emancipation is not yet completed. I’ve recently become a member of the Royal Society diversity committee, chaired by Uta Frith. That’s made me think more seriously about the evidence concerning the progress of women and of black and minority ethnic (BME) people in science, and what can be done about it. Here are some preliminary thoughts. They are my opinions, not those of the committee.

I suspect that much of the problem for women and BME results from over-competitiveness and perverse incentives that are imposed on researchers. That’s got progressively worse, and it affects men too. In fact it corrupts the entire scientific process.

One of the best writers on these topics is Peter Lawrence. He’s an eminent biologist who worked at the famous Lab for Molecular Biology in Cambridge, until he ‘retired’.

Here are three things by him that everyone should read.

PL

The politics of publication (Nature, 2003) [pdf]

The mismeasurement of science (Current Biology, 2007) [pdf]

The heart of research is sick (Lab Times, 2011) [pdf]

From Lawrence (2003)

"Listen. All over the world scientists are fretting. It is night in London and Deborah Dormouse is unable to sleep. She can’t decide whether, after four weeks of anxious waiting, it would be counterproductive to call a Nature editor about her manuscript. In the sunlight in Sydney, Wayne Wombat is furious that his student’s article was rejected by Science and is taking revenge on similar work he is reviewing for Cell. In San Diego, Melissa Mariposa reads that her article submitted to Current Biology will be reconsidered, but only if it is cut in half. Against her better judgement, she steels herself to throw out some key data and oversimplify the conclusions— her postdoc needs this journal on his CV or he will lose a point in the Spanish league, and that job in Madrid will go instead to Mar Maradona."

and

"It is we older, well-established scientists who have to act to change things. We should make these points on committees for grants and jobs, and should not be so desperate to push our papers into the leading journals. We cannot expect younger scientists to endanger their future by making sacrifices for the common good, at least not before we do."

From Lawrence (2007)

“The struggle to survive in modern science, the open and public nature of that competition, and the advantages bestowed on those who are prepared to show off and to exploit others have acted against modest and gentle people of all kinds — yet there is no evidence, presumption or likelihood that less pushy people are less creative.  As less aggressive people are predominantly women [14,15] it should be no surprise that, in spite of an increased proportion of women entering biomedical research as students, there has been little, if any, increase in the representation of women at the top [16]. Gentle people of both sexes vote with their feet and leave a profession that they, correctly, perceive to discriminate against them [17]. Not only do we lose many original researchers, I think science would flourish more in an understanding and empathetic workplace.”

From Lawrence (2011).

"There’s a reward system for building up a large group, if you can, and it doesn’t really matter how many of your group fail, as long as one or two succeed. You can build your career on their success".

Part of this pressure comes from university rankings. They are statistically-illiterate and serve no useful purpose, apart from making money for their publishers and providing vice-chancellors with an excuse to bullying staff in the interests of institutional willy-waving.

And part of the pressure arises from the money that comes with the REF.  A recent survey gave rise to the comment

"Early career researchers overwhelmingly feel that the research excellence framework has created “a huge amount of pressure and anxiety, which impacts particularly on those at the bottom rung of the career ladder"

In fact the last REF was conducted quite sensibly (e.g. use of silly metrics was banned).  The problem was that universities didn’t believe that the rules would be followed.

For example, academics in the Department of Medicine at Imperial College London were told (in 2007) they are expected to

“publish three papers per annum, at least one in a prestigious journal with an impact factor of at least five”. 

And last year a 51-year-old academic with a good publication record was told that unless he raised £200,000 in grants in the next year, he’d be fired.  There can be little doubt that this “performance management” contributed to his decision to commit suicide.  And Imperial did nothing to remedy the policy after an internal investigation.

Several other universities have policies that are equally brutal. For example, Warwick, Queen Mary College London and Kings College London

Crude financial targets for grant income should be condemned as defrauding the taxpayer (you are compelled to make your work as expensive as possible)  As usual, women and BME suffer disproportionately from such bullying.

What can be done about this in practice?

I feel that some firm recommendations will be useful. 

One thing that could be done is to make sure that all universities sign, and adhere to, the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA), and adhere to the Athena Swan charter

The Royal Society has already signed DORA, but, shockingly, only three universities in the UK have done so (Sussex, UCL and Manchester).

Another well-meaning initiative is The Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers. It’s written very much from the HR point of view and I’d argue that that’s part of the problem, not part of the solution.
For example it says

“3. Research managers should be required to participate in active performance management, including career development guidance”

That statement is meaningless without any definition of how performance management should be done. It’s quite clear that “performance management”, in the form of crude targets, was a large contributor to Stefan Grimm’s suicide

The Concordat places great emphasis in training programmes, but ignores the fact that it’s doubtful whether diversity training works, and it may even have bad effects.

The Concordat is essentially meaningless in its present form.

My proposals

I propose that all fellowships and grants should be awarded only to universities who have signed DORA and Athena Swan.

I have little faith that signing DORA, or the Concordat, will have much effect on the shop floor, but they do set a standard, and eventually, as with changes in the law, improvements in behaviour are effected.

But, as a check, It should be announced at the start that fellows and employees paid by grants will be asked directly whether or not these agreements have been honoured in practice.

Crude financial targets are imposed at one in six universities. Those who do that should be excluded from getting fellowships or grants, on the grounds that the process gives bad value to the funders (and taxpayer) and that it endangers objectivity.

Some thoughts in the Hunt affair

It’s now 46 years since I and Brian Woledge managed to get UCL’s senior common room, the Housman room, opened to women. That was 1969, and since then, I don’t think that I’ve heard any public statement that was so openly sexist as Tim Hunt’s now notorious speech in Korea.

Listen to Hunt, Connie St Louis and Jenny Rohn on the Today programme (10 June, 2015). sl50

On the Today Programme, Hunt himself said "What I said was quite accurately reported" and "I just wanted to be honest", so there’s no doubt that those are his views. He confirmed that the account that was first tweeted by Connie St Louis was accurate

Inevitably, there was a backlash from libertarians and conservatives. That was fuelled by a piece in today’s Observer, in which Hunt seems to regard himself as being victimised. My comment on the Observer piece sums up my views.

I was pretty shaken when I heard what Tim Hunt had said, all the more because I have recently become a member of the Royal Society’s diversity committee. When he talked about the incident on the Today programme on 10 June, it certainly didn’t sound like a joke to me. It seems that he carried on for more than 5 minutes in they same vein.

Everyone appreciates Hunt’s scientific work, but the views that he expressed about women are from the dark ages. It seemed to me, and to Dorothy Bishop, and to many others, that with views like that. Hunt should not play any part in selection or policy matters. The Royal Society moved with admirable speed to do that.

The views that were expressed are so totally incompatible with UCL’s values, so it was right that UCL too acted quickly. His job at UCL was an honorary one: he is retired and he was not deprived of his lab and his living, as some people suggested.

Although the initial reaction, from men as well as from women, was predictably angry, it very soon turned to humour, with the flood of #distractinglysexy tweets.

It would be a mistake to think that these actions were the work of PR people. They were thought to be just by everyone, female or male, who wants to improve diversity in science.

The episode is sad and disappointing. But the right things were done quickly.

Now Hunt can be left in peace to enjoy his retirement.

Look at it this way. If you were a young woman, applying for a fellowship in competition with men. what would you think if Tim Hunt were on the selection panel?

After all this fuss, we need to laugh.

Here is a clip from the BBC News Quiz, in which actor, Rebecca Front, gives her take on the affair.sl50

Follow-up

Some great videos soon followed Hunt’s comments. Try these.
Nobel Scientist Tim Hunt Sparks a #Distractinglysexy Campaign
(via Jennifer Raff)

This video has some clips from an earlier one, from Suzi Gage “Science it’s a girl thing”.

15 June 2015

An update on what happened from UCL. From my knowledge of what happened, this is not PR spin. It’s true.

16 June 2015

There is an interview with Tim Hunt in Lab Times that’s rather revealing. This interview was published in April 2014, more than a year before the Korean speech. Right up to the penultimate paragraph we agree on just about everything, from the virtue of small groups to the iniquity of impact factors. But then right at the end we read this.

In your opinion, why are women still under-represented in senior positions in academia and funding bodies?

Hunt:  I’m not sure there is really a problem, actually. People just look at the statistics. I dare, myself, think there is any discrimination, either for or against men or women. I think people are really good at selecting good scientists but I must admit the inequalities in the outcomes, especially at the higher end, are quite staggering. And I have no idea what the reasons are. One should start asking why women being under-represented in senior positions is such a big problem. Is this actually a bad thing? It is not immediately obvious for me… is this bad for women? Or bad for science? Or bad for society? I don’t know, it clearly upsets people a lot.

This suggests to me that the outburst on 8th June reflected opinions that Hunt has had for a while.

There has been quite a lot of discussion of Hunt’s track record. These tweets suggest it may not be blameless.

19 June 2015

Yesterday I was asked by the letters editor of the Times, Andrew Riley, to write a letter in response to a half-witted, anonymous, Times leading article. I dropped everything, and sent it. It was neither acknowledged nor published. Here it is [download pdf].

One of the few good outcomes of the sad affair of Tim Hunt is that it has brought to light the backwoodsmen who are eager to defend his actions, and to condemn UCL.  The anonymous Times leader of 16 June was as good an example as any.
Here are seven relevant considerations.

  1. Honorary jobs have no employment contract, so holders of them are not employees in the normal sense of the term.  Rather, they are eminent people who agree to act as ambassadors for the university,
  2. Hunt’s remarks were not a joke –they were his genuine views. He has stated them before and he confirmed them on the Today programme,
  3. He’s entitled to hold these views but he’s quite sensible enough to see that UCL would be criticised harshly if he were to remain in his ambassadorial role so he relinquished it before UCL was able to talk to him.
  4. All you have to do to see the problems is to imagine yourself as a young women, applying for a grant or fellowship, in competition with men, knowing that Hunt was one of her judges.  Would your leader have been so eager to defend a young Muslim who advocated men only labs?  Or someone who advocated Jew-free labs? The principle is the same.
  5. Advocacy of all male labs is not only plain silly, it’s also illegal under the Equalities Act (2010). 
  6. UCL’s decision to accept Hunt’s offer to relinquish his role was not the result of a twitter lynch mob. The comments there rapidly became good humoured  If there is a witch hunt, it is by your leader writer and the Daily Mail, eager to defend the indefensible and to condemn UCL and the Royal Society
  7. It has been suggested to me that it would have been better if Hunt had been brought before a disciplinary committee, so due process would have been observed.  I can imagine nothing that would have been more cruel to a distinguished colleague than to put him through such a miserable ordeal.

Some quotations from this letter were used by Tom Whipple in an article about Richard Dawkins surprising (to me) emergence as an unreconstructed backwoodsman.

18 June 2015

Adam Rutherford’s excellent Radio 4 programme, Inside Science, had an episode “Women Scientists on Sexism in Science". The last speaker was Uta Frith (who is chair of the Royal Society’s diversity committee). Her contribution started at about 23 min.

Listen to Uta Frith’s contribution. sl30

" . . this over-competitiveness, and this incredible rush to publish fast, and publish in quantity rather than in quality, has been extremely detrimental for science, and it has been disproportionately bad, I think, for under-represented groups who don’t quite fit in to this over-competitive climate. So I am proposing something I like to call slow science . . . why is this necessary, to do this extreme measurement-driven, quantitative judgement of output, rather than looking at the actual quality"

That, I need hardly say, is music to my ears. Why not, for example, restrict the number of papers that an be submitted with fellowship applications to four (just as the REF did)?

21 June 2015

I’ve received a handful of letters, some worded in a quite extreme way, telling me I’m wrong. It’s no surprise that 100% of them are from men. Most are from more-or-less elderly men. A few are from senior men who run large groups. I have no way to tell whether their motive is a genuine wish to have freedom of speech at any price. Or whether their motives are less worthy: perhaps some of them are against anything that prevents postdocs working for 16 hours a day, for the glory of the boss. I just don’t know.

I’ve had far more letters saying that UCL did the right thing when it accepted Tim Hunt’s offer to resign from his non job at UCL. These letters are predominantly from young people, men as well as women. Almost all of them ask not to be identified in public. They are, unsurprisingly, scared to argue with the eight Nobel prizewinners who have deplored UCL’s action (without bothering to ascertain the facts). The fact that they are scared to speak out is hardly surprising. It’s part of the problem.

What you can do, if you don’t want to put your head above the public parapet. is simply to email the top people at UCL, in private. to express your support. All these email addresses are open to the public in UCL’s admirably open email directory.

Michael Arthur (provost): michael.arthur@ucl.ac.uk

David Price (vice-provost research): d.price@ucl.ac.uk

Geraint Rees (Dean of the Faculty of Life Sciences): g.rees@ucl.ac.uk

All these people have an excellent record on women in science, as illustrated by the response to Daily Mail’s appalling behaviour towards UCL astrophysicist, Hiranya Pereis.

26 June 2015

The sad matter of Tim Hunt is over, at last. The provost of UCL, Michael Arthur has now made a statement himself. Provost’s View: Women in Science is an excellent reiteration of UCL’s principles.

By way of celebration, here is the picture of the quad, taken on 23 March, 2003. It was the start of the second great march to try to stop the war in Iraq. I use it to introduce talks, as a reminder that there are more serious consequences of believing things that aren’t true than a handful of people taking sugar pills.

ucl-quad-200303-500.jpg

11 October 2015

In which I agree with Mary Collins

Long after this unpleasant row died down, it was brought back to life yesterday when I heard that Colin Blakemore had resigned as honorary president of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), on the grounds that that organisation had not been sufficiently hard on Connie St Louis, whose tweet initiated the whole affair. I’m not a member of the ABSW and I have never met St Louis, but I know Blakemore well and like him. Nevertheless it seems to me to be quite disproportionate for a famous elderly white man to take such dramatic headline-grabbing action because a young black women had exaggerated bits of her CV. Of course she shouldn’t have done that, but it everyone were punished so severely for "burnishing" their CV there would be a large number of people in trouble.

Blakemore’s own statement also suggested that her reporting was inaccurate (though it appears that he didn’t submitted a complaint to ABSW). As I have said above, I don’t think that this is true to any important extent. The gist of it was said was verified by others, and, most importantly, Hunt himself said "What I said was quite accurately reported" and "I just wanted to be honest". As far as I know, he hasn’t said anything since that has contradicted that view, which he gave straight after the event. The only change that I know of is that the words that were quoted turned out to have been followed by "Now, seriously", which can be interpreted as meaning that the sexist comments were intended as a joke. If it were not for earlier comments along the same lines, that might have been an excuse.

Yesterday, on twitter, I was asked by Mary Collins, Hunt’s wife, whether I thought he was misogynist. I said no and I don’t believe that it is. It’s true that I had used that word in a single tweet, long since deleted, and that was wrong. I suspect that I felt at the time that it sounded like a less harsh word than sexist, but it was the wrong word and I apologised for using it.

So do I believe that Tim Hunt is sexist? No I don’t. But his remarks both in Korea and earlier were undoubtedly sexist. Nevertheless, I don’t believe that, as a person, he suffers from ingrained sexism. He’s too nice for that. My interpretation is that (a) he’s so obsessive about his work that he has little time to think about political matters, and (b) he’s naive about the public image that he presents, and about how people will react to them. That’s a combination that I’ve seen before among some very eminent scientists.

In fact I find myself in almost complete agreement with Mary Collins, Hunt’s wife, when she said (I quote the Observer)

“And he is certainly not an old dinosaur. He just says silly things now and again.” “Collins clutches her head as Hunt talks. “It was an unbelievably stupid thing to say,” she says. “You can see why it could be taken as offensive if you didn’t know Tim. But really it was just part of his upbringing. He went to a single-sex school in the 1960s.”

Nevertheless, I think it’s unreasonable to think that comments such as those made in Korea (and earlier) would not have consequences, "naive" or not, "joke" or not, "upbringing" or not,

It’s really not hard to see why there were consequences. All you have to do is to imagine yourself as a woman, applying for a grant or fellowship, and realising that you’d be judged by Hunt. And if you think that the reaction was too harsh, imagine the same words being spoken with "blacks", or "Jews" substituted for "women". Of course I’m not suggesting for a moment that he’d have done this, but if anybody did, I doubt whether many people would have thought it was a good joke.

9 November 2015

An impressively detailed account of the Hunt affair has appeared. The gist can be inferred from the title: "Saving Tim Hunt
The campaign to exonerate Tim Hunt for his sexist remarks in Seoul is built on myths, misinformation, and spin
". It was written by Dan Waddell (@danwaddell) and Paula Higgins (@justamusicprof). It is long and it’s impressively researched. it’s revealing to see the bits that Louise Mensch omitted from her quotations. I can’t disagree with its conclusion.

"In the end, the parable of Tim Hunt is indeed a simple one. He said something casually sexist, stupid and inappropriate which offended many of his audience. He then confirmed he said what he was reported to have said and apologised twice. The matter should have stopped there. Instead a concerted effort to save his name — which was not disgraced, nor his reputation as a scientist jeopardized — has rewritten history. Science is about truth. As this article has shown, we have seen very little of it from Hunt’s apologists — merely evasions, half-truths, distortions, errors and outright falsehoods.

"

8 April 2017

This late addition is to draw attention to a paper, wriiten by Edwin Boring in 1951, about the problems for the advancement of women in psychology. It’s remarkable reading and many of the roots of the problems have hardly changed today. (I chanced on the paper while looking for a paper that Boring wrote about P values in 1919.)

Here is a quotation from the conclusions.

“Here then is the Woman Problem as I see it. For the ICWP or anyone else to think that the problem.can be advanced toward solution by proving that professional women undergo more frustration and disappointment than professional men, and by calling then on the conscience of the profession to right a wrong, is to fail to see the problem clearly in all its psychosocial complexities. The problem turns on the mechanisms for prestige, and that prestige, which leads to honor and greatness and often to the large salaries, is not with any regularity proportional to professional merit or the social value of professional achievement. Nor is there any presumption that the possessor of prestige knows how to lead the good life. You may have to choose. Success is never whole, and, if you have it for this, you mayhave to give it up for that.”

Jump to follow-up

The last email of Stefan Grimm, and its follow-up post, has been read over 195,000 times now.

After Grimm’s death, Imperial announced that it would investigate itself The report is now available.

Performance Management: Review of policies, procedures and support available to staff

Following the tragic death of a member of the College’s staff community, Professor Stefan Grimm, the Provost invited the Senior Consul, Professor Richard Thompson, and the Director of Human Resources, Mrs Louise Lindsay, to consider the relevant College policies, procedures and the support available to all staff during performance review.

The report is even worse than I expected. It can be paraphrased as saying ‘our bullying was not done sufficiently formally -we need more forms and box-ticking’.

At the heart of the problem is Imperial’s Personal Review and Development Plan (PRDP). Here is an extract.

"Professor Grimm had been under review in the informal process for nearly two years. His line manager was using this period to help Professor Grimm obtain funding or alternative work (the review panel saw evidence of the efforts made in this regard). The subsequent formal process would have involved a minimum of two formal meetings with time to improve in-between formal meetings before consideration would have been given to the termination of Professor Grimm’s employment. Understandably there is a reluctance to move into formal hearings, particularly when the member of staff is hard working and diligent, but the formal stages would have provided more clarity to Professor Grimm on process and support through the written documentation, representation at meetings and HR involvement."

"It is recommended that the new capability procedure and ordinance include greater clarity on timescales for informal action and how this might operate in different roles."

It seems to be absurd to describe Wilkins’ letter has an attempt to "help" Professor Grimm, It was a direct threat to the livelihood of a competent 51 year-old full professor. Having flow charts for the bullying would not have helped. Neither would the provision by HR of "resilience" courses (what I’ve seen of such classes makes me feel suicidal at the thought of how far universities have sunk into pseudo-scientific HR babble).

I’ll skip straight to the conclusions, with my comments on them in italic.

1. Expand the Harassment Support Contact Programme to train volunteers, academic staff, who can be matched with individuals going through informal processes.

Looks like a charade to me. If they want to fire people without enough grants, they’ll do it.

2. Refresh and re-launch information on the employee assistance services widespread distribution and regular update of promotional material.

Ditto

3. Ensure regular training is given to new and experienced managers in core HR procedures.

Train senior people to bully properly.

4. Create a separate guidance and support document for staff to supplement document. The document to include a clear and concise summary of the informal formal process, a flowchart, the support available to staff and frequently asked questions

Pretend that staff are being helped by threatening to fire them.

5. Direct managers to inform HR before commencing the informal stage of performance management. All managers to have a briefing from their local HR representative of the instigation of performance management.

Make sure you’ve filled in the forms and ticked the boxes before you start bullying. HR don’t understand performance and should have no role in the process.

6. Create a separate policy for performance management in the form of procedure, which includes clear definitions for informal and formal performance
management and further guidance on the timescales and correspondence in stages. Provide clarity on the role of the PRDP appraisal in performance management.

The role PRDP is to increase the status of Imperial College, but pretend it’s to benefit its victims.

7. Create template documentation for performance management correspondence and formal stages of the process. Direct managers to ensure all correspondence reviewed by an HR representative before it is sent to a member of staff.

