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.
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.
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.
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.
Dated Christmas eve,1979 (age 16)
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.
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.
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
- what staff have been told about the cuts being an immediate necessity is absolute nonsense
- KCL was warned against staff cuts by a credit agency
- the main problem KCL has is its overambitious building policy
- 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
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.
"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".
Nobody could have been more surprised than I when I found myself nominated as an academic role model at UCL. I had to answer a few questions. It is not obvious to me what the object of the stunt is, but the person who asked me to do it seemed to find the answers amusing, so I’ll reproduce here what I said. I apologise for the temporary lapse into narcissism.
The final version has now been printed [download a copy]. Sadly the printed edition was “corrected” by someone who replaced “whom I asked to submit the first theoretical paper by Hawkes and me to the Royal Society” (as written below), with “paper by Hawkes and I”. Aaargh.
Your nomination – Why you were nominated as an Academic Role Model?
"David Colquhoun has made major contributions to our understanding of how ion channels (proteins which allow charged ions to pass across cell membranes) function to mediate electrical signalling in nerve and muscle cells. This work elegantly combines experimental and theoretical aspects, and resulted in David being made a Fellow of the Royal Society. David Colquhoun played a key role in resisting the notion that UCL should merge with Imperial College in 2002, by running a website opposed to the merger. He thus facilitated the continued existence of an independent UCL. He is also well-known for his principled opposition to therapies that are not based on scientific evidence, and for his blog which comments on this issue as well as on university bureaucracy and politics."
Role models’ questions
1. What is your response to being nominated?
We are interested in giving people a very brief ‘snapshot’ description of their career trajectory, to help a broad range of people see how you got to where you are:
2. What has your career path been?
My first job (in 1950s) was as an apprentice pharmacist in Timothy Whites & Taylors (Homeopathic Chemists) in Grange Road, Birkenhead. You can’t get a more humble start than that. But it got me interested in drugs, and thanks to my schoolmaster father, I got to the University of Leeds.
My father (1907 – 2001), in 1955
One of the courses involved some statistics, and that interested me. I think I made a semi-conscious decision that it would be sensible to be good at something that others were bad at, so I learned quite a lot of statistics and mathematics. I recall buying a Methuen’s Monograph on Determinants and Matrices in my final year, and, with the help of an Argentinian PhD student in physical chemistry (not my lecturers) I began to make sense of it.
I purposely went into my final viva with it sticking out of my pocket. The examiner was Walter Perry, then professor of Pharmacology in Edinburgh (he later did a great job setting up the Open University). That’s how I came to be a PhD student in Edinburgh.
Although Perry was one of my supervisors, the only time I saw him was when he came into my lab between committee meetings for a cigarette. But he did make me an honorary lecturer so I could join the Staff Club, where I made many friends, including a young physics lecturer called Peter Higgs. The staff club exists no longer, having been destroyed in one of those acts of short-sighted academic vandalism that vice-chancellors seem so fond of.
The great university expansion in the 1960s made it easy to get a job. The most famous pharmacology department in the world was at UCL so I asked someone to introduce me to its then head, Heinz Schild, and asked him if he had a job. While interned during WW2 he had written a paper on the statistics of biological assay and wanted someone to teach it to students, so I got a job (in 1964), and have been at UCL ever since apart from 9 years. Between 1964 and 1970 I published little, but learned a great deal by writing a textbook on statistics.
That sort of statistics is now thought too difficult for undergraduates, and the famous department that attracted me was itself destroyed in another act of academic vandalism, in 2007.
I have spent my life doing things that I enjoy. Such success as I’ve had, I attribute to a liking for spending time with people cleverer than I am, and wasting time drinking coffee. I found a very clever statistician, Alan Hawkes, in the Housman Room in the late 1960s, and we began to collaborate on the theory of single ion channel analysis in a series of papers that still isn’t quite finished. He did the hard mathematics, but I knew enough about it to write it up in a more or less comprehensible form and to write computer programs to evaluate the algebra. When I got stuck, I would often ask Hyman Kestelman (co-author of the famous mathematics textbook, Massie & Kestelman) to explain, usually in what was then the Joint Staff Common Room at lunch time (it is now the Haldane room, the common room having been confiscated by unenlightened management). Before leaving for the USA in 1970, I, in league with the then professor of French, Brian Woledge, eventually got through a motion that allowed women into the Housman room.
