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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.

This is very quick synopsis of the 500 pages of a report on the use of metrics in the assessment of research. It’s by far the most thorough bit of work I’ve seen on the topic. It was written by a group, chaired by James Wilsdon, to investigate the possible role of metrics in the assessment of research.

The report starts with a bang. The foreword says

"Too often, poorly designed evaluation criteria are “dominating minds, distorting behaviour and determining careers.”1 At their worst, metrics can contribute to what Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, calls a “new barbarity” in our universities."

"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 "

And the conclusions (page 12 and Chapter 9.5) are clear that metrics alone can measure neither the quality of research, nor its impact.

"no set of numbers,however broad, is likely to be able to capture the multifaceted and nuanced judgements on the quality of research outputs that the REF process currently provides"

"Similarly, for the impact component of the REF, it is not currently feasible to use quantitative indicators in place of narrative impact case studies, or the impact template"

These conclusions are justified in great detail in 179 pages of the main report, 200 pages of the literature review, and 87 pages of Correlation analysis of REF2014 scores and metrics

The correlation analysis shows clearly that, contrary to some earlier reports, all of the many metrics that are considered predict the outcome of the 2014 REF far too poorly to be used as a substitute for reading the papers.

There is the inevitable bit of talk about the "judicious" use of metrics tp support peer review (with no guidance about what judicious use means in real life) but this doesn’t detract much from an excellent and thorough job.

Needless to say, I like these conclusions since they are quite similar to those recommended in my submission to the report committee, over a year ago.

Of course peer review is itself fallible. Every year about 8 million researchers publish 2.5 million articles in 28,000 peer-reviewed English language journals (STM report 2015 and graphic, here). It’s pretty obvious that there are not nearly enough people to review carefully such vast outputs. That’s why I’ve said that any paper, however bad, can now be printed in a journal that claims to be peer-reviewed. Nonetheless, nobody has come up with a better system, so we are stuck with it.

It’s certainly possible to judge that some papers are bad. It’s possible, if you have enough expertise, to guess whether or not the conclusions are justified. But no method exists that can judge what the importance of a paper will be in 10 or 20 year’s time. I’d like to have seen a frank admission of that.

If the purpose of research assessment is to single out papers that will be considered important in the future, that job is essentially impossible. From that point of view, the cost of research assessment could be reduced to zero by trusting people to appoint the best people they can find, and just give the same amount of money to each of them. I’m willing to bet that the outcome would be little different. Departments have every incentive to pick good people, and scientists’ vanity is quite sufficient motive for them to do their best.

Such a radical proposal wasn’t even considered in the report, which is a pity. Perhaps they were just being realistic about what’s possible in the present climate of managerialism.

Other recommendations include

"HEIs should consider signing up to the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA)"

4. "Journal-level metrics, such as the Journal Impact Factor (JIF), should not be used."

It’s astonishing that it should be still necessary to deplore the JIF almost 20 years after it was totally discredited. Yet it still mesmerizes many scientists. I guess that shows just how stupid scientists can be outside their own specialist fields.

DORA has over 570 organisational and 12,300 individual signatories, BUT only three universities in the UK have signed (Sussex, UCL and Manchester). That’s a shocking indictment of the way (all the other) universities are run.

One of the signatories of DORA is the Royal Society.

"The RS makes limited use of research metrics in its work. In its publishing activities, ever since it signed DORA, the RS has removed the JIF from its journal home pages and marketing materials, and no longer uses them as part of its publishing strategy. As authors still frequently ask about JIFs, however, the RS does provide them, but only as one of a number of metrics".

That’s a start. I’ve advocated making it a condition to get any grant or fellowship, that the university should have signed up to DORA and Athena Swan (with checks to make sure they are actually obeyed).

And that leads on naturally to one of the most novel and appealing recommendations in the report.

"A blog will be set up at http://www.ResponsibleMetrics.org
The site will celebrate responsible practices, but also name and shame bad practices when they occur"

"every year we will award a “Bad Metric” prize to the most
egregious example of an inappropriate use of quantitative indicators in research management."

This should be really interesting. Perhaps I should open a book for which university is the first to win "Bad Metric" prize.

The report covers just about every aspect of research assessment: perverse incentives, whether to include author self-citations, normalisation of citation impact indicators across fields and what to do about the order of authors on multi-author papers.

It’s concluded that there are no satisfactory ways of doing any of these things. Those conclusions are sometimes couched in diplomatic language which may, uh, reduce their impact, but they are clear enough.

The perverse incentives that are imposed by university rankings are considered too. They are commercial products and if universities simply ignored them, they’d vanish. One important problem with rankings is that they never come with any assessment of their errors. It’s been known how to do this at least since Goldstein & Spiegelhalter (1996, League Tables and Their Limitations: Statistical Issues in Comparisons Institutional Performance). Commercial producers of rankings don’t do it, because to do so would reduce the totally spurious impression of precision in the numbers they sell. Vice-chancellors might bully staff less if they knew that the changes they produce are mere random errors.

Metrics, and still more altmetrics, are far too crude to measure the quality of science. To hope to do that without reading the paper is pie in the sky (even reading it, it’s often impossible to tell).

The only bit of the report that I’m not entirely happy about is the recommendation to spend more money investigating the metrics that the report has just debunked. It seems to me that there will never be a way of measuring the quality of work without reading it. To spend money on a futile search for new metrics would take money away from science itself. I’m not convinced that it would be money well-spent.

Follow-up

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.

"

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

DOI: 10.15200/winn.142809.94999

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is the latest in a series of 6-yearly attempts to assess the quality of research in UK universities. It’s used to decide how to allocate about £1.6 billion per year of taxpayers’ money, the so-called "quality-related" (QR) allocation.

ref

It could have been done a lot worse. One of the best ideas was that only four papers could be submitted, whatever the size of a research group. After much argument, the judgment panels were told not to use journal impact factors as a proxy for quality (or, for lack of quality), though it’s clear that many people did not believe that this would be obeyed, But it cost at least £60 million. At UCL alone, it took 50 – 75 person-years of work. and the papers that were submitted were assessed by people who often would have no deep knowledge about the field, It was a shocking waste of time and money, and its judgements in the end were much the same as last time.

Did the REF benefit science?

It’s frequently said that the REF improved the UK’s science output. The people who claim this need a course in the critical assessment of evidence. Firstly, there is no reason to think that science has improved in quality in the last 6 years, and secondly any changes that might have occurred are hopelessly confounded with the passage of time, the richest source of false correlations.

I’d argue that the REF has harmed science by encouraging the perverse incentives that have done so much to corrupt academia. The REF, and all the other university rankings produced by journalists, are taken far too seriously by vice-chancellors and that does active harm. As one academic put it

"This isn’t about science – it’s about bragging rights, or institutional willy-waving. "

There are now serious worries about lack of reproducibility of published work, waste of money spent on unreliable studies, publication of too many small under-powered studies, bad statistical practice (like ignoring the false discovery rate), and about exaggerated claims by journals, university PR people and authors themselves. These result in no small part from the culture of metrics and the mismeasurement of science. The REF has added to the pressures.

It is highly unsatisfactory, so the only real question becomes what should be done instead? 

What’s to be done?

Transferring all the QR money to Research Councils won’t work. It would merely encourage the grossly bad behaviour that we’ve seen at Imperial College London, Warwick University, Kings College London and Queen Mary College London, all of whom have fired successful senior staff simple because their grant income wasn’t deemed big enough. (This is odd because the same managers whine continually that they make a loss on research grants, but that’s another question.) It’s been suggested that this could be avoided by reducing considerably the overheads that come with grants, but this would leave a shortfall that, without QR, would be impossible to make up.

At present a HEFCE working group is considering the possibility that metrics might be used in the next REF. It’s a sensible group of people, and they are well aware of the corrupting influence of metrics, and the lack of evidence that they measure the quality of research. So if reading papers takes too much time and money, and metrics are likely to lead to widespread "gaming" (a euphemism for cheating), what should be done?

I made a suggestion in 2010, but it seems to have been totally ignored, despite appearing in the Times (in their premier
Thunderer opinion column. So I’ll try to make the case again, in the context of the REF.

A complete re-thinking of tertiary education is needed,

Proposal for a two stage higher education system

It seems to be a good thing that such a large proportion of the population now get higher education.  But the university system has failed to change to cope with the huge increase in the number of students. 

The system of highly specialist honours degrees might have been adequate when 5% of the population did degrees, but that system seems quite inappropriate when 50% are doing them. 

There are barely enough university teachers who are qualified to teach specialist 3rd year or postgraduate courses.  And many  teachers must have suffered from (in my field) trying to teach the subtleties of the exponential probability density function to a huge third year class, most of whom have already decided that they want to be bankers or estate agents.

These considerations have driven me to conclude, somewhat reluctantly, that the whole system needs to be altered. 

Honours degrees were intended as a prelude to research and 50% of the population are not going to do research (fortunately for the economy). Vice-chancellors have insisted on imposing on large numbers of undergraduates, highly specialist degrees which are not what they want or need.

I believe that all first degrees should be ordinary degrees, and these should be less specialist than now.  Some institutions would specialise in teaching such degrees, others would become predominantly postgraduate institutions, which would have the time. money and expertise to do proper advanced teaching, rather than the advanced Powerpoint courses that dominate what passes for Graduate Schools in the UK.

There would, of course, be almighty rows about which universities would be re-allocated to teach ordinary degrees. That’s not a reason to educate students in 2015 using a pre-war system.

The two-stage system would be more egalitarian than the present one

I anticipate that some people might think that this system is a reversion to the pre-1992 divide between polytechnics and universities. It isn’t. The pre-1992 system labelled you as either polytechnic or university: it was a two-tier system. I’m proposing a two stage system. The two sorts of institution work in series, not in parallel.

Such a system would be more egalitarian than now, not less. 

Everyone would start out with the same broad undergraduate education, and the decision about whether to specialise, and the area in which to specialise, would not have to be made before leaving (high) school, as now, but would be postponed until two or three years later. That’s a lot better, especially for people from poorer backgrounds.

If this were done, most research would be done in the postgraduate institutions.  Of course there are some good researchers in institutions that would become essentially teaching-only, so there would have to be chances for such people to move to postgraduate universities, and for some people to move in the other direction.

This procedure would, no doubt, result in a reduction in the huge number of papers that are published (but read by nobody).  That is another advantage of my proposal.   It’s commonly believed that there is a large amount of research that is either trivial or wrong.  In biomedical research, it’s been estimated that 85% of resources are wasted (Macleod et al., 2014).