Bullying is OK if you’ve filled in enough forms.

In summary, these proposals merely add more bureaucracy. They won’t change anything. As one supposed, they are merely a smokescreen for carrying on as at present.

There is only one glimmer of hope in the whole report.

Additional recommendation

Although this was not within the remit of the current review, a number of concerns were raised with the reviewers about the application and consistency of approach in the use of performance metrics in academia and in the College. The reviewers recommend that the College undertake a wider consultation and review of the application of performance metrics within Imperial College with recommendations to be considered by the Provost’s Board in the summer term.

I’ve been telling them since 2007 that the metrics they use to judge people are plain silly [download the paper]. So have many other people. Could the message have sunk in at last? We’ll see.

What should be done about performance?

I’ve been very critical of the metrics that are used by Imperial (and some other places) to harass even quite senior people. So, it might well be asked how I think that standards should be maintained. If people are paid by the taxpayers, it isn’t unreasonable to expect them to work to the best of their abilities. The following observations come to mind.

  • Take a lesson from Bell Labs in its heyday (before performance managers got power) . "First, management had to be technically competent; at Bell Labs, all managers were former researchers. Second, no researchers should have to raise funds. They should be free of that pressure. Third, research should and would be supported for years – if you want your company to last, take the long view. And finally, a project could be terminated without damning the researcher. There should be no fear of failure."
  • Take a lesson from the great Max Perutz about how to run a successful lab."Max had the knack of picking extraordinary talent. But he also had the vision of creating a working environment where talented people were left alone to pursue their ideas. This philosophy lives on in the LMB and has been adopted by other research institutes as well. Max insisted that young scientists should be given full responsibility and credit for their work. There was to be no hierarchy, and everybody from the kitchen ladies to the director were on first-name terms. The groups were and still are small, and senior scientists work at the bench."
  • Read Gus John "The results of the Guardian higher education network’s survey on bullying in higher education should give the entire sector cause to worry about the competence and style of leaders and managers in the sector"
  • The vast majority of scientists whom I know work absurdly long hours. They are doing their best without any harassment from "performance managers". Some are more successful, and/or lucky, than others. That’s how it is. Get used to it.
  • Rankings of universities are arbitrary and silly, but worse, they provide an incentive to vice-chancellors to justify their vast salaries by pushing their institution up the rankings by fair means or foul. It’s no exaggeration to suspect that things like the Times Higher Education rankings and the REF contributed to the death of Stefan Grimm.
  • Realise that HR know nothing about science: their "performance management" kills original science, and it leads to corruption. It must bear some of the blame for the crisis in the reproducibility of published work.
  • If you want innovation, you have to tolerate lots and lots of failure

Follow-up

Stop press On April 7th, the coroner said the Grimm had asphyxiated himself on 25 September, 2014. He described the death as "needless"/ And Imperial’s HR director, Louise Lindsay, when asked if the new procedures would have saved his life, said "not clear it would have resulted in a different outcome.". So we have it from the horse’s mouth. Imperial has done nothing to prevent more tragedies happening.

10 April 2015

King’s College London has just issued a draft for its "performance management" system. You can read all about it here.

"Performance management is a direct incentive to do shoddy short-cut science."

17 April 2015

Alice Gast declines to apologise

At 06.22 on Radio 4’s Today Programme, Tanya Beckett interviewed Alice Gast. President of Imperial College London. After a 4-minute commercial for Imperial, Gast is asked about the death of Stefan Grimm. Her reply doesn’t even mention Grimm. “professors are under a lot of pressure . . .”. Not a word of apology or explanation is offered. I find it hard to comprehend such a heartless approach to her employees.

Listen to the interview  sl

1 May 2015

The Imperial students’ newspaper, Felix Online, carried a description of the internal report and the inquest: Review in response to Grimm’s death completed. Results criticised by external academics: “Imperial doesn’t get it.”, It’s pretty good..

I wonder what undergraduates feel about being taught by people who write letters like Martin Wilkins‘ did?

Jump to follow-up

The University of Warwick seems determined to wrest the title of worst employer from Imperial College London and Queen Mary College London. In little over a year, Warwick has had four lots of disastrous publicity, all self-inflicted.

logo

First came the affair of Thomas Docherty.

Thomas Docherty

Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Thomas Docherty was suspended in January 2014 by Warwick because of "inappropriate sighing", "making ironic comments" and "projecting negative body language". Not only was Docherty punished, but also his students.

"As well as being banned from campus, from the library, and from email contact with his colleagues, Docherty was prohibited from supervising his graduate students and from writing references. Indiscriminate, disproportionate, and unjust measures against the professor were also deeply unfair to his students."

Ludicrously, rather than brushing the matter aside, senior management at Warwick hired corporate lawyers to argue that his behaviour was grounds for dismissal.

That cost the university at least £43,000.

The story appeared in every UK newspaper and rapidly spread abroad. It must have been the most ham-fisted bit of PR ever. But rather than firing the HR department, The University of Warwick let the matter fester for a full nine months before reinstating Docherty in September 2014.

The university managed to get the worst possible outcome. The suspension provoked world-wide derision and in the end they admitted they’d been wrong.  Jeremy Treglown, a professor emeritus of Warwick (and former editor of The Times Literary Supplement) described the episode as being like “something out of Kafka”.

And guess what, nobody was blamed and nobody resigned.

The firing people of doing cheap research

Warwick has followed the bad example set by Queen Mary College London, Kings College London and Imperial College London , If you don’t average an external grant income of at least £75,000 a year over the past four years, you job is at risk. Apart from its cruelty, the taxpayer is likely to take a dim view of academics being compelled to make research as expensive as possible. Some people need no more than a paper and pencil to do brilliant work. If you are one of them, don’t go to any of these universities.

It’s simply bad management. They shouldn’t have taken on so many people if they can’t pay the bills. Many universities took on extra staff in order to cheat on the REF. Now they have to cast some aside like worn-out old boots..

The tone of voice

Warwick University has very recently issued a document "Warwick tone of voice: Full guidelines. March 2015". It’s a sign of their ham-fisted management style that it wasn’t even hidden behind a password. They seem to be proud of it. Of course it provoked a storm of hilarity on social media. Documents like that are designed to instruct people not to give truthful opinions but to act as advertising agents for their university. The actual effect is, of course, exactly the opposite. They reduce the respect for the institution that issues such documents.

Here are some quotations (try not to laugh -you might get fired).

"What is tone of voice and why do we need a ‘Warwick’ tone of voice?
The tone of our language defines the way people respond to us. By writing in a tone that’s true to our brand, we can express what it is that makes University of Warwick unique."

"Our brand: defined by possibility

What is it that makes us unique? We’re a university with modern values and a formidable record of academic and commercial achievement — but not the only one. So what sets us apart?

The difference lies in our approach to everything we do. Warwick is a place that fundamentally rejects the notion of obstacles — a place where the starting point is always ‘anything is possible’. "

Then comes the common thread. It’s all to do with rankings.

“What if we raised our research profile to even higher levels of international excellence? Then we could be ranked as one of the world’s top fifty universities."

The people who sell university rankings (and the REF) have much to answer for,

There’s a good post about this fiasco, from people whose job is branding. "How not to write guidelines".

Outsourcing teaching

As if all this were not enough, on April 5th 2015, we heard that "Warwick Uni to outsource hourly paid academics to subsidiary". Universities already rely totally on people on people on short-term contracts. Most research is done by PhD students and post-doctoral students on three (or sometimes five) year contracts. They are supervised (not always very well) by people who spend most of their time writing grant applications. Science must be one of the most insecure jobs going.

Increasingly we are seeing casualisation of academics. A three year contract looks like luxury compared with being hired by the hour. It’s rapidly approaching zero-hours contracts for PhDs. In fact it’s reported that people hired by TeachHigher won’t even have a contract: "staff hired under TeachHigher will be working explicitly not on a contract, but rather, an ‘agreement’ ".

The organisation behind this is called TeachHigher. And guess who owns it? The University of Warwick. It is a subsidiary of the Warwick Employment Group which already runs several other employment agencies, including Unitemps which deals with cleaners, security and catering staff.

The university claims that it isn’t "outsourcing" because TeachHigher is part of the university. For now, anyway. It’s reported that "The university plans to turn the project into a commercial franchise, similar to another subsidiary used to pay cleaners and catering staff, it can sell to other institutions."

The Warwick students’ newspaper "spoke to a PhD student who was fired last year from a teaching job with Unitemps after participating in strike action, who felt one of the aims of creating TeachHigher may “to prevent collective action from taking place.”" 

Bringing the university into disrepute is something for which you can be fired. The vice-chancellor, Nigel Thrift, has allowed Warwick to become a laughing stock four times in a single year. Perhaps it is time that the chair of Council, George Cox, did something about it?

Universities don’t have to be run like that. UCL isn’t, for one.

Follow-up

9 April 2015 It seems that TeachHigher was proposing to pay a lecturer £5 per hour. This may not be accurate but it’s certainly caused a stir.

Laurie Taylor, ever-topical, was on the Docherty case in Times Higher Education.

Riga, Riga, roses

I’ve nothing against Latvia per se, but I can’t in all honesty see any real parallels between a university in such a faraway and somewhat desolate place as Riga and our own delightful campus.”

That was how Jamie Targett, our Director of Corporate Affairs, responded to the news that the European Court of Human Rights had found that a professor at Riga Stradiņš University had been unfairly sacked for criticising senior management. University staff, the court ruled, must be free to criticise management without fear of dismissal or disciplinary action.

Targett “thoroughly rejected” the suggestion from our reporter Keith Ponting (30) that there might be “a parallel” between what happened at Riga and our own university’s decision to ban Professor Busby of our English Department from campus for nine months for a disciplinary offence.

This, insisted Targett, was a “wholly inappropriate parallel”. For whereas the Latvian professor had been disciplined for speaking out against “alleged nepotism, plagiarism, corruption and mismanagement” in his department, Professor Busby had been banned from campus and from contact with students and colleagues for nine months for the “far more heinous offence” of “sighing” during an appointments interview.

Targett said he “trusted that any fair-minded person, whether from Latvia or indeed the Outer Caucasus, would be able to see the essential difference in the scale of offence”.

10 April 2015

The London Review of Books has a rather similar piece, Mind Yout Tone, by Glen Newey.

"It’s tough to pick winners amid the textureless blather that has lately seeped from campus PR outfits".

"In a keen field, though, it’s Warwick’s drill-sheet that takes the jammie dodger".

17 April 2015

Anyone would have thought that Laurie Taylor had read this post. His inimitable Poppletonian column this week was entirely devoted to Warwick.

Nothing to laugh about!

16 APRIL 2015 | BY LAURIE TAYLOR

Our Director of Corporate Affairs, Jamie Targett, has roundly criticised all those members of the Poppleton academic staff who have responded to the new University of Warwick “Tone of Voice” guidelines with what he described as “wholly inappropriate sniggering”.

Targett said that he saw “nothing at all funny” in Warwick’s new insistence that its staff should always apply the “What if” linguistic principle in all their communications.

He particularly praised the manner in which the application of the What if principle helped to make communications optimistic, leaving “the reader to feel that you’re there to help them”. So instead of writing “This is only for”, Warwick staff under the influence of the What if principle would write “This is for everyone who”.

But there were many other advantages that could be derived from consistent application of What if. It also inclined writers to be “proactive”. So instead of writing “Your application was received”, Warwick staff imbued with the What if ethic would always write “We’ve read your application”.

Targett said that he also failed to find any humour whatsoever in the further What if insistence that academic staff should always avoid using such tentative words as “possibly”, “hopefully” or “maybe”. So, under the What if linguistic principle, staff would never write “We hope to become a top 50 world-ranked university” but always “Our aim is to become a top 50 world-ranked university”.

In what was being described as “an unexpected move”, Targett received support for his views on the What if principle from Mr Ted Odgers of our Department of Media and Cultural Studies, who thought that the principle made “particularly good sense” in the Warwick context. He went so far as to provide the following example of its application:

“What if the University of Warwick had not recently banned an academic from its campus for nothing more serious than sighing, projecting negative body language and making ironic comments when interviewing candidates for a job? And What if this ban had not been complemented with a ban on the said academic contacting his own undergraduates and tutoring his own PhD students and speaking to his former colleagues? And What if the whole case against the said academic had not then been pursued with the use of a team of high-powered barristers costing the university at least £43,000?”

If all these What ifs had been met, then, added Mr Odgers, Warwick might possibly, hopefully or maybe have managed to retain its former position as an institution that respected the principles of academic freedom.

Targett told The Poppletonian that while he appreciated Mr Odgers’ application of the What if principle, he felt that it did not “at some points” fully capture the essence of its guidelines.

Jump to follow-up

The tragedy of the apparent suicide of Stefan Grimm is now known worldwide. His last email has been read by more than 160,000 people from over 200 countries. This post gathers together some of the reactions to his death. It’s a Christmas card for the people who are responsible.

gast
Alice Gast (president)
stirling
James Stirling (provost)
Kelleher
Dermot Kelleher (VP (health)

 

“This isn’t about science – it’s about bragging rights, or institutional willy-waving.” from Grimm’s Tale

tweet

The back story

On Monday 1st December I published Stefan Grimm’s last email. It has been read by more than 160,000 people from over 200 different countries.

On Tuesday 2nd December, Stefan Grimm’s immediate boss, Martin Wilkins, wrote to me. He claimed “We met from time to time to discuss science and general matters. These meetings were always cordial. ”

On Wednesday 3rd December, the Dean of Medicine, Dermot Kelleher, mailed all Faculty of Medicine staff (not the rest of the College). Read the letter. It said very little. But it did include the words

“I regret I did not know Stefan personally, and I looked to colleagues to describe to me his life and the impact of his work at Imperial “

It seems a bit odd that the Dean of Medicine did not know a senior professor, but that seems to be life at Imperial.

On Thursday 4th December, Times Higher Education printed the same last email, and also the text of a threatening letter sent to Grimm in March.by his boss, Martin Wilkins. The letter was very far from being cordial, contrary to what Wilkins claimed. It included these words.

“I am of the opinion that you are struggling to fulfil the metrics of a Professorial post at Imperial College which include maintaining established funding in a programme of research with an attributable share of research spend of £200k p.a and must now start to give serious consideration as to whether you are performing at the expected level of a Professor at Imperial College.”

For a successful 51 year old with a good publication record to get a letter like that must have been devastating.

On Friday 5th December, Imperial made its first public announcement of his death. more than three months after it happened. By this time a damning account of his death had appeared even in the Daily Mail. The announcement read as though the world was unaware of his last words. It was a PR disaster: weasel words and crocodile tears. It made Imperial College appear to be totally heartless. The official announcement was accompanied by the phone numbers for the Samaritans. the chaplaincy and mental health first-aiders. Giving a person a phone number to call when you’ve destroyed their life is not an adequate substitute for treating staff properly.

Imperial are still trying to pretend that Grimm’s death is nothing to do with them, despite the fact that the whole world now knows quite enough of the facts to see otherwise.

The Coroner’s Inquest

The inquest into Grimm’s death was adjourned on October 8th, pending investigations into its cause. If you know anything relevant you should email the Coroner’s officer who is responsible for the investigation. That’s Molly Stewart (Molly.Stewart@lbhf.gov.uk). It is rather important that all the information doesn’t come from the College authorities, which cannot be relied on to tell the truth.

Some reports about the regime at Imperial College

Since my post went up on December 1st, I’ve had a stream of emails which testify to the reign of terror operated by the senior management at Imperial. The problem is by no means restricted to the Faculty of Medicine, though the problems seem to be worst there.

Many of these correspondents don’t want to speak in public. That’s certainly true of people who still work at Imperial, who have been warned to deflect all enquiries to HR. Here are some of the stories that I can reveal.

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) results were announced on 18th December. All university PR people hunted through the results, and all found something to boast tediously about. The letter from Imperial’s provost, James Stirling (read it), is pretty standard stuff. as is the letter from the Dean of Medicine, Dermot Kelleher (read it). Needless to say, neither letter mentioned the price in human misery, and even death, that Imperial had paid for its high ranking. I felt compelled to tweet


Kelleher promoted. Astonishingly, the very next day, the Dean of Medicine, on whose watch Grimm died, was promoted. You can read the letter from Imperial’s president, Alice Gast, in which this is announced. He is to be Vice President (Health), as a reward no doubt, for the cruel regime he ran as Dean. The letter has all the usual vacuous managerial buzzwords, e.g. “to support and grow the multidisciplinary paradigm in health”. Remember DC’s rule number one: never trust anyone who uses the word ‘paradigm’. Needless to say, still no mention of treating staff better.

Dr William J Astle.

Dr Astle is one of many people who wrote to me about his experiences at Imperial College. Although he still appears on Imperial’s web site, he now works as a statistician in a bioinformatics team at the University of Cambridge (see their web site).

He wrote again on 23 October 2014, to pass on an email (read the mail) that was sent to Department staff after Grimm’s last email had been circulated.(on 21 October). It is from a Faculty Operating Officer and ends with a warning to refer media enquries to a PR person (the Press and Internal Communications Manager, John-Paul Jones).

When he saw the internal email from Provost James Stirling with the usual self-congratulatory stuff about the REF, Astle wrote again to Stirling, His letter ends thus.

“Putting university staff in fear of losing their jobs leads to an atmosphere of obsequiousness and obedience to authority that prevents academics from fulfilling their institutional role. In a free society it is essential academics have the autonomy to determine their line of work, to question institutional and state authority and to do risky research. Once again I emphasise – in my experience the atmosphere in the faculty of medicine at IC is not conducive to this.”

Stirling did not reply to this letter. Neither Gast nor Stirling have replied to mine either. Discourtesy seems to be part of the job description of senior managers.

Christine Yates

Christine Yates says

“I was employed at Imperial College London from s” August 2002 to October 2012. For these 10 years I was the College’s Equality and Diversity Consultant in the Human Resources Department, reporting to the HR deputy director, Kim Everitt. In turn, Kim Everitt reports to the HR director, Louise Lindsay. Throughout this time I was the College’s sole equalities consultant, and over time built up the Equalities Unit and managed a team of five.”

“I was dismissed on 8th October 2012 following a Disciplinary Hearing in response to an allegation of gross misconduct “for continued wilful refusal to follow your Head of Department’s (HOD) instructions not to be involved in individual cases”.

As part of her job, she was responsible for establishing and maintaining the Harassment Support Contact Scheme, which was designed to help staff who felt they were being harassed, bullied, and victimised. She was also responsible for the College’s first Athena SWAN (scientific women’s academic network) .successful application, along with the establishment of disabilities, race equalities, and sexual orientation networks, all of which attained quality professional kite marks over time. The Athena Swan award is particularly ironic, given that Imperial’s present brutal assessment system must be even more unfair to women than it is to men. In 2003 (when Richard Sykes was still in charge), a third of female employees at Imperial reported that they were bullied. The improvement since then seems to have been small.

One of many cases she dealt with involved the harassment and bullying of a senior female academic by her male boss. Yates maintains, with good evidence, that complaints about this behaviour were never investigated properly by HR. This displeased HR. Incidents like this undoubtedly contributed to her dismissal.

“In Dr ***’s [female] case, it is clear to me that no independent investigations have been held and that College procedures are being flouted or rnanipulated with the alleged harasser (Professor **** [male]) being protected and permitted to continue his misconduct.”

“In my position as the College’s Equalities Consultant, I was aware of many cases and outcomes. Or ***’s is one of the most distressing and badly handled cases I was witness to, and the manner in which HR protect senior academics who have gravely offended, and who under any reasonable circumstances would be found to be guilty of gross misconduct, is a sad indictment of Imperial College”

You can read the statement that Christine Yates has already sent to the Coroner’s officer. Unfortunately the attachments have had to be removed here because they deal with specific cases.

“The Coroner’s Office needs to be aware of the pattern of behaviour that ensues whenever bad practice is brought to the College’s attention. In response to whistle blows and other complaints the College tries to discredit the complainant. When this fails they will invariably state that they will hold a ‘review’ usually undertaken by those responsible for the bad behaviour and thus with a vested interest in covering up any misconduct and impropriety. It is noted this pattern remains unchanged, “

A problem with a paper

An anonymous correspondent has sent me a lot of emails that concern a paper that was in revision at the time of Grimm’s death. The title of the paper is “Role of non-coding RNAs in apoptosis revealed in a functional genome-wide screen”.

On October 6th, one author wrote to his co-authors “I worked closely with Stefan on the screen data this year. We re-interpreted the mathematical analysis performed in the original manuscript, providing a more rigorous statistical foundation of the gene rankings. As a result, the gene list Stefan and I have generated is now different.”.

Clearly Grimm was aware of the need for revision before he died. Given that everyone was under such intense pressure to publish, it’s likely that the prospect of a prolonged delay in publication might well have contributed to his depression and his death.

The author who wrote on October 6th outlined some options. One was to leave the paper as it was, but to include all the raw data and submit to a journal such as Plos One or the preprint server BioRxiv. This option “requires minimal work, and would result in no change in the author list. However we would aim for a lower-impact journal.”. His preferred option, though, was to rewrite the paper altogether (and for himself to become first co-author) “as it is in all our shared interest to get the work published in as good a journal as possible. “.

