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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An article in Times Higher Education pointed out

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

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

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

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

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

That is hardly a response that suggests high academic integrity.

The students’ petition is on Change.org.

Follow-up

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

10 June 2014

Progress on the cull, according to an anonymous correspondent

“The omnishambles that is KCL management

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

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

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

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

18 June 2014

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

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

14 July 2014

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

Download the report from Standard and Poor’s Rating Service

A few things stand out.

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

One can infer from this that

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

What on earth is going on?

16 July 2014

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

10 April 2015

King’s draft performance management plan for 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some of the sillier bits.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Later we read

"H Index and Citation Impact: These are good objective measures of the scientific impact of
publications"

NO, they are simply not a measure of quality (though this time they say “impact” rather than “excellence”).

The people who wrote that seem to be unaware of the most basic facts about science.

Then

"Carrying out high quality scientific work requires research teams"

Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. In the past the best work has been done by one or two people. In my field, think of Hodgkin & Huxley, Katz & Miledi or Neher & Sakmann. All got Nobel prizes. All did the work themselves. Performance managers might well have fired them before they got started.

By specifying minimum acceptable group sizes, King’s are really specifying minimum acceptable grant income, just like Imperial and Warwick. Nobody will be taken in by the thin attempt to disguise it.

The specification that a professor should have "Primary supervision of three or more PhD students, with additional secondary supervision." is particularly iniquitous. Everyone knows that far too many PhDs are being produced for the number of jobs that are available. This stipulation is not for the benefit of the young. It’s to ensure a supply of cheap labour to churn out more papers and help to lift the university’s ranking.

The document is not signed, but the document properties name its author. But she’s not a scientist and is presumably acting under orders, so please don’t blame her for this dire document. Blame the vice-chancellor.

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

No wonder that The Economist says "scientists are doing too much trusting and not enough verifying—to the detriment of the whole of science, and of humanity".

Feel ashamed.

Times Higher Education published today a version of an earlier post on this blog, Why should a postman pay for your university education?.

Although the submtted version was within length, it got shortened and, worse, a bit garbled in places. I got no chance to check the final version. The penultimate paragraph was not written by me. So here, for the record, is what I sent them.

.We hear a lot about lifelong education, and a good thing too. But we have a government that seems to think socially-useful learning does end at 18. This age is a watershed in official attitudes to education particularly in two areas, religious discrimination and education as a public good.

In 1871 the Universities Tests Act made it illegal for a university to discriminate among applicants on the basis of religious beliefs (or lack thereof) and forced Oxford, Cambridge, and Durham to follow in the footsteps of UCL.  For the last 140 years it has been unimaginable that any university would allow religious discrimination.  In stark contrast, in 2010, religious discrimination (and the accompanying social discrimination) in entry to primary and secondary schools is not only legal, but is actively encouraged by the government. It was a trend that got worse while the ‘reverend’ Tony Blair was prime minister. The minister of education under the new conservative regime promised even more religious schools.  Why the rules should be diametrically opposite when you are under 18 from when you are over 18 is baffling.

It is equally baffling (and perhaps a partial explanation) that universities are not regarded as part of education at all by this government and its immediate predecessors. Universities are governed by the Department of Business, not the Department of Education. Education is not regarded as a continuum, or as a life-long project: it’s something you do at school.

The government has managed the remarkable feat of devising a system for universities in which everybody loses.  It saves the taxpayer little or no money (according to HEPI). It leaves universities worse off.  And it does both of these while tripling the debt incurred by students.  It’s hard to believe that such monumental ineptitude has motives that are other than ideological.  The virtual privatisation of post-18 teaching, particularly of humanities, was a step too far even for Margaret Thatcher.

The only too brief debate on these changes focussed almost entirely on how to repay an enormous debt.  That was the wrong starting point.  The first thing that should have been decided was what sort of university system we want. It is arguable that the honours degree system is quite unsuited to an age when half the population get higher education. A general first degree, at a teaching-only institution, would be much cheaper, and it would be a social leveller.  If that were followed, for those who wanted and merited it, by a properly taught graduate school (as opposed to the present powerpoint-teaching charades), and this was taught by active researchers at research intensive places, the standard of education would be increased.  There might be some problems with such a system, but they were not even discussed before rushing the changes through.