It’s well-known that any paper, however bad, can be published in a peer-reviewed journal.  Pubmed, amazingly, indexes something like 30 jouranls devoted to quack medicine, in which papers by quacks are peer-reviewed by other quacks, and which are then solemnly counted by bean-counters as though they were real research.  The pressure to publish when you have nothing to say is one of the perverse incentives of the metrics culture.

It seems likely that standards of research in second-stage universities would be at least as high as at present. It that’s the case then QR could simply be allocated on the basis of the number of people in a department.  Dorothy Bishop has shown that even under the present system, the amount of QR money received is strongly correlated with the size of the department (correlation coefficient = 0.995 for psychology/neuroscience).

DVB

From Dorothy Bishop’s blog.
r = 0.995

Using metrics produces only a tiny increase in the correlation coefficient for RAE data. It could hardly be any higher than 0.995 

In other words, after all the huge amount of time, effort and money that’s been put into assessment of research, every submitted researcher ends up getting much the same amount of money. 

That system wouldn’t work at the moment, because, sadly, universities would, no doubt, submit the departmental cat for a share of the cash.  But it could work under a system such as I’ve described.  The allocation of QR would take microseconds and cost nothing.

How much would the two-stage system cost?

To have any hope of being accepted by politicians, the two-stage system would probably have to cost no more than the existing system. As far as I know. nobody seems to have made any serious attempt to work out the costs. Perhaps they should. It won’t be easy because an important element of the two-stage system is to improve postgraduate education, and postgraduate education was forgotten in the government’s "reforms"

Much would depend on whether the first stage, ordinary degrees could be taught in two years. In an institution that does little research, there would be no justification for the long summer vacation. Something comparable with (high) school holidays would be more appropriate, and if a decent job could be done in two years, that could save enough money to pay for the rest. It would also mimimise the debt that hangs round the neck of graduates.

The cost of running the second stage would depend on how many students opted (and qualified) to carry on to do an honours degree, and on how many of those wanted go on to graduate school and higher degrees. The numbers of people that went on to specialist honours degrees would inevitably be smaller than now, so their education would be cheaper. But, crucially, they could be educated better. And because of the specialist researchers in a postgraduate institution, it would be possible to have real postgraduate education in advanced research methods,

At present, Graduate Schools in the UK (unlike those in the USA) rarely teach topics beyond advanced Powerpoint, and that’s a recipe for later mediocrity.

In order to estimate the actual cost, we’d need to know how many people wanted to go beyond the first degree (and qualified to do so). If this were not to large, the proposed system could well be cheaper than the presnet one, as well as being more egalitarian, and providing better postgraduate education. The Treasury should like that.

The California System

It will not have escaped the readers’ attention that the two stage system proposed here has much in common with higher education in the USA. In particular, it resembles the University of California system, which was started in 1960. It became a model for the rest of the world.

Meanwhile, the UK persists with a pre-war system of specialist honours degrees that is essentially unchanged since only a handful of people went to universities.

It’s time for the UK to have a serious debate about whether we need to change.

Follow-up

I just noticed this, from the inimitable Laurie Taylor. It is dated 4 July 2013. Who says the REF does not encourage cheating?

Appointments

Are you a distinguished academic researcher looking to supplement your income? Then look no further. Poppleton is offering 24 extraordinarily well-paid and extraordinarily part-time posts to leading scholars in almost any discipline who will help to raise its profile in the research excellence framework.

These posts will follow what is known as the Cardiff-Swansea paradigm in that successful candidates need not have conducted any of their distinguished research at Poppleton, have no need to ever visit the actual campus, and can be assured that their part-time contracts will expire immediately after the date of the REF census.

Please apply marking your application “REF FARCE”.

3 February 2015

The day after this post appeared the Guardian published a version of it which discussed only the two-stage degree proposals but omits the bit about the Research Excellence Framework (REF 2014). The title was "Honours degrees aren’t for all – some unis should only teach two-year courses". There are a lot more comments there than than here.. I assume that the headline was written by one of those pesky subeditors who failed to understand what’s important (the two year degrees were just a suggestion, nothing to do with the main proposals).

guardian-030215.jpg

3 April 2015

As an experiment, this blog has been re-posted on the Winnower. The advantage of this is that it now has a digital object identifier, DOI: 10.15200/winn.142809.94999

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

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

[This an update of a 2006 post on my old blog]

The New York Times (17 January 2006) published a beautiful spoof that illustrates only too clearly some of the bad practices that have developed in real science (as well as in quackery). It shows that competition, when taken to excess, leads to dishonesty.

More to the point, it shows that the public is well aware of the dishonesty that has resulted from the publish or perish culture, which has been inflicted on science by numbskull senior administrators (many of them scientists, or at least ex-scientists). Part of the blame must attach to "bibliometricians" who have armed administrators with simple-minded tools the usefulness is entirely unverified. Bibliometricians are truly the quacks of academia. They care little about evidence as long as they can sell the product.

The spoof also illustrates the folly of allowing the hegemony of a handful of glamour journals to hold scientists in thrall. This self-inflicted wound adds to the pressure to produce trendy novelties rather than solid long term work.

It also shows the only-too-frequent failure of peer review to detect problems.

The future lies on publication on the web, with post-publication peer review. It has been shown by sites like PubPeer that anonymous post-publication review can work very well indeed. This would be far cheaper, and a good deal better than the present extortion practised on universities by publishers. All it needs is for a few more eminent people like mathematician Tim Gowers to speak out (see Elsevier – my part in its downfall).

Recent Nobel-prizewinner Randy Schekman has helped with his recent declaration that "his lab will no longer send papers to Nature, Cell and Science as they distort scientific process"

The spoof is based on the fraudulent papers by Korean cloner, Woo Suk Hwang, which were published in Science, in 2005.  As well as the original fraud, this sad episode exposed the practice of ‘guest authorship’, putting your name on a paper when you have done little or no work, and cannot vouch for the results.  The last (‘senior’) author on the 2005 paper, was Gerald Schatten, Director of the Pittsburgh Development Center. It turns out that Schatten had not seen any of the original data and had contributed very little to the paper, beyond lobbying  Scienceto accept it. A University of Pittsburgh panel declared Schatten guilty of “research misbehavior”, though he was, amazingly, exonerated of “research misconduct”. He still has his job. Click here for an interesting commentary.

The New York Times carried a mock editorial to introduce the spoof..

One Last Question: Who Did the Work?

By NICHOLAS WADE

In the wake of the two fraudulent articles on embryonic stem cells published in Science by the South Korean researcher Hwang Woo Suk, Donald Kennedy, the journal’s editor, said last week that he would consider adding new requirements that authors “detail their specific contributions to the research submitted,” and sign statements that they agree with the conclusions of their article.

A statement of authors’ contributions has long been championed by Drummond Rennie, deputy editor of The Journal of the American Medical Association,
and is already required by that and other medical journals. But as innocuous as Science‘s proposed procedures may seem, they could seriously subvert some traditional scientific practices, such as honorary authorship.

Explicit statements about the conclusions could bring to light many reservations that individual authors would not otherwise think worth mentioning. The article shown [below] from a future issue of the Journal of imaginary Genomics, annotated in the manner required by Science‘s proposed reforms, has been released ahead of its embargo date.

The old-fashioned typography makes it obvious that the spoof is intended to mock a paper in Science.

bristlecone-500px

The problem with this spoof is its only too accurate description of what can happen at the worst end of science.

Something must be done if we are to justify the money we get and and we are to retain the confidence of the public

My suggestions are as follows

  • Nature Science and Cell should become news magazines only. Their glamour value distorts science and encourages dishonesty
  • All print journals are outdated. We need cheap publishing on the web, with open access and post-publication peer review. The old publishers would go the same way as the handloom weavers. Their time has past.
  • Publish or perish has proved counterproductive. You’d get better science if you didn’t have any performance management at all. All that’s needed is peer review of grant applications.
  • It’s better to have many small grants than fewer big ones. The ‘celebrity scientist’, running a huge group funded by many grants has not worked well. It’s led to poor mentoring and exploitation of junior scientists.
  • There is a good case for limiting the number of original papers that an individual can publish per year, and/or total grant funding. Fewer but more complete papers would benefit everyone.
  • Everyone should read, learn and inwardly digest Peter Lawrence’s The Mismeasurement of Science.

Follow-up

3 January 2014.

Yet another good example of hype was in the news. “Effect of Vitamin E and Memantine on Functional Decline in Alzheimer Disease“. It was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The study hit the newspapers on January 1st with headlines like Vitamin E may slow Alzheimer’s Disease (see the excellent analyis by Gary Schwitzer). The supplement industry was ecstatic. But the paper was behind a paywall. It’s unlikely that many of the tweeters (or journalists) had actually read it.

The trial was a well-designed randomised controlled trial that compared four treatments: placebo, vitamin E, memantine and Vitamin E + memantine.

Reading the paper gives a rather different impression from the press release. Look at the pre-specified primary outcome of the trial.

1ry utcome

The primary outcome measure was

" . . the Alzheimer’s Disease Cooperative Study/Activities of Daily Living (ADCSADL) Inventory.12 The ADCS-ADL Inventory is designed to assess functional abilities to perform activities of daily living in Alzheimer patients with a broad range of dementia severity. The total score ranges from 0 to 78 with lower scores indicating worse function."

It looks as though any difference that might exist between the four treaments is trivial in size. In fact the mean difference between Vitamin E and placebos was only 3.15 (on a 78 point scale) with 95% confidence limits from 0.9 to 5.4. This gave a modest P = 0.03 (when properly corrected for multiple comparisons), a result that will impress only those people who regard P = 0.05 as a sort of magic number. Since the mean effect is so trivial in size that it doesn’t really matter if the effect is real anyway.

It is not mentioned in the coverage that none of the four secondary outcomes achieved even a modest P = 0.05 There was no detectable effect of Vitamin E on

  • Mean annual rate of cognitive decline (Alzheimer Disease Assessment Scale–Cognitive Subscale)
  • Mean annual rate of cognitive decline (Mini-Mental State Examination)
  • Mean annual rate of increased symptoms
  • Mean annual rate of increased caregiver time,

The only graph that appeared to show much effect was The Dependence Scale. This scale

“assesses 6 levels of functional dependence. Time to event is the time to loss of 1 dependence level (increase in dependence). We used an interval-censored model assuming a Weibull distribution because the time of the event was known only at the end of a discrete interval of time (every 6 months).”

It’s presented as a survival (Kaplan-Meier) plot. And it is this somewhat obscure secondary outcome that was used by the Journal of the American Medical Assocciation for its publicity.

JAMA

Note also that memantine + Vitamin E was indistinguishable from placebo. There are two ways to explain this: either Vitamin E has no effect, or memantine is an antagonist of Vitamin E. There are no data on the latter, but it’s certainly implausible.