Two days later, on October 8th, the same author thanked his co-authors for their responses. As a result of the responses he got, he asked to have his name removed from the paper because he did not agree with what was contained in the manuscript. “However, given that I believe the gene list is wrong, I request my name to be removed from the author list. If any other authors do not wish for the raw data to be disclosed then I hope you think it’s reasonable for me to close off my involvement with the paper.”.

The paper has 11 authors, including Stefan Grimm. . I have written to all but one of the authors to try to ascertain the facts. Of the four co-authors who have replied, all but one said that they hadn’t seen the final paper. One said that they were unaware that they were on the author list, and said they probably shouldn’t be.

I have tried to protect the authors (some of whom are still at Imperial) by not mentioning their names. But one co-author is sufficiently senior to be mentioned by name. Alan Boobis answered by my mail cordially enough when I first wrote to him, but declined to give much useful information, apart from confirming that Grimm was the senior author on the paper. On October 9th he wrote to all co-authors, thus.

From: Boobis, Alan R [a.boobis@imperial.ac.uk]
Sent: 09 October 2014 18:15
To: xxxxxx [co-authors]
Subject: Re: News About Stefan & Screen Paper

Dear all

The situation regarding this manuscript needs to be dealt with rationally. There is a real danger that the reputations of individuals and of the College will be harmed. I suggest that we all need to agree the most appropriate way forward. I am out of the country this week but will have my secretary liaise with you next week to arrange a suitable time (face to face or by phone) to discuss this.

Best wishes,

Alan

I have no idea what the outcome of this meeting was. Personally. I always worry a bit when people want meetings “face to face or by phone”. Written records are much more informative.

I should like to make it clear that I’m not suggesting any misconduct whatsoever. The author who wished to withdraw acted with principle and courage, and mistakes happen. They are perhaps especially likely in multi-author papers where some authors don’t understand the input from others. But it is sad to see the emphasis on the long-discredited journal impact factor that was forced on them by Imperial’s policies. And it’s sad to see that several co-authors had not actually seen the final paper. This smacks of “citation-mongering”, yet another bad effect of the metrics culture that has pervaded all of academia, and which is enforced in an especially simple-minded way at Imperial.

This sad episode is yet another illustration of the way that Imperial’s policies are damaging people, and, in the end, damaging science.

Some discussions of the Imperial problem

Since Grimm’s last email was revealed, it’s been discussed in many blogs and articles. Here are a few of them.

Grimm’s tale (2 December). This perceptive blog reproduces part of the nasty threatening letter sent by Martin Wilkins to Grimm.

“Your current level of funding does not constitute the appropriate level for a professor at Imperial College. Unless you submit and are awarded a Platform grant as PI in the next 12 months we will seek to initiate disciplinary action against you.”

The author comments (my emphasis).

This isn’t about science – it’s about bragging rights, or institutional willy-waving. Grimm was informed – in public – that he was to be fired, and left waiting for the axe to fall while the axe-wielder marauded around the campus boasting about it like an even more pathetic Alan Sugar.”

That sums it up for me. It’s very sad.

Another blog comments

“Martin Wilkins to Professor Stefan Grimm, a few months before the latter committed suicide. Imperial College had been pressuring Grimm to get 200, 000 pounds in grants in order for him to remain employed. They threatened to sack him as he only had 135,000 pounds.

Sounds a lot like loan sharks.”

Clearly universities like Imperial are no longer places for scholarship. They are more like anxiety machines.

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics produced an important report in the midst of the scandal about Grimm: The culture of scientific research 2014. Paragraph 1.7 produced a chilling statistic

1.7 Compromising on research integrity and standards

  • Almost six in ten (58%) respondents are aware of scientists feeling under pressure to
    compromise on research integrity and standards, with poor methodology and data fraud
    frequently mentioned in the free text responses.
  • Just over a quarter (26%) of those taking part in the survey have felt tempted to compromise
    on research integrity.

Stefan Grimm and the British University system. This blog, written by a geneticist. Federico Calboli, based in Helsinki, gives an indication of the harm that Imperial is inflicting not only on itself, but on the whole of UK academia, and hence on the UK economy

“As always in the real world the best laid plans often conflict with how the world actually works, and this conflict gives rise to a number of unintended consequences. The first unintended consequence is that the pursuit of what managements defines as ‘novel’ and ‘glamorous’ will diminish the intellectual value of British academia as a whole.”

“Unfortunately, since academia, funding bodies and the editorial boards of papers have been taken over by top down management culture, solid rigorous science is penalised in favour of anything that can be branded as ’novel’, ‘cutting edge’, ‘state of the art’ and similar platitudes.”

“This policy will leave British academia directionless and intellectually empty, and will transform any research in technology and data driven drivel that can at most pick up low hanging fruits and will deliver less and less as time goes on.”

Still more shaming, Calboli continues thus.

“The second problem with how British academia is managed is the culture of intellectual dishonesty that is forced upon people. People are not allowed to just express their goals in simple honest terms. They are required to spin and embellish everything in order to have half a chance of getting some funding or publishing in a high impact journal – both crucial to contribute to the ‘excellence metric”.

“Only the shameless cynics thrive in such environment”.

The blog finishes with a rallying cry.

“the email that Prof Grimm sent in October did not magically make its way to the press by itself. While many people are feeling disenchanted with academia and leave, more and more insiders are taking a combative stance against the mindless hogwash that threatens the foundations of British academia and the people that push it. We should all stand up and be counted, or we will not be able to complain in the future. It would be great if management could live up to its role and abandon the idea that scientific research is simple, predictable and quickly profitable, and actually help build the future of British academia.”

All this reflects similar sentiments to those that I expressed in 2007 [the RAE was the predecessor of the REF]

“The policies described here will result in a generation of ‘spiv’ scientists, churning out 20 or even more papers a year, with very little originality. They will also, inevitably, lead to an increase in the sort of scientific malpractice that was recently pilloried viciously, but accurately, in the New York Times, and a further fall in the public’s trust in science. That trust is already disastrously low, and one reason for that is, I suggest, pressures like those described here which lead scientists to publish when they have nothing to say.”

““All of us who do research (rather than talk about it) know the disastrous effects that the Research Assessment Exercise has had on research in the United Kingdom: short-termism, intellectual shallowness, guest authorships and even dishonesty”. Now we can add to that list bullying, harassment and an incompetent box-ticking style of assessment that tends to be loved by HR departments.

This process might indeed increase your RAE score in the short term (though there is no evidence that it it does even that). But, over a couple of decades, it will rid universities of potential Nobel prize winners.”

Conclusions

The policies adopted by Imperial College have harmed Imperial’s reputation throughout the world. Worse still, they have tainted the reputation of all UK universities. They have contributed to the corruption of science. and they have, in all probability, killed a successful man,

I hope that Alice Gast (president), James Stirling (provost). Dermot Kelleher (Dean, now vice president), and Martin Wilkins (who was left to weild the knife) have a good Christmas. If I were in their shoes, I’d feel so guilty that I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.

They should spend Christmas reading Peter Lawrence’s wonderful essay on The Mismeasurement of Science. Please download a copy

Their proposal that HR policies should be investigated by, inter alia, the head of HR has provoked worldwide derision.

Their refusal to set up an independent external inquiry is reprehensible.

Not for the first time, a fine institution is being brought into disrepute by its leadership. Council please note.

gast
Alice Gast
stirling
James Stirling
Kelleher
Dermot Kelleher

 

Perhaps the best description of what’s going on is from Grimm’s Tale “This isn’t about science – it’s about bragging rights, or institutional willy-waving.”. Gast, Stirling and Kelleher should stop the willy-waving. They should either set about rectifying the damage they’ve done. Or they should resign. Now.

The chair of universities HR association, Kim Frost, said

“Bullying is a very emotive term, and what one person experiences as bullying will often be simple performance management from their manager’s point of view.”.

That’s scary because it shows that she hasn’t the slightest idea about “performance management”. I have news for HR people. They are called experiments because we don’t know whether they will work. If they don’t work that’s not a reason to fire anyone. No manager can make an experiment come out as they wish. The fact of the matter is that it’s impossible to manage research. If you want real innovation you have to tolerate lots and lots of failure. “Performance management” is an oxymoron. Get used to it.

This sorry episode has far more general lessons for the way the REF is conducted and for the metrics sales industry. Both share some of the guilt.

That will have to wait for another post.

Follow-up

25 December 2014. Universities "eliminate tenure because Starbucks does not have tenure"

I was struck by this excerpt from a Christmas newsletter from a colleague. Buried among the family news was buried this lament. He’s writing about Rush University, Chicago, but much the same could be said about many universities, not only in the USA.

Rush Medical Center built an $800 million hospital building that is clinically state-of-the-art and architecturally unique. Now it is poised to become a world class center of basic and clinical research. Sadly, rather than listen to researchers who have devoted their careers to Rush, senior administration hears advice from fly-by-night financial consultants who apply the same “Business Model” to medical care, education, and research as to a shoe factory. Perhaps because fiscal consulting requires little skill or training*, they do not distinguish between a researcher and a Starbucks employee [literally true!]. They eliminate tenure because Starbucks does not have tenure. {To be fair, they have only eliminated “tenure of salary” – one may continue working with a title, but without pay!} They cannot imagine that world-class research is an art that requires years of training, cultivating an international network of colleagues, and most importantly, continuity of funding. Because their work is so trivial, they cannot fathom that researchers could be utterly unique and irreplacable. And they do not care – they will destroy research at Rush, collect their multi-million dollar fee, and move on to the next shoe factory.


*Lesson 1.  Fire people who do real work, cut wages, steal from pension funds, eliminate unions and job security.  Congratulations you are now a qualified fiscal consultant!

26 December 2014

Grimm is not the only one. In the same month, September 2014, Tony Veitch was found dead. He was a senior scientist in the lab at Kew Botanical Gardens. He was 49, much the same age as Stefan Grimm. It’s presumed that he committed suicide after being told to reapply for his own job.

veitch

!7 January 2015

I hear that Imperial College’s UCU passed this motion.

Motion 3: Branch condemns bullying and harassment of staff at Imperial

This branch strongly condemns the bullying and harassment of staff at Imperial, particularly by some managers. We call upon the senior management of the College to ensure that all managers are properly trained to deal with staff in a fair and considerate manner and on how to refrain from bullying and harassment. In light of a recent tragic case at Imperial, the College management must ensure that they fulfil their duty of care to all staff at all times.

Of course every employer claims that they do this.

I wonder how the officials can mouth these platitudes when the facts, now well known, show them to be untrue,

The first post and this one have been viewed over 173.000 times, from at least 170 countries (UK, USA,and then almost 10,000 views from China). I realise that this must have harmed Imperial, but they have brought it on themselves. Neither the president nor the rector have had the courtesy to answer perfectly polite letters.

I wrote also on 29 December to the chair of Council. Eliza Manningham-Buller. She has still not acknowledged receipt, never mind replied.

I am amazed by the discourtesy of people who regard themselves as too important to reply to letters.

To chair of Council, Imperial College London 29 December 2014

Dear Lady Manningham-Buller

A problem with management at Imperial

It cannot have escaped your notice that a senior member of Imperial’s staff was found dead, after being told that he’d lose his job if he didn’t raise £200,000 in grants within a year.

When I posted Stefan Grimm’s last email on my blog on December 1st it went viral (Publish and perish at Imperial College London), It has been read by over 160,000 people from over 200 countries. That being the case, Imperial’s first official mention of the matter on December 4th looked pretty silly. It was written as though his email was not already common knowledge –totally hamfisted public relations.

After posting Grimm’s last mail, I was deluged with mails about people who had been badly treated at Imperial. I posted a few of them on December 23rd (Some experiences of life at Imperial College London. An external inquiry is needed after the death of Stefan Grimm).

The policy of telling staff that their research must be expensive is not likely to be appreciated by the taxpayer. Neither will it improve the quality of science. On the contrary, the actions of the College are very likely to deter good scientists from working there (I already heard of two examples of people who turned down jobs at Imperial).

I think it is now clear that the senior management team is pursuing policies that are damaging the reputation of Imperial. I hope that Council will take appropriate action.

Best regards

David Colquhoun
_________________________________________
D. Colquhoun FRS
Professor of Pharmacology,
NPP, University College London

20 January 2015

Today I got a reply to the letter (above) that I sent to Eliza Manningham-Buller on 29 December. You can download it.

reply from EMB

I guess it’s not surprising that the reply says nothing helpful.

It endorses the idea that HR should investigate their own practices, an idea that the outside world greets with ridicule.

It reprimands me for making "unprofessional" comments about individuals. That’s what happens when people behave badly. It would be unprofessional to fail to point out what’s going on. It’s the job of journalists to name people. All else is PR.

It suggests that I may have not followed the Samaritans’ guidelines for reporting of suicide. I’ve read their document and I don’t believe that either I, or Times Higher Education, have breached the guidelines.

The letter says. essentially, please shut up, you are embarrassing Imperial. It’s fascinating to see the rich and powerful close ranks when criticised. But it is very disappointing. It seems to me to be very much in the public interest to have published the last email of Stefan Grimm.

But I guess the last person you’d expect to champion transparency is an ex-head of MI5.

Felix, Imperial’s student newspaper, carried an interesting article Death of Professor Grimm: the world reacts. The events at Imperial have been noted all over the world (at least 170 countries according to my own Google analytics) but the response has been especially big in China. Alienating a country like China seems to me to rank as bringing the College into disrepute.

9 February 2015

Death in Academia and the mis-measurement of science. Good article in Euroscientist by Arren Frood

25 February 2015

I see that Dermot Kelleher is leaving Imperial for the University of British Columbia. Perhaps he hopes that he’ll be able to escape his share of the blame for the death of Stefan Grimm?   Let’s hope, for the sake of UBC, that he’s learned a lesson from the episode.

10 March 2015

The Vancouver Sun has been asking questions. An article by Pamela Fayerman includes the following.

"Recently, Imperial College was engulfed in a controversy involving a tragedy. . . . a medical school professor, Stefan Grimm, took his own life last fall. He left an email that accused unnamed superiors of bullying through demands that he garner more research grants. The “publish or peril” adage that scientists so often cite seems like it may apply in this case.

The college said it would set up an internal inquiry into the circumstances around the toxicology professor’s death, but the results have not been released. UBC provost Dave Farrar said in an interview that the death of the professor at Imperial College was never even discussed during the recruitment process.

Kelleher said in a long distance phone interview that the tragedy had nothing to do with his reasons for leaving Imperial. And he can’t speak about the case since it is currently under review by a coroner."

Well, I guess he would say that, wouldn’t he? Kelleher has been at Imperial for less than three years, and the generous intepretation of his departure is that he didn’t like the bullying regime. It had been going on long before Kelleher arrived, as documented on this blog in in 2007.

It’s interesting to speculate about why he wasn’t asked about Grimm’s death (if that’s true).

Did the University of British Columbia think it was irrelevant?

Or did they want him to establish a similar regime of “performance management” at UBC?

Or were the senior people at UBC not even aware of the incident?

Perhaps the third option is the most likely: it’s only too characteristic of senior managers to be unaware of what’s happening on the shop floor. Just as in banks.

11 March 2015

It’s beginning to look like an exodus. The chair of Imperial’s council, Eliza Manningham-Buller, is also leaving. Despite her condescending response to my inquiries, perhaps she too is scared of what will be revealed about bullying. I just hope that she doesn’t bring Imperial’s ideas about "performance management" to the Wellcome Trust.

Jump to follow-up

This week’s Times Higher Education carried a report of the death, at age 51, of Professor Stefan Grimm: Imperial College London to ‘review procedures’ after death of academic. He was professor of toxicology in the Faculty of Medicine at Imperial.

ic

 

Now Stefan Grimm is dead. Despite having a good publication record, he failed to do sufficiently expensive research, so he was fired (or at least threatened with being fired).

“Speaking to Times Higher Education on condition of anonymity, two academics who knew Professor Grimm, who was 51, said that he had complained of being placed under undue pressure by the university in the months leading up to his death, and that he had been placed on performance review.”

Having had cause to report before on bullying at Imperial’s Department of Medicine, I was curious to know more.

Martin Wilkins wrote to Grimm on 10 March 2014. The full text is on THE.

"I am of the opinion that you are struggling to fulfil the metrics of a Professorial post at Imperial College which include maintaining established funding in a programme of research with an attributable share of research spend of £200k p.a and must now start to give serious consideration as to whether you are performing at the expected level of a Professor at Imperial College."

"Please be aware that this constitutes the start of informal action in relation to your performance, however should you fail to meet the objective outlined, I will need to consider your performance in accordance with the formal College procedure for managing issues of poor performance (Ordinance ­D8) which can be found at the following link.
http://www3.imperial.ac.uk/secretariat/collegegovernance/provisions/ordinances/d8"

[The link to ordinances in this letter doesn’t work now. But you can still read them here (click on the + sign).]

It didn’t take long to get hold of an email from Grimm that has been widely circulated within Imperial. The mail is dated a month after his death. It isn’t known whether it was pre-set by Grimm himself or whether it was sent by someone else. It’s even possible that it wasn’t written by Grimm himself, though if it is an accurate description of what happened, that’s not crucial.

No doubt any Imperial staff member would be in great danger if they were to publish the mail. So, as a public service, I shall do so.

The email from Stefan Grimm, below, was prefaced by an explanation written by the person who forwarded it (I don’t know who that was).

Dear Colleagues,

You may have already heard about the tragic death of Professor Stefan Grimm a former member of the Faculty of Medicine at Imperial College. He died suddenly and unexpectedly in early October. As yet there is no report about the cause of his death. Some two weeks later a delayed email from him was received by many of the senior staff of the medical school, and other researchers worldwide. It has been forwarded to me by one of my research collaborators. From my reading of it I believe that Stefan wanted it circulated as widely as possible and for that reason I am sending it to you. It is appended below.

This email represents just one side of an acrimonious dispute, but it may be indicative of more deep seated problems.

best wishes


Begin forwarded message:

From: Stefan Grimm <professorstefangrimm@gmail.com>

Date: 21 October 2014 23:41:03 BST

To: <big-email-list>

Subject: How Professors are treated at Imperial College

Dear all,

If anyone is interested how Professors are treated at Imperial College: Here is my story.

On May 30th ’13 my boss, Prof Martin Wilkins, came into my office together with his PA and ask me what grants I had. After I enumerated them I was told that this was not enough and that I had to leave the College within one year – “max” as he said. He made it clear that he was acting on behalf of Prof Gavin Screaton, the then head of the Department of Medicine, and told me that I would have a meeting with him soon to be sacked. Without any further comment he left my office. It was only then that I realized that he did not even have the courtesy to close the door of my office when he delivered this message. When I turned around the corner I saw a student who seems to have overheard the conversation looking at me in utter horror.

Prof Wilkins had nothing better to do than immediately inform my colleagues in the Section that he had just sacked me.

Why does a Professor have to be treated like that?

All my grant writing stopped afterwards, as I was waiting for the meeting to get sacked by Prof Screaton. This meeting, however, never took place.

In March ’14 I then received the ultimatum email below. 200,000 pounds research income every year is required. Very interesting. I was never informed about this before and cannot remember that this is part of my contract with the College. Especially interesting is the fact that the required 200,000.- pounds could potentially also be covered by smaller grants but in my case a programme grant was expected.

Our 135,000.- pounds from the University of Dammam? Doesn’t count. I have to say that it was a lovely situation to submit grant applications for your own survival with such a deadline. We all know what a lottery grant applications are.

There was talk that the Department had accepted to be in dept for some time and would compensate this through more teaching. So I thought that I would survive. But the email below indicates otherwise. I got this after the student for whom I “have plans” received the official admission to the College as a PhD student. He waited so long to work in our group and I will never be able to tell him that this should now not happen. What these guys don’t know is that they destroy lives. Well, they certainly destroyed mine.

The reality is that these career scientists up in the hierarchy of this organization only look at figures to judge their colleagues, be it impact factors or grant income. After all, how can you convince your Department head that you are working on something exciting if he not even attends the regular Departmental seminars? The aim is only to keep up the finances of their Departments for their own career advancement.

These formidable leaders are playing an interesting game: They hire scientists from other countries to submit the work that they did abroad under completely different conditions for the Research Assessment that is supposed to gauge the performance of British universities. Afterwards they leave them alone to either perform with grants or being kicked out. Even if your work is submitted to this Research Assessment and brings in money for the university, you are targeted if your grant income is deemed insufficient. Those submitted to the research assessment hence support those colleagues who are unproductive but have grants. Grant income is all that counts here, not scientific output.

We had four papers with original data this year so far, in Cell Death and Differentiation, Oncogene, Journal of Cell Science and, as I informed Prof Wilkins this week, one accepted with the EMBO Journal. I was also the editor of a book and wrote two reviews. Doesn’t count.

This leads to a interesting spin to the old saying “publish or perish”. Here it is “publish and perish”.

