Download Lectures on Biostatistics (1971).
Corrected and searchable version of Google books edition

Download review of Lectures on Biostatistics (THES, 1973).

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“More efficient administration” seems always to generate a lot of highly paid jobs that are for people who do neither research or teaching. Everywhere you look. there are advertisements for Faculty Administrators and Division Heads

I was about to say that ‘only time will tell whether the benefits of all these administrators exceeds their considerable costs’. But it is unlikely that time will tell, because nobody will look. I wonder how one could assess whether an adminstrator is worth the cost of 2 or 3 postdocs doing research? I’d be willing to bet that nobody in authority has even given a moment’s thought to that question.

The next wheeze is Research Facilitators

Here is an advertisement, somewhat shortened (the emphasis is mine).

School Research Facilitator (3 posts) £44,075 – £49,607 p.a., plus London Allowance £2,572

We have 3 vacancies for the new role of School Research Facilitator. They will each take responsibility for research within one of the following groupings of Faculties (to be known in the future as “Schools”):

-Biomedical and Life Sciences

-Arts and Humanities, Social and Historical Sciences, Laws

– Engineering, Architecture and Mathematical and Physical Sciences
The role of each Facilitator will be to provide an interface comprising two main facets – an inward-facing relationship with the academic communities that they service, providing support for the application process, and an outward-looking role, interacting with, and providing intelligence about funding available from, the principal agencies relevant to their “School”, Governmental and private (charitable), UK and international.
This is a new exciting high profile role requiring someone with a good knowledge of funding priorities, policies, schemes and processes with the ability to take a lead on determining research priorities within the designated area. The successful candidate may have an academic background or experience of making grant applications and knowledge of appropriate funding agencies or experience of working within a funding agency.

So it seems that are research priorities are to be determined by administrators who are not scientists, and that these people will be paid more than most of the people who do the real research and teaching.

I find this genuinely baffling. In the Life Sciences most people who are any good get their funding from the MRC or the Wellcome Trust. There are endless web sites that list smaller charities. Why do we need a highly paid person to do what any competent researcher has always done, quickly and simply, for themselves?
This advertisement elicited the following comment from a correspondent (just remember, I never reveal my sources).

Xco Recruitment. Stuck in a rut? Overworked and underappreciated? Capable of reading and operating a world class search engine such as Google? Can you fill in a form? Then our clients – a Global but supposedly impecunious University have the job(s) for YOU!


The post has two main facets so the applicant must be thin, one facet looks in and the other out, so the applicant probably shouldn’t dabble in Zen or other esoteric schools, as meltdown may occur positing which in is in or which out is out or is in in fact out. (,,,,,, I’m sorry I’m on job experience, please distribute these commas as you see fit in the previous phrase).

You will be responsible for advising Departments and Individuals (possibly “Schools” but these appellations are getting beyond me) what they should research into/on though you have to have no specialist knowledge in any field. (look I’m paraphrasing, I didn’t write the description – but if I were you I’d go for the Arts and Humanities one – it’ll be piss easy).

You will be paid a “relatively” large amount of money for trawling through a couple of internet sites and reading a specialist magazine called “Charities Today” or some such, you will then ‘phone up a few people and inform them that, “the Xco Cardifasterization Trust has a spare £5000 to give to anyone willing to mention them in a paper, £3000 for a typo” sadly after the university takes its overheads this will leave them owing the £450. Oh, yes, in the light of the larger Research Funders you may have to enterprise multitasking amongst a host of recalcitrant divas, therefore some diplomatic/railroading skills may be essential.

From a correspondent

A few days after posting this, I got the following comment from a correspondent,

At our place creation of these jobs has been popular with HoDs and Grand Professors, as well as senior administrators. The reason is that the incumbents take work off the Grandeees, although their impact on the lives of lesser mortals is marginal.
Apart from trawling websites and compiling “Bulletins” (usefulness borderline), sitting in meeting about “research strategy” (usefulness negligible), helping compile Departmental advertising (usefulness hard to quantify) and being able to nag other tardy bits of the admin about things on your behalf (occasionally useful), the other thing these folk do is spend time as amanuenses / PAs to the Leading Grand Professor(s).
This is most notable when a Major Bid is in the offing – leading and fronting Major Funding Bids being, of course, just the kind of thing the research-intensive Univs think their leading Profs and HoDs should be spending their time doing.
For instance, imagine DC is set to lead a multi-million ” Major Initiative to establish an Interdisciplinary Centre for Trans-species Proteomic and Genomic Analysis of the Ion Channel-ome”. Apart from a science case, this will require collection of loads of statistics and lots of generic highly-spun writing about the College’s “unmatched array of leading talents in ion channel research”, “21st century leading-edge facilities” and “peerless intellectual environment” etc etc. This is where the Research Support Person comes into their own, as they take on all work associated with the bid except drafting the main scientific case ¬ including writing the flannel. Keep an eye open for ex-postdocs of Deans, HoDs and senior Professors “transitioning” into such positions, is my tip.

Aha yes, now I get it. It is just as Ted Wragg predicted in the Guardian, in December 2002.

“This free market has generated a whole new breed of employee, especially in further education, the Bid Writer. In education nowadays the pen can be mightier than the chalk. Bid Writers are a special breed who can weave together and launch back at policy wonks all their own buzzwords, with the deadly accuracy of a guided missile, sending them into the sort of sustained ecstasy that loosens both critical judgment and purse strings.

“This synoptic overview summarises the operational strategy for delivering the procedural and content objectives to a world-class standard, within the parameters delineated in Annex A of Initiative 374B, glob glob, oodle oodle, turge turge.” Wonderful. Give that school a few hundred grand. “

Worthwhile policies graft seamlessly on to schools and eventually become their own. An ephemeral policy is merely a headline grabber, a wheeze, demeaning to both begetter and recipient. Who needs a physics teacher, when among today’s most highly esteemed pedagogues are wordsmiths who can deliver world-class meaningless bollocks to order?”

Steven Novella, MD, an academic neurologist at Yale University, runs The Skeptics Guide to the Universe: Your Escape to Reality

He is author of Weird Science , a monthly column featured in the New Haven Advocate. He is the co-founder and President of the New England Skeptical Society, Associate Editor of the Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine , and a contributing editor of Quackwatch , a consumer advocacy website dealing with all types of health fraud.

At 5 am on 12 September he phoned to record a podcast. You can here the whole thing here. It includes various items of skeptical news and an interview with James Randi too.

Steve Novella quizzed me about the circumstances surrounding the request to move my web site from UCL’s server, and we discussed the incursion of endarkenment values into universities and politics. My bit is here.

Curiouser and curiouser. Not only have we the curious case of Dr Marks, but Holford’s CV on his web site, and as submitted to the University of Tesside, has alway said that his degree from the University of York in experimental psychology was taken in 1973 – 1976. But an enquiry to the registrar of the University of York, elicited this response.