I’d also talk as much as I could to Bernard Katz, whom I asked to submit the first theoretical paper by Hawkes and me to the Royal Society. His comments on the first draft led to the published version making a prediction about single ion channel behaviour before channels could be observed.
The next step was sheer luck. As this was going on, two young Germans, Neher & Sakmann, succeeded in observing the tiny currents that flow through single ion channel molecules, so it became possible to test the theory. In series of visits to Göttingen, Sakmann and I did experiments late into the night. Neher & Sakmann got a well-deserved Nobel Prize in 1991, and I expect I benefitted from a bit of reflected glory
The work that I have done is nothing if not basic. It doesn’t fit in with the current vogue for translational research (most of which will fail), although I would regard it as laying the basis for rational drug design. My only regret is that rational drug design has proved to be so difficult that it won’t be achieved in my lifetime (please don’t believe the hype).
We’d also like you to take a slightly more personal view:
3. What have been the highs (and the lows?) of your career so far?
The highs have been the chance to work with brilliant people and write a handful of papers that have a chance of having a lasting influence. Because I have been able to take my time on those projects there haven’t been too many lows, apart from observing the continuous loss of academic integrity caused by the intense pressure to publish or perish, and the progressive decline in collegiality in universities caused by that pressure combined with the rise in power of managerialism. Luckily the advent of blogs has allowed me to do a little about that.
I’m saddened by the fact that the innumeracy of biologists that I noticed as an undergraduate has not really improved at all (though I don’t believe it is worse). Most biologists still have difficulty with even the simplest equations. Worse still, they don’t know enough maths to communicate their problem to a mathematician, so only too often one sees collaborations with mathematicians produce useless results.
The only real failure I’ve had was when, in a fit of vanity, I applied for the chair of Pharmacology in Oxford, in 1984, and failed to get it. But in retrospect that was really a success too. I would have hated the flummery of Oxford, and as head of department (an increasingly unattractive job) I would have spent my time on pushing paper, not ion channels. In retrospect, it was a lucky escape. UCL is my sort of place (most of the time).
We would like to hear what our role models have to say about the next generation:
4. What advice would you give to people finishing off their PhD?
My career course would be almost impossible now. In fact it is very likely that I would have been fired before I got going in the present climate. There were quite long periods when I didn’t publish much. I was learning the tools of my trade, both mathematical and experimental. Now there is no time to do that. You are under pressure to publish a paper a week (for the glory of your PI and your university) and probably rarely find time to leave the lab to talk to inspiring people. If you are given any courses they’ll probably be in some inane HR nonsense, not in algebra. That is one reason we started our summer workshop, though bizarrely that has now been dropped by the graduate school in favour of Advanced Powerpoint.
The plight of recent PhDs is dire. Too many are taken on (for the benefit of the university, not of the student) and there aren’t many academic jobs. If you want to stay in academia, all I can suggest is that you get good at doing something that other people can’t do, and to resist the pressure to publish dozens of trivial papers.
Try to maintain some academic integrity despite the many pressures to do the opposite that are imposed on you by your elders (but not always betters). That may or may not be enough to get you the job that you want, but at least you’ll be able to hold your head high.
Finally, we want to give a balanced impression of our role models because many were nominated for their ability to motivate others, and to balance life and work:
5. How do you keep motivated?
Work-life balance is much talked about by HR, though they are one of the reasons why it is now almost impossible, In the past it wasn’t a great problem. I’m fascinated by the problems that I’m trying to puzzle out. I’ve had periods of a year or two when things haven’t gone well and I’ve felt as though I was a failure, but luckily they haven’t lasted too long, and they occurred in a time before some idiotic performance manager would harass you for failing to publish for a year or two. The climate of “performance management” is doing a lot to kill innovation and creativity.