Did I regret coming to this place? I enormously enjoyed interacting with my science colleagues here, but like many of them, I fell into the trap of confusing the reputation of science here with the present reality. This is not a university anymore but a business with very few up in the hierarchy, like our formidable duo, profiteering and the rest of us are milked for money, be it professors for their grant income or students who pay 100.- pounds just to extend their write-up status.

If anyone believes that I feel what my excellent coworkers and I have accomplished here over the years is inferior to other work, is wrong. With our apoptosis genes and the concept of Anticancer Genes we have developed something that is probably much more exciting than most other projects, including those that are heavily supported by grants.

Was I perhaps too lazy? My boss smugly told me that I was actually the one professor on the whole campus who had submitted the highest number of grant applications. Well, they were probably simply not good enough.

I am by far not the only one who is targeted by those formidable guys. These colleagues only keep quiet out of shame about their situation. Which is wrong. As we all know hitting the sweet spot in bioscience is simply a matter of luck, both for grant applications and publications.

Why does a Professor have to be treated like that?

One of my colleagues here at the College whom I told my story looked at me, there was a silence, and then said: “Yes, they treat us like sh*t”.

Best regards,

Stefan Grimm

 

There is now a way for staff to register their opinions of their employers.The entries for Imperial College on Glassdoor.com suggest that bullying there is widespread (on contrast, the grumbles about UCL are mostly about lack of space).

Googling ‘imperial college employment tribunal’ shows a history of bullying that is not publicised. In fact victims are often forced to sign gagging clauses. In fairness, AcademicFOI.com shows that the problems are not unique to Imperial. Over 3 years (it isn’t clear which years) , 810 university staff went to employment tribunals. And 5528 staff were gagged. Not a proud record

Imperial’s Department of Medicine web site says that one of its aims is to “build a strong and supportive academic community”. Imperial’s spokesman said “Stefan Grimm was a valued member of the Faculty of Medicine”.

The ability of large organisations to tell barefaced lies never ceases to amaze me.

I asked Martin Wilkins to comment on the email from Grimm. His response is the standard stuff that HR issues on such occasions. Not a word of apology, no admission of fault. It says “Imperial College London seeks to give every member of its community the opportunity to excel and to create a supportive environment in which their careers may flourish.”. Unless, that is, your research is insufficiently expensive, in which case we’ll throw you out on the street at 51. For completeness, you can download Wilkins’ mail.

After reading this post, Martin Wilkins wrote again to me (12.21 on 2nd December), He said

“You will appreciate that I am unable to engage in any further discussion – not because of any institutional policy but because there is an ongoing inquest into the circumstances of his death. What I can say is that there was no ongoing correspondence. We met from time to time to discuss science and general matters. These meetings were always cordial. My last meeting with him was to congratulate him on his recent paper, accepted by EMBOL "

The emails now revealed show that the relationship could hardly have been less “cordial”. Martin Wilkins appears to be less than frank about what happened.

If anyone has more correspondence which ought to be known, please send it to me. I don’t reveal sources (if you prefer, use my non-College email david.colquhoun72 (at) gmail.com).

The problem is by no means limited to Imperial. Neither is it universal at Imperial: some departments are quite happy about how they are run. Kings College London, Warwick University and Queen Mary College London have been just as brutal as Imperial. But in these places nobody has died. Not yet.

Follow-up

Here are a few of the tweets that appeared soon after this post appeared.

3 December 2014

The day after this post went public, I wrote to the vice-chancellor of Imperial College, thus.

To: alice.gast@imperial.ac.uk

cc: w.j.stirling@imperial.ac.uk, s.johal@imperial.ac.uk. d.humphris@imperial.ac.uk


Dear Professor Gast

You may be aware that last night, at 18.30, I published Stefan Grimm’s last email, see http://www.dcscience.net/?p=6834 

In the 12 hours that it’s been public it’s had at least 10,000 views. At the moment, 230 people. from all round the world, are reading it. It seems to be going viral.

I appreciate that you are new to the job of rector, so you may not realise that this sort of behaviour has been going on for years at Imperial (especially in Medicine) -I last wrote about the dimwitted methods being used to assess people in Medicine on 2007 -see http://www.dcscience.net/?p=182

Now it seems likely that the policy has actually killed someone (itwas quite predictable that this would happen, sooner or later).

I hope that your your humanity will ensure a change of policy in your approach to “performance management”.

Failing that, the bad publicity that you’re getting may be enough to persuade you to do so.

Best regards

David Colquhoun

__________________________________
D. Colquhoun FRS
Professor of Pharmacology
NPP, University College London
Gower Street

Today I updated the numbers: 44,000 hits after 36 hours.

I tried to put it politely, but I have not yet had a reply.

4 December 2014

More than one source at Imperial has sent me a copy of an email sent to staff by the dean of the Faculty of Medicine. It’s dated 03 December 2014 16:44. It was sent almost 24 hours after my post. It is, I suppose, just possible that Kelleher was unaware of my post. But he must surely have seen the internally-circulated version of Grimm’s letter. It isn’t mentioned: that makes the weasel words and crocodile tears in the email even more revolting than they otherwise would be. Both his account and Wilkins’ account contradict directly the account in Grimm’s mail.

Somebody is not telling the truth.

Download Kelleher’s email.

This post has broken all records (for this blog). It has been viewed over 50,000 times in 48 hours. It is still getting 35-40 visitors per minute, as it has for the last 2 days. How much longer will managers at Imperial be able to pretend that the cat hasn’t escaped from the bag?

5 December 2014

Late last night. Imperial made, at last. a public comment on the death of Stefan Grimm: Statement on Professor Stefan Grimm by Caroline Davis (Communications and Public Affairs). This bit of shameless public relations appears under a tasteful picture of lilies.

ICL lilies

It says “Members of Imperial’s community may be aware of media reports of the tragic loss of Stefan Grimm, professor of toxicology in the Faculty of Medicine”. They could hardly have missed the reports. As of 07.25 this morning, this post alone has been viewed 97,626 times, from all over the world. The statement is a masterpiece of weasel words, crocodile tears and straw man arguments. “Contrary to claims appearing on the internet, Professor Grimm’s work was not under formal review nor had he been given any notice of dismissal”. I saw no allegations that he had actually been fired. He was undoubtedly threatened with being fired. That’s entirely obvious from the email sent by Martin Wilkins to Stefan Grimm. on 10 March. The full text of that mail was published yesterday in Times Higher Education.

It’s worth reproducing the full text of that mail. To write like that to a successful professor, aged 51, is simply cruel. It is obviously incompatible with the PR guff that was issued yesterday. It seems to me to be very silly of Imperial College to try to deny the obvious.

I don’t know how people like Martin Wilkins and Caroline Davis manage to sleep at night.

Date: 10 March 2014

Dear Stefan

I am writing following our recent meetings in which we discussed your current grant support and the prospects for the immediate future. The last was our discussion around your PRDP, which I have attached. 

As we discussed, any significant external funding you had has now ended. I know that you have been seeking further funding support with Charities such as CRUK and the EU commission but my concern is that despite submitting many grants, you have been unsuccessful in persuading peer-review panels that you have a competitive application. Your dedication to seek funding is not in doubt but as time goes by, this can risk becoming a difficult situation from which to extricate oneself. In other words, grant committees can become fatigued from seeing a series of unsuccessful applications from the same applicant.

I am of the opinion that you are struggling to fulfil the metrics of a Professorial post at Imperial College which include maintaining established funding in a programme of research with an attributable share of research spend of £200k p.a and must now start to give serious consideration as to whether you are performing at the expected level of a Professor at Imperial College.

Over the course of the next 12 months I expect you to apply and be awarded a programme grant as lead PI. This is the objective that you will need to achieve in order for your performance to be considered at an acceptable standard. I am committed to doing what I can to help you succeed and will meet with you monthly to discuss your progression and success in achieving the objective outlined.  You have previously initiated discussions in our meetings regarding opportunities outside of Imperial College and I know you have been exploring opportunities elsewhere. Should this be the direction you wish to pursue, then I will do what I can to help you succeed.

Please be aware that this constitutes the start of informal action in relation to your performance, however should you fail to meet the objective outlined, I will need to consider your performance in accordance with the formal College procedure for managing issues of poor performance (Ordinance ­D8) which can be found at the following link.
http://www3.imperial.ac.uk/secretariat/collegegovernance/provisions/ordinances/d8

Should you have any questions on the above, please do get in touch.

Best wishes

Martin

These fixed performance targets are simply absurd. It’s called "research" because you don’t know how ir will come out. I’m told that if you apply for an Academic Clinical Fellowship at Imperial you are told

“Objectives and targets: The goal would be to impart sufficient training in the chosen subspecialty, as to enable the candidate to enter a MD/PhD programme at the end of the fellowship. During the entire academic training programme, the candidate is expected to publish at least five research articles in peer-reviewed journals of impact factor greater than 4.”

That’s a recipe for short term, unoriginal research. It’s an incentive to cut corners. Knowing that a paper has been written under that sort of pressure makes me less inclined to believe that the work has been done thoroughly. It is a prostitution of science.

Later on 5 December. This post has now had 100,000 views in a bit less that four days. At 13.30, I was at Kings College London, to talk to medical students about quackery etc. They were a smart lot, but all the questions were about Stefan Grimm.

The national press have begun to notice the tragedy. The Daily Mail, of all "newspapers" has a fair account of the death. It quotes Professor James Stirling, Provost of Imperial College London, as intoning the standard mantra:

“Imperial seeks to give every member of its community the opportunity to excel and to create a supportive environment in which their careers may flourish. Where we become aware that the College is falling short of this standard of support to its members, we will act”.

In my opinion the email above shows this is simply untrue. This sort of absurd and counterproductive pressure has been the rule in the Department of Medicine for years. I can’t believe that James Stirling didn’t now about it. If he did know, he should be fired for not anticipating the inevitable tragic consequences of his policies. If he didn’t know what was going on, he should be fired for not knowing. .

It is simply absurd for Imperial to allow (In)human resources to investigate itself. Nobody will believe the result.

An independent external inquiry is needed. Soon.

Stefan Grimm’s death is, ultimately, the fault of the use of silly metrics to mismeasure people. If there were no impact factors, no REF, no absurd university rankings, and no ill-educated senior academics and HR people who take them seriously, he’d probably still be alive.

8 December 2014

After one week, I wrote again to the senior management at Imperial (despite the fact that my earlier letters had been ignored). This time I had one simple suggestion. If Imperial want genuinely to set things right they should get an independent external inquiry. Their present proposal that the people who let things go so far should investigate themselves has been greeted with the scepticism that it so richly deserves. I still live in hope that someone will be sufficiently courteous to answer this time.

To: alice.gast@imperial.ac.uk

cc: w.j.stirling@imperial.ac.uk, s.johal@imperial.ac.uk. d.humphris@imperial.ac.uk, d.kelleher@imperial.ac.uk


Dear Professor Gast

My post of Stefan Grimm’s email last Monday evening, has been viewed 130,000 times from at least 175 different countries.  Your failure to respond to my letters is public knowledge.  When you finally posted a statement about Grimm on Thursday it so obviously contradicted the emails which I, and Times Higher Education had already published, that it must have done your reputation more harm than good.

May I suggest that the best chance to salvage your reputation would be to arrange for an independent external inquiry into the policies that contributed to Grimm’s death.  You must surely realise that your announcement that HR will investigate its own policies has been greeted with universal scepticism. Rightly or wrongly, its conclusions will simply not be believed.  I believe that an external inquiry would show Imperial is genuine in wishing to find out how to improve the way it treats the academics who are responsible for its reputation.

Best regards

David Colquhoun

__________________________________
D. Colquhoun FRS
Professor of Pharmacology
NPP, University College London
Gower Street

Here is a map of the location of 200 hits on 4 December (one of 20 such maps in a 4 hour period).

hitmap 4 dec

10 December 2014

Eventually I got a reply, of sorts, from Dermot Kelleher. It’s in the style of the true apparatchik "shut up and go away".

Dear Dr Colquhoun
Many thanks for your enquiry. Can I just say that College will liaise with the Coroner as required on this issue. In light of this, I do not believe that further correspondence will be helpful at present.
Best wishes
Dermot

After an interchange on Twitter about how blogs get noticed, I commented that the best thing for me was being thrown off the UCL web site by Malcolm Grant, and the subsequent support that I got from Ben Goldacre. I am a big fan of just about everything that Goldacre has done. So are a lot of other people and his support was crucial.

When I looked up his 2007 post, I found a lot of links were now broken, and some characters didn’t render properly. So, as a matter of historical record, I’m reproducing the whole post with updated links where possible.

Goldacre’s comments, of course, greatly exaggerated my virtues. But they were very useful at the time, they quadrupled my readership overnight, and I’m eternally grateful to him.

Some of the history of this saga has already been transferred to this blog. The aftermath was interesting.

The Mighty David Colquhoun

June 9th, 2007 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, heroes of bad science, stifling criticism | 56 Comments »

[Update: Letter from Provost below]

Ben Goldacre

Saturday June 9, 2007

The Guardian

I’ve always said you’d get a lot more kids interested in science if you told them it involves fighting – which of course it does. This week, for example, Professor David Colquhoun FRS – one of the most eminent scientists in the UK – has been forced to remove his quackbusting blog from the UCL servers where it has lived for many years, after complaints from disgruntled alternative therapists.

161514131211109

They objected, for example, to his use of the word “gobbledygook” to describe Red Clover as a “blood cleanser” or a “cleanser of the lymphatic system”. Somebody from the “European Herbal and Traditional Medicine Practitioners Association” complained that he’d slightly misrepresented one aspect of herbalists’ practice. One even complained about Colquhoun infringing copyright, simply for quoting the part of their website that he was examining. They felt, above all, that this was an inappropriate use of UCL facilities.

Now I don’t want to get into the to and fro here, but it is striking that none of them engaged the Prof himself on the issue of the ideas. In fact, they all ran behind his back to the Provost, or rather, to teacher; and the Provost, after serving up a sterling defense of academic freedom in responses to them, quietly asked Colquhoun to take his blog elsewhere, on the grounds that it was bringing the university too much flak. Rousing defenses of Colquhoun have already been written by Professors from Stanford, and senior academics from the UK. [Some are linked here, I’ve got the rest archived. The provost’s initial letter was actually rather stirring]

This episode reveals some unfortunate contrasts. Firstly, in a world where most orthodox "public engagement with science"  activity consists of smug, faux radical "science meets art" projects where ballet dancers watch each other prance about in brain scanners (and I am hardly caricaturing here) Colquhoun was showing the world what science really does.

He took dodgy scientific claims, or “hypotheses” as we call them in the trade, and examined the experimental evidence for them, in everyday language, with humour and verve. For all that being a world expert on single ion channels might make Colquhoun glamorous to me, I would say his blog is a bit more of a treat for the wider public, and arguably a rather good use of the time and resources of a public servant who has devoted his entire life to academia, on its relatively low wages, never once working for industry. Sharing ideas is an employment perk in academia.

Secondly, giving special attention to a blog shows that we may not have got to grips with new forms of social media yet. His blog is the problem in hand, but I’ve heard Prof Colquhoun speak about quackery in UCL lecture theatres. Was the electricity, the publicity material, the room rent, a misuse of public funds and resources? I’ve done talks myself, in universities and schools: are they all guilty of wasting public money on robust, challenging, childish and sarcastic discussion of ideas?

But lastly, if you’re worrying about the appropriate use of a science department’s resources, Prof Colquhoun is the bloke who made the fuss in Nature -the biggest academic journal in the world – about British universities giving away science degrees in quackery. The people who run the BSc "science" degrees in these pseudoscientific alternative therapies have still refused to answer questions from David, and from me, about what "science" they teach in their science degrees.

I notice that nobody is making the jokers behind these Quackery BSc’s take their gobbledygook -a word that sounds best being snorted through Colquhoun’s impressive nasal hair – off university webservers. Although courses in gobbledygook make money. And they are flattered by the Prince. And nobody can criticise them, because they actually refuse to tell us what they’e teaching. Now you tell me who should be booted out of a seat of learning.

Please send your bad science to ben@badscience.net

87654321

So:

Prof Colquhoun doesn’t really have impressive nasal hair, I just didn’t want the column to come across as too gushing. His quack page is definitely worth rooting about on:

www.dcscience.net

And as you can see, he needs WordPress advice even more than I do. Also his politics feed is quite jolly and if I could work out, for example, how to link directly to the Greenhalgh story, I would. Rummage away.

[DC edit: one of the best side effects of the move was getting a proper blog, rather than a bloated web page. The old politics page is archived and the Greenhalgh story link now works]

dcscience.net’/corrie.html



Letter from Provost:

This is an email from the Provost to someone who emailed him this morning, which he has allowed me to post, I understand he will be sending something similar to those who email him. It’s very much worth reading. I believe – as you can imagine – that an emeritus professor of pharmacology in his seventies making the link between science and real world claims for free in everyday language is a treat, but of course I have absolutely no doubt that Colquhoun’s public engagement with science activity did pose difficulties for UCL.

These difficulties were thrown into sharp relief by the fact that those who disagreed with Colquhoun enacted their grievances through the Freedom of Information Act, UK libel law, copyright law, complaints about the use of academic resources, and efforts to lean on senior figures from the university, rather than engaging on the science, or contacting Colquhoun.

There is a balance to be struck on whether Colquhoun’s public engagement with science activities were valued enough to be worth defending (through the miracle ofinstant context you can decide for yourself) and that is of course a decision for UCL to make.

If you are going to write to the Provost I hope I can rely on you to be polite and understanding about this balance, and understand that he’s a busy man who has already been leant on over what ideally should never have been a Provost’s concerns at such an early stage.

Andrew

If UCL had behaved in the way you seem to believe then your comments would be wholly justified, but of course it hasn’t.

Allow me to supply the missing facts. I;m copying this message also to Ben Goldacre and David Colquhoun.

Academic freedom is a fundamental precept of any institution fit to style itself a university. Like all freedoms, it comes with conditions, largely those that are necessary to underpin the freedoms of other people under the law, including criminal law, human rights, copyright, the laws of tort and contract, and statutory regulation.

When a university hosts a website it is taken to be the publisher of the material on it. That means that it is liable in law for any breaches of copyright, data protection and defamation. It is possible of course to engage in robust academic debate without infringing any of these rules.

But breaches of all of them have now been claimed in legal claims against UCL regarding David Colquhoun’s website, and with good reason.

A university can of course safeguard its position by moderating the content of the website. That is what I assume the Guardian does with its various blogs, and certainly is what it does with all its editorial content. Nobody sees that as a major assault on the freedom of expression of the press. To do this in a university would of course raise concerns that it constituted an incursion into academic freedom, and I also think it would be completely impractical.

Yet not to take appropriate action to protect UCL would be to expose us to potentially expensive legal action in respect of activity over which we have absolutely no control.

For the most part, academic websites don’t infringe the law. Indeed, in over 35 years as an academic this is the first such instance that I have any detailed knowledge of. If it has unlawful material that the author believes is essential for conveying his/her message, then there is no reason why they shouldn’t host it themselves and assume the consequences.

UCL has taken legal advice, which is to the effect that the website does contain material which breaks the law in several respects. Some of them have now been fixed: alleged breaches of copyright and data protection. But libel proceedings are now also in play, and Professor Colquhoun and I have a meeting on Monday with a senior defamation QC to explore the potential extent of UCL’s vicarious liability for certain statements on the website, and our possible options. There is also the question of Professor Colquhoun’s own personal liability, but of course a plaintiff will always prefer to go against a major institution because of our deep pockets.

On the basis of the advice that I receive then I shall have to determine UCL’s future course of action, and Professor Colquhoun likewise.

Malcolm Grant

Just to be absolutely clear:

The item that has caused the fuss and complaint is this one. It has not been changed since the complaint, so you can decide for yourself how awful it is.

www.dcscience.net/improbable.html#walker1



++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++ 

If you like what I do, and you want me to do more, you can: buy my books Bad Scienceand Bad Pharma, give them to your friends, put them on your reading list, employ me to do a talk, or tweet this article to your friends. Thanks! ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++ 



56 Responses




  1. woodchopper said,

    June 9, 2007 at 7:45 am

    I’m quite shocked. If people complain about the lack of understanding of science then they know where to look for an answer.

  2. SomeBeans said,

    June 9, 2007 at 8:03 am

    I’m guessing that if we all write the Provost a letter, it won’t really be troublesome enough to make him change his mind.

    This is really exactly the sort of thing a university should be supporting and encouraging, rather than censoring.

  3. evidencebasedeating said,

    June 9, 2007 at 8:44 am

    Rather depressing proof-positive (in a holistic, meaningful ,empathic way)of how our previously august and independent universities increasingly pander to the lowest-common-denominator ‘science-lite’ approach amidst concerns from woo practitioners and regal missives from Charlie Boy (Ernst at Exeter springs to mind).

    I wonder if the Provost took the decision unilaterally? Perhaps the university Senate should review both the case and the decision. They could take into account the dichotomy of Provost Malcolm Grant’s actions, versus his opening paragraph states his ‘vision’ of UCL – taken from the website, that states:

    “UCL is an exceptional institution, with a radical tradition and a distinctive character. The university’s commitment to excellence and innovation in research and teaching is central to its vision of enriching society’s intellectual, cultural, scientific, economic, environmental and medical spheres.”