Dear Professor Colquhoun
Your enquiry about a claim to hold a degree from the University of York has been passed to me.

I can confirm that a BSc in Psychology was awarded to a P J Holford in 1979, as published in the Yorkshire Evening Press on 7 July 1979.

Sue Hardman

Academic Registrar

University of York

It does seem odd to make an error of three years in the dates of your own degree.

Read much more about all these inconsistencies at Holfordwatch and at Quackometer.

Update 17th September 2007

Another email today from the Registrar reveals that Mr Holford got a 2.2 degree.

This is the title of a paper by Andrew D Oxman, David L Sackett, Iain Chalmers, Trine E Prescott (J R Soc Med 2005;98:563-568). Yes, the third author is Sir Iain Chalmers, the distinguished health services researcher, one of the founders of the Cochrane Collaboration, and Editor of the James Lind Library.

Download the paper.


    Background We are sick and tired of being redisorganized.

    Objective To systematically review the empirical evidence for organizational theories and repeated reorganizations.

    Methods We did not find anything worth reading, other than Dilbert, so we fantasized. Unfortunately, our fantasies may well resemble many people’s realities. We are sorry about this, but it is not our fault.

    Results We discovered many reasons for repeated reorganizations, the most common being “no good reason”. We estimated that trillions of dollars are being spent on strategic and organizational planning activities each year, thus providing lots of good reasons for hundreds of thousands of people, including us, to get into the business. New leaders who are intoxicated with the prospect of change further fuel perpetual cycles of redisorganization. We identified eight indicators of successful redisorganizations, including large consultancy fees paid to friends and relatives.

    Conclusions We propose the establishment of ethics committees to review all future redisorganization proposals in order to put a stop to uncontrolled, unplanned experimentation inflicted on providers and users of the health services.

And here is another bit.

Glossary of redisorganizational strategies

Centralization (syn: merging, coordination): When you have lots of money and want credit for dispensing itDecentralization (syn: devolution, regionalization): When you have run out of money and want to pass the buck (i.e. the blame, not the money) down and out

Accordianization: When you need to keep everyone confused by instituting continuous cycles of centralization and decentralization. Best example: the NHS Equalization: When you have not (yet) sorted out which side is going to win

Interpositionization: When you need to insert shock-absorbing lackeys between patients and managers to protect the latter from being held accountable (this strategy is often misrepresented as an attempt to help patients)

Indecisionization trees: When you are massively uncertain and incompetent, picking numbers out of the air and placing them in diagrams. Also used as a party game at management retreats

Matrixization structure: When your indecision tree has been exposed as meaningless twaddle, the introduction of a second indecision tree at right angles to it

Obfuscasization: When you need to hide the fact that you have not a clue what is really going on, or what you should do about it. Makes heavy use of phrases such as “at this moment in time” instead of “now”, and transforms things that are simple and obvious into complicated and impenetrable muddles

R&Dization: When you have been exposed as a power-mad fraud and are offered a compensation package just to get you out of town. Employs the ‘Rake it in and Disappear’ ploy

Black hole effect: When a reorganization absorbs large amounts of money and human resources without producing any measurable output

Honesty: When your corporate conscience urges you to admit that when you say, “It’s not the money it’s the principle”, it is the money. A dangerous and abandoned strategy, included here for historic purposes only.

Two more high quality trials have failed to show any benefit from alternative medicine.

Acupuncture no help for knee osteoarthritis

This trial is particularly interesting because osteoarthritis of the knee is the one thing that is always cited as a triumph for acupuncture. It is common to hear people talk about acupuncture as though it were the acceptable, or even accepted, face of alternative medicine. Perhaps that is because it is not so obviously preposterous as homeopathy. Sticking a needle into you obviously produces a signal in the brain. That is just sensory physiology. But the evidence that this produces any real benefit for patients is, in fact, almost thin as for homeopathy. This paper seems to have been done very well. It is another nail in the coffin of needle quacks.

Osteoarthritis of the knee is what was cited by the Prince of Wales in his speech to WHO. In that speech he stuck to things that he thought were safe, in contrast to the far more barmy claims on his own web site.

The paper is “Acupuncture as an adjunct to exercise based physiotherapy for osteoarthritis of the knee: randomised controlled trial”, Foster et al. (BMJ 2007;335;436), and the British Medical Journal has made it available freely: read it here..

Patients were allocated randomly to one of three groups

  • Advice and exercise (112 patients)
  • Advice, exercise, and true acupuncture (112 patients)
  • Advice, exercise, and non-penetrating acupuncture (115 patients)

The question of controls is crucial. In this trial, “non-penetrating acupuncture” was done with ‘stage dagger’ needles: blunt needles that retract into the handle, without actually penetrating the skin at all, but which create an illusion of insertion.

Patients were told that they would receive physiotherapy advice and exercise and “may receive acupuncture, using one of two different types of acupuncture needle”, but were not told that one type of needle would not penetrate the skin.

The bottom line

“Our trial failed to show that acupuncture is a useful adjunct to a course of individualised, exercise based physiotherapy for older adults with knee osteoarthritis.”


Our trial addressed the three important questions recommended by the House of Lords report on complementary and alternative medicine in 2000.

  • Firstly, true acupuncture did not show any greater therapeutic benefit than a credible control procedure in patients with a clinical diagnosis of knee osteoarthritis.
  • Secondly, acupuncture was safe, with few, minor adverse events.
  • Thirdly, acupuncture provided no additional improvement in pain scores compared with a course of six sessions of physiotherapy led advice and exercise. The small additional benefits from acupuncture were unlikely to be clinically significant, were limited to pain intensity and unpleasantness, were mostly short lived, and could not be attributed to specific acupuncture needling effects.”

A few of the details

Acupuncture delivered by physiotherapists as part of an integrated package of health care with advice and exercise, for older adults with osteoarthritis of the knee, provided no additional improvement in pain scores compared with advice and exercise alone measured on the Western Ontario and McMaster Universities osteoarthritis index at six and 12 months. Small benefits were shown for pain intensity and unpleasantness but these effects were greater and sustained for longer in the group receiving non-penetrating acupuncture than in the group receiving true acupuncture. This finding makes it unlikely that the observed effects were due to needling effects of needle penetration, manual stimulation throughout treatment, and elicitation of the de qi sensation.

We have shown that there are no differences when a credible, non-penetrating acupuncture treatment, delivered under strict participant blinded conditions, and true acupuncture, involving needle penetration, manual stimulation, and elicitation of the de qi sensation are added to a course of advice and exercise. Indeed patient satisfaction, credibility of intervention at six weeks, and reduction in pain intensity and unpleasantness were significantly greater for the advice and exercise plus non-penetrating acupuncture group than for the advice and exercise group but not for the advice and exercise plus true acupuncture group.