The organisation that should have been at the forefront of fresh thinking, UUK, was paralysed as the elite VCs, all in favour of maximum fees, wrangled with the post-1992 VCs who saw themselves at greater risk. The result was total inaction. They may have been on leadership courses, but they failed to lead.  The elite VCs are now finding that even £9000 will leave them worse off than before.  They really should have thought a bit more about how to adapt to tertiary education for half the population rather than trying to fund things as they are at the moment.

Whatever the system, the question will always arise: why should a postman pay for your university education?  My answer is that they should pay, but not very much. They should pay because, although they may not get any direct benefit themselves, their children certainly may. The fairest, most progressive, tax is income tax. If you are a postman, or indeed a graduate, on a low income, you shouldn’t pay much tax, so you won’t pay much for other people’s university education.

I can see no reason for the sudden change in attitude to, and funding of, education that happens when you reach 18.

I see every reason why kids should be angry. I doubt that we have seen the last of the riots.

I hope not anyway.

Follow-up

Jump to follow-up

Today is a good day for anyone who deplores dangerous confidence tricksters. In particular it is a good day for Ben Goldacre, and for the Guardian which defended him at potentially enormous expense.

Matthias Rath, the Dutch (or is it German) vitamin salesman has dropped his libel action against the  Guardian. He is the man who is, without doubt, responsible for many deaths form AIDS in Africa, as a result of peddling vitamin pills as cures.  The action was taken after Goldacre said, in the Guardian, that Rath  aggressively sells his message to Aids victims in South Africa that Rath vitamin pills are better than medication”.

Here is some of what has appeared already today

Fall of the doctor who said his vitamins would cure Aids – from The Guardian, with a video of the villain.

Goldacre’s Badscience blog article on his victory .

Leader from The Guardian .

Profile of Zackie Achmat – from The Guardian, Mr Achmat is the founder of the Treatment Action Campaign , instrumental in exposing Rath.

Extract from witness statements from the defence in the trial .

And a lot of publicity from Gimpyblog (“Ben Goldacre and The Guardian triumph over murderous Matthias Rath”), Holfordwatch , Quackometer and jdc325 blogs.

Then more in the Guardian the next day, Chris McGreal investigates the Rath Foundation

Nutritional therapist?

Let’s be clear about what the words mean.  Nutritional therapists are not like dietitians, and they are not like nutritionists.  Nutritional therapists are solidly in the camp of alternative medicine practitioners,  Don’t
take my word for it. They say so themselves.

“For nutritional therapists (who practise Complementary and Alternative Medicine) optimum nutrition encompasses individual prescriptions for diet and lifestyle in order to alleviate or prevent ailments and to promote optimal gene expression through all life stages. Recommendations may include guidance on natural detoxification, procedures to promote colon health, methods to support digestion and absorption, the avoidance of toxins or allergens and the appropriate use of supplementary nutrients, including phytonutrients.”

They love to use imaginary words like “detoxification”, and, much more dangerously, they love to pretend that they can cure diseases by changes in diet. As long as you buy from them a stack of expensive “supplement” pills, of course. That means they are selling medicines, but by pretending they are selling food supplements they manage to evade the law that requires medicines to be safe and effective.  That will not be so easy under new legislation though, and we can look forward to a few prosecutions soon.

Guess who runs an “Honours BSc degree” in Nutritional Therapy. No prizes for realising it is the UK’s leading university purveyor of woo.

The University of Westminster

On their web site we learn that the Course Leader is Heather Rosa, and the Deputy Course Leader is Val Harvey.  Harvey qualified in the subject at the Institute  of Optimum Nutrition, the private college run by none other than the famous pill-peddler, Patrick Holford, about whom so very much has been written (try Holfordwatch, or the masterly chapter in Goldacre’s Bad Science)

We don’t know much about what is taught on the Nutritional Therapy course because the University of Westminster has refused repeated requests to say (but watch this space).. One can only assume that,  whatever it is, they are not very proud of it.  It seems a little unlikely that they will go as far as Matthias Rath and claim to cure AIDS -we’ll just have to wait and see.  Meanwhile we can get an inkling by looking elsewhere.