    Er, so his role as Provost is to eradicate that ‘radical tradition’, ‘distinctive character’ and ‘vision of enriching society’s cultural and scientific spheres’.

    But I note his Professorship is in Law, not science.

    Explains a lot.

    Never mind, Colquhuon’s status in his professional and public spheres is independent of UCL. Just makes me consider the organisation in a much more ambivalent manner.

  4. Mojo said,

    June 9, 2007 at 9:04 am

    (Off-topic)

    This is odd: when I looked at this page first thing this morning, before there were any comments on it, it displayed fine. Now the text has slipped down the left-hand side again.

  5. jackpt said,

    June 9, 2007 at 9:36 am

    I missed out on all of this because I hadn’t checked his site for some time. You’d think UCL would be better than this, especially from the standpoint of precedents of which this is an appalling one. On a positive note I’m sure he could get free hosting or mirrors from places and people way out of the reach of scum trading on red clover etc. I for one would happily mirror any material under legal or informal threat from bread headed scum flogging false hopes and pseudoscience. The problem here is one of precedents, other universities may take note…

  6. le canard noir said,

    June 9, 2007 at 9:44 am

    It is most important that all fellow bloggers and site owners, change their links to DC’s pages asap!

    Need to get Google onto the move and make sure the pageranks for his stuff is up there again!

  7. terryhamblin said,

    June 9, 2007 at 10:53 am

    This is not just any university. This is UCL. Jeremy Bentham must be turning in his box seat.

  8. doctormonkey said,

    June 9, 2007 at 11:32 am

    This is a sad state of affairs

    Another large institution bullied into dropping something as good and funny as DC’s blog

    Personally I think they should drop the quackology BSc’s but failing that should allow parity and keep DC’s blog

    Then again, I have always disliked UCL but I am sad to have my un-thinking, I’m-from-another-London-college prejudice actually supported by fact

    17

  9. andrew said,

    June 9, 2007 at 12:21 pm

    The more you look at it, the worse it gets.

    Tobacco companies, anti-MMGW groups and other lobbyists frequently fire off

    legal challenges against individual scientists to maintain a general climate of harrassment.

    UCL’s message to the world is that their staff are easy meat, the college won’t stand by them.

    From Steven Shafer’s letter on Colquhoun’s web-site:

    “As a counter example, the University of California at San Francisco stood solidly behind Stanton Glantz when the cigarette industry tried to destroy him for his efforts to expose their activities. Had he agreed to ‘shoulder directly the burden’, we would never have known of the extensive research conducted by the cigarette industry over two decades that identified the health risks, and guided their extensive disinformation campaign. I would hope that Stanford University would following the UCSF example, and devote the necessary resources to defend my academic freedom, rather than the UCL example, and ask me to ‘shoulder the burden.’ “

  10. JohnD said,

    June 9, 2007 at 12:59 pm

    I can’t belive that the Provost’s decision will stand. Less than a year ago, UCL signed the Magna Charta Universitatum, and bragged of it. That charter includes that, “all members of that institution’s academic community should have the freedom to work, teach and learn.”

    See:www.ucl.ac.uk/news/news-articles/0609/06092601

    I hope Professor Michael Worton, who signed on behalf of UCL is as uncomfortable as he should be with this.

    John

  11. j said,

    June 9, 2007 at 1:29 pm

    Great idea for the column: when ‘alternative’ practitioners get a website shut down by moaning about it, I think it’s important to give them as much publicity as possible as a result.

    Just to add a couple of extra details: the complaint that got DC’s site moved from UCL came from Alan Lakin (the husband of Ann Walker). Walker is (or at least was) the director of New Vitality – www.newvitality.org.uk/index.htm. She also has quite a few interesting online articles on herbal medicine which come up when you google her (e.g. www.healthspan.co.uk) Given the way in which DC was forced to move his site, it might be appropriate if a few people with health/science-related blogs collaborated to post articles fisking different pieces of Walker’s work: I like the idea of a load of critical articles springing up when one is forced to move 18

    Anyway, just going to update my blogroll link to DC’s excellent site.

    [DC edit- —Walker no longer has any obvious connection with Healthspan, but Google reveals that this incident gave rise to a lot of rather unflattering interest in her activities]

  12. Ben Goldacre said,

    June 9, 2007 at 3:50 pm

    dear all

    please see the email from the provost that has been added above.

  13. PK said,

    June 9, 2007 at 4:20 pm

    I do not find that letter remotely convincing. Sure, Colquhoun must not engage in libel, but it is hard never to (accidentally) stray into libelous territory when you are dealing with these people. If UCL is serious about academic freedom and scientific integrity, then they should fight this one.

  14. SomeBeans said,

    June 9, 2007 at 5:11 pm

    Thanks for posting the letter from the provost – most illuminating.

    Doesn’t give the impression of UCL helping David Colquhoun very much. I wonder if they still use his papers for their RAE’s.

    What’s the Guardian policy on this type of thing? I seem to remember that they fought Jonathan Aitken and won…

  15. jackpt said,

    June 9, 2007 at 5:17 pm

    The problem with the letter is is that it’s all couched in such vague terms. It seems to me that they’ve acted on the basis of something that could be libellous/in breach of copyright/etc rather than anything clear cut. If it were clear-cut there would be specific examples that he could point to. It’s the approach of a chicken because the letter is saying “we may be right but it’s not worth our trouble to fight” setting himself up as an arbiter of just causes. So if it’s not clear cut don’t expect any help from UCL. Grey areas not wanted.

  16. Andrew Clegg said,

    June 9, 2007 at 8:25 pm

    I also sent a letter complaining (being another less than impressed alumnus like Dr Nicholas above). Here’s some helpful thoughts…

    1. When you get a long personal reply back from the provost, it’s worth checking to see whether other people got the same reply word for word

    2. … rather than being so surprised that when you forward it to Ben and David with comments…

    3. … you forget to take Prof. Grant’s email off the header and end up looking like a muppet.

    But a since and well-intentioned muppet at least.

    Andrew.

  17. Andrew Clegg said,

    June 9, 2007 at 8:29 pm

    Err, unless that response Ben posted was his reply to my letter (just noticed the Dear Andrew at the top), not a standard form response, in which case I take back what I said about word-for-word copies, and look like slightly more of a muppet instead.

    I think I need to eat something, brain not working at 100% today.

    Andrew.

  18. pv said,

    June 9, 2007 at 9:41 pm

    They might well have acted on the threat of a libel action and just decided to cave in. A University is primarily a business these days while aspiring to be a centre of educational excellence is either secondary or coincidental. On that basis no-one should be surprised that it is compelled to act in a way that protects the interests of its financial supporters and sponsors – namely their money – before any wider academic interests or unnecessary luxuries like freedom of speech. I know it all appears to be lacking in integrity but freedom of business comes first these days, even (or especially) the right of quacks and charlatans to do business without hindrance.

  19. Art5 said,

    June 9, 2007 at 9:52 pm

    Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that they did just decide to cave in, but why does that entail asking DC to remove the whole blog and not just the contentious article? That looks incredibly unsupportive to me.

  20. igb said,

    June 10, 2007 at 12:43 am

    One of the defining characteristics of the `management’ of public sector bodies is their utter, craven cowardice in face of things that even smell of a court case. I don’t know when it happens in their career, but your typical school headmaster, hospital manager or (it would appear) University provost regards a dog-eared piece of paper saying “Oi will zue youse for libil” as being as frightening as the jury coming back in and saying `guilty’.

    Hence the rise in schools and universities being cowed by not even solicitor’s letters (which are, it should be noted, simply a letter from someone who happens to be a solicitor) but the threat of the same. If public bodies fought such cases through the courts, and then bankrupted the claimants when they lost (as they almost always would), after a year or so they and the ambulance chasers would get the hint. As things stand, public sector managers are encouraged to pay tribute, rather than spend on defence, and worse they are paying tribute to people with cardboard swords.

    Those who get their fortnightly dose of poor typography (and it’s not as funny as it was, is it?) will know of `Arkell vs Pressdram’. The rest of you can google for it. UCL’s response to a threatened libel case should be `bring it on’, with a plea of justification.

    The reason we know that David Irvine is a fraud and is because Deborah Lipstadt’s book, a copy of which is sat a few feet from me, was defended to the hilt by its publishers. Penguin Books have principles, and made a stand. It’s a shame that UCL appears to have a yellow stripe painted down its back where its spine used to be.

  21. rob said,

    June 10, 2007 at 6:14 am

    Pitiful cowardice from an institution that claims to be a world-class university. Until it is proven that the material is actually illegal, it should be their part to stand up for academic freedom.

  22. Moganero said,

    June 10, 2007 at 7:46 am

    le canard noir “Need to get Google onto the move and make sure the pageranks for his stuff is up there again!”

    UCL’s webmaster could set up a permanent redirect to Prof Colquhoun’s new URL – this would send the search engines to it and they’d index the new location. Anyone trying to see the blog at the old URL would automatically see it at the new location.

  23. TINSTAFL said,

    June 10, 2007 at 9:16 am

    Step on their toes until they apologize. They can wave their jargon at us and threaten libel, but they WILL NEVER ACTUALLY WANT TO BE IN COURT AND LOSE. And they want all this to happen quietly. Now that UCL has backed off, they will want to put pressure on UCL to censure the Prof. even more. And this is exactly what UCL is doing in response to a minor complaint. They are censuring him: cutting off his voice and officially rebuking his work on the site.

    It may even be possible that rather than protect themselves, they have opened themselves to litigation from both sides. 1) Dumping suggest merit to the complain and 2) that UCL provided the site in the place and then took it away means then have placed the good Prof. in an unsupported/dangerous situation.

    igb has the right idea. Fight them now and hard.

    I sent an email to the provost and I suggest that others do so as well. Even letters from well-intentioned muppets will help (I have certainly sent my own in my time, misspellings and all!). Certainly the provost responded the original bad-intentioned muppets who made the complaint. Even if he does not read them, having Prof. Colquoun’s name in the subject line of a large number of message will lend him the support that he needs and will make the provost think a bit. I will also make a head link link from my own anti quack site to his.

    I am willing to post my email if other are interested, but this may be up to Dr. Goldacre to decide if this is appropriate.

  24. Mojo said,

    June 10, 2007 at 10:06 am

    le canard noir said,

    (June 9, 2007 at 9:44 am) “Need to get Google onto the move and make sure the pageranks for his stuff is up there again!”

    Well, as long as Google aren’t as spineless as they were in the case of Howard’s page about TAPL:

    http://www.hakwright.co.uk/rants/Gillian_McKeith.html

    A search of google.co.uk still brings up the message at the bottom of the page saying “In response to a legal request submitted to Google, we have removed 1 result(s) from this page. If you wish, you may read more about the request at ChillingEffects.org.”

    Interestingly, while Howard’s page still appears on the first page for google.com, google.ca and google.com.au, the results for google.co.uk seem to have different rankings so that the message about the legal threat, sorry, request, now appears on the second page of results.

  25. Mojo said,

    June 10, 2007 at 10:35 am

    Incidentally, in some parts of intellectual property law (trade marks, patents and registered designs, but not copyright, unfortunately) it is a tort to make an unjustified threat to sue. Perhaps a case could be made for extending this to defamation.

  26. Dr Aust said,

    June 10, 2007 at 11:53 am

    I also wrote to the UCL Provost (as an academic scientist and UCL alumnus) and got the stock response several other people have mentioned about the time that had gone into handling complaints etc.

    I can see where he’s coming from, although on balance I think he is wrong (see the Stanford letter for why).

    I think the wider point about UK Univs turning pale at the merest whiff of a threat of legal action that igb mentioned is a genuine problem. It appears that in this case they have at least taken real legal advice… but I have seen many examples where merely the threat of (e.g.) a student sueing is enough to cause a fit of the vapours, and would trigger tens or even hundreds of person hrs of administrative hot air.

    I used to argue, without much success, that Univs should fight all these cases when they were sure they were right, especially when they dealt with “academic integrity” in the wider sense. And they should seek to recoup their adminstrative and legal costs against frivolous complainants like Walker and Lakin.

    …the point being that if people think complaining and shouting “lawyer” will get them an undeserved second or third chance at an exam resit, or a website taken down, or whatever, people will keep doing it. As igb says, you have to give them a real potential DOWNSIDE to doing it, as well as a potential upside.

    Incidentally, it is worth noting that Dr Walker is employed (although apparently now only in a part-time capacity, according to DC’s blog) by Reading University. Presumably they are happy about an academic from their School of Food Biosciences making public claims about unproven supplements and herbs that are scientific nonsense, and then waving M’Learned Friends when these claims are exposed. I wonder if she still teaches on their BSc in “Nutrition and Food Science”.

  27. Mojo said,

    June 10, 2007 at 1:05 pm

    Dr Aust said,

    “I used to argue, without much success, that Univs should fight all these cases when they were sure they were right, especially when they dealt with “academic integrity” in the wider sense. And they should seek to recoup their adminstrative and legal costs against frivolous complainants like Walker and Lakin.”

    While legal costs are recoverable (assumong the Uni won the case), I’m not sure that this would apply to the Uni’s administrative costs.

    Hence my suggestion above that the tort of falsely threatening to sue, at present only available in patent, trade mark and registered design disputes, might usefully be extended to libel. If it were, the Uni could then sue the frivolous complainants for their administrative costs as well.

  28. JohnK said,

    June 10, 2007 at 2:15 pm

    I don’t understand why UCL didn’t just ask DC to remove the offending material, which he has done anyway. Booting him off the server seems to be an attempt to hang him out to dry (“there is also the question of Professor Colquhoun’s own personal liability.”), but if UCL are deemed to be publishers, removing the content does not alter the past; if it was illegal, stopping doing it doesn’t redeem them. To paraphrase an old joke, “Have you stopped hosting allegedly defamatory material on your website?” – both answers get you in trouble.

    I wonder how much a lawsuit would actually cost if it came to it, and I wonder how much monetary value could be ascribed to DC’s RAE contribution.

  29. Dr Aust said,

    June 10, 2007 at 3:34 pm

    Mojo wrote: “While legal costs are recoverable (assuming the Uni won the case), I’m not sure that this would apply to the Uni’s administrative costs.”

    Shame. The main context for this was typically students contesting results, or complaining they had been treated unfairly, or denying they had been caught cheating, BTW. My argument was that a basic investigation of any alleged mistakes / irregularities was warranted and fair. For stuff beyond that we should be prepared to make people pay for the time and inconvenience caused by unfounded and often frivolous complaints.

    What would happen was that the Univ would investigate (at Faculty level) and write back and say: “We have investigated your allegation and found it to be groundless… (gives details). However, if you are not satisfied with this, you may…. (appeal to next rung up).

    The problem was that this gave people who were alleging a grievance no downside whatsoever to continuing to pursue groundless and often ludicrous claims, apart from their own time. In many cases it would go up the next one, or two, rungs in turn to the University’s senior administrator(s), with the same info being picked over multiple times by increasingly high-powered and expensive people.

    I thought we should say “…if you are not satified you may (appeal to next rung up). HOWEVER, as your complaint has been investigated by our standard procedures and judged groundless, any further administrative time, and costs of expert advice we find it necessary to take, incurred by us through your pursuit of a complaint will be recorded. In the event that your complaint is ultimately judged groundless, it will be our practise in all cases to pursue you in civil court for the recovery of all these costs.”

    Please somebody tell me that there is a case in law for doing this? Mojo’s posts above suggest not, which is sad.

    If there isn’t, there ought to be…!

    The point is that at some stage there needs to be a mechanism for making complainants judge whether they really have a case, or are just blustering for some other reason (like that they can’t admit, either for public consumption or even to themselves, that they were rumbled). They have to be made to do a “cost-benefit analysis” of wasting everyone’s time. Sadly at the moment cheats, charlatans, and obsessed nutters too often get a free ride.

    Coming back to Univs, I suspect the cost and “negative publicity” is the factor the administrators prioritize when pressing for settlement or (as in DC’s case) “minimizing the University’s liability”. But if Universities are mainly selling themselves on their academic reputation (which in the final analysis they are), they have to be prepared to defend that reputation in the open, every time, and without compromise.

    PS In terms of DC’s scientific standing and it’s worth to UCL, it has doubtless been worth a lot over the years.

    RAE rankings contain a lot of nonsense, as DC himself has eloquently argued elsewhere:

    voltaire.members.beeb.net/goodscience.htm

    – but it is fair to say the UCL Pharmacology Dept has generally been regarded as one of the two or three, or arguably the best, pharmacology dept in the UK for all of the 25 yrs I have been in the business. As for DC himself, the FRS (judged by your peers to be a top scientist, and the only such thing British scientists rate) says it all.

  30. Pepper said,

    June 11, 2007 at 1:31 am

    I see here 43 comments and a lot of people, which try to defend Prof. Colquhoun. But I’d like to know – is here just one man from UCL? And if the answer is “no”, then – what does this silence suggest? If DC is right, then why do his Alma Mater remain silent?

    It is merely question. And I’d like merely to learn answer.

  31. Filias Cupio said,

    June 11, 2007 at 2:32 am

    I know of one case where there was a significant downside to students for pushing too hard.

    Two students had been caught cheating in a terms test. A friend of mine (from whom I have the story) summoned them to his office, and told them that they would get zero for the test, and for all assignments they’d done up to this point, but they could appeal to the university’s disciplinary committee. They did so, and instead were expelled for a year.

  32. igb said,

    June 11, 2007 at 10:32 am

    “Isn’t the problem not so much that UCL are cowards as that the legal advice they have taken says they may lose with a heavy financial penalty. ”

    So suddenly the `precautionary principle’, which most people with the vaguest scientific background regard as silly, has become respectable? No lawyer can tell you that you will not lose, just as no scientist can tell you that mobile phones are absolutely safe. So `may’ is the coward’s shield.

    The reality is that a libel case fought by an individual against a large institution is almost imposssible to win, as legal aid is not available and most decisions can be appealed. In fact, “ the real issue the fact that people can use libel laws to restrict free speech” conceals the fact that current libel laws allow newspapers to accuse you of being a kiddie-fiddler whilst providing you with no redress, because libel cases are the strict preserve of the affluent.

    Bearing in mind the requirements of a libel case, the risk to UCL is approximately zero. But it’s not actually zero.

  33. Gimpy said,

    June 11, 2007 at 10:54 am

    igb I don’t see what the merits or otherwise of the precautionary principle have to do with this. I’m not defending UCL here, I’m just pointing out that libel law is abused as you correctly point out by the affluent. In this case the accusers are relatively wealthy.

    I’m assuming that libel is the main legal argument being used against UCL because breaches of copyright rarely stand up in court if swiftly corrected and apology issued (which has been done in this case).

    In this country the burden of proof in libel cases is on the defendant and there is no limit on the financial awards for damages. UCL obviously think there is a reasonable possibility that they may be liable for such damages and have taken what they consider appropriate action while they review the facts.

  34. Dr Aust said,

    June 11, 2007 at 11:56 am

    Gimpy

    That may be part of the reason, but what heinous libel would DC have committed against Walker and Lakin? He pointed out that terms like “blood cleanser” or “lymphatic cleanser” have no meaning as applied to drugs; he pointed out that their claims had no foundation in published research; he pointed out that certain organisations were not neutral information services but actually exist to promote supplements; and he used the word “gobbledegook”, which in the context used could be taken to mean “scientically meaningless or nonsensical”.

    Would Walker and La kin they really ever want all this aired in open court? That is, that they use the pretence of “science”, and stuff that is arguably in breach of the trades descriptions, to relieve the gullible of their money? I find this inconceivable.

  35. vinnyr said,

    June 11, 2007 at 12:12 pm

    I’m sure UCL are covered by the same legislation as websites such as YouTube when it comes to copyright infringements.

    As they are only hosting the blog, all they need to do is inform Dr Colquhoun of problem with his blog and take down the page if he does not correct the infringement within a reasonable amount of time (usually ~24 hours).

  36. Gimpy said,

    June 11, 2007 at 12:12 pm

    Dr Aust – “but what heinous libel would DC have committed against Walker and Lakin?”

    I have no idea. All I was trying to do was see things from UCL’s side. It does seem a hasty decision on the part of UCL though. Anyway, the courts are not the place to establish the veracity of science nor indeed the truth in libel trials as the cases of Jeffry Archer and Jonathan Aitken prove.

  37. andrew said,

    June 11, 2007 at 12:20 pm

    Well, I’m no lawyer, and I see that Prof. Grant is.

    Nor am I going to start second-guessing that senior defamation QC they’ll be meeting today.

    On the other hand, for background info, outlaw.com is a solid source of information on internet law.

    Here’s their stuff on “User-generated content”

    www.out-law.com/page-7807

    and on “Liability of ISPs for third party material”

    www.out-law.com/page-488

  38. Dr Aust said,

    June 11, 2007 at 12:50 pm

    Point taken, Andrew.

    I think what worries us here is the possibility that UCL, and other comparable institutions, will seek to position themselves to have NO conceivable liability.