6. What do you do when are not working in SLMS?
I’ve had various phases. For a while I carried on boxing (which had been compulsory at school). When I was first at UCL in 1964 I bought a 21 foot sloop (and as a consequence could barely afford to eat), and in 1970 (at Yale) I learned to fly. I had a lot of fun sailing right up to the early 1980s, when I found I could not afford a son as well as a boat. That was when running came into fashion and that could be done for the price of a pair of shoes. I did marathons and half marathons for fun (the London in 1988 was great fun). And that was supplanted by walking country trails in the early 2000s.
There is never a clear division between work and play, especially with algebra. You can continue to struggle with a derivation on a boat, or even get a new angle on it while running. That, of course, is why the transparency review is such total nonsense.
The main cause of stress has never been work for me. Stress comes mainly from the imposition of dim-witted managerialism and incompetent HR policies. And that has become progressively worse. I doubt that if I were a young academic now I’d have the time to spend the weekend sailing.
I’m not sure whether the blogging that has taken up something like half my time since my nominal retirement in 2004 counts as work or not. It certainly depends on things that I have learned in my academic work. And it’s fun to have effects in the real world after a life spent on problems that many would regard as esoteric.
If you want a hobby that costs very little, and allows you to say what you want, start a blog.
I was asked recently to write a reply to an article about "research managers" for the magazine Research Fortnight. This is a magazine that carries news of research and has a very useful list of potential research funding agencies.
The article to which I was asked to respond originally had the title “Researchers and Research Managers, a match made in heaven?“, before the subeditors got hold of it. It was written by Simon Kerridge, who is secretary of the Association for Research Managers and Administrators The printed version of his article can be downloaded here, and the printed version of my response here. My response, as submitted, is below with live links.
This invitation came at a strangely appropriate time, just at the moment that every university is having serious budget cuts, Well, here is a chance to make a good start on cutting out non-jobs..
Researchers and Research Managers: an imminent divorce?
David Colquhoun, UCL.
The web site of the Association of Research Managers and Administrators says it has 1600 individual members , but every scientist I have met is baffled about why they have suddenly sprung into existence. The web site says “Our mission is to facilitate excellence in research by identifying and establishing best practice in research management and administration”. I had to read that several times in an attempt to extract a meaning from the mangled bureaucratic prose. “Our mission is to promote excellence in research”. How can non-scientists with no experience of research possibly “promote excellence in research”? They can’t, and that’s pretty obvious when you read the second half of the sentence. They propose to improve science by promoting research management, i.e. themselves.
Kerridge’s article didn’t help much either. He seems to think that research managers are there to make that scientists fulfil “overall strategic aims of the University”. In other words they are there to make sure that scientists obey the orders of non-scientists (or elderly ex-scientists) who claim to know what the future holds. I can think of no better way to ruin the scientific reputation of a university and to stifle creativity.
We all appreciate good support. We used to have a very helpful person in the department (not a ‘manager’) who could advise on some of the financial intricacies, but now it is run by a ‘manager’ it has been centralised, depersonalised and it is far less efficient.
The fact of the matter seems to be that “research managers” are just one more layer of hangers-on that have been inflicted on the academic enterprise during the time new labour was in power. They are certainly not alone. We have now have “research facilitators” and offshoots of HR running nonsense courses in things like Brain Gym . All of these people claim they are there to support research. They do no such thing. They merely generate more paper work and more distraction from the job in hand. Take a simple example. At a time when there was a redundancy committee in existence to decide which academics should be fired in my own faculty, the HR department advertised two jobs (on near professorial salaries) for people trained in neurolinguistic programming (that is a well-known sort of pseudo-scientific psychobabble, but it’s big business ).
A quick look at what research managers actually do (in two research-intensive universities) shows that mostly they send emails that list funding agencies, and to forward emails you already had from someone else. Almost all of it can be found more conveniently by a couple of minutes with Google. Although they claim to reduce administrative work for scientists, it is usually quicker to do it yourself than to try to explain things to people who don’t understand the science. They don’t save work, they make it.