The trial used a high dose of Vitamin E (2000 IU/day). No toxic effects of Vitamin E were reported, though a 2005 meta-analysis concluded that doses greater than 400 IU/d "may increase all-cause mortality and should be avoided".

In my opinion, the outcome of this trial should have been something like “Vitamin E has, at most, trivial effects on the progress of Alzheimer’s disease”.

Both the journal and the authors are guilty of disgraceful hype. This continual raising of false hopes does nothing to help patients. But it does damage the reputation of the journal and of the authors.

This paper constitutes yet another failure of altmetrics. (see more examples on this blog). Not surprisingly, given the title, It was retweeted widely, but utterly uncritically. Bad science was promoted. And JAMA must take much of the blame for publishing it and promoting it.

altm

Jump to follow-up

This is a very important book.

Buy it now (that link is to Waterstone’s Amazon don’t pay tax in the UK, so don’t use them).

When you’ve read it, do something about it. The book has lots of suggestions about what to do.

bg gif

Stolen from badscience.net

 

Peter Medawar, the eminent biologist, in his classic book Advice to a Young Scientist, said this.

 “Exaggerated claims for the efficacy of a medicament are very seldom the consequence of any intention to deceive; they are usually the outcome of a kindly conspiracy in which everybody has the very best intentions. The patient wants to get well, his physician wants to have made him better, and the pharmaceutical company would have liked to have put it into the physician’s power to have made him so. The controlled clinical trial is an attempt to avoid being taken in by this conspiracy of good will.”

There was a lot of truth in that 1979, towards the end of the heyday of small molecule pharmacology.  Since then, one can argue, things have gone downhill.

First, though, think of life without general anaesthetics, local anaesthetics, antibiotics, anticoagulants and many others.  They work well and have done incalculable good.  And they were developed by the drug industry.

But remember also that remarkably little is known about medicine.  There are huge areas in which neither causes nor cures are known.  Treatments for chronic pain, back problems, many sorts of cancer and almost all mental problems are a mess.  It just isn’t known what to do.  Nobody is to blame for this.  Serious medical research has been going on for little more than 60 years, and it turns out to be very complicated.  We are doing our best, but are still ignorant about whole huge areas. That leads to a temptation to make things up. Clutching at straws is very evident when it comes to depression, pain and Alzheimer’s disease, among others.

In order to improve matters, one essential is to do fair tests on treatments that we have.  Ben Goldacre’s book is a superb account of how this could be done, and how the process of testing has been subverted for commercial gain and to satisfy the vanities of academics.

Of course there is nothing new in criticisms of Big Pharma.  The huge fines levied on them for false advertising are well known.  The difference is that Goldacre’s book explains clearly what’s gone wrong in great detail, documents it thoroughly, and makes concrete suggestions for improving matters.

Big Pharma has undoubtedly sometimes behaved appallingly in recent years. Someone should be in jail for crimes against patients.  They have behaved in much the same way that bankers have. In any huge globalised industry it is always possible to blame someone in another department for the dishonesty.  But they aren’t the only people to blame.  None of the problems could have arisen with the complicity of academics, universities, and a plethora of regulatory agencies and professional bodies.

The biggest scandal of all is missing data (chapter 1).  Companies, and sometmes academics, have suppressed of trials that don’t favour the drugs that they are trying to sell.  The antidepressant drug, reboxetine, appeared at first to be good. It had been approved by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) and there was at least one good randomized placebo-controlled trial (RCT) showing it worked.  But it didn’t.  The manufacturer didn’t provide a complete list of unpublished trials when asked for them.  After much work it was found in 2010 that, as well as the published, favourable trial, there were six more trials which had not been published and all six showed reboxetine to be no better than placebo .  In comparisons with other antidepressant drugs three small studies (507 patients) showed reboxetine to be as good as its competitors.  These were published. But it came to light that data on 1657 patients had never been published and these showed reboxetine to be worse than its rivals.

When all the data for the SSRI antidepressants were unearthed (Kirsch et al., 2008) it turned out that they were no better than placebo for mild or moderate depression. This selective suppression of negative data has happened time and time again. It harms patients and deceives doctors, but, incredibly, it’s not illegal.

Disgracefully, Kirsch et al. had to use a Freedom of Information Act request to get the data from the FDA.

“The output of a regulator is often simply a crude, brief summary: almost a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ about side effects. This is the opposite of science, which is only reliable because everyone shows their working, explains how they know that something is effective or safe, shares their methods and their results, and allows others to decide if they agree with the way they processed and analysed the data.”

 

“the NICE document discussing whether it’s a good idea to have Lucentis, an extremely expensive drug, costing well over £ 1,000 per treatment, that is injected into the eye for a condition called acute macular degeneration. As you can see, the NICE document on whether this treatment is a good idea is censored. Not only is the data on the effectiveness of the treatment blanked out by thick black rectangles, in case any doctor or patient should see it, but absurdly, even the names of some trials are missing, preventing the reader from even knowing of their existence, or cross referencing information about them.Most disturbing of all, as you can see in the last bullet point, the data on adverse events is also censored.”

nice

 

The book lists all the tricks that are used by both industry and academics. Here are some of them.

  • Regulatory agencies like the MHRA, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the US Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) set a low bar for approval of drugs.
  •  Companies make universities sign gagging agreements which allow unfavourable results to be suppressed, and their existence hidden.
  • Accelerated approval schemes are abused to get quick approval of ineffective drugs and the promised proper tests often don’t materialise
  • Disgracefully, even when all the results have been given to the regulatory agencies (which isn’t always). The MHRA, EMA and FDA don’t make them public. We are expected to take their word.
  • Although all clinical trials are meant to be registered before they start, the EMA register, unbelievably, is not public.  Furthermore there is no check that the results if trials ever get published.  Despite mandates that results must be published within a year of finishing the trial, many aren’t.  Journals promise to check this sort of thing, but they don’t.
  • When the results are published, it is not uncommon for the primary outcome, specified before it started, to have been changed to one that looks like a more favourable result.  Journals are meant to check, but mostly don’t.
  • Companies use scientific conferences, phony journals, make-believe “seed trials” and “continuing medical education” for surreptitious advertising.
  • Companies invent new diseases, plant papers to make you think you’re abnormal, and try to sell you a “cure”.  For example, female sexual dysfunction , restless legs syndrome and social anxiety disorder (i.e. shyness).  This is called disease-mongering, medicalisation or over-diagnosis. It’s bad.
  • Spin is rife. Companies, and authors, want to talk up their results. University PR departments want to exaggerate benefits. Journal editors want sensational papers. Read the results, not the summary. This is universal (but particularly bad in alternative medicine).
  • Companies fund patient groups to lobby for pills even when the pills are known to be ineffective.  The lobby that demanded that Herceptin should be available to all on the breast cancer patients on the NHS was organised by a PR company working for the manufacturer, Roche.  But Herceptin doesn’t work at all in 80% of patients and gives you at best a few extra months of  life in advanced cases.
  • Ghostwriting of papers is serious corruption.  A company writes the paper and senior academics appear as the authors, though they may never have seen the original data.  Even in cases where academics have admitted to lying about whether they have seen the data, they go unpunished by their universities. See for example, the case of Professor Eastell.
  • By encouraging the funding of “continuing medical education” by companies, the great and the good of academic medicine have let us down badly.

This last point is where the book ends, and it’s worth amplification.

“So what have the great and good of British medicine done to help patients, in the face of this endemic corruption, and these systematic flaws? In 2012, a collaborative document was produced by senior figures in medicine from across the board, called ‘Guidance on Collaboration Between Healthcare Professionals and the Pharmaceutical Industry’. This document was jointly approved by the ABPI, the Department of Health, the Royal Colleges of Physicians, Nursing, Psychiatrists, GPs, the Lancet, the British Medical Association, the NHS Confederation, and so on. ”

“It contains no recognition of the serious problems we have seen in this book. In fact, quite the opposite: it makes a series of assertions about them that are factually incorrect.”

“It states that drug reps ‘can be a useful resource for healthcare professionals’. Again, I’m not sure why the Royal Colleges, the BMA, the Department of Health and the NHS Confederation felt the need to reassert this to the doctors of the UK, on behalf of industry, when the evidence shows that drug reps actively distort prescribing practices. But that is the battle you face, trying to get these issues taken seriously by the pinnacle of the medical establishment.”

This is perhaps the most shameful betrayal of all.  The organisations that should protect patients have sold them out.

You may have been sold out by your “elders and betters”, but you can do something. The “What to do” sections of the book should be produced as a set of flash cards, as a reminder that matters can be improved.

It is shameful that this book was not written by a clinical pharmacologist, or a senior doctor, or a Royal College, or a senior academic.  Why has the British Pharmacological Society said nothing?

It is shameful too that this book was not written by one of the quacks who are keen to defend the $60 billion alternative medicine industry (which has cured virtually nothing) and who are strident in their criticism of the 600 billion dollar Pharma industry.  They haven’t done the work that Goldacre has to analyse the real problems.  All they have done is to advocate unfair tests, because that is the only sort their treatments can pass.

It’s weird that medicine, the most caring profession, is more corrupt than any other branch of science.  The reason, needless to say, is money. Well, money and vanity.  The publish or perish mentality of senior academics encourages dishonesty. It is a threat to honest science.

Goldacre’s book shows the consequences: harm to patients and huge wastage of public money.

Read it.

Do something.

 

Follow-up

7 October, 2012, The Observer

Goldacre wrote

"I think it’s really disappointing that nobody, not the Royal Colleges, the Academy of Medical Sciences, the British Pharmacological Society, the British Medical Association, none of these organisations have stood up and said: selective non-publication of unflattering trial data is research misconduct, and if you do it you will be booted out. And I think they really urgently should."

Exactly.

Jump to follow-up

A lot of people from around the world ready my last post, Is Queen Mary University of London trying to commit scientific suicide?. Nonetheless, the mainstream media reach a different audience. They are still needed. Oddly enough, the Guardian Higher Education section didn’t seem very interested. For a paper that publishes Polly Toynbee and George Monbiot, the education section is surprisingly establishment-orientated. So is Times Higher Education, especially now the excellent Zoe Corbyn has left.

The Times, however, welcomed it. On Monday 30 July, the following much shortened version of the blog appeared. And in the Thunderer column, no less (again). Two of the most irritating things about writing for papers are the lack of links, and the often silly titles chosen by sub-editors not the author. [download pdf].

Times 300712

There are moments when the way a university runs its affairs is so boneheaded that it deserves scorn far beyond the world of academia. Queen Mary University of London is selecting which staff to sack from its science departments in a way that I can describe only as insane.