Vitamins C and E and Beta Carotene fail again

The anti-oxidant myth is already well-documented. A recent report even suggested that beta carotene, vitamin A, and vitamin E
might do harm rather than good.

Another good trial has confirmed the uselessness of these “supplements” (other than for making a great deal of money for supplement hucksters).

“A Randomized Factorial Trial of Vitamins C and E and Beta Carotene in the Secondary Prevention of Cardiovascular Events in Women” Cook et al. Arch Intern Med. 2007;167:1610-1618. [Download the paper here].

Here is the summary taken from the invaluable Consumer Health Digest (a free weekly e-mail newsletter edited by Stephen Barrett, M.D., and cosponsored by NCAHF and Quackwatch), 16-08-07

Antioxidants for cardiovascular disease flunk another test.

A 10-year double-blind, placebo-controlled study has found that women at high risk for cardiovascular disease derived no benefit from taking vitamin C (500 mg/day), vitamin E (600 international units every other day), or beta carotene (50 mg every other day).

The researchers looked at the incidence of myocardial infarction, stroke, coronary artery surgery, and cardiovascular disease death among 8171 female health professionals, 40 years or older, with a history of cardiovascular disease or 3 or more cardiovascular disease risk factors.

There was some surprise when the University of Teesside recently appointed as a visiting professor, Patrick Holford, the “media nutritionist” and supplement salesman. This has elicited some indignation from within Teesside as well as without.

The CV that was submitted to the University of Teesside in support of his appointment at Teesside included the following glowing endorsement from “Dr John Marks, Life Fellow and former Director of Medical Studies, Cambridge University.”

“There have been dramatic changes over the past decade in our views about healthcare and Patrick Holford has been right at the forefront of many of these changes, particularly with our revised appreciation of nutrition. The road to bad medicine and bad health is built on the foundation of dogma. It is refreshing to have this dogma subjected to fresh examination.”
Dr John Marks, Life Fellow and former Director of Medical Studies, Cambridge University

Download the CV that was submitted.

The same endorsement appears in the CV on Holford’s web site.

Dr Marks is also cited prominently as a reviewer of Holford’s book, “The H factor” (2003 edition), thus.

“This book covers the exciting developments of the story of homocysteine in current clinical nutrition and medicine. The authors have examined with commendable clarity the controversy which inevitably surrounds any such cutting-edge subject.”
Dr John Marks, former Director of Medical Studies at Girton College, University of Cambridge

And this is the top of the back cover of Holford’s book, “Optimum Nutrition for the Mind (2003 edition)”, as it appears on the Amazon
web site

Dr Marks appears again in a 2004 press release at on Holford’s site.

“Monday 25 October 2004


Britain’s Largest – Ever Health and Diet Survey

. . . .
“Scientific advisors to the survey include Professor Helga Refsum, Professor Jeff Holly, Professor Jane Plant, Professor Andre Tylee, Dr John Marks and Dr Derek Shrimpton. “

Who is Dr Marks?

It turns out that he is now long-retired from his job as Director of Medical Studies at Girton College. Clearly, and very understandably, Dr Marks would now much rather tend his garden than get involved in this sort of unpleasantness. When I drew his attention to the way his name was being used. he said “I agree that he must be stopped but not by running myself into yet more difficulties I want to reduce difficulties for myself having reached middle age (83).”.

Nevertheless, as a public service, he has kindly given me permission to reproduce his initial response.

Dear Professor Colquhoun

Oh dear, my foolishness of youth has come home to haunt me, luckily too late to hurt me.

Way back in, I would guess, the late 1970s or early 1980s I was doing some writing on the vitamins. Essentially my contention was that because of inappropriate eating patterns, it was not possible to say that “a normal mixed diet (as consumed today) provided all the nutrients that are needed”. I used the term “optimum nutrition” to indicate one which did precisely that. Some of this was at least reasonable given the understanding of the day. I know that much of it is no longer accepted (certainly by me), but I have a suspicion that we have swung probably a little too far the other way recently. At that stage Patrick Holford wrote an article or a book on “optimal nutrition” quoting me, inter alia. I did write at his request some comments which were broadly favourable about it, though the text that you quote does not look like mine. Thereafter he has hounded me with pre-publication copies of books etc, each of which has been more exaggerated and less scientific. I was also involved with him at the start of his work on nutritional standards in ordinary members of the public, but it soon became obvious that the whole study was unsupportable and I withdrew completely from it. I also challenged one of his books but got nowhere, even though I suggested that it be not published until he had confirmed some of his ‘observations’.

Shortly after that I wrote to him to say that I was not prepared any longer to support his work or views in any way and to please stop using my name as a supporter of his work, and stop writing to me. I had thought and hoped that the whole sad story of my early support for him had died a death, but from what you tell me it seems not.

I have to admit that I have not wasted time and effort reading any of his recent work. In fact I should have difficulty doing so since I am effectively blind.

I hope that this puts you in the picture. I hope that the wording you quote was from his first book, but even that wording does not look what I might have written even in my foolish youth.

Thank you for drawing my attention to the situation but I shall not waste my time issuing denials. It is too late now.

With my thanks and best wishes

John Marks

So it is some time now since Dr Marks wrote to Holford

” to say that I was not prepared any longer to support his work or views in any way and to please stop using my name as a supporter of his work and stop writing to me.”

Dr Marks has now written to Holford to ask for the source of these quotations, having destroyed all his own records that relate to Holford some time ago. If and when he gets a reply it will be posted here.

It is for you, and the luminaries of the University of Teesside, to decide whether or not this amounts to falsification of the CV that Holford submitted in support of his appointment as a visiting professor.

It isn’t just Marks

According to some investigation by HolfordWatch, it seems the Prof Andree Tylee has suffered a similar fate to that of Dr Marks. Tylee is Professor of Primary Care Mental Health, at the Institute of Psychiatry, Holford has been citing him too, contrary to his wishes.

On 21 August 2007, the Taxpayers’ Alliance produced a report that

“compiled Britain’s first ever list of university ‘non-courses’;  university degrees that lend the respectability of scholarly qualifications to non-academic subjects and calculated their annual cost to students and taxpayers.”

In this they list 400 degree course, at 91 institutions in the UK, which they describe as “non-courses”. They claim that these courses cost the taxpayer £40 million per year.

At the top of their list they place a BA (Hons) degree in Outdoor Adventure and Philosophy, at Marjon College in Plymouth. They include also in their list 60 different courses in alternative medicine.