One might well ask how it is that so much money has come to be spent on pseudo-jobs like “research managers”. I can only guess that it is part of the ever-expanding tide of administrative junk that encumbers the work of people who are trying to do good creative science. It also arises from the misapprehension, widespread among vice-chancellors, that you can get creative science by top down management of research by people who know little about it.
I’m reminded of the words of the “unrepentant capitalist”, Luke Johnson  (he was talking about HR but the words apply equally here).
“HR is like many parts of modern businesses: a simple expense, and a burden on the backs of the productive workers”,
“They don’t sell or produce: they consume. They are the amorphous support services”.
“I have radically downsized HR in several companies I have run, and business has gone all the better for it.”
The dangers are illustrated by the report  of a paper by the professor of higher education management at Royal Holloway (yes, we already have a chair in this non-subject). It seems that “Research "can no longer be left to the whims and fortunes of individual academics" “. It must be left to people who don’t do research or understand it. It’s hard to imagine any greater corruption of the academic enterprise.
Oddly enough, the dire financial situation brought about by incompetent and greedy bankers provides an opportunity for universities to shed the myriad hangers-on that have accreted round the business of research. Savings will have to be made, and it’s obvious that they shouldn’t start with the people who do the teaching and research on which the reputation of the university depends. With luck, it may not be too late to choke off the this new phenomenon before it chokes us. If you want research, spend money on people who do it, not those who talk about it.
 Association of Research Managers and Administrators http://www.arma.ac.uk/about/
 When HR gets hold of academe, quackery and gobbledegook run riot. Times Higher Education 10 April 2008, http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=401385 and expanded version at http://www.dcscience.net/?p=226
 What universities can do without. http://ucllifesciences.wordpress.com/2010/04/25/what-universities-can-do-without/
 Luke Johnson The Truth About the HR Department, Financial Times, Jnauary 30 2008 http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/9e10714c-ced7-11dc-877a-000077b07658.html and http://www.dcscience.net/?p=226
 Managers must be qualified to herd the academic cats. Times Higher Education 20 May 2010 http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=411643
Now back to the Ed Biz, for a moment. An article in Times Higher Education last week caused something of a stir.
V-cs’ candid views slip out online. 2 July 2009 By Zöe Corbyn
Prematurely released paper reveals fears of staff revolution and desire to cash in, writes Zöe Corbyn
The article refers to a paper that appeared on the web site of the journal Higher Education Quarterly. It is Perspectives of UK Vice-Chancellors on Leading Universities in a Knowledge-Based Economy by Lynn Bosetti, University of Calgary, and Keith Walker, University of Saskatchewan. The paper quotes ten different university vice-chancellors (presidents) of UK universities. Some of the comments caused quite a stir when they were quoted anonymously in an article in Times Higher Education. But the paper soon vanished and still has not reappeared. A version that lacks some of the names is expected to appear soon. The original uncensored version has now appeared on Wikileaks. Its source is no great mystery since it was available to the public for a short time. It seems a pity if vice-chancellors want to hide their views, so here are a few quotations from the original version.
The Vice-Chancellor of Oxford, Colin Lucas, cautions:
“One of the greatest distortions is this sense that the only thing that universities are for, is to drive the economy. The core mission of universities is threatened by a narrow value system.”
Steven Schwartz was vice-chancellor of Brunel University until February 2006 when he became Vice Chancellor of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. He’s quoted as saying
We all know that education is a commodity that can be bought and sold, often at a very high price. So universities are busy doing that – charging students a large amount of money to study in England because it is a popular destination. Branding and marketing take the font seat and education is in the back. (S. Schwartz, Brunel University)
Reflecting on the traditional role of the university, the Vice-Chancellor of University of Oxford, Colin Lucas, is concerned that
“commodification threatens to destroy not only scholarly democracy but civilisation itself.”
“The vice-chancellor needs to have a network of people involved in ‘intelligence gathering’ to be able to swiftly deal with ‘even the faintest hint of a revolution’ (S. Schwartz, Brunel University)”
That sounds a bit like the secret police and their network of informers. Hardly a good way to get the loyalty of your staff.