The firings, it seems, are nothing to do with hard financial times, but are a ham-fisted attempt to raise Queen Mary’s ranking in the league tables. A university’s position is directly related to its government research funding. So Queen Mary’s managers hope to do well in the 2014 “Research Excellence Framework” by firing staff who don’t publish a paper every ten minutes.

To survive as a professor there you need to have published 11 papers during 2008 to 2011, of which at least two are “high quality”. For lecturers, the target for keeping your job is five papers, of which one is “high quality”. You must also have had at least one PhD student complete their thesis.

What Queen Mary defines as “high quality” is publication in “high-impact journals” (periodicals that get lots of citations). Journals such as Nature and Science get most of their citations from very few articles, so it is utterly brainless to base decisions about the quality of research from such a skewed distribution of citations. But talk of skewed distribution is, no doubt, a bit too technical for innumerate HR people to understand. Which is precisely why they should have nothing to do with assessing scientists.

I have been lucky to know well three Nobel prizewinners. None would have passed the criteria laid down for a professor by QMUL. They would have been fired and so would Peter Higgs.

More offensive still is that you can buy immunity if you have had 26 papers published in 2008-11, with six being “high quality”. The encouragement to publish reams is daft. If you are publishing a paper every few weeks, you certainly are not writing them, and possibly not even reading them. Most likely you are appending your name to somebody else’s work with little or no checking of the data, let alone contributing real research.

It is also deeply unethical for Queen Mary to require all staff to have a PhD student with the aim of raising the university’s ranking rather than of benefitting the student.

Like so much managerialism, the rules are an active encouragement to dishonesty. The dimwitted assessment methods of Queen Mary will guarantee the creation of a generation of second-rate spiv scientists. Who in their right mind would want to work there, now that the way it treats its scientists is public knowledge?

David Colquhoun is Professor of Pharmacology at University College London

 

Follow-up

August 3 2012 A response from Simon Gaskell appeared in the letter column of The Times.

Publication of research findings is only one criterion in a range of expectations within the realm of academia

Sir, Professor Colquhoun is entitled to question the value of publishing in academic journals and the role this plays in academia (Thunderer, July 30). However, some will wish to understand more of the background of the criticism he levelled at Queen Mary, University of London. QM is ranked in the top dozen or so research universities in the UK, as judged by the last Research Assessment Exercise. To continue making this contribution and to ensure that our students receive the finest research-led education, we’ve had to address a small number of academic areas where performance doesn’t match expectations. And in a challenging environment for higher education, we need to safeguard QM’s financial stability.

We have applied objective criteria to the assessment of individual academic performance. These criteria are based on generally recognised academic expectations that take account of differences between disciplines and have been applied in a manner that acknowledges the imprecision of any such measures. Publication of research findings was only one criterion.

We are now investing in those areas that have been restructured with a focus on establishing strengths in the medium to long term that will continue to benefit not only our students but broader society and will make best use of our resources, both public and private.

Professor Simon J. Gaskell
Principal, Queen Mary, University of London

I fear that Gaskell has just dug himself deeper in the pit of his own making. Here is the letter I have submitted for publication. I left a similar online comment, which has already appeared.

Sir.

Professor Gaskell (Letters, August 3) tries to defend his actions at Queen Mary, University of London by saying "We have applied objective criteria to the assessment of individual academic performance. These criteria are based on generally recognised academic expectations". Nothing could be further from the truth. It is most certainly not "generally recognised" that you can measure the worth of a scientist by simply counting the number of papers they produce, or by looking at the impact factor of the journal in which they appear. I’m afraid Professor Gaskell appears to be totally out of touch with the literature about such matters.

The Research Excellence Framework says explicitly "No sub-panel will make any use of journal impact factors, rankings, lists or the perceived standing of publishers in assessing the quality of research outputs". Furthermore the REF allows submission of only four papers, and tries to assess their quality. Production of a large number of salami-sliced papers would hinder, not help. His actions appear to harm rather than help his university’s chances in the REF.

Gaskell’s says also that he wants to "ensure that our students receive the finest research-led education". But we all know that someone who produces the large number of publications that he demands is unlikely to have either the time or the inclination to teach students too.

Then, of course, there is the dubious legality of declaring a person "redundant" while advertising an essentially identical job. The word for his process is firing, not redundancy.

I see no reason to change my view (Thunderer July 30) that Professor Gaskell is bringing his university into disrepute.

David Colquhoun

August 3 2012 A correspondent write to me to point out an article that described the management methods that led to a lost decade by Microsoft. They are remarkably similar to those being imposed at Queen Mary.

"It leads to employees focusing on competing with each other rather than competing with other companies.”

It’s unfortunate that university managers so often seem to latch on to ideas that have already been discredited in industry.

August 6 2012. The Times hasn’t published my response, but they did publish today a letter from Professor Gavin Vinson, of Queen Mary. I was too kind to mention the obvious absurdity of Gaskell’s first sentence. Now it has been done..

Published at 12:01AM, August 6 2012

Judging scientists

No one disputes the value of publishing in science and academia. However, all opinions need to havea basis in fact to support them

Sir,   Professor Simon Gaskell (letter, Aug 3) says, “Professor Colquhoun is entitled to question the value of publishing in academic journals and the role this plays in academia” (Thunderer, July 30). Try as I might, I have failed to find the basis for this statement in Professor Colquhoun’s article, or indeed anywhere else come to that. No one disputes the value of publishing in science and academia. What is in dispute is the use of spurious metrics in evaluating scientists.

Professor Gavin P. Vinson
London N10

Jump to follow-up

Academic staff are going to be fired at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL). It’s possible that universities may have to contract a bit in hard times, so what’s wrong?

What’s wrong is that the victims are being selected in a way that I can describe only as insane. The criteria they use are guaranteed to produce a generation of second-rate spiv scientists, with a consequent progressive decline in QMUL’s reputation.

The firings, it seems, are nothing to do with hard financial times, but are a result of QMUL’s aim to raise its ranking in university league tables.

In the UK university league table, a university’s position is directly related to its government research funding. So they need to do well in the 2014 ‘Research Excellence Framework’ (REF). To achieve that they plan to recruit new staff with high research profiles, take on more PhD students and post-docs, obtain more research funding from grants, and get rid of staff who are not doing ‘good’ enough research.

So far, that’s exactly what every other university is trying to do. This sort of distortion is one of the harmful side-effects of the REF. But what’s particularly stupid about QMUL’s behaviour is the way they are going about it. You can assess your own chances of survival at QMUL’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences from the following table, which is taken from an article by Jeremy Garwood (Lab Times Online. July 4, 2012). The numbers refer to the four year period from 2008 to 2011.

Category of staff

Research Output ­ Quantity
(No. of  Papers)

Research Output ­
Quality
(No. of  high quality papers)

Research Income (£)
(Total)

Research Income (£)
As Principal Investigator

Professor

11

2

400,000

 at least 200,000

Reader

9

2

320,000

at least 150,000

Senior Lecturer

7

1

260,000

 at least 120,000

Lecturer

5

1

200,000

 at least 100,000

In addition to the three criteria, ‘Research Output ‐ quality’, ‘Research Output – quantity’, and ‘Research Income’, there is a minimum threshold of 1 PhD completion for staff at each academic level. All this data is “evidenced by objective metrics; publications cited in Web of Science, plus official QMUL metrics on grant income and PhD completion.”

To survive, staff must meet the minimum threshold in three out of the four categories, except as follows:

Demonstration of activity at an exceptional level in either ‘research outputs’ or ‘research income’, termed an ‘enhanced threshold’, is “sufficient” to justify selection regardless of levels of activity in the other two categories. And what are these enhanced thresholds?
For research quantity: a mere 26 published items with at least 11 as significant author (no distinction between academic level); research quality: a modest 6 items published in numerically-favoured journals (e.g. impact factor > 7). Alternatively you can buy your survival with a total ‘Research Income’ of £1,000,000 as PI.

The university notes that the above criteria “are useful as entry standards into the new school, but they fall short of the levels of activity that will be expected from staff in the future. These metrics should not, therefore, be regarded as targets for future performance.”

This means that those who survived the redundancy criteria will simply have to do better. But what is to reassure them that it won’t be their turn next time should they fail to match the numbers? 

To help them, Queen Mary is proposing to introduce ‘D3’ performance management (www.unions.qmul.ac.uk/ucu/docs/d3-part-one.doc). Based on more ‘administrative physics’, D3 is shorthand for ‘Direction × Delivery × Development.’ Apparently “all three are essential to a successful team or organisation. The multiplication indicates that where one is absent/zero, then the sum is zero!”

D3 is based on principles of accountability: “A sign of a mature organisation is where its members acknowledge that they face choices, they make commitments and are ready to be held to account for discharging these commitments, accepting the consequences rather than seeking to pass responsibility.” Inspired?

I presume the D3 document must have been written by an HR person. It has all the incoherent use of buzzwords so typical of HR. And it says "sum" when it means "product" (oh dear, innumeracy is rife).

The criteria are utterly brainless. The use of impact factors for assessing people has been discredited at least since Seglen (1997) showed that the number of citations that a paper gets is not perceptibly correlated with the impact factor of the journal in which it’s published. The reason for this is the distribution of the number of citations for papers in a particular journal is enormously skewed. This means that high-impact journals get most of their citations from a few articles.

The distribution for Nature is shown in Fig. 1. Far from being gaussian, it is even more skewed than a geometric distribution; the mean number of citations is 114, but 69% of papers have fewer than the mean, and 24% have fewer than 30 citations. One paper has 2,364 citations but 35 have 10 or fewer. ISI data for citations in 2001 of the 858 papers published in Nature in 1999 show that the 80 most-cited papers (16% of all papers) account for half of all the citations (from Colquhoun, 2003)

impact

The Institute of Scientific Information, ISI, is guilty of the unsound statistical practice of characterizing a distribution by its mean only, with no indication of its shape or even its spread. School of Biological and Chemical Sciences-QMUL is expecting everyone has to be above average in the new regime. Anomalously, the thresholds for psychologists are lower because it is said that it’s more difficult for them to get grants. This undermines even the twisted logic applied at the outset.  

All this stuff about skewed distributions is, no doubt, a bit too technical for HR people to understand. Which, of course, is precisely why they should have nothing to do with assessing people.

At a time when so may PhDs fail to get academic jobs we should be limiting the numbers. But QMUL requires everyone to have a PhD student, not for the benefit of the student, but to increase its standing in league tables. That is deeply unethical.