I don’t agree entirely with the Alliance. They fail, I think, to make a vital distinction, between things that are untrue, and things that a merely not a great intellectual challenge. In “Science degrees in anti-science” I said

“What matters here is that degrees in things such as golf-course management are honest. They do what it says on the label. That is quite different from awarding BSc degrees in subjects that are not science at all, but are positively anti-science.”

Nevertheless the 400 “non-courses” include 60 in alternative medicine, and they are quite unacceptable.

So how does Universities UK (UUK) react? (They are the folks who used to have the sensibly self-explanatory title “Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals”, before they had their Consignia moment). Nothing short of a blanket defence, according to the BBC News

But Universities UK said the alliance had failed to understand developments in higher education or the labour market.

“Had they done a little more research, they would have found that these so-called ‘non-courses’ are in fact based on demand from employers and developed in association with them,”

“Graduates on these courses are in demand from employers who are looking for people with specific skills alongside the general skills acquired during a degree such as critical thinking, team-working, time management and IT skills – a point lost on the authors of this rag-bag of prehudices and outdated assumptions.”

All courses were checked rigorously to ensure they met appropriate standards. “This is academic snobbery, as predictable as it is unfounded.”

Does UUK really think that that is a sufficient justification for BSc degrees in homeopathy?

Does UUK really think that degrees in homeopathy teach “critical thinking”?

Does UUK really think that “rigorous checking” of a degree in homeopathy is possible?

If so, the endarkenment has certainly reached high places.


An email from the president of UUK, Rick Trainor says that

“. . . 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”

Professor Trainor, Principal of King’s College London, is a social historian, not a scientist. But you don’t have to be a scientist to understand that it is simply preposterous to think that the smaller the dose the bigger the effect. The defence of such ideas on the basis that they have been “independently assessed for academic rigour” (assessed, of course, by fellow believers in magic) is equally preposterous.

SO I wrote again to explain the difference between honest and dishonest vocational degrees. It reall isn’t very difficult to grasp. This time all I got was

Dear David

Thank you very much for your comments, which I have read with interest.

Best wishes

Rick Trainor

UUK, like the Taxpayers’ Alliance, has failed totally to make the distinction betweeen honest vocational degrees and dishonest degrees.The attitude of UUK appears to be that of an old-fashioned trade union -defend your members, right or wrong. It is time they grasped the nettle.

There is no nutrional “therapist” whose doings have been the butt of more attention on the web. Ben Goldacre has been through his writings in meticulous detail. “Patrick Holford – “Food Is Better Than Medicine” South Africa Tour Blighted By HIV Claim” is particularly rivetting. The Holfordwatch web site is a mine of carefully-researched information.

It is bad enough that the University of Bedfordshire (in its previous incarnation as the University of Luton) accredited a Foundation Degree course in ‘nutritional therapy’, at`his Institute of Optimum Nutrition (IoN).

That saga was discussed in “Science in an age of endarkenment” as an example of how university accreditation committees can produce long pompous official reports that fail to discuss anything that matters (like ‘is it true?’).

Then came the even more mind-boggling news that Patrick Holford had been made a visiting professor at the University of Teesside. What on earth can be the university’s criteria be for awarding the title of professor? Download them and find out.

One criterion is “their contribution by research to the furtherance of knowledge”. Well it’s obviously not that one.

Another criterion is

“the application of knowledge in a systematic and original manner, designed to enhance wealth creation and/or the quality of life”

Well he has certainly created a lot of wealth for himself. The “application of knowledge” bit is just a little worrisome though.

Case for Patrick Holford as a Visiting Professor is a university document, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (download the whole document). The opening words are “Patrick Holford has an international reputation in terms of nutrition and mental health.”

I guess he has an international reputation. But to find what sort of reputation, just check the references at the top of this post. Unfortunately the document is anonymous. I guess that makes it safe to say that whoever wrote it must be a scientific ignoramus.

The case for Holford mentions the possibility of starting a northern Brain Bio centre. If you want to know more about that wheeze, check Holfordwatch. And now Holfordwatch has done a nice analysis of the whole document

Teesside’s Assistant Dean Research, Dr Barry Doyle sent an email to his vice chancellor, Graham Henderson, with this case document and “curriculum vitae, with extensive personal commentary” (missing -I’ve asked for it) (download the email).

It did the trick.

An “Extract from minutes of University of Teesside Professorial Conferment Committee, 25/06/2007” (download it) recorded the conferment of title. If there was any real discussion it has been cut out (I’ve asked for more). Or perhaps there was no discussion. It seems to be just another example of the box-ticking mentality that has become so prominent as universities succumb to the cult of managerialism. Those present were

Professor G Henderson, Vice-Chancellor (Chair)

Professor A Unsworth, University of Durham

Professor C Hardcastle, Deputy-VC (Research & Enterprise)

Professor E E Green, School of Social Sciences & Law

Professor F Nabhani, School of Science & Technology

Professor M Rampley, School of Arts & Media

How is it that the combined intellect of these luminaries seemed to be incapable of finding out about the candidate the facts that any teenager could unearth on five minutes with Google?

One despairs


It seems that some of the staff at Teesside are not at all happy about the appointment either. On 24th August, this email arrived.


I wish to confirm that Professor Patrick Holford has been Conferred with the title of Visiting Professor at the University of Teesside through the School of Social Sciences and Law.He has not been Conferred with the title of Visiting Professor in Nutrition. He has no association with the School of Health & Social Care and in particular, the Institute of Health Sciences and Social Care Research which is led by Professor Carolyn Summerbell, Professor in Nutrition and Assistant Dean for Research.PaulProfessor Paul Keane, Dean
School of Health & Social Care
Centuria Building
University of Teesside

Some more information

In response to a Freedom of Information act request, sent on 7 December 2007, the University of Teesside has been quite forthcoming in providing documents that relate to Holford’s appointment. It is pretty clear that the whole episode has been a bit of an embarrassment to them. As a result of internal dissension within Teesside, Holford was banned from using the title “Visiting Professor” or “Visiting Professor in mental health and/or nutrition” but to use only “Visiting Professor in the School of Social Sciences”.

Download all the documents. (zip file, i.5 Mb)

There are comments on some of these documents here.

This post is nerdy university politics stuff, but it matters a lot to some of us.

I have always been impressed by the lack of interest that management theorists, and education theorists, show in subjecting their ideas to empirical tests. Edinburgh University was one of the first to go down the path down which other places (including UCL) are now heading like so many lemmings.

Edinburgh abolished their departments in 2002, and, in 2005 they conducted a review of what had ensued, The responses make interesting reading (not least because much of what they say is remarkably similar to points that I have made again and again, to no effect).

Sadly, I have only just come across these documents. I wonder if our own managers have read them?