“you have to lead with flow and authority.You can never be out of touch with what faculty are thinking . . . if in the end faculty don’t follow you, it isn’t because they are stupid, it’s because you are out of touch’ (S. Schwartz)”
And that seems to say that you need to know how faculty think, not in order to listen to their views, but only to know how to beat them. Perhaps it has never occurred to Steven Schwartz that he might, just occasionally, be wrong?
Drummond Bone succeeded Howard Newby (of whom more here) as vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool. he also seems to regard the drive to corporatisation of univeristies as a war against his own staff.
“You need to start by setting the agenda for change, then you have to look at who is going to be a driver or champion of that change, who is going to be a passenger and who, quite frankly, is going to stand against it’ (J. Drummond Bone)”.
Steven Schwartz again.
“we filled our senior management positions with people who had never worked in universities before. The HR [human relations] person came from mining, another from banking. It’s probably made a big difference to Brunel and its ability to move, in that people aren’t weighted down with a lot of public service type history.”
This attitude seems to me to be at the heart of the problem. it is based on a mistaken idea of what it is that gives a university a good reputation. The reputation, at least in academia, is the sum of the reputations of eminent people who work there, Physiologists will think of Bernard Katz and Andrew Huxley. Pharmacologists will think of Heinz Schild and James Black, People in English literature may never have heard of them, but they will think of John Sutherland and Rosemary Ashton, Each of them gives UCL a bit of reflected glory..But nobody will think about our Public Relations attempts at corporate image building. The only way to have a great university is to have great people doing the research and teaching. Anything that makes a university unattractive to them will, in the long run, harm the place. And one thing that makes a university unattractive is the perception that it is run by people who view it as a business, and who know nothing about what makes the place great. The sort of people whom Steven Schwartz seems to have gone out of his way to employ.
I was asked recently by the head of media relations to answer some questions about UCL’s attempts to build its “corporate identity” (nice to be asked, for a change). My answer was that I though they probably did more harm than good. The reason for saying that is that they are, only too often, downright embarrassing. I’ve mentioned the examples of ‘sustainable degrees‘, the concordat fiasco and ‘research days‘. And the new-age junk forced on our research staff by Human Resources is acutely embarrassing. Luckily for UCL, all universities have pursued this corporate path, so there is nowhere to run to,
The general public, having lived through the Blair era, is able to detect vacuous spin when it hears it. And there is no shortage of that in universities now. The aim of science is to discover truth. The aim of PR is to disguise truth, They are utterly incompatible. In the words of the “unrepentant capitalist” Luke Johnson, in the Financial Times,
“I have radically downsized HR in several companies I have run, and business has gone all the better for it.”
Another way to dismepower academics Steven Schwartz, with his spy network, is quite excessively conspiritorial. There is a much easier way to do it, You have a consultation. You hold open “town meetings”. The opposition then reveal themselves. Having taken the precaution of neutering the academic board, you are under no obligation to take the slightest notice of what anyone else says, and public humiliation of opponents will ensure there aren’t too many of them. I have seen this plan in action. It works rather well, in the short run. In the long run, though, academics lose morale, loyalty and altruism when treated in that way. Vice-chancellors who behave like that are bringing their institution into disrepute.
This was poeted from the train to Edinburgh,where I’ll be giving the Paton lecture, on a related topics.
The modified paper has now been published in Higher Education Quarterly. And, guess what, Steven Schwartz’s name is not mentioned in it.
Des Spence, a general practitioner in Glasgow, has revealed a memorandum that was allegedly leaked from the Department of Health. It was published in the Britsh Medical Journal (17 June 2009, doi:10.1136/bmj.b2466, BMJ 2009;338:b2466). It seemed to me to deserve wider publicity, so with the author’s permission, I reproduce it here. It may also provide a suitable introduction to a forthcoming analysis of a staff survey.
Re: The use of ‘note pads’ in the NHS and allied service based agencies.