    I would imagine it is virtually impossible to utterly exclude liability unless (i) every page on a University’s website is scrutinized by a libel QC, or (ii) anything thought to be even vaguely “controversial” (read : “critical”) is blanket forbidden.

    In which case critics of misinformation stand a good chance of being silenced.

  39. andrew said,

    June 11, 2007 at 1:24 pm

    To clarify, the previous post is mainly to attention to outlaw.com‘s explanation of the E-commerce Directive and related material, e.g.

    “Article 12 [of the E-commerce Directive] provides that each member state shall ensure that service providers (which will include ISP s, VISPs and Web Hosts) will not be held liable for information transmitted on their sites provided that the relevant service provider:

    – Does not initiate the transmission;

    – Does not select the receiver of the transmission; and

    – Does not select or modify the information contained in the transmission.

    In other words, if the above criteria are met a service provider will be treated as a mere conduit as opposed to an author, editor or publisher. However, a service provider will still be required to remove unlawful and/or defamatory material from its site once it has received a complaint.”

    All I’m saying is that I’m not qualified to comment on how it applies in this case, you’ll have to make of it what you will.

  40. raygirvan said,

    June 11, 2007 at 1:55 pm

    > minor breaches of copyright, which DC could have (and has) corrected. And there was no “malicious intent” behind the infringement, since he did not do it specifically to steal their trademarked words. He did it to highlight that what they were saying was untrue.

    … which I would have said put it well into the territory of fair use for the purposes of comment or criticism.

  41. Symball said,

    June 11, 2007 at 2:56 pm

    I think the real shame here has been the obvious victory of harassment over principle. I don’t believe that UCL has done anything other than protect itself financially and try to draw a line between personal comment and university statements. To be honest there are not many organisations that would allow its IT resources to be used for anything other than some ‘fair use’ surfing. so it is not surprising it has asked for the blog to be removed.

    However it is sad that the woo’s have used similar tactics to the animal rights mob in simply harassing organisations into doing their bidding. Perhaps UCL could redress the balance by looking into the subject and publishing something in its own name instead

  42. Dr Aust said,

    June 11, 2007 at 3:45 pm

    I suspect UCL probably couldn’t use the “ISP defence” indicated by Andrew above. This is because a complainant could argue, with some plausibility, that DC’s “pseudoscience debunking” clearly stems from his work for UCL as a scientist. So hard to separate the two.

    But this just brings back to the “Is what DC said true?” issue.

    Quoting from a site talking about the law of defamation:

    webjcli.ncl.ac.uk/2005/issue3/lewis3.html

    “Where defamation is alleged, the first step is to consider the ordinary and natural meaning of the words used and what an ordinary person will infer.”

    “If a defendant can prove the substantial truth of the words complained about the defence of justification is established.”

    “Another defence in the law of defamation is that everyone is allowed to comment so long as the subject is a matter of public interest and the views were honestly held. The public interest has never been satisfactorily defined for these purposes but it is clear that it is to be broadly construed.”

    All these seem to offer fairly obvious defences.

    Of course, the UCL Provost has stated for the record that it was the “admin bother and nuisance” that was the issue, rather than the risk of liability at law. I still think, though, that they had some sort of wider moral obligation, as an institute of learning and “enlightenment”, to be SEEN to defend the right of scholars to oppose obfuscation and inaccuracy, especially when the latter were being used to sell things.

  43. igb said,

    June 11, 2007 at 8:10 pm

    “igb I don’t see what the merits or otherwise of the precautionary principle have to do with this. ”

    Because the basic argument seems to be “a lawyer says this bad thing _may_ happen” or even “a lawyer says this bad thing cannot be said never to happen”. That’s exactly the argument that idiots use about wifi: “can you tell me it’s absolutely safe with no caveats? No? Then we should assume the worst”.

    “libel law is abused as you correctly point out by the affluent. In this case the accusers are relatively wealthy.”

    I may be mis-judging the finances of alternatives, but I seriously doubt that the people making the theats have pockets as deep as would be required. UCL could quite justifiably demand that measures be taken to ensure their costs are paid should they win: that’s where the rubber meets the road.

    “I’m assuming that libel is the main legal argument being used against UCL because breaches of copyright rarely stand up in court if swiftly corrected and apology issued (which has been done in this case).”

    The same’s true of libel, because…

    “In this country the burden of proof in libel cases is on the defendant”

    No, it isn’t. If the defendant opts to run a defence of justification, the burden is on them (albeit only to a civil, “balance of probabilities” standard). But the burden resides with the plaintiff to show that the words are capable of having a defamtory meaning (which might be _very_ difficult in this case) and that the plaintiff suffered harm to their repution. And there’s a whole stack of defences which might apply in this case (notably a Reynolds defence, see Reynolds vs Times Newspaper) for which the reverse burden doesn’t apply in the same way.

    “UCL obviously think there is a reasonable possibility that they may be liable for such damages and have taken what they consider appropriate action while they review the facts.”

    I don’t see where `reasonable’ comes from. I might just as (in)acurrately say `remote’ in the same place. A case in which a University was held to be vicariously liable for the public statements of a professor, writing in a field which is his exact speciality, requires a sequence of events all of which have a probability distinctly less than one (the writ being served, the case making it to court, the case being held to be answerable, the judge being prepared to join UCL to the case, the case making it past a jury, the case making it past an appeal, the case having damages greater than the hundred quid that UCL will have paid into the court).

  44. John Craddock said,

    June 11, 2007 at 8:47 pm

    Re: mch’s comment;

    “Why has UCL a moral obligation to defend our rights? It’s a university – it has a business to run, students to teach, research to, well, search. Making a stand and getting sued will cost (and maybe not just money), and who is going to refund it?”

    UCL has an obligation to defend the freedom of its academics. If it doesn’t, then it reduces its role to that of a degree factory.

    I don’t know what the situation is in the UK but the universities act in Ireland (quoted below) is clear on the issue, I presume you have similar principles and laws over there.

    14.—(1) A university, in performing its functions shall—

    ( a ) have the right and responsibility to preserve and promote the traditional principles of academic freedom in the conduct of its internal and external affairs

    (2) A member of the academic staff of a university shall have the freedom, within the law, in his or her teaching, research and any other activities either in or outside the university, to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas and to state controversial or unpopular opinions

  45. Dr Aust said,

    June 11, 2007 at 11:21 pm

    I suppose if a “justification defence” is deemed too risky there is always “fair comment in voicing a sincerely held view on a matter of public interest” (see my post above). The sincerity is not in doubt and the whole tenor of DC’s blog is malice-free – it always just asks “do these statements have scientific meaning” or sometimes “do these people have hidden interests they have not made clear?”

    I have read the words about Walker and Lakin and their product very carefully, first with my amateur barrack-room lawyer’s hat on, then as a scientist with an interest in the use of words, and finally as a “member of the public” – and I still can’t see anything that could not be construed as “DC’s sincerely held opinion”.

    I would still hope that in an analogous situation in the future a (any?) University would have the stones to put up the justification defence when the statements could be easily argued to be true. The point of pubically taking a stand specifically on justification would be, as mentioned by many here,

    “We stand by our guy and his right to try and inform the public about a matter of public interest, no matter what”.

    If Universities don’t stand for stuff like this, then mch is right and they are just businesses. But when they admit that, they are on the slide, because their business is based at bottom on their academic REPUTATION, which is based on their not being “biddable” by financial considerations alone. That is why, in science, research from Univs is by and large more trusted than research from drug companies.

    Stanford, though a private institution (and thus more of a “business” than UCL), seems to have understood this, judging by the tobacco company example the Stanford prof gave on DC’s blog:

    www.dcscience.net/quack.html#move1

    UCL has misjudged the same, IMHO.

    What I sincerely HOPE is happening behind the scenes is UCL offering DC legal advice about how to avoid problems going forward with his now “privatised” blog. That would go some way to restoring my faith in my old alma mater.

  46. Kells said,

    June 12, 2007 at 12:02 pm

    Whilst shutting down DC UCL would like you to give generously to this

    www.uclh.nhs.uk/New+developments/RLHH+redevelopment/

    they need 1/4 million to house thier CAM library full of non evidence based periodicals of absolute bullshit.

    Please give generously

  47. Dr Aust said,

    June 12, 2007 at 1:40 pm

    It’s more interesting than that – from the webpage:

    “…

    New specialist electronic library on complementary and alternative medicine (NeLCAM)

    The RLHH recently won the contract to provide the NHS "new specialist electronic library on complementary and alternative medicine (NeLCAM) in collaboration with the Research Council for Complementary Medicine (RCCM) and the University of Westminster’s School of Integrated Health. ..”

    This is, of course, the same Univ of Westminster School of Integrated Health that DC has been chiding on his blog and in the pages of Nature for awarding BScs in antiscience, and which awards a “B.Sc. in Homeopathy” for which the External Examiner is (surprise surprise) a non-scientifically qualified homeopath.

    The RLHH appeal is for money to fund their “open access CAM Information Centre”. Oh goody. They say this Centre will “work with other bodies within the world of complementary medicine, including the Research Council for Complementary Medicine, the British Homoeopathic Association, and The Prince of Wales’s Foundation for Integrated Health”.

    Boosters all, of course. Now why doesn’t that leave me feeling reassured?

  48. Pepper said,

    June 12, 2007 at 5:34 pm

    Well…

    And what next?

    DC’s webpage is expelled from UCL server. Quacks intend to frame up a case against DC. Homoeopaths are trying to edge in UCL.

    Scientific people have written to provost. Provost has answered.

    That’s all.

    And strange silence has settled…

    What is it? Is it defeat? Or the hush before the storm?

    Hey! Defenders of freedom and real Science! Or will this problem leave in the air? Will it exist further in present state?

    That will never do, IMHO. It’s unscientifically, after all.

    It is necessary right solution of this question.

  49. andrew said,

    June 13, 2007 at 10:19 am

    As an aside, Malcolm Grant is also catching flak over UCL’s armaments investments (£900k in Cobham PLC).

    New Statesman 11 June 2007:

    “Despite the overwhelming support of the Disarm UCL campaign, Grant refused to genuinely engage with the issue of divestment from Cobham. Instead he concentrated on criticizing students and suggested we were campaigning against UCL.”

    It’s been a rough week for poor Grant, and it’s still only Wednesday…

  50. Pepper said,

    June 13, 2007 at 1:38 pm

    Aha, Malcolm Grant gains money for UCL and UCL’s students by armaments investments.

    But UCL students can’t even tackle his provost to gain money by other way! The students and staff in other universities have done it. And UCL student can merely yelp against provost like silly pups and unroll antiwar banners. One question, please! Do they like to get stipends and salaries ill-gotten by their provost for them? Eh?

    No?? Then – let UCL students and staff propose their provost OTHER way to gain money for UCL. There are a lot of methods to get money from development of modern, knowledge-intensive, advanced technologies, from applied scientific research, etc., etc., etc.

    Who is richest man in the world? Bill Gates! Does Bill Gates sells the arms? He makes and cells computers.

    UCL students and staff must propose your provost best way to gain money. But if he refuse, then there will be only remaining resource – to put question about discharge him for inaptitude, so in this case his words about business and progress for UCL would be empty words and he would be merely wild aggressive politician of last centuries with backward opinions and policy.

  51. Pepper said,

    June 13, 2007 at 3:00 pm

    DAVID COLQUHOUN WON!!!

    Here is ad from his website:

    Announcement 13 June 2007. UCL restores DC’s IMPROBABLE SCIENCE page.

    After taking legal advice, the provost and I have agreed a joint statememt. Read it on the UCL web site.

    " . . . the Provost and Professor Colquhoun have taken advice from a senior defamation Queen’s Counsel, and we are pleased to announce that Professor Colquhoun’s website – with some modifications effected by him on counsel’s advice – will shortly be restored to UCL’s servers."

    I am grateful to UCL for its legal support, and I’m very grateful too for the enormous support I’ve had from many people, especially since Ben Goldacre mentioned the site move. Now all I need is a bit of help to get it into a more convenient format. The page will stay at its present address until there is time to sort things out.

    MY CONGRATULATIONS, DEAR DAVID!!!

    BE HAPPY AND HEALTHY!!!

  52. Pepper said,

    June 13, 2007 at 3:04 pm

    Here is link of UCL website about DC:

    www.ucl.ac.uk/news/news-articles/0706/07061303

  53. Tabazan said,

    June 13, 2007 at 4:20 pm

    Good statement . . nice to see common sense won through in the end

  54. Grathuln said,

    June 14, 2007 at 12:55 pm

    Perhaps the UK would benefit from “safe habour” laws, making site hosts immune from prosecution for content; I thought we must have something like this already but the Provos statement suggests otherwise. Perhaps we would also benefit from fair usage copyright laws, allowing the kind of use Dr. Colquhoun.

    I hope that if this does go to court on defamation it gets summarily kicked out and used as example of how such cases will be treated in the future.

  55. ihid said,

    December 18, 2009 at 10:37 am

    Yeah, this is really shocking!

Jump to follow-up

I have always been insanely proud to work at UCL. My first job was as an assistant lecturer. The famous pharmacologist, Heinz Otto Schild gave me that job in 1964, and apart from nine years, I have been there ever since. That’s 50 years. I love its godless tradition. I love its multi-faculty nature. And I love its relatively democratic ways (with rare exceptions).

From the start, the intellectual heart of UCL has been the staff Common Room. As I so often say, failing to waste time drinking coffee with people who are cleverer than yourself can seriously damage your career (and your happiness). And there’s no better place for that than the Housman room.

 

It is there that I met the great statistician Alan Hawkes, without whom much of my research would never have happened. It was there that Hyman Kestelman (among others) gave me informal tutorials on matrix algebra over lunch. It was there where I have met John Sutherland (English), Mary Fulbrook (German), many historians and people from the Slade school of Art. And it was there where, yesterday, I had an illuminating conversation with Steve Jones about the problems of twin studies for measuring heritability.

I was astonished when I arrived at UCL to discover that the Housman room was male only. I’d just come from Edinburgh which still had separate men’s and women’s student unions and some men-only bars. But Edinburgh also had a wonderful staff club, open to all. It’s true that UCL had also a women-only common room and a mixed common room, the Haldane room (which is where I went usually). But the biggest and most impressive room, the Housman room, was for men only. I found this very odd in the 1960s, the age of sexual liberation. Reform was in the air in the 1960s.

A lot of other people, not all female, thought it odd too. Direct action was called for (I was in CND at the time). So we’d go into the Housman room with a woman and join the queue for coffee. It never took long before some pompous prat would tap the woman on the shoulder and eject her. I can’t remember now the names of any of the feisty women who braved the lions’ den (perhaps this blog will remind someone).

I had any ally in Brian Woledge. He was Fielden Professor of French at UCL from 1939 (when I was 3) to 1971 so he was on the brink of retirement. I was a young lecturer, but our thinking on segregation was much the same. His obituary in the Guardian says “Of robustly secular beliefs and Fabian views, in important respects he was an heir to the ideals of the Enlightenment”. It’s no wonder we got on well.

The picture, from around 1970, was supplied by his son, Roger Woledge, who was in the Physiology department at UCL for most of his life, and who did his PhD with my great hero, A.V. Hill.

In 1967 we proposed a motion at the Housman AGM to desegregate all common rooms. It was defeated. The next year we did it again, and were defeated again.. But at the third attempt, in 1969, we succeeded. I was very happy to have had a small role in upholding UCL’s liberal traditions.

It is now quite impossible to imagine that UCL was segregated. After all, UCL was the first English university to admit women on equal terms to men, in 1878 (the Scots were a bit ahead) And UCL was home to Kathleen Lonsdale (1903 -1971), one of the first two female fellows of the Royal Society, and the first female professor at UCL.

 

Nevertheless, in the mid-1960s, women were very far from being regarded as equal, even at UCL. At the time, segregation was more common than people now remember.

I was spurred to write this post when Melissa Terras, UCL’s professor of digital humanities, retweeted a reminder that it was in 1967 that a woman first ran in a an official marathon, and suffered physical attack from a male organiser for her temerity.

I responded

I was urged to record this history by both Terras and by Lisa Jardine, Director of UCL’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in the Humanities. So I have done it.

I was very aware of Kathy Switzer at the time, and I’ve no doubt she is part of the reason why I felt strongly about segregation. You can read about the 1967 Boston marathon in her own words. I thought it was a wonderful story, though I wasn’t yet into distance running myself (I was still sailing and boxing).

One of the great thing about marathons is that women and men run in the same race. That means that almost all men have had to get used to being overtaken by very many women. That has been wonderfully good for deflating male egos. When I was training for marathons in the 1980s, my training partner, Annie Briggs was on the elite start -a good hour faster than I could manage.

Now we are accustomed to watching Paula Radcliffe run marathons faster than any but the very best men. She’s the world record holder with the spectacular time of 2 hours 15 min in the 2003 London Marathon (my best is 3 hr 57 min). That’s only a bit over 26 consecutive 5 minute miles. And that’s faster than I could run a single mile at my peak.[Picture from Wikipedia: NYC marathon 2008 2:23:56]

 

It’s now utterly beyond belief that in the 1960s men were saying that women were too feeble to run 26 miles. It was sheer blind arrogance. After Switzer, progress was fast. In 1972 women were allowed to run in Boston, and within 10 years, the women’s record time had fallen by a full hour. Physiology hadn’t changed, but confidence had.

Of course it wasn’t until the 2012 Olympics that women gained total equality in sport. Everyone who said that women were incapable of competing in combat sports should see Rosi Sexton in action.

She’s the ultimate high-achiever. She’s an accomplished musician (grade 7 cello, ALCM piano) and she played at the Albert Hall with the Reading Youth Orchestra. She went on to get a first in maths (Cambridge, Trinity College), where her tutor was Tim Gowers. Then she did a PhD in theoretical computer science from Manchester (read her thesis). And she’s had a distinguished career as professional athlete, competing at the highest level in MMA. Why? “The other things I did, the music, the maths, just weren’t quite hard enough“.

Taking bow at school concert

PhD, Manchester

Athlete in MMA

Not many athletes have a paper in the Journal of Pure and Applied Algebra. I’d be very happy if I could do any one of these things as well as she does.

It could not be more appropriate than to be writng this in the week when the Fields medal was won by a woman, Maryam Mirzakhani, for the first time since it started, in 1936. Genetics hasn’t changed since 1936. Confidence has.

UCL mathematician, Helen Wilson, points out the encouragement this will give to female mathematicians.

As in marathons, confidence, role models and zeitgeist matter as much as genetics.

It’s examples like these that have made me profoundly suspicious of generalisations about what particular groups of people can and cannot do. Whether it is working class boys. black boys, or women, such generalisations can be shattered over a decade or two, once the zeitgeist changes.

That’s one reason that I am so unsympathetic to the IQ enthusiasts. Great harm has stemmed from the belief that it’s possible to sum up human achievements in a single number. What’s more, it’s a number that measures your resemblance to white male psychologists. It is because politicians believed the over-hyped claims of psychologists in the 1930s, that three-quarters of the population was written off. Much the same thing has happened with women, and with skin colour.

Don’t believe it.

And the job of desegregation may not be entirely finished. In fact now it is harder to combat, since it’s unspoken. Once again, I’m reminded of Peter Lawrence’s essay, The Mismeasurement of Science. Speaking of the perverse incentives and over-competitiveness that has invaded academia, he says

“Gentle people of both sexes vote with their feet and leave a profession that they, correctly, perceive to discriminate against them [17]. Not only do we lose many original researchers, I think science would flourish more in an understanding and empathetic workplace.”

The perverse incentives that make academic life hard for women (and for many men too) are administered by HR departments (with the collusion of mostly elderly male academics). They are the very same people who write fine-sounding diversity documents and lecture you about work-life balance.

It’s time they woke up.


Note. The minutes of Housman AGMs from the 1960s are missing at the moment. If they come to light, this post will be modified accordingly.

Follow-up

29 August 2014

As I’d hoped, this post elicited the name of one of the women who braved the rules and went into the Housman room when it was still men-only. I had an email from Lynn Bindman, and she told me that one of them was Gertrude Falk (1925 – 2008), who had worked in Bernard Katz’s Biophysics Department since 1961.


Gertrude Falk at 76
(Camden New Journal
)

In 1967 she must have been about 42. The episode is mentioned in Gertrude’s obituary in the Guardian. She also sent me a copy of the Physiologocal Society’s obituary, which recounts the story thus.

"Her indifference to conventions is well illustrated by the occasion when, drinking coffee in the men’s staff common room, at that time still segregated, she responded calmly to the Beadle summoned to escort her out, “well, I am certainly going to finish my coffee first”, and did so at her leisure."

I have another story about Gertrude’s feistiness. Every year the Royal Society has a soirée for fellows and guests. It’s a sort of private view for the Summer Science exhibition. Men are required to dress like penguins despite the heat, and the invitation says "decorations will be worn". The food is good though it’s all a bit pompous for my taste. Some years ago I met Gertrude at a soirée and I saw she was wearing a medal round her neck. I said "have they made you a Dame of the British Empire?". She held up the medal and I saw it said "Erasmus High School Economics Prize". She is why I usually go to the soirée wearing my London Marathon medal.