Let’s start with quotations from the university’s 2005 review document

“In 2002 the University made some radical changes to its structures. It abolished its previous structure of Faculties and Departments for academic purposes and Faculty Groups and Planning Units for planning and resourcing, and replaced these with a single integrated structure consisting of three Colleges and 21 Schools. Previous arrangements for electing Heads of Department and Deans were replaced by competitive appointment to the new management positions, after external advertisement for Heads of College.”

. . .

The Review Group found, from the evidence provided and gathered, that the implementation of a new organisational structure in 2002 had been strategically astute, leading to clear benefits to the institution as a whole.

. . .

This is not to say that feedback provided by colleagues to the Review was wholly positive

That last quotation must rank as as the understatement of the decade. You can read the responses at http://www.aaps.ed.ac.uk/restreview/responses/. Here are some quotations from them,

Professor R G M Morris, FRS, School of Biomedical & Clinical Laboratory Sciences

Like the Principal, I also think there are merits in the new arrangements that have already and will continue to yield benefits.

However, I think we should also have the courage and self-confidence to recognise a major downside. As I write, Harvard University is in uproar about some reported comments of their President, Larry Summers, about the paucity of women in science.

It would never happen at Edinburgh because – bluntly – we have become comatose. Perhaps I am not in the right place, but no one seems to discuss openly about anything that really matters to the University. We simply keep our heads down and try to get on with our teaching and research. Perhaps that is a good thing, and the debate at Harvard is but “hot air” when everyone would be better spending time in the lab or the library. But ‘m not sure. For there is a confidence and elan about the Harvard academic staff that, presently, seems to have been lost in Edinburgh – a loss that has coincided with the introduction of the Schools.

This loss is particularly reflected in the very few responses you have received to date to this circular. It is as if no one cares. And that, frankly, is deeply worrying. In the old rough and tumble of the ostensibly “inefficient”  Departmental system, we would have regular staff meetings and actually debate things – and we did this because the voice of everyone in a Department mattered. We had postdoctoral staff and postgraduate students at our staff meetings – their voice mattered too and we listened to what they had to say. It feels to me that this overt recognition of the value of the academic community in Edinburgh is no longer the case. The School of which I am now a member has had two meetings in three years, and with so many people present in a large lecture theatre, the atmosphere was not conducive to discussion and debate.

In conclusion, Edinburgh University is at risk of becoming a place where bland, respectable comment replaces genuine debate. I am wary of this absence, because I am deeply distrustful of the credibility of anyone unprepared to debate openly and honestly. The senior management may, of course, be so busy juggling their managerial role with continuing academic life that they are unaware of this developing problem. Surely the business model can work hand-in-hand with a managerial framework that supports genuine intellectual debate?

Richard Morris, D.Phil., F.R.S.
Professor of Neuroscience
Division of Neuroscience
School of Biomedical & Clinical Laboratory Sciences

Dr Ian Astley, School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures, 18/02/05

I hardly know where to start with all this. It is abundantly clear, both from my own meditations and from discussions with colleagues — academic colleagues — that the recent changes to the university’s structure have been a radical contravention of everything which a university should stand for. Real opportunities for debate and democratic determination have been stifled, all in the service of a dogma of efficiency which it is impossible to describe or account for.

Professor Alan Murray, School of Engineering and Electronics, 4/02/05

One aspect of the old system that has, sadly, been largely lost, particularly in areas where modestly-sized departments have been merged in to larger schools, is the feeling of community and common purpose across research and teaching activities. The replacement of Departments by Research Institutes (and I am head of one) has not created new communities of the same nature and size. One particularly unfortunate result of this change has been the effective marginalisation of colleagues whose primary focus is on teaching and support of teaching activities.

Alan Murray
Professor Alan F. Murray,
Head of the Institute for Integrated Micro and Nano Systems,
School of Engineering and Electronics,

Dr Don Glass, School of Engineering & Electronics, 14/02/05

The restructuring has transformed the University into a rather top-down structure with a much smaller number of much larger administrative units.

The Research Institutes do not yet provide the sense of identity, cohesion and support that the old departments (whatever their failings) did. The Heads of Institute have done their best but are hampered by the physical dispersion of their staff and by restricted budgets.

Academic staff in particular, and technical and clerical staff to a lesser degree, feel that they are much less in control of their lives than was previously the case. This leads to stress and poor morale.

The Teaching Organisation has worked well at the strategic level (compliance with the requirements of the Curriculum Project, for example) and at the most basic level of timetabling, classroom allocation, collection of completed coursework, recording of marks etc. However, the diversity of the engineering disciplines and the curriculum requirements of the professional institutions have meant that accreditation, curriculum development and the allocation of teaching duties have fallen to the Heads of Discipline. These individuals have no budget at their disposal, no formal authority, no clerical or other support, no formal reward and little recognition. It is surprising that anyone can be found to take on the job.

Heads of School are expected to act as Line Managers for units containing in most cases over 100 academic and support staff. In industry or the civil service, this would be regarded as ludicrously burdensome, and I am at a loss to understand why the university feels that it can expect this level of output from its senior staff.

Improvement of the dissemination of information to ordinary members of staff would improve morale. In the old days, heads of department would ensure that their staff were kept abreast of developments: this does not happen to the same extent now. Equally, inclusion of more staff at an earlier stage in decision-making would not merely improve acceptance of change but would also possibly deliver better thought-out policy My suggestion would be to recognise the Disciplines as bodies responsible for professional representation, curriculum development and accreditation. They would provide a ‘home’ for staff excluded from the Research Institutes.

Professor Andrew Barker, School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures, 14/02/05

You write:

‘The process has been generally been well received and, as Principal and Vice-Chancellor Professor Timothy O’Shea points out, “has aroused interest (and even emulation) in other institutions”.’

And in so doing you simply add to the disenchantment which, as you must surely know, has followed upheavals of the last couple of years. Could you not have initiated the debate without such self-congratulatory spin?

At the same time as there have been gains, there have also been losses. Above all, and one hears the complaint time and again, it is felt that restructuring has led to a diminished sense of belonging to an academic community. The abolition of the democratic faculty structure has fuelled a feeling of disempowerment and atomisation which does not help morale at a time when colleagues are assailed by new developments on all sides

What is needed, I feel, is a movement to re-engage colleagues with the
university: to let them feel that it is indeed ‘their’ university, that they are not merely a workforce which is expected to respond to a series of diktats from above. At a quite mundane level, provision of common room facilities (so spectacularly absent for those working in the George Square area) would enable us to re-establish contact with colleagues from other disciplines.

Professor Charles Warlow, Professor of Medical Neurology, Molecular and Clinical Medicine, 14/02/05

I start from the position that the structure of a University should enable academics to do research and teach, and have time to think and write which are so important in both.