Hi, all care providers, managers of care, care managers, professions allied to care providers, carers’ carers, and stakeholders whose care is in our care. (And a big shout to all those service users who know me.)
We report the findings from a quality based review, with a strong strategic overview, on the use of “note pads” across all service user interfaces. This involved extensive consultation with focus groups and key stakeholders at blue sky thinking events (previously erroneously known as brain storming). This quality assured activity has precipitated some heavy idea showers, allowing opinion leaders to generate a national framework of joined-up thinking. This will take this important quality agenda forward. A 1000 page report is available to cascade to all relevant stakeholders.
The concentric themes underpinning this review are of confidentiality. Notes have been found on the visual interface devices on computers and writing workstations throughout the NHS work space. Although no actual breach of confidentiality has been reported, the independent external consultants reported that note pads “present a clear and present danger” to the NHS, and therefore there is an overarching responsibility to protect service users from scribbled messages in felt tip pen. Accordingly all types of note pads will be phased out in the near time continuum. A validated algorithm is also attached to aid this process going forward.
This modernising framework must deliver a paradigm shift in the use of note pads. Care provider leaders must employ all their influencing and leverage talents to win the hearts and minds of the early adopter. A holistic cradle to grave approach is needed, with ownership being key, and with a 360 degree rethink of the old think. All remaining note pads must be handed over in the next four week ” note pad armistice” to be shredded by a facilitator (who is currently undergoing specialist training) and who will sign off and complete the audit trail.
(Please note that the NHS’s email system blocks all attachments, so glossy, sustainable, wood based hard copies will be sent directly to everyone’s waste recycling receptacles.)
Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:b2466
Spence added a footnote, Note: The BMJ’s lawyers have insisted that I make it clear that this is a spoof, just in case you were wondering.
Here are a few more
|There is an initiative underway to determine what we do as an organisation in the realms of drug discovery. The intention is to identify internal and appropriate external capabilities to foster a pipeline of competencies that enable some of our basic research outputs to better impact healthcare.|
This post is written in part as a distraction from a plague of lawyers, in New Zealand, here in the UK, and now in the USA (my movie, Integratative baloney@Yale, has recently been removed from YouTube. More on that coming soon).
The duty of an advocate is to take fees, and in return for those fees to display to the utmost advantage whatsoever falshoods the solicitor has put into his brief.
[ Bentham, Jeremy , The Elements of the art of packing as applied to special juries , 1821]
The letter below comes from a much-copied piece of paper that I unearthed in my office during its decennial clearout. It was typed on a manual typewriter and I have no idea where it came from or whether it is genuine. Its origin has been discussed on the internet, with no firm conclusion. This post is a miscellany of thought that followed its rediscovery.
The alleged quotation shows that there is nothing new about the cult of managerialism, at least in Whitehall. It took longer to reach universities, which are now suffering an acute case of this sad condition,
|MESSAGE FROM THE DUKE OF WELLINGTON TO THE BRITISH FOREIGN OFFICE IN LONDON–
written from Central Spain, August 1812
Whilst marching from Portugal to a position which commands the approach to Madrid and the French forces, my officers have been diligently complying with your requests which have been sent by H.M. ship from London to Lisbon and thence by dispatch to our headquarters.
We have enumerated our saddles, bridles, tents and tent poles, and all manner of sundry items for which His Majesty’s Government holds me accountable. I have dispatched reports on the character, wit, and spleen of
Unfortunately the sum of one shilling and ninepence remains unaccounted for in one infantry battalion’s petty cash and there has been a hideous confusion as to the number of jars of raspberry jam issued to one cavalry
This brings me to my present purpose, which is to request elucidation of my instructions from His Majesty’s Government so that I may better understand why I am dragging an army over these barren plains. I construe that perforce it must be one of two alternative duties, as given below. I shall pursue either one with the best of my ability, but I cannot do both:
Your most obedient servant,
Substitute the options
“I shall pursue either one with the best of my ability, but I cannot do both:
- To spend my days in endless meetings and form-filling for the benefit of the accountants and copy-boys in central administration, or perchance
- To do some original science.”