12 May 2015

Surprising as it seems now that the Housman room excluded women until 1969, there are other UCL institutions that were almost as slow as Oxford and Camridge to join the modern age.

One of these is the Professors’ Dining Club (it isn’t actually restricted to professors). I recall going to one of their dinners in the 1960s, as a guest of Heinz Otto Schild, the then head of Pharmacology, who gave me my first job. He was a lovely man, but I was horrified that it didn’t allow women to join. I recently discovered that its records reveal that it didn’t see the light until 1981. It wasn’t until after that happened that I joined the club. It seems now to be a shameful record.

Jump to follow-up

The Higher Education Funding Council England (HEFCE) gives money to universities. The allocation that a university gets depends strongly on the periodical assessments of the quality of their research. Enormous amounts if time, energy and money go into preparing submissions for these assessments, and the assessment procedure distorts the behaviour of universities in ways that are undesirable. In the last assessment, four papers were submitted by each principal investigator, and the papers were read.

In an effort to reduce the cost of the operation, HEFCE has been asked to reconsider the use of metrics to measure the performance of academics. The committee that is doing this job has asked for submissions from any interested person, by June 20th.

This post is a draft for my submission. I’m publishing it here for comments before producing a final version for submission.

Draft submission to HEFCE concerning the use of metrics.

I’ll consider a number of different metrics that have been proposed for the assessment of the quality of an academic’s work.

Impact factors

The first thing to note is that HEFCE is one of the original signatories of DORA (http://am.ascb.org/dora/ ).  The first recommendation of that document is

:"Do not use journal-based metrics, such as Journal Impact Factors, as a surrogate measure of the quality of individual research articles, to assess an individual scientist’s contributions, or in hiring, promotion, or funding decisions"

.Impact factors have been found, time after time, to be utterly inadequate as a way of assessing individuals, e.g. [1], [2].  Even their inventor, Eugene Garfield, says that. There should be no need to rehearse yet again the details. If HEFCE were to allow their use, they would have to withdraw from the DORA agreement, and I presume they would not wish to do this.

Article citations

Citation counting has several problems.  Most of them apply equally to the H-index.

  1. Citations may be high because a paper is good and useful.  They equally may be high because the paper is bad.  No commercial supplier makes any distinction between these possibilities.  It would not be in their commercial interests to spend time on that, but it’s critical for the person who is being judged.  For example, Andrew Wakefield’s notorious 1998 paper, which gave a huge boost to the anti-vaccine movement had had 758 citations by 2012 (it was subsequently shown to be fraudulent).
  2. Citations take far too long to appear to be a useful way to judge recent work, as is needed for judging grant applications or promotions.  This is especially damaging to young researchers, and to people (particularly women) who have taken a career break. The counts also don’t take into account citation half-life. A paper that’s still being cited 20 years after it was written clearly had influence, but that takes 20 years to discover,
  3. The citation rate is very field-dependent.  Very mathematical papers are much less likely to be cited, especially by biologists, than more qualitative papers.  For example, the solution of the missed event problem in single ion channel analysis [3,4] was the sine qua non for all our subsequent experimental work, but the two papers have only about a tenth of the number of citations of subsequent work that depended on them.
  4. Most suppliers of citation statistics don’t count citations of books or book chapters.   This is bad for me because my only work with over 1000 citations is my 105 page chapter on methods for the analysis of single ion channels [5], which contained quite a lot of original work. It has had 1273 citations according to Google scholar but doesn’t appear at all in Scopus or Web of Science.  Neither do the 954 citations of my statistics text book [6]  
  5. There are often big differences between the numbers of citations reported by different commercial suppliers.  Even for papers (as opposed to book articles) there can be a two-fold difference between the number of citations reported by Scopus, Web of Science and Google Scholar.  The raw data are unreliable and commercial suppliers of metrics are apparently not willing to put in the work to ensure that their products are consistent or complete.
  6. Citation counts can be (and already are being) manipulated.  The easiest way to get a large number of citations is to do no original research at all, but to write reviews in popular areas.  Another good way to have ‘impact’ is to write indecisive papers about nutritional epidemiology.  That is not behaviour that should command respect. 
  7. Some branches of science are already facing something of a crisis in reproducibility [7]. One reason for this is the perverse incentives which are imposed on scientists.  These perverse incentives include the assessment of their work by crude numerical indices.
  8. “Gaming” of citations is easy. (If students do it it’s called cheating: if academics do it is called gaming.)  If HEFCE makes money dependent on citations, then this sort of cheating is likely to take place on an industrial scale.  Of course that should not happen, but it would (disguised, no doubt, by some ingenious bureaucratic euphemisms).
  9. For example, Scigen is a program that generates spoof papers in computer science, by stringing together plausible phases.  Over 100 such papers have been accepted for publication. By submitting many such papers, the authors managed to fool Google Scholar  in to awarding the fictitious author an H-index greater than that of Albert Einstein http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SCIgen
  10. The use of citation counts has already encouraged guest authorships and such like marginally honest behaviour.  There is no way to tell with an author on a paper has actually made any substantial contribution to the work, despite the fact that some journals ask for a statement about contribution.
  11.  It has been known for 17 years that citation counts for individual papers are not detectably correlated with the impact factor of the journal in which the paper appears [1].  That doesn’t seem to have deterred metrics enthusiasts from using both. It should have done.

Given all these problems, it’s hard to see how citation counts could be useful to the REF, except perhaps in really extreme cases such as papers that get next to no citations over 5 or 10 years.

The H-index

This has all the disadvantages of citation counting, but in addition it is strongly biased against young scientists, and against women. This makes it not worth consideration by HEFCE.

Altmetrics

Given the role given to “impact” in the REF, the fact that altmetrics claim to measure impact might make them seem worthy of consideration at first sight.  One problem is that the REF failed to make a clear distinction between impact on other scientists is the field and impact on the public. 

Altmetrics measures an undefined mixture of both sorts if impact, with totally arbitrary weighting for tweets, Facebook mentions and so on. But the score seems to be related primarily to the trendiness of the title of the paper.  Any paper about diet and health, however poor, is guaranteed to feature well on Twitter, as will any paper that has ‘penis’ in the title.

It’s very clear from the examples that I’ve looked at that few people who tweet about a paper have read more than the title. See Why you should ignore altmetrics and other bibliometric nightmares [8].  

In most cases, papers were promoted by retweeting the press release or tweet from the journal itself.  Only too often the press release is hyped-up.  Metrics not only corrupt the behaviour of academics, but also the behaviour of journals.  In the cases I’ve examined, reading the papers revealed that they were particularly poor (despite being in glamour journals): they just had trendy titles [8]

There could even be a negative correlation between the number of tweets and the quality of the work. Those who sell altmetrics have never examined this critical question because they ignore the contents of the papers.  It would not be in their commercial interests to test their claims if the result was to show a negative correlation. Perhaps the reason why they have never tested their claims is the fear that to do so would reduce their income.

Furthermore you can buy 1000 retweets for $8.00  http://followers-and-likes.com/twitter/buy-twitter-retweets/  That’s outright cheating of course, and not many people would go that far. But authors, and journals, can do a lot of self-promotion on twitter that is totally unrelated to the quality of the work.

It’s worth noting that much good engagement with the public now appears on blogs that are written by scientists themselves, but the 3.6 million views of my blog do not feature in altmetrics scores, never mind Scopus or Web of Science.  Altmetrics don’t even measure public engagement very well, never mind academic merit.

Evidence that metrics measure quality

Any metric would be acceptable only if it measured the quality of a person’s work.  How could that proposition be tested?  In order to judge this, one would have to take a random sample of papers, and look at their metrics 10 or 20 years after publication. The scores would have to be compared with the consensus view of experts in the field.  Even then one would have to be careful about the choice of experts (in fields like alternative medicine for example, it would be important to exclude people whose living depended on believing in it).  I don’t believe that proper tests have ever been done (and it isn’t in the interests of those who sell metrics to do it). 

The great mistake made by almost all bibliometricians is that they ignore what matters most, the contents of papers.  They try to make inferences from correlations of metric scores with other, equally dubious, measures of merit.  They can’t afford the time to do the right experiment if only because it would harm their own “productivity”. 

The evidence that metrics do what’s claimed for them is almost non-existent.  For example, in six of the ten years leading up to the 1991 Nobel prize, Bert Sakmann failed to meet the metrics-based publication target set by Imperial College London, and these failures included the years in which the original single channel paper was published [9]  and also the year, 1985, when he published a paper [10] that was subsequently named as a classic in the field [11].  In two of these ten years he had no publications whatsoever. See also [12].

Application of metrics in the way that it’s been done at Imperial and also at Queen Mary College London, would result in firing of the most original minds.

Gaming and the public perception of science

Every form of metric alters behaviour, in such a way that it becomes useless for its stated purpose.  This is already well-known in economics, where it’s know as Goodharts’s law http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goodhart’s_law “"When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure”.  That alone is a sufficient reason not to extend metrics to science.  Metrics have already become one of several perverse incentives that control scientists’ behaviour. They have encouraged gaming, hype, guest authorships and, increasingly, outright fraud [13].

The general public has become aware of this behaviour and it is starting to do serious harm to perceptions of all science.  As long ago as 1999, Haerlin & Parr [14] wrote in Nature, under the title How to restore Public Trust in Science,

“Scientists are no longer perceived exclusively as guardians of objective truth, but also as smart promoters of their own interests in a media-driven marketplace.”

And in January 17, 2006, a vicious spoof on a Science paper appeared, not in a scientific journal, but in the New York Times.  See http://www.dcscience.net/?p=156

NYT

The use of metrics would provide a direct incentive to this sort of behaviour.  It would be a tragedy not only for people who are misjudged by crude numerical indices, but also a tragedy for the reputation of science as a whole.

Conclusion

There is no good evidence that any metric measures quality, at least over the short time span that’s needed for them to be useful for giving grants or deciding on promotions).  On the other hand there is good evidence that use of metrics provides a strong incentive to bad behaviour, both by scientists and by journals. They have already started to damage the public perception of science of the honesty of science.

The conclusion is obvious. Metrics should not be used to judge academic performance.

What should be done?

If metrics aren’t used, how should assessment be done? Roderick Floud was president of Universities UK from 2001 to 2003. He’s is nothing if not an establishment person. He said recently:

“Each assessment costs somewhere between £20 million and £100 million, yet 75 per cent of the funding goes every time to the top 25 universities. Moreover, the share that each receives has hardly changed during the past 20 years.
It is an expensive charade. Far better to distribute all of the money through the research councils in a properly competitive system.”

The obvious danger of giving all the money to the Research Councils is that people might be fired solely because they didn’t have big enough grants. That’s serious -it’s already happened at Kings College London, Queen Mary London and at Imperial College. This problem might be ameliorated if there were a maximum on the size of grants and/or on the number of papers a person could publish, as I suggested at the open data debate. And it would help if univerities appointed vice-chancellors with a better long term view than most seem to have at the moment.

Aggregate metrics? It’s been suggested that the problems are smaller if one looks at aggregated metrics for a whole department. rather than the metrics for individual people. Clearly looking at departments would average out anomalies. The snag is that it wouldn’t circumvent Goodhart’s law. If the money depended on the aggregate score, it would still put great pressure on universities to recruit people with high citations, regardless of the quality of their work, just as it would if individuals were being assessed. That would weigh against thoughtful people (and not least women).

The best solution would be to abolish the REF and give the money to research councils, with precautions to prevent people being fired because their research wasn’t expensive enough. If politicians insist that the "expensive charade" is to be repeated, then I see no option but to continue with a system that’s similar to the present one: that would waste money and distract us from our job.

      1.   Seglen PO (1997) Why the impact factor of journals should not be used for evaluating research. British Medical Journal 314: 498-502. [Download pdf]

      2.   Colquhoun D (2003) Challenging the tyranny of impact factors. Nature 423: 479. [Download pdf]

      3.   Hawkes AG, Jalali A, Colquhoun D (1990) The distributions of the apparent open times and shut times in a single channel record when brief events can not be detected. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society London A 332: 511-538. [Get pdf]

      4.   Hawkes AG, Jalali A, Colquhoun D (1992) Asymptotic distributions of apparent open times and shut times in a single channel record allowing for the omission of brief events. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society London B 337: 383-404. [Get pdf]

      5.   Colquhoun D, Sigworth FJ (1995) Fitting and statistical analysis of single-channel records. In: Sakmann B, Neher E, editors. Single Channel Recording. New York: Plenum Press. pp. 483-587.

      6.   David Colquhoun on Google Scholar.  Available: http://scholar.google.co.uk/citations?user=JXQ2kXoAAAAJ&hl=en17-6-2014

      7.   Ioannidis JP (2005) Why most published research findings are false. PLoS Med 2: e124.[full text]

      8.   Colquhoun D, Plested AJ Why you should ignore altmetrics and other bibliometric nightmares.  Available: http://www.dcscience.net/?p=6369

      9.   Neher E, Sakmann B (1976) Single channel currents recorded from membrane of denervated frog muscle fibres. Nature 260: 799-802.

    10.   Colquhoun D, Sakmann B (1985) Fast events in single-channel currents activated by acetylcholine and its analogues at the frog muscle end-plate. J Physiol (Lond) 369: 501-557. [Download pdf]

    11.   Colquhoun D (2007) What have we learned from single ion channels? J Physiol 581: 425-427.[Download pdf]

    12.   Colquhoun D (2007) How to get good science. Physiology News 69: 12-14. [Download pdf] See also http://www.dcscience.net/?p=182

    13.   Oransky, I. Retraction Watch.  Available: http://retractionwatch.com/18-6-2014

    14.   Haerlin B, Parr D (1999) How to restore public trust in science. Nature 400: 499. 10.1038/22867 [doi].[Get pdf]

Follow-up

Some other posts on this topic

Why Metrics Cannot Measure Research Quality: A Response to the HEFCE Consultation

Gaming Google Scholar Citations, Made Simple and Easy

Manipulating Google Scholar Citations and Google Scholar Metrics: simple, easy and tempting

Driving Altmetrics Performance Through Marketing

Death by Metrics (October 30, 2013)

Not everything that counts can be counted

Using metrics to assess research quality By David Spiegelhalter “I am strongly against the suggestion that peer–review can in any way be replaced by bibliometrics”

1 July 2014

My brilliant statistical colleague, Alan Hawkes, not only laid the foundations for single molecule analysis (and made a career for me) . Before he got into that, he wrote a paper, Spectra of some self-exciting and mutually exciting point processes, (Biometrika 1971). In that paper he described a sort of stochastic process now known as a Hawkes process. In the simplest sort of stochastic process, the Poisson process, events are independent of each other. In a Hawkes process, the occurrence of an event affects the probability of another event occurring, so, for example, events may occur in clusters. Such processes were used for many years to describe the occurrence of earthquakes. More recently, it’s been noticed that such models are useful in finance, marketing, terrorism, burglary, social media, DNA analysis, and to describe invasive banana trees. The 1971 paper languished in relative obscurity for 30 years. Now the citation rate has shot threw the roof.

hawkes

The papers about Hawkes processes are mostly highly mathematical. They are not the sort of thing that features on twitter. They are serious science, not just another ghastly epidemiological survey of diet and health. Anybody who cites papers of this sort is likely to be a real scientist. The surge in citations suggests to me that the 1971 paper was indeed an important bit of work (because the citations will be made by serious people). How does this affect my views about the use of citations? It shows that even highly mathematical work can achieve respectable citation rates, but it may take a long time before their importance is realised. If Hawkes had been judged by citation counting while he was applying for jobs and promotions, he’d probably have been fired. If his department had been judged by citations of this paper, it would not have scored well. It takes a long time to judge the importance of a paper and that makes citation counting almost useless for decisions about funding and promotion.

Jump to follow-up

Stop press. Financial report casts doubt on Trainor’s claims

Science has a big problem. Most jobs are desperately insecure. It’s hard to do long term thorough work when you don’t know whether you’ll be able to pay your mortgage in a year’s time. The appalling career structure for young scientists has been the subject of much writing by the young (e.g. Jenny Rohn) and the old, e.g Bruce Alberts. Peter Lawrence (see also Real Lives and White Lies in the Funding of Scientific Research, and by me.

Until recently, this problem was largely restricted to post-doctoral fellows (postdocs). They already have PhDs and they are the people who do most of the experiments. Often large numbers of them work for a single principle investigator (PI). The PI spends most of his her time writing grant applications and traveling the world to hawk the wares of his lab. They also (to variable extents) teach students and deal with endless hassle from HR.

The salaries of most postdocs are paid from grants that last for three or sometimes five years. If that grant doesn’t get renewed. they are on the streets.

Universities have come to exploit their employees almost as badly as Amazon does.

The periodical research assessments not only waste large amounts of time and money, but they have distorted behaviour. In the hope of scoring highly, they recruit a lot of people before the submission, but as soon as that’s done with, they find that they can’t afford all of them, so some get cast aside like worn out old boots. Universities have allowed themselves to become dependent on "soft money" from grant-giving bodies. That strikes me as bad management.

The situation is even worse in the USA where most teaching staff rely on research grants to pay their salaries.

I have written three times about the insane methods that are being used to fire staff at Queen Mary College London (QMUL).
Is Queen Mary University of London trying to commit scientific suicide? (June 2012)
Queen Mary, University of London in The Times. Does Simon Gaskell care? (July 2012) and a version of it appeared th The Times (Thunderer column)
In which Simon Gaskell, of Queen Mary, University of London, makes a cock-up (August 2012)

The ostensible reason given there was to boost its ratings in university rankings. Their vice-chancellor, Simon Gaskell, seems to think that by firing people he can produce a university that’s full of Nobel prize-winners. The effect, of course, is just the opposite. Treating people like pawns in a game makes the good people leave and only those who can’t get a job with a better employer remain. That’s what I call bad management.

At QMUL people were chosen to be fired on the basis of a plain silly measure of their publication record, and by their grant income. That was combined with terrorisation of any staff who spoke out about the process (more on that coming soon).

Kings College London is now doing the same sort of thing. They have announced that they’ll fire 120 of the 777 staff in the schools of medicine and biomedical sciences, and the Institute of Psychiatry. These are humans, with children and mortgages to pay. One might ask why they were taken on the first place, if the university can’t afford them. That’s simply bad financial planning (or was it done in order to boost their Research Excellence submission?).

Surely it’s been obvious, at least since 2007, that hard financial times were coming, but that didn’t dent the hubris of the people who took an so many staff. HEFCE has failed to find a sensible way to fund universities. The attempt to separate the funding of teaching and research has just led to corruption.

The way in which people are to be chosen for the firing squad at Kings is crude in the extreme. If you are a professor at the Institute of Psychiatry then, unless you do a lot of teaching, you must have a grant income of at least £200,000 per year. You can read all the details in the Kings’ “Consultation document” that was sent to all employees. It’s headed "CONFIDENTIAL – Not for further circulation". Vice-chancellors still don’t seem to have realised that it’s no longer possible to keep things like this secret. In releasing it, I take ny cue from George Orwell.

"Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.”

There is no mention of the quality of your research, just income. Since in most sorts of research, the major cost is salaries, this rewards people who take on too many employees. Only too frequently, large groups are the ones in which students and research staff get the least supervision, and which bangs per buck are lowest. The university should be rewarding people who are deeply involved in research themselves -those with small groups. Instead, they are doing exactly the opposite.

Women are, I’d guess, less susceptible to the grandiosity of the enormous research group, so no doubt they will suffer disproportionately. PhD students will also suffer if their supervisor is fired while they are halfway through their projects.

An article in Times Higher Education pointed out

"According to the Royal Society’s 2010 report The Scientific Century: Securing our Future Prosperity, in the UK, 30 per cent of science PhD graduates go on to postdoctoral positions, but only around 4 per cent find permanent academic research posts. Less than half of 1 per cent of those with science doctorates end up as professors."

The panel that decides whether you’ll be fired consists of Professor Sir Robert Lechler, Professor Anne Greenough, Professor Simon Howell, Professor Shitij Kapur, Professor Karen O’Brien, Chris Mottershead, Rachel Parr & Carol Ford. If they had the slightest integrity, they’d refuse to implement such obviously silly criteria.

Universities in general. not only Kings and QMUL have become over-reliant on research funders to enhance their own reputations. PhD students and research staff are employed for the benefit of the university (and of the principle investigator), not for the benefit of the students or research staff, who are treated as expendable cost units, not as humans.

One thing that we expect of vice-chancellors is sensible financial planning. That seems to have failed at Kings. One would also hope that they would understand how to get good science. My only previous encounter with Kings’ vice chancellor, Rick Trainor, suggests that this is not where his talents lie. While he was president of the Universities UK (UUK), I suggested to him that degrees in homeopathy were not a good idea. His response was that of the true apparatchik.

“. . . degree courses change over time, are independently assessed for academic rigour and quality and provide a wider education than the simple description of the course might suggest”

That is hardly a response that suggests high academic integrity.

The students’ petition is on Change.org.