Clinical academics like myself are -for better or worse – often rather disconnected from the rest of their Universities, partly because we often work way from the centre of the University, partly because we don’t think in terms (or now semesters), and partly because we have patient care concerns. Nonetheless it is good to feel part of and supported by an institution which facilitates and nurtures our research and teaching. I did feel this, when I was in a group then called a Department of Clinical Neurosciences which was part of a faculty then called Medicine, all of which I could naturally relate to and which mapped on to my clinical work and teaching. But now we have Divisions (in my case more or less the same as the old Department), Centres and Schools -two extra layers of management between us in the trenches and the College (was faculty) and Head of College (was Dean). And we do not seem to have any ‘faculty’ meetings any more, one of the very few opportunities to meet up with colleagues from not just my own hospital but with others across town (the Royal Infirmary, Royal Edinburgh Hospital etc). It as an irony that as we have moved to Colleges we have become less ‘collegiate’.

For me there has not only been a loss of collegiality, and so opportunity for cross fertilisation between medical disciplines, but there has been no advantage in terms of teaching or research. As far as teaching goes, the Divisional, Centre and School structure seems to be all about research with an eye on the RAE – not teaching. And it is particularly inappropriate to exclude researchers from Centres, these people may well be struggling and so in need of support. The notion that the new administrative structure encourages inter-disciplinarity – in medical research at least – is just not true.

I cannot see any efficiency gains from where I sit. Personally, I feel more disconnected from the Heads of this and that than ever I did before (but I certainly do not envy them their task, far more complicated, bureaucratic and time consuming than ever it was when I was Head of Clinical Neurosciences)

Sadly however, although I once felt a sense of belonging and so loyalty to the University as a collegiate bunch of academics, in it for teaching and research, this is not so much how I feel now that it seems more of an impersonal business hierarchy.

Professor Jean Duffy, Professor John Renwick, Mr Philip Bennett, Dr Véronique Desnain, Dr Marion Schmid, School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures, 17/02/05

The new structures were originally presented to us, at the open meeting held by Stewart Sutherland, as a means of streamlining and reducing bureaucracy. Yet, the restructuring has involved the interposition of an extra administrative layer, the creation of a substantial number of administrative posts, including new senior management posts and a labyrinthine bureaucracy.

In an earlier exchange with Senior Vice-Principal Anderson regarding space matters, he commented that it is ‘virtually impossible to work out in any realistic way what the net cost [of the restructuring] (and the medium-term benefit) has been’. We find this extraordinary: any organisation employing a large workforce (in this case, 6,800 and Edinburgh’s third biggest employer, according to the web site) and with responsibility for the education of over 20,000 students and large amounts of taxpayers’ money ought to be able work out such sums.

Faculty meetings have been replaced by “plenaries” in which very little, if any, real business is done, no major decisions are ever taken (even in a School which voted to retain decision-making powers), and in which academics are informed about decisions that have been taken elsewhere. The former Faculty of Arts did have the capacity to influence the decisions of Central Management, even if it exercised that power rather too rarely. In the new structures, any power to influence has been effectively diluted, largely because we do not have an equivalent formal assembly designed to encourage or even permit full participatory debate and because the burden of representation falls upon a few individuals. Thus divided, we are much easier to rule, even if that was not the intention.

To be fair to the new Management Team, it did not create the original template for restructuring; as we understand it, it was presented with a fait accompli and a huge task of implementation. No doubt the new structures can be made to work in more user-friendly ways, but the University needs to relearn -and fast – how to listen to its academic staff. This institution has a great many staff who are committed to teaching and to research, who have willingly shouldered heavy administrative burdens often over long periods, and they have to feel that they have a voice.

The good will of academic staff is one of the University’s most precious resources; it is certainly its cheapest: after all, it is that good will which makes so very many individuals start work early, finish late, work every weekend and not take their full annual leave. If the University has common sense, it will invest in it, not exhaust it.

Professor Colin Nicholson, School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures, 18/02/05

In its 2001 Resolution concerning proposed changes to academic management the University Court made its intentions clear. In order to enable the university to respond effectively to the altered economic circumstances in which we must now operate, Court deemed it desirable:

to reorganise the system of academic management in the University “in a way which sustains the teaching and research of the University to the highest standards and which maintains and enhances the quality of the university as an academic community of international standing”.

These sensible priorities were echoed in a Court paper of March 2002 . . .

These intentions have been radically betrayed. In a range of senior voices all across the University, from Kings Buildings to George Square to High School Yards we are hearing the same thing -that an academic community now feels reduced to an atomised and disempowered workforce which is expected to respond to a series of diktats from above.

The expression and experience within and across the academic community, of disaffection, demoralisation, disenfranchisement and alienation that we have been reporting on for several months requires urgent redress.

Dr Sarah Carpenter, School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures, 18/02/05

But for equally practical reasons it actually it seems to have reduced the opportunities for academic co-operation with subject areas beyond the School. As a member of the former Faculty of Arts I encountered regularly colleagues from a range of disciplines across the Faculty, not only in Faculty meetings, but in administrative and other activities from which academic co-operation might flow. There is no longer any forum or space in which I encounter these colleagues.

There is certainly a strong perception among academic staff that the new system is in a phrase many have used “top-heavy”, and in some areas more rather than less cumbersome. In terms of streamlining and simplifying administrative procedure the system is experienced as adding a new layer.

The new structures have not allowed for any forums beyond the School in which staff can express and debate views, and pass them on to those who will make decisions (this is allied to the loss of meeting opportunities).

Probably allied to this is a perception that not only are decisions for implementation handed down from the centre, often by rather tenuous chains of information distribution, but that the university does not recognise or acknowledge the level of effort required to implement them.

Professor Brian Charlesworth, School of Biological Sciences, 04/02/05

I do not regard developments associated with the restructuring at all favourably. This has introduced a far more ‘top-down’ style of management, with over large units whose heads know little of what is going on at the grassroots level. The academic staff are being issued with orders instead of being consulted, and constantly being forced to implement ever more bureaucracy. In the long term, this will lead to creative people leaving the university, and only the mediocrities who are prepared to cringe to the men in suits will remain. I sense that this is already starting to happen.

It seems that little notice was taken of any of these comments. Well well, There’s a surprise.

Guardian science web site image
How irrational thinking in government and universities has led to the rise of new-age nonsense in the name of science.

This article appeared on 15th August 2007, on the Guardian Science web site.

The Guardian made very few cuts to the original version, but removed a lot of the links. If you want to have references to some of the claims that are made, try the original, which I reproduce here. [Download this as pdf]

The Guardian Science site also has a piece on this topic by Alok Jha: Reigniting the enlightenment How do we win back our civilisation from the jaws of darkness?
Comments can be left there too.

A German translation of this piece has been posted at the Mental health blog.

A Russian translation (draft version) has appeared here . There is also a Russian translation of How to Get Good Science which can be found here.