It seems a bit odd to be citing approvingly Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington. As a politician he was a high Tory and arch-opponent of parliamentary reform. He became prime minister in 1828, two years after
the foundation of UCL, the ‘godless institution of Gower Street”, and he was instrumental in the foundation of the traditionally religious rival to UCL, King’s College London.
Wellington’s government fell in 1830, and a Whig goverment was formed with Earl Grey as prime minister. In 1832, after many struggles, Lord John Russell managed to get the Great Reform Act passed (properly known as the Representation of the People Act 1832). This was an enormously important reform. It could be said to mark the beginning of true democracy in the UK.
The Whigs had been out of power for most of the time since the 1770s. But there were riots in the country and the Whigs advocated political reform as the best response to the unrest. Wellington, on the other hand, ignored the riots and continued with the Tory policy of opposition all reform and to any expansion of the franchise. He got the nickname “the iron duke” not because of his military prowess but because of the iron shutters he had to put on his London home, Apsley House, as protection against rioters. He lost a vote of no confidence on 15 November 1830, and was replaced as Prime Minister by Earl Grey, who put the passage of the Reform Bill in the hands of Lord John Russell
Lord John Russell was the grandfather of Bertrand Russell, whose 1935 essay, On the Value of Scepticism, had an enormous influence on me. This following quotation I find just beautiful, both the ideas, the wonderfully simple prose in which he conveys the ideas, and the Voltaire-like pure mischiefness.
|I wish to propose for the reader’s favourable consideration a doctrine which may, I fear, appear wildly paradoxical and subversive. The doctrine in question is this: that it is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground whatever for supposing it true. I must, of course, admit that if such an opinion became common it would completely transform our social life and our political system: since both are at present faultless, this must weigh against it. I am also aware (what is more serious) that it would tend to diminish the incomes of clairvoyants, bookmakers, bishops and others who live on the irrational hopes of those who have done nothing to deserve good fortune here or hereafter. In spite of these grave arguments, I maintain that a case can be made out for my paradox, and I shall try to set it forth.
Bertrand Russell, 1935. On the Value of Scepticism
Bertrand Russell was brought up by his grandfather, Lord John Russell in Pembroke Lodge at the edge of Richmond Park (I’ve been there often, but only because it became a tea room, a welcome break from marathon training in the park). I saw Russell in the distance, speaking in Trafalgar Square at a CND rally in about 1963. It is the most striking example I know of the the very short time than there has been any real democracy in the UK. I was one step away from the passing of the Reform Act, the founding of UCL and medical reforms.
The medical connections.
Adrian Desmond’s fascinating book, The Politics of Evolution. described what was happening in medicine and biology at around the same time as Wellington was deposed, and the Reform Bill was passed. There was equal turmoil in the medical world. Radicals in London agitated for removal of the hegemony of the Royal Colleges and of Oxford and Cambridge, so proper medical schools could be established in London. That is the atmosphere in which UCL’s medical school was born.
Many of the first staff there came from Scotland. Robert Grant, UCL’s first professor of comparative anatomy, came from Edinburgh and brought to UCL the new French ideas about evolution, especially those of Geoffroy. His influence was enormous, not least because Charles Darwin was one of his students.
The same period saw the foundation in 1823 of Thomas Wakley’s “ribald and radical” medical journal, The Lancet. The Wikipedia entry gives us a taste of Wakley’s style,
“[We deplore the] “state of society which allows various sets of mercenary, goose-brained monopolists and charlatans to usurp the highest privileges…. This is the canker-worm which eats into the heart of the medical body.” Wakley, The Lancet 1838-9, 1,
“The Council of the College of Surgeons remains an irresponsible, unreformed monstrosity in the midst of English institutions – an antediluvian relic of all… that is most despotic and revolting, iniquitous and insulting, on the face of the Earth.” Wakley, The Lancet 1841-2,
He was especially severe on whomever he regarded as quacks. The English Homeopathic Association were “an audacious set of quacks” and its supporters “noodles and knaves, the noodles forming the majority, and the knaves using them as tools”.  “
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.