Follow-up

The problems that are faced in the UK are very similar to those in the USA. They have been described with superb clarity in “Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws“, This article, by Bruce Alberts, Marc W. Kirschner, Shirley Tilghman, and Harold Varmus, should be read by everyone. They observe that ” . . . little has been done to reform the system, primarily because it continues to benefit more established and hence more influential scientists”. I’d be more impressed by the senior people at Kings if they spent time trying to improve the system rather than firing people because their research is not sufficiently expensive.

10 June 2014

Progress on the cull, according to an anonymous correspondent

“The omnishambles that is KCL management

1) We were told we would receive our orange (at risk) or green letters (not at risk, this time) on Thursday PM 5th June as HR said that it’s not good to get bad news on a Friday!

2) We all got a letter on Friday that we would not be receiving our letters until Monday, so we all had a tense weekend

3) I finally got my letter on Monday, in my case it was “green” however a number of staff who work very hard at KCL doing teaching and research are “orange”, un bloody believable

As you can imagine the moral at King’s has dropped through the floor”

18 June 2014

Dorothy Bishop has written about the Trainor problem. Her post ends “One feels that if KCL were falling behind in a boat race, they’d respond by throwing out some of the rowers”.

The students’ petition can be found on the #KCLHealthSOS site. There is a reply to the petition, from Professor Sir Robert Lechler, and a rather better written response to it from students. Lechler’s response merely repeats the weasel words, and it attacks a few straw men without providing the slightest justification for the criteria that are being used to fire people. One can’t help noticing how often knighthoods go too the best apparatchiks rather than the best scientists.

14 July 2014

A 2013 report on Kings from Standard & Poor’s casts doubt on Trainor’s claims

Download the report from Standard and Poor’s Rating Service

A few things stand out.

  • KCL is in a strong financial position with lower debt than other similar Universities and cash reserves of £194 million.
  • The report says that KCL does carry some risk into the future especially that related to its large capital expansion program.
  • The report specifically warns KCL over the consequences of any staff cuts. Particularly relevant are the following quotations
  • Page p3 “Further staff-cost curtailment will be quite difficult …pressure to maintain its academic and non-academic service standards will weigh on its ability to cut costs further.”
  • page 4 The report goes on to say (see the section headed outlook, especially the final paragraph) that any decrease in KCL’s academic reputation (e.g. consequent on staff cuts) would be likely to impair its ability to attract overseas students and therefore adversely affect its financial position.
  • page 10 makes clear that KCL managers are privately aiming at 10% surplus, above the 6% operating surplus they talk about with us. However, S&P considers that ‘ambitious’. In other words KCL are shooting for double what a credit rating agency considers realistic.

One can infer from this that

  1. what staff have been told about the cuts being an immediate necessity is absolute nonsense
  2. KCL was warned against staff cuts by a credit agency
  3. the main problem KCL has is its overambitious building policy
  4. KCL is implementing a policy (staff cuts) which S & P warned against as they predict it may result in diminishing income.

What on earth is going on?

16 July 2014

I’ve been sent yet another damning document. The BMA’s response to Kings contains some numbers that seem to have escaped the attention of managers at Kings.

10 April 2015

King’s draft performance management plan for 2015

This document has just come to light (the highlighting is mine).

It’s labelled as "released for internal consultation". It seems that managers are slow to realise that it’s futile to try to keep secrets.

The document applies only to Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College London: "one of the global leaders in the fields" -the usual tedious blah that prefaces every document from every university.

It’s fascinating to me that the most cruel treatment of staff so often seems to arise in medical-related areas. I thought psychiatrists, of all people, were meant to understand people, not to kill them.

This document is not quite as crude as Imperial’s assessment, but it’s quite bad enough. Like other such documents, it pretends that it’s for the benefit of its victims. In fact it’s for the benefit of willy-waving managers who are obsessed by silly rankings.

Here are some of the sillier bits.

"The Head of Department is also responsible for ensuring that aspects of reward/recognition and additional support that are identified are appropriately followed through"

And, presumably, for firing people, but let’s not mention that.

"Academics are expected to produce original scientific publications of the highest quality that will significantly advance their field."

That’s what everyone has always tried to do. It can’t be compelled by performance managers. A large element of success is pure luck. That’s why they’re called experiments.

" However, it may take publications 12-18 months to reach a stable trajectory of citations, therefore, the quality of a journal (impact factor) and the judgment of knowledgeable peers can be alternative indicators of excellence."

It can also take 40 years for work to be cited. And there is little reason to believe that citations, especially those within 12-18 months, measure quality. And it is known for sure that "the quality of a journal (impact factor)" does not correlate with quality (or indeed with citations).

Later we read

"H Index and Citation Impact: These are good objective measures of the scientific impact of
publications"

NO, they are simply not a measure of quality (though this time they say “impact” rather than “excellence”).

The people who wrote that seem to be unaware of the most basic facts about science.

Then

"Carrying out high quality scientific work requires research teams"

Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. In the past the best work has been done by one or two people. In my field, think of Hodgkin & Huxley, Katz & Miledi or Neher & Sakmann. All got Nobel prizes. All did the work themselves. Performance managers might well have fired them before they got started.

By specifying minimum acceptable group sizes, King’s are really specifying minimum acceptable grant income, just like Imperial and Warwick. Nobody will be taken in by the thin attempt to disguise it.

The specification that a professor should have "Primary supervision of three or more PhD students, with additional secondary supervision." is particularly iniquitous. Everyone knows that far too many PhDs are being produced for the number of jobs that are available. This stipulation is not for the benefit of the young. It’s to ensure a supply of cheap labour to churn out more papers and help to lift the university’s ranking.

The document is not signed, but the document properties name its author. But she’s not a scientist and is presumably acting under orders, so please don’t blame her for this dire document. Blame the vice-chancellor.

Performance management is a direct incentive to do shoddy short-cut science.

No wonder that The Economist says "scientists are doing too much trusting and not enough verifying—to the detriment of the whole of science, and of humanity".

Feel ashamed.

This is a web version of a review of Peter Gotzsche’s book. It appeared in the April 2014 Healthwatch Newsletter. Read the whole newsletter. It has lots of good stuff. Their newsletters are here. Healthwatch has been exposing quackery since 1989. Their very first newsletter is still relevant.

Most new drugs and vaccines are developed by the pharmaceutical industry. The industry has produced huge benefits for mankind. But since the Thatcherite era it has come to be dominated by marketing people who appear to lack any conscience. That’s what gave rise to the Alltrials movement. It was founded in January 2013 with the aim of ensuring that all past and present clinical trials are registered before they start and that and their results are published The industry has been dragged, kicking and screaming, towards a new era of transparency, with two of the worst offenders, GSK and Roche, now promising to release all data. Let’s hope this is the beginning of real open science.

cover

This version is not quite identical with the published version in which several changes were enforced by Healthwatch’s legal adviser. They weren’t very big changes, but here is the original.


Deadly Medicines and Organised Crime

By Peter Gøtzsche, reviewed by David Colquhoun
Published by Radcliffe Publishing Ltd on 1 August 2013. RRP £24.99 (320 pages, paperback)
ISBN-10: 1846198844 ISBN-13: 978-1846198847

As someone who has spent a lifetime teaching pharmacology, this book is a bitter pill to swallow.  It makes Goldacre’s Bad Pharma seem quite mild.

In fairness, the bits of pharmacology that I’ve taught concern mostly drugs that do work quite well.  Things like neuromuscular blocking agents, local anaesthetics, general anaesthetics, anticoagulants, cardiac glycosides and thyroid drugs all do pretty much what is says on the label.

Peter Gøtzsche is nothing if not evidence man.  He directs the Nordic Cochrane group, and he talks straight.  His book is about drugs that don’t work as advertised.  There is no doubt whatsoever that the pharmaceutical industry has behaved very badly indeed in the last couple of decades.  You don’t have to take my word for it, nor Peter Gotzche’s, nor Ben Goldacre’s.  They have told us about it themselves.  Not voluntarily of course, but in internal emails that have been revealed during court proceedings, and from whistleblowers. 

Peter Rost was vice president marketing for the huge pharmaceutical company, Pfizer, until he was fired after the company failed to listen to his complaints about illegal marketing of human growth hormone as an anti-ageing drug.  After this he said:

“It is scary how many similarities there are between this industry and the mob. The mob makes obscene amounts of money, as does this industry. The side effects of organized crime are killings and deaths, and the side effects are the same in this industry. The mob bribes politicians and others, and so does the drug industry … “

The pharmaceutical industry is the biggest defrauder of the US federal government under the False Claims Act.  Roche led a cartel that, according to the US Justice Department’s antitrust division, was the most pervasive and harmful criminal antitrust conspiracy ever uncovered.  Multibillion dollar fines have been levied on all of the big companies (almost all in the USA, other countries have been supine), though the company’s profits are so huge they are regarded as marketing expenses.

It’s estimated that adverse effects of drugs kill more people than anything but cancer and heart disease, roughly half as many as cigarettes.  This horrifying statistic is announced at the beginning of the book, though you have to wait until Chapter 21 to find the data.  I’d have liked to see a more critical discussion of the problems of causality in deciding why someone died, which are just as big as those in deciding why somebody recovered.  Nevertheless, nobody seems to deny that the numbers who are killed by their treatments are alarmingly high.

Gøtzsche’s book deals with a wide range of drugs that don’t do what it says on the label, but which have made fortunes because of corruption of the scientific process. These include non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), an area described as “a horror story filled with extravagant claims, bending of the rules, regulatory inaction, . . .”.  Other areas where there has been major misbehaviour include diabetes (Avandia), and the great Tamiflu scandal. and the great Tamiflu scandal. It took five years of pressure before Roche released the hidden data about Tamiflu trials. It barely works. Goldacre commented “government’s Tamiflu stockpile wouldn’t have done us much good in the event of a flu epidemic”

But the worst single area is psychiatry.

Two of the chapters in the book deal with psychiatry.  Nobody has the slightest idea how the brain works (don’t believe the neuroscience hype) or what causes depression or psychosis.  Treatments are no more than guesses and none of them seems to work very well.

The problems with the SSRI antidepressant, paroxetine (Seroxat in UK, Paxil in USA) were brought to public attention, not by a regulator, but by a BBC Panorama television programme.  The programme revealed that a PR company, which worked for GSK, had written

"Originally we had planned to do extensive media relations surrounding this study until we actually viewed the results.  Essentially the study did not really show it was effective in treating adolescent depression, which is not something we want to publicise."

This referred to the now-notorious study 329. It was intended to show that paroxetine should be recommended for adolescent depression.  The paper that eventually appeared in 2001 grossly misrepresented the results.  The conclusions stated “Paroxetine is generally well tolerated and effective for major depression in adolescents”, despite the fact that GSK already knew this wasn’t true. The first author of this paper was Martin Keller, chair of psychiatry at Brown University, RI, with 21 others.

But the paper wasn’t written by them, but by ghost authors working for GSK. Keller admitted that he hadn’t checked the results properly.

That’s not all. Gøtzsche comments thus.

“Keller is some character. He double- billed his travel expenses, which were reimbursed both by his university and the drug sponsor. Further, the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health had paid Brown’s psychiatry department, which Keller chaired, hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund research that wasn’t being conducted. Keller himself received hundreds of thousands of dollars from drug companies every year that he didn’t disclose.”

His department received $50 million in research funding. Brown University has never admitted that there was a problem.  It still boasts about this infamous paper

The extent of corruption at Brown University rivals the mob. 

The infamous case of Richard Eastell at Sheffield university is no better.  He admitted in print to lying about who’d seen the data.  The university did nothing but fire the whistleblower.

Another trial, study 377, also showed that paroxetine didn’t work.  GSK suppressed it.

“There are no plans to publish data from Study 377” (Seroxat/Paxil Adolescent Depression. Position piece on the phase III clinical studies. GlaxoSmithKline document. 1998 Oct.)

Where were the regulatory agencies during all this?  The MHRA did ban use of paroxetine in adolescents in 2003, but their full investigation didn’t report until 2008.  It came to much the same conclusions as the TV programme six years earlier about the deceit. But despite that, no prosecution was brought.  GSK got away with a deferential rap on the knuckles.

Fiona Godlee (editor of the BMJ, which had turned down the paper) commented

“We shouldn’t have to rely on investigative journalists to ask the difficult questions”

Now we can add bloggers to that list of people who ask difficult questions.  The scam operated by the University of Wales, in ‘validating’ external degrees was revealed by my blog and by BBC TV Wales.  The Quality Assurance Agency came in only at the last moment.  Regulators regularly fail to regulate.

Despite all this, the current MHRA learning module on SSRIs contains little hint that SSRIs simply don’t work for mild or moderate depression.  Neither does the current NICE guidance.   Some psychiatrists still think they do work, despite there being so many negative trials.

ssri box

The psychiatrists’ narrative goes like this. You don’t expect to see improvements for many weeks (despite the fact that serotonin uptake is stopped immediately).  You may get worse before you get better. And if the first sort of pill doesn’t work, try another one.  That’s pretty much identical with what a homeopath will tell you.  The odds are that its meaning is, wait a while and you’ll get better eventually, regardless of treatment.

It’s common to be told that they must work because when you stop taking them, you get worse.  But, perhaps more likely, when you stop taking them you get withdrawal symptoms, because the treatment itself caused a chemical imbalance.   Gøtzsche makes a strong case that most psychiatric drugs do more harm than good, if taken for any length of time.  Marcia Angell makes a similar case in The Illusions of Psychiatry.

Gøtzsche will inevitably be accused of exaggerating.  Chapter 14 ends thus.

“Merck stated only 6 months before it withdrew Vioxx that ‘MSD is fully committed to the highest standards of scientific integrity, ethics, and protection of patient’s wellbeing in our research. We have a tradition of partnership with leaders in the academic research community. Great. Let’s have some more of such ethical partnerships. They often kill our patients while everyone else prospers.

Perhaps Hells Angels should consider something similar in their PR: We are fully committed to the highest standards of integrity, ethics and protection of citizens’ well- being when we push narcotic drugs. We have a tradition of partnership with leaders in the police force”.

But the evidence is there.  The book has over 900 references.  Much of the wrongdoing has been laid bare by legal actions. I grieve for the state of my subject. 

The wrongdoing by pharma is a disgrace. 

The corruption of universities and academics is even worse, because they are meant to be our defence against commercial corruption.  

All one can do is to take consolation from the fact that academics, like Gøtzsche and Goldacre, and a host of bloggers, are the people who are revealing what’s wrong.  As a writer for the business magazine, Fortune, said

“For better or worse, the drug industry is going to have to get used to Dr. Peter Rost – and others like him.”

At a recent meeting I said that it was tragic that medicine, the caring profession, was also the most corrupt (though I’m happy to admit that other jobs might be as bad if offered as much money).

At present there is little transparency.  There is no way that I can tell whether my doctor is taking money from pharma, data are still hidden from public scrutiny by regulatory agencies (which are stuffed with people who take pharma money) as well as by companies.  Governments regard business as more important than patients. In the UK, the Government continued promotion of the fake bomb detector for many years after they’d been told it was fake.  Their attitude to fake medicines is not much different.  Business is business, right?

One side effect of the horrific corruption is that it’s used as a stick by the alternative medicine industry. That’s silly of them, because their business is more or less 100% mendacious marketing of ineffective treatments.  At least half of pharma products really do work.

Fines are useless. Nothing will change until a few CEOs, a few professors and a few vice-chancellors spend time in jail for corruption.

Read this book. Get angry. Do something.

Follow-up

Jump to follow-up

This post is the original version of a post by Michael Vagg. It was posted at the Conversation but taken down within hours, on legal advice. Sadly, the Conversation has a track record for pusillanimous behaviour of this sort. It took minutes before the cached version reappeared on freezepage.com. I’m reposting it from there in the interests of free speech. La Trobe "university" should be ashamed that it’s prostituted itself for the sake of $15 m.

La Trobe’s deputy vice-chancellor, Keith Nugent, gives a make-believe response to the resignation of Ken Harvey in a video. It is, in my opinion, truly pathetic.

Update, The next day, the article was reposted at the Conversation. The changes they’d made can be seen in a compare document. The biggest change was removal of "has just decided to join the ranks of the spivs and hucksters of the vitamin industry". This seems to me to be perfectly fair comment. It should not have been censored by the Conversation.


title

By Michael Vagg

The recent memorandum of understanding signed between supplement company Swisse and La Trobe University to establish a Complementary Medicine Evidence Centre (CMEC) looks to me like the latest effort by a corporation to cloak their business interests in a veil of science. Unlike the UTS Sydney Australian Research Centre in Complementary and Integrative Medicine (ARCCIM), which at least has significant NHMRC funding, the La Trobe version will undertake “independent research” into complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) products that are made by the major (and so far only) donor to the Centre. Southern Cross University also has a very close relationship with the Blackmores brand of CAM products, due to the personal interest of Marcus Blackmore, the company Chairman. Blackmores claims to spend a lazy couple of million a year on their branded research centre. The Blackmores Research Centre studies Blackmores products. Presumably this situation (so similar to the proposed La Trobe model) is a coincidence since the research centre is providing completely “independent” research.

The conflict of interest in such research centres is so laughably obvious that A/Prof Ken Harvey, a leading campaigner against shonky health products, a life member of Choice andThe Conversation contributor, has resigned his appointment at La Trobe in protest. Ken clearly points out in his letter of resignation that by accepting the money from Swisse, he believes La Trobe has unacceptably compromised its integrity. His letter cites multiple instances of non-compliance with TGA regulations by Swisse, as well as their disrespect for the regulatory process that governs corporate truth-telling in their industry.This story from last year gives a bit of background to the quixotic battle Harvey has fought against the massive coffers and unscrupulous business practices of Big Supplement. He has been more effective than the TGA itself at hindering the rampant gaming of the TGA Register of Therapeutic Goods by supplement and vitamin manufacturers.

Clearly as a man of principle, he could not be expected to continue his association with a university that has a close relationship to a company with such a history of regulatory infringements. The untenability of Ken’s position is underlined by the fact that La Trobe itself republished on their website one of his TC articles about Swisse’s regulatory tapdancing only the previous year!

Ken has been sued, traduced and generally railed against by a multi-billion dollar industry for the hideous crime of insisting that they tell the truth about their products and not mislead consumers. We need another hundred like him. That his own university has decided to take the money on offer from Swisse must be a bitter blow to him. It would be interesting to know whether any other universities were approached by Swisse in a similar way and had the courage to decline the offer.

The infiltration of academia by privately funded CAM institutes is old news in the United States. The Science Based Medicine blog has christened the phenomenon “quackademic medicine” and written about it at some length. It seems the Australian CAM industry has no need to hide behind astroturfing organisations like the American group the Bravewell Collaborative to get its agenda attended to. Companies like Blackmores and Swisse can seemingly just offer to fund research institutes and cash-strapped tertiary institutions can’t resist. Friends of Science in Medicine and others have had a bit to say about the irresponsibility of educational institutions lending credibility to pseudoscience and how this practice damages universities’ standing as exemplars of scholarship and intellectual leaders within their communities.

I can say without qualification that none of the much-maligned Big Pharma companies have their own fully-funded research centres at any university. Let alone a branded one where the studies are restricted to a single company’s products. It would be utterly unacceptable for the integrity of any university for such an outrageously conflicted institution to be given any support. What would it be like if GSK or Pfizer founded a research institute at a university and forced the researchers to only study their own products?

Imagine the outrage. Imagine what a laughing stock such a research centre would be. That’s medical research in clown shoes. That’s academic credibility in a cheap suit trying to sell you steak knives.

Vitamin and supplement companies will always be profitable because their sales pitch is based on psychological flaws that everyone has. Just ask the gaming, alcohol and tobacco companies. All of them are massively profitable. Sometimes their cash can even do good, but there’s always an angle by which they profit.

Look at these guys up close, and the warts appear. All of them seek to improve their image by splashing money on hanging around with the glamorous, the successful, the smart and the credible. They hope that the magic dust of celebrity and academia will disguise the stench of the swamp they crawled out from. La Trobe Uni has just decided to join the ranks of the spivs and hucksters of the vitamin industry, and they will now have to live with having a research centre with the academic and professional credibility of the Ponds Institute. Sadly for La Trobe, they won’t have Ken Harvey to keep things reality-based.

Follow-up

8 February 2014. Deputy vice-chancellor, Keith Nugent, tried to defend the university’s decision to take money from the "spivs and hucksters of the vitamin industry" in The Age. I sent the following letter to The Age. Let’s hope they publish it.

Keith Nugent, deputy vice-chancellor of La Trobe University, has offered a defence of the university’s decision to take a large amount of money from vitamin and herb company, Swisse.  

He justifies this by saying that we need to know whether or not the products work.  Nugent seems to be unaware that we already know.  There have been many good double-blind randomized trials and they have just about all shown that dosing yourself with vitamins and minerals does most people no good at all. Some have shown that high doses actually harm you.  Perhaps the university should have checked what’s already known before taking the money.

Perhaps Nugent is also unaware that trials with industry sponsorship tend to come out favourable to the companies’ product.  For that reason, the results are treated with scepticism by the scientific community.

If the research is worth doing, then it will be funded from the normal sources.  There should be no need to take money from a company with a very strong financial interest in the outcome.

D. Colquhoun FRS

Professor of Pharmcology
University College London

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