The demand to have two papers in journals with impact factor greater than seven is nonsense. In physiology, for example, there are only four journals with an impact factor greater that seven and three of them are review journals that don’t publish original research. The two best journals for electrophysiology are Journal of Physiology (impact factor 4.98, in 2010) and Journal of General Physiology (IF 4.71). These are the journals that publish papers that get you into the Royal Society or even Nobel prizes. But for QMUL, they don’t count.

I have been lucky to know well three Nobel prize winners. Andrew Huxley. Bernard Katz, and Bert Sakmann. I doubt that any of them would pass the criteria laid down for a professor by QMUL. They would have been fired.

The case of Sakmann is analysed in How to Get Good Science, [pdf version]. In the 10 years from 1976 to 1985, when Sakmann rose to fame, he published an average of 2.6 papers per year (range 0 to 6). In two of these 10 years he had no publications at all. In the 4 year period (1976 – 1979 ) that started with the paper that brought him to fame (Neher & Sakmann, 1976) he published 9 papers, just enough for the Reader grade, but in the four years from 1979 – 1982 he had 6 papers, in 2 of which he was neither first nor last author. His job would have been in danger if he’d worked at QMUL. In 1991 Sakmann, with Erwin Neher, got the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.

The most offensive thing of the lot is the way you can buy yourself out if you publish 26 papers in the 4 year period. Sakmann came nowhere near this. And my own total, for the entire time from my first paper (1963) until I was elected to the Royal Society (May 1985) was 27 papers (and 7 book chapters). I would have been fired.

Peter Higgs had no papers at all from the time he moved to Edinburgh in 1960, until 1964 when his two paper’s on what’s now called the Higgs’ Boson were published in Physics Letters. That journal now has an impact factor less than 7 so Queen Mary would not have counted them as “high quality” papers, and he would not have been returnable for the REF. He too would have been fired.

The encouragement to publish large numbers of papers is daft. I have seen people rejected from the Royal Society for publishing too much. If you are publishing a paper every six weeks, you certainly aren’t writing them, and possibly not even reading them. Most likely you are appending your name to somebody else’s work with little or no checking of the data. Such numbers can be reached only by unethical behaviour, as described by Peter Lawrence in The Mismeasurement of Science. Like so much managerialism, the rules provide an active encouragement to dishonesty.

In the face of such a boneheaded approach to assessment of your worth, it’s the duty of any responsible academic to point out the harm that’s being done to the College. Richard Horton, in the Lancet, did so in Bullying at Barts. There followed quickly letters from Stuart McDonald and Nick Wright, who used the Nuremburg defence, pointing out that the Dean (Tom Macdonald) was just obeying orders from above. That has never been as acceptable defence. If Macdonald agreed with the procedure, he should be fired for incompetence. If he did not agree with it he should have resigned.

It’s a pity, because Tom Macdonald was one of the people with whom I corresponded in support of Barts’ students who, very reasonably, objected to having course work marked by homeopaths (see St Bartholomew’s teaches antiscience, but students revolt, and, later, Bad medicine. Barts sinks further into the endarkenment). In that case he was not unreasonable, and, a mere two years later I heard that he’d taken action.

To cap it all, two academics did their job by applying a critical eye to what’s going on at Queen Mary. They wrote to the Lancet under the title Queen Mary: nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition

"For example, one of the “metrics” for research output at professorial level is to have published at least two papers in journals with impact factors of 7 or more. This is ludicrous, of course—a triumph of vanity as sensible as selecting athletes on the basis of their brand of track suit. But let us follow this “metric” for a moment. How does the Head of School fair? Zero, actually. He fails. Just consult Web of Science. Take care though, the result is classified information. HR’s “data” are marked Private and Confidential. Some things must be believed. To question them is heresy."

Astoundingly, the people who wrote this piece are now under investigation for “gross misconduct”. This is behaviour worthy of the University of Poppleton, as pointed out by the inimitable Laurie Taylor, in Times Higher Education (June 7)

The rustle of censorship

It appears that last week’s edition of our sister paper, The Poppleton Evening News, carried a letter from Dr Gene Ohm of our Biology Department criticising this university’s metrics-based redundancy programme.

We now learn that, following the precedent set by Queen Mary, University of London, Dr Ohm could be found guilty of “gross misconduct” and face “disciplinary proceedings leading to dismissal” for having the effrontery to raise such issues in a public place.

Louise Bimpson, the corporate director of our ever-expanding human resources team, admitted that this response might appear “severe” but pointed out that Poppleton was eager to follow the disciplinary practices set by such soon-to-be members of the prestigious Russell Group as Queen Mary. Thus it was only to be expected that we would seek to emulate its espousal of draconian censorship. She hoped this clarified the situation.

David Bignell, emeritus professor of zoology at Queen Mary hit the nail on the head.

"These managers worry me. Too many are modest achievers, retired from their own studies, intoxicated with jargon, delusional about corporate status and forever banging the metrics gong. Crucially, they don’t lead by example."

What the managers at Queen Mary have failed to notice is that the best academics can choose where to go.

People are being told to pack their bags and move out with one day’s notice. Access to journals stopped, email address removed, and you may need to be accompanied to your (ex)-office. Good scientists are being treated like criminals.

What scientist in their right mind would want to work at QMUL, now that their dimwitted assessment methods, and their bullying tactics, are public knowledge?

The responsibility must lie with the principal, Simon Gaskell. And we know what the punishment is for bringing your university into disrepute.

Follow-up

Send an email. You may want to join the many people who have already written to QMUL’s principal, Simon Gaskell (principal@qmul.ac.uk), and/or to Sir Nicholas Montagu, Chairman of Council, n.montagu@qmul.ac.uk.

Sunday 1 July 2012. Since this blog was posted after lunch on Friday 29th June, it has had around 9000 visits from 72 countries. Here is one of 17 maps showing the origins of 200 of the hits in the last two days

map

The tweets about QMUL are collected in a Storify timeline.

I’m reminded of a 2008 comment, on a post about the problems imposed by HR, In-human resources, science and pizza.

Thanks for that – I LOVED IT. It’s fantastic that the truth of HR (I truly hate that phrase) has been so ruthlessly exposed. Should be part of the School Handbook. Any VC who stripped out all the BS would immediately retain and attract good people and see their productivity soar.

That’s advice that Queen Mary should heed.

Part of the reason for that popularity was Ben Goldacre’s tweet, to his 201,000 followers

“destructive, unethical and crude metric incentives in academia (spotlight QMUL) bit.ly/MFHk2H by @david_colquhoun

3 July 2012. I have come by a copy of this email, which was sent to Queen Mary by a senior professor from the USA (word travels fast on the web). It shows just how easy it is to destroy the reputation of an institution.

Sir Nicholas Montagu, Chairman of Council, and Principal Gaskell,

I was appalled to read the criteria devised by your University to evaluate its faculty.   There are so flawed it is hard to know where to begin. 

Your criteria are antithetical to good scientific research.  The journals are littered with weak publications, which are generated mainly by scientists who feel the pressure to publish, no matter whether the results are interesting, valid, or meaningful.  The literature is flooded by sheer volume of these publications.

Your attempt to require “quality” research is provided by the requirement for publications in “high Impact Factor” journals.  IF has been discredited among scientists for many reasons:  it is inaccurate in not actually reflecting the merit of the specific paper, it is biased toward fields with lots of scientists, etc.  The demand for publications in absurdly high IF journals encourages, and practically enforces scientific fraud.  I have personally experienced those reviews from Nature demanding one or two more “final” experiments that will clinch the publication.  The authors KNOW how these experiments MUST turn out.  If they want their Nature paper (and their very academic survival if they are  at a brutal, anti-scientific university like QMUL), they must get the “right” answer.  The temptation to fudge the data to get this answer is extreme.  Some scientists may even be able to convince themselves that each contrary piece of data that they discard to ensure the “correct” answer is being discarded for a valid reason.  But the result is that scientific misconduct occurs.  I did not see in your criteria for “success” at QMUL whether you discount retracted papers from the tally of high IF publications, or perhaps the retraction itself counts as yet another high IF publication!

Your requirement for each faculty to have one or more postdocs or students promotes the abusive exploitation of these individuals for their cheap labor, and ignores the fact that they are being “trained” for jobs that do not exist. 

The “standards” you set are fantastically unrealistic.  For example, funding is not graded, but a sharp step function – we have 1 or 2 or 0 grants and even if the average is above your limits, no one could sustain this continuously. Once you have fired every one of your faculty, which will almost certainly happen within 1-2 rounds of pogroms, where will you find legitimate scientists who are willing to join such a ludicrous University?

4 July 2012.

Professor John F. Allen is Professor of Biochemistry at Queen Mary, University of London, and distinguished in the fields of Photosynthesis, Chloroplasts, Mitochondria, Genome function and evolution and Redox signalling. He, with a younger colleague, wrote a letter to the Lancet, Queen Mary: nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition. It is an admirable letter, the sort of thing any self-respecting academic should write. But not according to HR. On 14 May, Allen got a letter from HR, which starts thus.

14th May 2012

Dear Professor Allen

I am writing to inform you that the College had decided to commence a factfinding investigation into the below allegation: That in writing and/or signing your name to a letter entitled "Queen Mary: nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition," (enclosed) which was published in the Lancet online on 4th May 2012, you sought to bring the Head of School of Biological and Chemical Sciences and the Dean for Research in the School of Medicine and Dentistry into disrepute.

. . . .

Sam Holborn
HR Consultant- Science & Engineering

Download the entire letter. It is utterly disgraceful bullying. If anyone is bringing Queen Mary into disrepute, it is Sam Holborn and the principal, Simon Gaskell.

Here’s another letter, from the many that have been sent. This is from a researcher in the Netherlands.

Dear Sir Nicholas,

I am addressing this to you in the hope that you were not directly involved in creating this extremely stupid set of measures that have been thought up, not to improve the conduct of science at QMUL, but to cheat QMUL’s way up the league tables over the heads of the existing academic staff.

Others have written more succinctly about the crass stupidity of your Human Resources department than I could, and their apparent ignorance of how science actually works. As your principal must bear full responsibility for the introduction of these measures, I am not sending him a copy of this mail. I am pretty sure that his “principal” mail address will no longer be operative.

We have had a recent scandal in the Netherlands where a social psychology professor, who even won a national “Man of the Year” award, as well as as a very large amount of research money, was recently exposed as having faked all the data that went into a total number of articles running into three figures. This is not the sort of thing one wants to happen to one’s own university. He would have done well according to your REF .. before he was found out.

Human Resources departments have gained too much power, and are completely incompetent when it comes to judging academic standards. Let them get on with the old dull, and gobbledigook-free, tasks that personnel departments should be carrying out.