Etymological note. The word endarkenment has been used by several people as an antonym for the enlightenment, but the first time it caught my eye was in an article in 2005 by Gerald Weissman, The facts of evolution: fighting the Endarkenment. The article opens thus.

“Those of us who practice experimental science are living in the best of times and the worst of times, and I’m not talking about A Tale of Two Cities, but a tale of two cultures.”

Science in an Age of Endarkenment

“Education: Elitist activity. Cost ineffective. Unpopular with Grey Suits. Now largely replaced by Training.”
Michael O’Donnell, in A Sceptic’s Medical Dictionary (BMJ publishing, 1997).

The enlightenment was a beautiful thing. People cast aside dogma and authority. They started to think for themselves. Natural science flourished. Understanding of the real world increased. The hegemony of religion slowly declined. Real universities were created and eventually democracy took hold. The modern world was born. Until recently we were making good progress. So what went wrong?

The past 30 years or so have been an age of endarkenment. It has been a period in which truth ceased to matter very much, and dogma and irrationality became once more respectable.

This matters when people delude themselves into believing that we could be endangered at 45 minute’s notice by non-existent weapons of mass destruction.It matters when reputable accountants delude themselves into thinking that Enron-style accounting is acceptable.

It matters when people are deluded into thinking that they will be rewarded in paradise for killing themselves and others.

It matters when bishops attribute floods to a deity whose evident vengefulness and malevolence leave one reeling. And it matters when science teachers start to believe that the earth was created 6000 years ago.

These are serious examples of the endarkenment mentality, but I’ll stick with my day job and consider what this mentality is doing to science.

One minor aspect of the endarkenment has been a resurgence in magical and superstitious ideas about medicine. The existence of homeopaths on the High Street won’t usually do too much harm. Their sugar pills contain nothing. They won’t poison your body; the greater danger is that they poison your mind.

It is true that consulting a homeopath could endanger your health if it delays proper diagnosis, or if they recommend sugar pills to prevent malaria, but the real objection is cultural. Homeopaths are a manifestation of a society in which wishful thinking matters more than truth; a society where what I say three times is true and never mind the facts.

If this attitude were restricted to half-educated herbalists and crackpot crystal gazers, perhaps one could shrug it off. But it isn’t restricted to them. The endarkenment extends to the highest reaches of the media, government and universities. And it corrupts science itself.

Even respectable newspapers still run nonsensical astrology columns. Respected members of parliament seem quite unaware of what constitutes evidence. Peter Hain (Lab., Neath) set back medicine in Northern Ireland. David Tredinnick (Cons., Bosworth) advocated homeopathic treatment of foot and mouth disease. Caroline Flint condoned homeopathy, and Lord Hunt referred to ‘psychic surgery’ as a “profession” in a letter written in response to question by a clinical scientist

Under the influence of the Department of Health, normally sane pharmacologists on the Medicines and Health Regulatory Authority, which is meant to “ensure the medicines work”, changed the rules to allow homeopathic and herbal products to be labelled, misleadingly, with “traditional” uses, while requiring no evidence to be produced that they work.

Tony Blair himself created religiously-divided schools at a time when that has never been more obviously foolish, and he defended in the House of Commons, schools run by ‘young-earth creationists‘, the lunatic fringe of religious zealots. The ex-Head Science teacher at Emmanuel College said

“Note every occasion when an evolutionary/old-earth paradigm . . . is explicitly mentioned . . . we must give the alternative (always better) Biblical explanation of the same data”:

That is not from the fundamentalists of the southern USA, but from Gateshead, UK.

The Blairs’ fascination with pendulum wavers, crystals and other new age nonsense is well known. When their elders set examples like that, is it any surprise that over 30% of students in the UK now say they believe in creationism and “intelligent design”? As Steve Jones has pointed out so trenchantly, this makes it hard to teach them science at all. Welcome back, Cardinal Bellarmine.

Homeopaths and herbalists may be anti-science but they are not nearly as worrying as the university vice-chancellors who try to justify the giving of bachelor of science degrees in subjects that are anti-science to their core. How, one may well ask, have universities got into the embarrassing position of having to answer questions like that?

Here are a couple of examples of how. The University of Bedfordshire (in its previous incarnation as the University of Luton) accredited a Foundation Degree course in ‘nutritional therapy’, at`the Institute of Optimum Nutrition (IoN). The give-away is the term Nutritional Therapy . They are the folks who claim, with next to no evidence, that changing your diet, and buying from them a lot of expensive ‘supplements’, will cure almost any disease (even AIDS and cancer).

The IoN is run by Patrick Holford, whose only qualification in nutrition is a diploma awarded to himself by his own Institute. His advocacy of vitamin C as better than conventional drugs to treat AIDS is truly scary. His pretensions have been analysed effectively by Ben Goldacre, and by Holfordwatch.. See the toe-curling details on badscience.net .

The documents that relate to this accreditation are mind-boggling. One of the recommended books for the course, on “Energy Medicine” (a subject that is pure fantasy) has been reviewed thus.

“This book masquerades as science, but it amounts to little more than speculation and polemic in support of a preconceived belief.”.

The report of Luton’s Teaching Quality and Enhancement Committee (May 24th 2004) looks terribly official, with at least three “quality assurance” people in attendance. But the minutes show that they discussed almost everything about the course apart from the one thing that really matters, the truth of what was being taught. The accreditation was granted. It’s true that the QAA criticised Luton for this, but only because they failed to tick a box, not because of the content of the course.

The University of Central Lancashire ‘s justification for its BSc in Homeopathic Medicine consists of 49 pages of what the late, great Ted Wragg might have called “world-class meaningless bollocks”. All the buzzwords are there “multi-disciplinary delivery”, “formative and summative assessment”, log books and schedules. But not a single word about the fact that the course is devoted to a totally discredited early 19th century view of medicine. Not a single word about truth and falsehood. Has it become politically incorrect to ask questions like that? The box-ticking mentality is just another manifestation of the endarkenment thought. If you tick a box to say that you are fully-qualifed at laying-on-of-hands, that is good enough. You have done the course, and it is irrelevant whether the course teaches rubbish.

These examples, and many like them, result, I believe from the bureaucratisation and corporatisation of science and education. Power has gradually ebbed away from the people who do the research and teaching, and become centralised in the hands of people who do neither.

The sad thing is that the intentions are good. Taxpayers have every right to expect that their money is well spent, and students have every right to expect that a university will teach them well. How, then, have we ended up with attempts to deliver these things that do more harm than good?

One reason is that the bureaucrats who impose these schemes have no interest in data. They don’t do randomised tests, or even run pilot schemes, on their educational or management theories because, like and old-fashioned clinician, they just know they are right. Enormous harm has been done to science by valuing quantity over quality, short-termism over originality and, at the extremes, fraud over honesty. Spoofs about the pretentiousness and dishonesty of some science, like that published in The New York Times last year, are too close to the truth to be very funny now.