Course leader, Heather Rosa, pops up for example, on the expert panel of a web site called Supplements Compared.com. “Supplements Compared is designed to help you find the best dietary supplement product for your health needs.”   And what sort of advice do you find there?  Try the page that compares 10 brands of CoQ10 (that is the stuff I wrote about recently, in “Boots reaches new level of dishonesty with CoQ10 promotion” – their advertising was deemed improper by the ASA ).  It isn’t a recommended treatment for anything at all, but you certainly wouldn’t guess that from what is written by the ‘expert panel’.  The winners are, according to the ‘expert panel’, Boots’ CoQ10 and Holland and Barrett’s CoQ10.   Winners?   Perhaps the explanation for that comes elsewhere, under “How are we funded?”.   “Manufacturers who are awarded “best product” and “worth a look” are given the opportunity to promote this fact throughout the site for an additional fee.”. Well well.

Deputy Course leader, Val Harvey has her own web site and business (I do hope thar Westminster does not pay these people a full time salary too). What can we glean from there? It has the usual scare tactics “Why
you are at risk?
“. Never fear; buy enough vitamin pills and you’ll be saved.

Her home page makes some pretty drastic claims.

“Potential health benefits of your nutritional programme

An appropriate Nutritional Programme can benefit many conditions including:

Allergies

Arthritis

Asthma

Bloating, indigestion

Chronic degenerative diseases

Chronic fatigue, ME

Constipation, diarrhoea

Cystitis

Depression, mood swings

Digestive or bowel problems

Eczema, psoriasis, other skin problems

Food sensitivities

Frequent infections

Hormone imbalance
Hypertension or elevated cholesterol

Irritable bowel syndrome

Low energy

Menopausal symptoms

Migraines, headaches

Parasitic and fungal infections

Pre-conceptual issues

Premenstrual syndrome (PMS)

Sinus congestion

Stress

Thrush

Weight problems

and many others ….



These are just some of the wide range of health problems that may be helped by nutritional therapy. Even those who consider themselves well and healthy may be able to enhance their physical and mental health, as well as their performance, including athletic performance, by improving their nutrition.”

There is, in my view, not the slightest bit of good evidence that swallowing vitamin pills can benefit most of these conditions.

But at least the list doesn’t contain AIDS, so is all this really relevant to the case of Matthias Rath?

Yes, I believe it is. The University of Westminster may well not support the views of Matthias Rath (they won’t say), but we have heard no choruses of protests about him from any nutritional therapists, as far as I’m aware. There is no mention of him at all on the web site of the British Association of Nutritional Therapists (BANT), the UK club for these people.  BANT, by the way, has a rather curious code of ethics. It allows its members to take undisclosed financial kickbacks for the pills they prescribe to patients. If doctors were caught doing that they’d be struck off the register.

It is the existence of degrees in subjects like “nutritional therapy” that gives the subject a spurious air of respectability which allows seriously dangerous people like Rath to flourish with very little criticism.  In an indirect way, the vice-chancellors who allow it to flourish (and Universities UK who do nothing about it) must bear some small part of the responsibility for the deaths of thousands of people from AIDS.

It is about time they did something about it.

Follow-up

ANH. The first reaction from the supplement-peddling industry comes from the Alliance for Natural Health on 16th September. It contains not one word of condemnation for Rath’s murderous activities. It’s hard to believe how low they will sink.

The Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health remains totally silent about Rath. HRH’s concern for health seems to dry up if things don’t suit his views.

The British Association of Nutritional Therapists shows it’s total irresponsibility after a letter was sent to them to ask about their reaction. Their answer , on jdc325’s weblog was “The association has no opinion to offer on Dr Raths vitamin trials.”.


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