Yours,

5 July 2012.

Here’s another letter. It’s from a member of academic staff at QMUL, someone who is not himself threatened with being fired. It certainly shows that I’m not making a fuss about nothing. Rather, I’m the only person old enough to say what needs to be said without fear of losing my job and my house.

Dear Prof. Colquhoun,

I am an academic staff member in SBCS, QMUL.  I am writing from my personal email account because the risks of using my work account to send this email are too great.

I would like to thank you for highlighting our problems and how we have been treated by our employer (Queen Mary University of London), in your blog. I would please urge you to continue to tweet and blog about our plight, and staff in other universities experiencing similarly horrific working conditions.

I am not threatened with redundancy by QMUL, and in fact my research is quite successful. Nevertheless, the last nine months have been the most stressful of all my years of academic life. The best of my colleagues in SBCS, QMUL are leaving already and I hope to leave, if I can find another job in London. 

Staff do indeed feel very unfairly treated, intimidated and bullied. I never thought a job at a university could come to this.
Thank you again for your support. It really does matter to the many of us who cannot really speak out openly at present.
Best regards,

 

In a later letter, the same person pointed out

"There are many of us who would like to speak more openly, but we simply cannot."

"I have mortgage . . . . Losing my job would probably mean losing my home too at this point."

"The plight of our female staff has not even been mentioned. We already had very few female staff. And with restructuring, female staff are more likely to be forced into teaching-only contracts or indeed fired"."

"total madness in the current climate – who would want to join us unless desperate for a job!"

“fuss about nothing” – absolutely not. It is potentially a perfect storm leading to teaching and research disaster for a university!  Already the reputation of our university has been greatly damaged. And senior staff keep blaming and targeting the “messengers"."

6 July 2012.

Througn the miracle of WiFi, this is coming from Newton, MA. The Lancet today has another editorial on the Queen Mary scandal.

"As hopeful scientists prepare their applications to QMUL, they should be aware that, behind the glossy advertising, a sometimes harsh, at times repressive, and disturbingly unforgiving culture awaits them."

That sums it up nicely.

24 July 2012. I’m reminded by Nature writer, Richard van Noorden (@Richvn) that Nature itself has wriiten at least twice about the iniquity of judging people by impact factors. In 2005 Not-so-deep impact said

"Only 50 out of the roughly 1,800 citable items published in those two years received more than 100 citations in 2004. The great majority of our papers received fewer than 20 citations."

"None of this would really matter very much, were it not for the unhealthy reliance on impact factors by administrators and researchers’ employers worldwide to assess the scientific quality of nations and institutions, and often even to judge individuals."

And, more recently, in Assessing assessment” (2010).

29 July 2012. Jonathan L Rees. of the University of Edinburgh, ends his blog:

"I wonder what career advice I should offer to a young doctor circa 2012. Apart from not taking a job at Queen Mary of course. "

How to select candidates

I have, at various times, been asked how I would select candidates for a job, if not by counting papers and impact factors. This is a slightly modified version of a comment that I left on a blog, which describes roughly what I’d advocate

After a pilot study the entire Research Excellence Framework (which attempts to assess the quality of research in every UK university) made the following statement.

“No sub-panel will make any use of journal impact factors, rankings, lists or the perceived standing of publishers in assessing the quality of research outputs”

It seems that the REF is paying attention to the science not to bibliometricians.

It has been the practice at UCL to ask people to nominate their best papers (2 -4 papers depending on age). We then read the papers and asked candidates hard questions about them (not least about the methods section). It’s a method that I learned a long time ago from Stephen Heinemann, a senior scientist at the Salk Institute. It’s often been surprising to learn how little some candidates know about the contents of papers which they themselves select as their best. One aim of this is to find out how much the candidate understands the principles of what they are doing, as opposed to following a recipe.

Of course we also seek the opinions of people who know the work, and preferably know the person. Written references have suffered so much from ‘grade inflation’ that they are often worthless, but a talk on the telephone to someone that knows both the work, and the candidate, can be useful, That, however, is now banned by HR who seem to feel that any knowledge of the candidate’s ability would lead to bias.

It is not true that use of metrics is universal and thank heavens for that. There are alternatives and we use them.

Incidentally, the reason that I have described the Queen Mary procedures as insane, brainless and dimwitted is because their aim to increase their ratings is likely to be frustrated. No person in their right mind would want to work for a place that treats its employees like that, if they had any other option. And it is very odd that their attempt to improve their REF rating uses criteria that have been explicitly ruled out by the REF. You can’t get more brainless than that.

This discussion has been interesting to me, if only because it shows how little bibliometricians understand how to get good science.

Jump to follow-up

On 23rd May 2008 a letter was sent to the vice-chancellor of the University of Westminster, Professor Geoffrey Petts

Dear Professor Petts
 
You may be aware an article by Zoe Corbyn, published in Times Higher Education 24 April 2008, with the title Experts criticise ‘pseudo-scientific’ complementary medicine degrees.   The subtitle of the article was Vice-chancellors should re-examine courses, say campaigners.  In the light of that, we wondered whether you had anything to add to the comments made by David Peters in todays THE.  We are preparing a response to that, and it seems fair to ask your view before we proceed.
(In order to save you time, copies of the two articles are attached.)
 
As an expert on oceans and geomorphology we would have imagined that you would view with some scepticism statements like amethysts emit high yin energy, as taught in your first year course, common to most complementary medicine students, as part if an honours BSc.  Unfortunately Peters does not deal with this in his response, so your opinion would be welcome.
 
Best regards

Edzard Ernst MD, PhD, FRCP, FRCP (Edin.)
Professor of Complementary  Medicine, Univerisity of Exeter

Simon Singh Ph.D,  
Science writer, Author of Fermat’s Last Theorem, The Code Book, etc

David Colquhoun FRS Professor of Pharmacology UCL

petts

Despite reminders, we were never afforded the courtesy of a reply to this, or any other letter.

Professor Petts has, however, replied to a letters sent to him recently by the Nightingale Collaboration. He said

“Whilst I understand your concerns, colleagues of the School of Life Sciences where these courses are offered do not share them. They are not teaching pseudo-science, as you claim,…”.

Neither of thse claims is true.I know at least two members of the Life Sciences Faculty who are very worried. One has now left and one has retired. The rest are presumably too scared to speak out.

It is most certainly not true to say they "are not teaching pseudo-science". Both the vice-chancellor and the Dean of Life Sciences, Jane Lewis, have been made aware of what;s happening repeatedly over several years, I can think of no other way to put it but to say Professor Petts is lying. Tha is not a good thing for vice-chancellors to do.

Much of what is taught at Westminster has now been revealed. This seems like a good moment to summarise what we know. Searching this blog for "University of Westminster" yields 39 hits. Of these, 11 show what’s taught at Westminster, so I’ll summarise them here for easy reference.

Westminster’s response

March 26th, 2007

The day after “Science degrees without the Science“ appeared in Nature, the University of Westminster issued a statement (now vanished, but see debate in THE). In my view, their statement provides the strongest grounds so far to believe that the BSc is inappropriate.

Let’s take a look at it.

“The BSc (Hons) Health Sciences: Homeopathy is a fully validated degree that satisfies internal and external quality assurance standards.”

Since that time, the university has closed down the BSc in Homeopathy. I have now seen many such validation documents and they are mostly box ticking exercises, not worth the paper they are written on. The worst offender is the University or Wales.

Westminster University BSc: “amethysts emit high yin energy”

April 23rd, 2008

http://dcscience.net/vib-therapies-43s.jpg

This shows the first set of slides that I got from Westminster (leaked by an angry insider). It has slides on crystal healing and dowsing, things that are at the lunatic fringe even by the standards of alternative medicine. it also relates that an academic who invited me to give a talk at the University of Westminster on the evidence for alternative medal was leaned on heavily by “VC, Provosts and Deans” to prevent that talk taking place.

vib-ther 43s

Crystal balls. Professor Petts in Private Eye

February 19th, 2009

Professor Petts makes an appearance in Private Eye. It could held that this counts as bringing your university into disrepute.

The opposite of Science.

February 24th, 2009

BSc courses in homeopathy are closing. Is it a victory for campaigners, or just the end of the Blair/Bush era?

Professor Petts of Westminster seems to think that the problem can be solved by putting more science into the courses   The rest of the world realises that as soon as you apply science to homeopathy or naturopathy, the whole subject vanishes in a puff of smoke,  I fear that Professor Petts will have to do better,
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The Guardian carries a nice article by Anthea Lipsett, The Opposite of Science (or download pdf of print version).

The last BSc (Hons) Homeopathy closes! But look at what they still teach at Westminster University.

March 30th, 2009 

In March 2007 I wrote a piece in Nature on Science degrees without the science.  At that time there were five “BSc” degrees in homeopathy. A couple of weeks ago I checked the UCAS site for start in 2009, and found there was only one full “BSc (hons)” left and that was at Westminster University.

Today I checked again and NOW THERE ARE NONE.

A phone call to the University of Westminster tonight confirmed that they have suspended entry to their BSc (Hons) homeopathy degree.

Then I revealed another set of slides, showing a misunderstanding (by the teacher) of statistics, but most chillingly,some very dangerous ideas conveyed to students by Westminster’s naturopaths, and in the teaching of Traditional Chinese Medicine, and the great “detox” scam.

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“if you get tuberculosis, it isn’t caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis? And the symptoms are “constructive”? So you don’t need to do anything. It’s all for the best really.

This isn’t just nonsense. It’s dangerous nonsense.”

“Remember when shopping to favour fruits and vegetables which are in season and locally grown (and ideally organic) as they are more vibrationally compatible with the body.”

Locally grown vegetables are “more vibrationally compatible with the body”? Pure mystical gobbledygook. Words fail me.

More make-believe from the University of Westminster. This time it’s Naturopathy

June 25th, 2009

Some truly mind-boggling stuff that’s taught to students at Westminster, It includes "Emotrance". A primer on Emotrance says

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"And then I thought of the lady in the supermarket whose husband had died, and I spend the following time sending her my best wishes, and my best space time quantum healing efforts for her void."

Then there are slides on pendulum diagnosis and “kinesiology”, a well-known fraudulent method of diagnosis. It is all perfectly mad.

Why degrees in Chinese medicine are a danger to patients

August 10th, 2009

More lunatic fantasies from Westminster, this time about Chinese medicine.

“Teaching students that the brain is made of marrow is not just absurd, but desperately dangerous for anyone unlucky (or stupid) enough to go to such a person when they are ill.”

There is a lot of stuff about cancer that is potentially homicidal.

  • Legally, you cannot claim to cure cancer
  • This is not a problem because:
    we treat people not diseases
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This is outrageous and very possibly illegal under the Cancer Act (1939). It certainly poses a huge danger to patients. It is a direct incentive to make illegal, and untrue claims by using weasel words in an attempt to stay just on the right side of the law. But that, of course, is standard practice in alternative medicine,

Emergent Chinese Omics at the University of Westminster/p>

August 27th, 2010

Systems biology is all the rage, No surprise then, to see the University of Westminster advertising a job for a systems biologist in the The Department of Molecular and Applied Biosciences. Well, no surprise there -until you read the small print.

Much has been written here about the University of Westminster, which remains the biggest provider of junk science degrees in the UK, despite having closed two of them.

If there is one thing more offensive than the use of meaningless mystical language, it is the attempt to hijack the vocabulary of real science to promote nonsense. As soon as a quack uses the words "quantum", "energy", "vibration", or now, "systems biology", you can be sure that it’s pretentious nonsense.

Hot of the press. Within a few hours of posting this, I was told that Volker Scheid, the man behind the pretentious Chinese medidine omics nonsense has been promoted to a full chair, And the Dean, Jane Lewis has congratulated him for speaking at a Chines Medicine symposium. Even quite sensible people like Lewis are being corrupted. The buck stops with Petts.

More dangerous nonsense from the University of Westminster: when will Professor Geoffrey Petts do something about it?

May 3rd, 2011

Yet more ghastly slides that are inflicted on Westminster students. How’s this for sheer barminess, taught as part of a Bachelor of Science degree?

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And

" Just in case you happen to have run out of Alaskan Calling All Angels Essence, you can buy it from Baldwin’s for £19.95. It’s “designed to invoke the nurturing, uplifting and joyful qualities of the angelic kingdom.”, and what’s more “can also use them any time to cleanse, energize, and protect your auric field.” Well that’s what it says.in the ad.

Freedom of information reveals some unusual testimonials for the University of Westminster: when will Professor Geoffrey Petts do something about it?

June 20th, 2011

This post gives details of two complaints, one from a student and one from a lecturer. The vice-chancellor certainly knows about them. So why, I wonder, did he say "“Whilst I understand your concerns, colleagues of the School of Life Sciences where these courses are offered do not share them.". He must know that this simply isn’t true. It is over a year now ( 10 July 2009 ) that a lecturer wrote to the vice-chancellor and Dean

“I expect that were the Department of Health to be aware of the unscientific teaching and promotion of practices like dowsing, (and crystals, iridology, astrology, and tasting to determine pharmacological qualities of plant extracts) on the Wmin HM [Westminster Herbal Medicine] Course, progress towards the Statutory Regulation of Herbal Medicine could be threatened.”

There’s only one thing wrong with this. The lecturer underestimated the stupidiity of the Department of Health which went ahead with statutory regulation despite being made aware of what was going on.

The latest example to come to light is cited by Andy Lewis on his Quackometer blog

“There are some even odder characters too, such as Roy Riggs B.Sc who describes himself as a “Holistic Geobiologist” and is “an “professional Earth Energy dowser”. He guest lectures at the London Westminster University’s School of Integrative Medicine and The Baltic Dowser’s Association of Lithuania.”

I do wonder who Professor Petts thinks he’s fooling. His denial of the obvious fact that his university is teaching pseudo-science serves only to discredit further the University of Westminster and his own integrity.

Follow-up

13 August 2011 I’m intrigued to notice that two days after posting this summary, googling “Geoffrey Petts” brings up this post as #3 on the first page. Actions have consequences.

Jump to follow-up

Almost all the revelations about what’s taught on university courses in alternative medicine have come from post-1992 universities. (For readers not in the UK, post-1992 universities are the many new univerities created in 1992, from former polytechnics etc, and Russell group universities are the "top 20" research-intensive universities)

It is true that all the undergraduate courses are in post-1992 universities, but the advance of quackademia is by no means limited to them. The teaching at St Bartholomew’s Hospital Medical School, one of the oldest, was pretty disgraceful for example, though after protests from their own students, and from me, it is now better, I believe.

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Quackery creeps into all universities to varying extents. The good ones (like Southampton) don’t run "BSc" degrees, but it still infiltrates through two main sources,

The first is via their HR departments, which are run by people who tend to be (I quote) "credulous and moronic" when it comes to science.

The other main source is in teaching to medical students. The General Medical Council says that medical students must know something about alterantive medicine and that’s quite right, A lot of their patients will use it. The problem is that the guidance is shockingly vague .

“They must be aware that many patients are interested in and choose to use a range of alternative and complementary therapies. Graduates must be aware of the existence and range of such therapies, why some patients use them, and how these might affect other types of treatment that patients are receiving.” (from Tomorrow’s Doctors, GMC)

In many medical schools, the information that medical students get is quite accurate. At UCL and at King’s (London) I have done some of the familiarisation myself. In other good medical schools, the students get some shocking stuff. St Bartholomew’s Hospital medical School was one example. Edinburgh University was another.
But there is one Russell group university where alternative myths are propagated more than any other that I know about. That is the University of Southampton.

In general, Southampton is a good place, I worked there for three years myself (1972 – 1975). The very first noise spectra I measured were calculated on a PDP computer in their excellent Institute of Sound and Vibration Research, before I wrote my own programs to do it.

But Southanpton also has a The Complementary and Integrated Medicine Research Unit . Oddly the unit’s web site, http://www.cam-research-group.co.uk, is not a university address, and a search of the university’s web site for “Complementary and Integrated Medicine Research Unit” produces no result. Nevertheless the unit is “within the School of Medicine at the University of Southampton”

Notice the usual euphemisms ‘complementary’ and ‘integrated’ in the title: the word ‘alternative’ is never used. This sort of word play is part of the bait and switch approach of alternative medicine.

The unit is quite big: ten research staff, four PhD students and two support staff It is headed by George Lewith.

Teaching about alternative medicine to Southampton medical students.

The whole medical class seems to get quite a lot compared with other places I know about. That’s 250 students (210 on the 5-year course plus another 40 from the 4-year graduate-entry route).

Year 1:  Lecture by David Owen on ‘holism’ within the Foundation Course given to all 210 medical students doing the standard (5-year) course.

 

Year 2: Lecture by Lewith (on complementary medicine, focusing on acupuncture for pain) given within the nervous systems course to the whole medical student year-group (210 students).

 

Year 3 SBOM (scientific basis of medicine) symposium: The 3-hour session (“Complementary or Alternative Medicine: You Decide”). I’m told that attendance at this symposium is often pretty low, but many do turn up and all of them are officially ‘expected’ to attend.

 

There is also an optional CAM special study module chosen by 20 students in year 3, but also a small number of medical students (perhaps 2 – 3 each year?) choose to do a BMedSci research project supervised by the CAM research group and involving 16-18 weeks of study from October to May in Year 4. The CAM research group also supervise postgraduate students doing PhD research.

As always, a list of lectures doesn’t tell you much. What we need to know is what’s taught to the students and something about the people who teach it. The other interesting question is how it comes about that alternative medicine has been allowed to become so prominent in a Russell group university. It must have support from on high. In this case it isn’t hard to find out where it comes from. Here are some details.

Year 1 Dr David Owen

David Owen is not part of Lewith’s group, but a member of the Division of Medical Education headed by Dr Faith Hill (of whom, more below). He’s one of the many part-time academics in this area, being also a founder of The Natural Practice .

Owen is an advocate of homeopathy (a past president of the Faculty of Homeopathy). Homeopathy is, of course, the most barmy and discredited of all the popular sorts of alternative medicine. Among those who have discredited it is the head of the alt med unit, George Lewith himself (though oddly he still prescribes it).

And he’s also a member of the British Society of Environmental Medicine (BSEM). That sounds like a very respectable title, but don’t be deceived. It is an organisation that promotes all sorts of seriously fringe ideas. All you have to do is notice that the star speaker at their 2011 conference was none other than used-to-be a doctor, Andrew Wakefield, a man who has been responsible for the death of children from measles by causing an unfounded scare about vaccination on the basis of data that turned out to have been falsified. There is still a letter of support for Wakefield on the BSEM web site.

The BSEM specialises in exaggerated claims about ‘environmental toxins’ and uses phony allergy tests like kinesiology and the Vega test that misdiagnose allergies, but provide en excuse to prescribe expensive but unproven nutritional supplements, or expensive psychobabble like "neuro-linguistic programming".

Other registered "ecological physicians" include the infamous Dr Sarah Myhill, who, in 2010, was the subject of a damning verdict by the GMC, and Southampton’s George Lewith.

If it is wrong to expose medical students to someone who believes that dose-response curves have a negative slope (the smaller the dose the bigger the effect -I know, it’s crazy), then it is downright wicked to expose students to a supporter of Andrew Wakefield.

David Owen’s appearance on Radio Oxford, with the indomitable Andy Lewis appears on his Quackometer blog.

Year 2 Dr George Lewith

Lewith is a mystery wrapped in an enigma. He’s participated in some research that is quite good by the (generally pathetic) standards of the world of alternative medicine.

In 2001 he showed that the Vega test did not work as a method of allergy diagnosis. "Conclusion Electrodermal testing cannot be used to diagnose environmental allergies", published in the BMJ .[download reprint].

In 2003 he published "A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled proving trial of Belladonna 30C” [download reprint] that showed homeopathic pills with no active ingredients had no effects: The conclusion was "”Ultramolecular homeopathy has no observable clinical effects" (the word ultramolecular, in this context, means that the belladonna pills contained no belladonna).

In 2010 he again concluded that homeopathic pills were no more than placebos, as described in Despite the spin, Lewith’s paper surely signals the end of homeopathy (again). [download reprint]

What i cannot understand is that, despite his own findings, his private practice continues to prescribe the Vega machine and continues to prescribe homeopathic pills. And he continues to preach this subject to unfortunate medical students.

Lewith is also one of the practitioners recommended by BSEM. He’s a director of the "College of Medicine". And he’s also an advisor to a charity called Yes To Life. (see A thoroughly dangerous charity: YesToLife promotes nonsense cancer treatments).

3rd year Student Selected Unit

The teaching team includes:

  • David Owen – Principal Clinical Teaching Fellow SoM, Holistic Physician
  • George Lewith – Professor of Health Research and Consultant Physician
  • Caroline Eyles – Homeopathic Physician
  • Susan Woodhead – Acupuncturist
  • Elaine Cooke – Chiropractic Practitioner
  • Phine Dahle – Psychotherapist
  • Keith Carr – Reiki Master
  • Christine Rose – Homeopath and GP
  • David Nicolson – Nutritionalist
  • Shelley Baker – Aromatherapist
  • Cheryl Dunford – Hypnotherapist
  • Dedj Leibbrandt – Herbalist

More details of the teaching team here. There is not a single sceptic among them, so the students don’t get a debate, just propaganda.

In this case. there’s no need for the Freedom of Information Act. The handouts. and the powerpoints are on their web site. They seem to be proud of them

Let’s look at some examples

Chiropractic makes an interesting case, because, in the wake of the Singh-BCA libel case, the claims of chiropractors have been scrutinised as never before and most of their claims have turned out to be bogus. There is a close relationship between Lewith’s unit and the Anglo-European Chiropractic College (the 3rd year module includes a visit there). In fact the handout provided for students, Evidence for Chiropractic Care , was written by the College. It’s interesting because it provides no real evidence whatsoever for the effectiveness of chiropractic care. It’s fairly honest in stating that the view at present is that, for low back pain, it isn’t possible to detect any difference between the usefulness of manipulation by a physiotherapist, by an osteopath or by a chiropractor. Of course it does not draw the obvious conclusion that this makes chiropractic and osteopathy entirely redundant -you can get the same result without all the absurd mumbo jumbo that chiropractors and osteopaths love, or their high-pressure salesmanship and superfluous X-rays. Neither does it mention the sad, but entirely possible, outcome that none of the manipulations are effective for low back pain. There is, for example, no mention of the fascinating paper by Artus et al [download reprint]. This paper concludes

"symptoms seem to improve in a similar pattern in clinical trials following a wide
variety of active as well as inactive treatments."

This paper was brought to my attention through the blog run by the exellent physiotherapist, Neil O’Connell. He comments

“If this finding is supported by future studies it might suggest that we can’t even claim victory through the non-specific effects of our interventions such as care, attention and placebo. People enrolled in trials for back pain may improve whatever you do. This is probably explained by the fact that patients enrol in a trial when their pain is at its worst which raises the murky spectre of regression to the mean and the beautiful phenomenon of natural recovery.”

This sort of critical thinking is conspicuously absent from this (and all the other) Southampton handouts. The handout is a superb example of bait and switch: No nonsense about infant colic, innate energy or imaginary subluxations appears in it.

Acupuncture is another interesting case because there is quite a lot of research evidence, in stark contrast to the rest of traditional Chinese medicine, for which there is very little research.

There is a powerpoint show by Susan Woodhead (though it is labelled British Acupuncture Council).

The message is simple and totally uncritical. It works.

acu-1

In fact there is now a broad consensus about acupuncture.

(1) Real acupuncture and sham acupuncture have been found to be indistinguishable in many trials. This is the case regardless of whether the sham is a retractable needle (or even a toothpick) in the "right" places, or whether it is real needles inserted in the "wrong" places. The latter finding shows clearly that all that stuff about meridians and flow of Qi is sheer hocus pocus. It dates from a pre-scientific age and it was wrong.

(2) A non-blind comparison of acupuncture versus no acupuncture shows an advantage for acupuncture. But the advantage is usually too small to be of any clinical significance. In all probability it is a placebo effect -it’s hard to imagine a more theatrical event than having someone in a white coat stick long needles into you, like a voodoo doll. Sadly, the placebo effect isn’t big enough to be of much use.

Needless to say, none of this is conveyed to the medical students of Southampton. Instead they are shown crude ancient ideas that date from long before anything was known about physiology as though they were actually true. These folks truly live in some alternative universe. Here are some samples from the acupuncture powerpoint show by Susan Woodhead.

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Well this is certainly a "different diagnostic language", but no attempt is made to say which one is right. In the mind of the acupuncurist it seems both are true. It is a characteristic of alternative medicine advocates that they have no difficulty in believing simultaneously several mutually contradictory propositions.

As a final exmple of barminess, just look at the acupuncture points (allegedly) on the ear The fact that it is a favoured by some people in the Pentagon as battlefield acupuncture, is more reminiscent of the mad general, Jack D. Ripper, in Dr Strangelove than it is of science.

acu-4

There is an equally uncritical handout on acupuncture by Val Hopwood. It’s dated March 2003, a time before some of the most valuable experiments were done.

The handout says "sham acupuncture
is generally less effective than true acupuncture", precisely the opposite of what’s known now. And there are some bits that give you a good laugh, always helpful in teaching. I like

“There is little doubt that an intact functioning nervous system is required for acupuncture to produce
analgesia or, for that matter, any physiological changes” 

and

Modern techniques: These include hybrid techniques such as electro-acupuncture . . . and Ryadoraku [sic] therapy and Vega testing. 

Vega testing!! That’s been disproved dozens of times (not least by George Lewith). And actually the other made-up nonsense is spelled Ryodoraku.

It’s true that there is a short paragraph at the end of the handout headed "Scientific evaluation of acupuncture" but it doesn’t cite a single reference and reads more like excuses for why acupuncture so often fails when it’s tested properly.

Homeopathy. Finally a bit about that most boring of topics, the laughable medicine that contains no medicine, homeopathy. Caroline Eyles is a member for the Society of Homeopaths, the organisation that did nothing when its members were caught out in the murderous practice of recommending homeopathy for prevention of malaria. The Society of Homeopaths also endorses Jeremy Sherr, a man so crazy that he believes he can cure AIDS and malaria with sugar pills.

The homeopathy handout given to the students has 367 references, but somehow manages to omit the references to their own boss’s work showing that the pills are placebos. The handout has all the sciencey-sounding words, abused by people who don’t understand them.

"The remedy will be particularly effective if matched to the specific/particular characteristics of the individual (the ‘totality’ of the patient) on all levels, including the emotional and mental levels, as well as just the physical symptoms. ‘Resonance’ with the remedy’s curative power will then be at it’s [sic] best." 

The handout is totally misleading about the current state of research. It says

"increasing clinical research confirms it’s [sic] clinical effectiveness in treating patients, including babies and animals (where a placebo effect would be hard to justify)."

The powerpont show by Caroline Eyles shows all the insight of a mediaeval vitalist

home1

hom2

Anyone who has to rely on the utterly discredited Jacques Benveniste as evidence is clearly clutching at straws. What’s more interesting about this slide the admission that "reproducibility is a problem -oops, an issue" and that RCTs (done largely by homeopaths of course) have "various methodological flaws and poor external validity". You’d think that if that was the best that could be produced after 200 yours, they’d shut up shop and get another job. But, like aging vicars who long since stopped believing in god, but are damned if they’ll give up the nice country rectory, they struggle on, sounding increasingly desperate.

How have topics like this become so embedded in a medical course at a Russell group university?

The details above are a bit tedious and repetitive. It’s already established that hardly any alternative medicine works. Don’t take my word for it. Check the web site of the US National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) who, at a cost of over $2 billion have produced nothing useful.

A rather more interesting question is how a good university like Southampton comes to be exposing its medical students to teaching like this. There must be some powerful allies higher up in the university. In this case it’s pretty obvious who thay are.

Professor Stephen Holgate MD DSc CSc FRCP FRCPath FIBiol FBMS FMed Sci CBE has to be the primary suspect, He’s listed as one of Southampton’s Outstanding Academics. His work is nothing to do with alternative medicine but he’s been a long term supporter of the late unlamented Prince of Wales’ Foundation, and he’s now on the advisory board of it’s successor, the so called "College of Medicine" (for more information about that place see the new “College of Medicine” arising from the ashes of the Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health, and also Don’t be deceived. The new “College of Medicine” is a fraud and delusion ). His description on that site reads thus.

"Stephen Holgate is MRC Clinical Professor of Immunopharmacology at the University of Southampton School of Medicine and Honorary Consultant Physician at Southampton University Hospital Trust. He is also chair of the MRC’s Populations and Systems Medicine Board. Specialising in respiratory medicine, he is the author of over 800 peer-reviewed papers and contributions to scientific journals and editor of major textbooks on asthma and rhinitis. He is Co-Editor of Clinical and Experimental Allergy, Associate Editor of Clinical Science and on the editorial board of 25 other scientific journals."

Clearly a busy man. Personally I’m deeply suspicious of anyone who claims to be the author of over 800 papers. He graduated in medicine in 1971, so that is an average of over 20 papers a year since then, one every two or three weeks. I’d have trouble reading that many, never mind writing them.

Holgate’s long-standing interest in alternative medicine is baffling. He’s published on the topic with George Lewith, who, incidentally, is one of the directors of the "College of Medicine"..

It may be unkind to mention that, for many years now, I’ve been hearing rumours that Holgate is suffering from an unusually bad case of Knight starvation.

The Division of Medical Education appears to be the other big source of support for. anti-scientific medicine. That is very odd, I know, but it was also the medical education people who were responsible for mis-educating medical students at. St. Bartholomew’s and at Edinburgh university. Southampton’s Division of Medical Education has a mind-boggling 60 academic and support staff. Two of them are of particular interest here.

Faith Hill is director of the division. Her profile doesn’t say anything about alternative medicine, but her interest is clear from a 2003 paper, Complementary and alternative medicine: the next generation of health promotion?. The research consisted of reporting anecdotes from interviews of 52 unnamed people (this sort of thing seems to pass for research in the social sciences). It starts badly by misrepresenting the conclusions of the House of Lords report (2000) on CAM. Although it comes to no useful conclusions, it certainly shows a high tolerance of nonsensical treatments.

Chris Stephens is  Associate Dean of Medical Education & Student Experience. His sympathy is shown by a paper he wrote In 2001, with David Owen (the homeopath, above) and George Lewith: Can doctors respond to patients’ increasing interest in complementary and alternative medicine?. Two of the conclusions of this paper were as follows.

"Doctors are training in complementary and alternative medicine and report benefits both for their patients and themselves"

Well, no actually. It wasn’t true then, and it’s probably even less true now. There’s now a lot more evidence and most of it shows alternative medicine doesn’t work.

"Doctors need to address training in and practice of complementary and alternative medicine within their own organisations"

Yes they certainly need to do that.

And the first thing that Drs Hill and Stephens should do is look a bit more closely about what’s taught in their own university, I hope that this post helps them,

Follow-up

4 July 2011. A correspondent has just pointed out that Chris Stephens is a member of the General Chiropractic Council. The GCC is a truly pathetic pseudo-regulator. In the wake of the Simon Singh affair it has been kept busy fending off well-justified complaints against untrue claims made by chiropractors. The GCC is a sad joke, but it’s even sadder to see a Dean of Medical Education at the University of Southampton being involved with an organisation that has treated little matters of truth with such disdain.

A rather unkind tweet from (ex)-chiropractor @RichardLanigan.

“Chris is just another light weight academic who likes being on committees. Regulatory bodies are full of them”

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