Science, left to itself, and run by scientists, has created much of the world we live in. It has self-correcting mechanisms built in, so that mistakes, and the occasional bit of fraud, are soon eliminated. Corporatisation has meant that, increasingly, you are not responsible to your conscience, just to your line manager. The result of this, I fear, is a decrease in honesty, and in the long run inevitably a decrease in quality and originality too.

If all we had to worry about was a few potty homeopaths and astrologers, it might be better to shrug, and get on with trying to find some truths about the world. But now the endarkenment extends to parliament, universities and schools, it is far too dangerous to ignore.

Jump to follow-up

Peter A. Lawrence of the Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, and the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge has written a beautifully argued article, The Mismeasurement of Science. It appeared in Current Biology, August 7, 2007: 17 (15), r583. [Download pdf]

It should be read by every scientist. Even more importantly, it should be read by every vice chancellor and university president, by every HR person and by every one of the legion of inactive scientists who, increasingly, tell active scientists what to do.

Here are some quotations.

“The use of both the H-index and impact factors to evaluate scientists has increased unethical behaviour: it rewards those who gatecrash their names on to author lists. This is very common, even standard, with many people authoring papers whose contents they are largely a stranger to.”

  “. . . trying to meet the measures involves changing research strategy: risks should not be taken . . .”

  “. . . hype your work, slice the findings up as much as possible (four papers good, two papers bad), compress the results (most top journals have little space, a typical Nature letter now has the density of a black hole), simplify your conclusions but complexify the material (more difficult for reviewers to fault it!), . . . .it has become profitable to ignore or hide results that do not fit with the story being sold — a mix of evidence tends to make a paper look messy and lower its appeal.”

“These measures are pushing people into having larger groups. It is a simple matter of arithmetic. Since the group leader authors all the papers, the more people, the more papers. If a larger proportion of young scientists in a larger group fail, as I suspect, this is not recorded. And because no account is taken of wasted lives and broken dreams, these failures do not make a group leader look less productive.”

“It is time to help the pendulum of power swing back to favour the person who actually works at the bench and tries to discover things.”

The position of women

Lawrence argues eloquently a point that I too have been advocating for years. It is well known 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. This causes much hand-wringing among university bureaucrats, who fail to notice that one reason for it is the very policies that they themselves advocate. Women, I suspect, are less willing to embrace the semi-dishonest means that are needed to advance in science. As Lawrence puts it

“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 success of the LMB

It is interesting that Peter Lawrence is associated with the Laboratory for Molecular Biology, one of the most successful labs of all time. In an account of the life of Max Perutz, Danielle Rhodes said this.

“As evidenced by the success of the LMB, Max had the knack of picking extraordinary talent. But he also had the vision of creating a working environment where talented people were left alone to pursue their ideas. This philosophy lives on in the LMB and has been adopted by other research institutes as well. Max insisted that young scientists should be given full responsibility and credit for their work. There was to be no hierarchy, and everybody from the kitchen ladies to the director were on first-name terms. The groups were and still are small, and senior scientists work at the bench. Although I never worked with Max directly, I had the great privilege of sharing a laboratory with him for many years. The slight irritation of forever being taken to be his secretary when answering the telephone—the fate of females—was amply repaid by being able to watch him work and to talk with him. He would come into the laboratory in the morning, put on his lab-coat and proceed to do his experiments. He did everything himself, from making up solutions, to using the spectrophotometer and growing crystals. Max led by example and carried out his own experiments well into his 80s.”

Max Perutz himself, in a history of the LMB said

“Experience had taught me that laboratories often fail because their scientists never talk to each other. To stimulate the exchange of ideas, we built a canteen where people can chat at morning coffee, lunch and tea. It was managed for over twenty years by my wife, Gisela, who saw to it that the food was good and that it was a place where people would make friends. Scientific instruments were to be shared, rather than being jealously guarded as people’s private property; this saved money and also forced people to talk to each other. When funds ran short during the building of the lab, I suggested that money could be saved by leaving all doors without locks to symbolise the absence of secrets.”

That is how to get good science.

Now download a copy of Lawrence’s paper and send it to every bureaucrat in your university.

Follow up

  • The Times Higher Education Supplement, 10 Aug 2007. had a feature on this paper. Read it here if you have a subscription, or download a copy.
  • In the same issue, Denis Noble and Sir Philip Cohen emphasise the importance of basic research. Cohen says

    “In 1994, after 25 years in the relative research wilderness, the whole thing changed.

    “Suddenly I was the best thing since sliced bread,” Sir Philip said. “We set up the Division of Signal Transduction Therapy, which is the largest-ever collaboration between the pharmaceutical industry and academia in the UK.”

    But the present research funding culture could prevent similar discoveries. “In today’s climate that research would not have been funded,” Sir Philip said. “The space programme hasn’t allowed us to colonise the universe, but it has given us the internet – a big payoff that industry could never have envisaged.” (Download a copy.)

  • Comments from Pennsylvania at http://other95.blogspot.com
  • How to slow down science. Another reference to Lawrence’s paper from a US (but otherwise anonymous) blog, BayBlab.

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.

That is the title of a paper in the BMJ (11 August 2007, 335, 304) by Anisur Rahman (reader in rheumatology, University College London). He points out the strong disincentives to collaborative work that now exist. One disincentive is the enormous amounts of documentation that is now needed for any sort of clinical research. Another disincentive lies in the daft assessment methods that are becoming fashionable, because they give you very little credit for being one among many authors.

“it could be argued that clinical academics who wish to thrive should avoid taking part in such collaborations—unless they are a lead author”.

Download Rahman’s paper

Contradictions and stress

This paper highlights one of the things that makes academic life so stressful. We are constantly getting contradictory instructions, often from the same department (usually HR). Here are a few to start with.

  • You must produce at least three world-shattering results per year, and everyone must all publish them in the same half-dozen journals. And you must do lots of teaching. And you must fill in all the forms sent to you by HR to say how long you spend on research (but not the hours please, just the percentage). Then the next letter says you must take your full holidays and work a 38 hour week for your work-life balance.
  • We must have no bias against the appointment of women. But remember that the rules of the game make it almost impossible for a woman to get to the top in science if she wants to have children too.
  • You must do lots of collaborative and interdisciplinary work (because that is the buzzword of the moment for the failed postdocs who staff the research councils and journals. Oh, and remember that you must not submit for RAE purposes
    any paper that bears the name of a colleague with whom you collaborate.
  • You must employ only the most brilliant postdocs, but don’t be too assiduous about assessing their ability because that might cause bias. And, by the way, remember that it is essentially impossible to get rid of anyone, however incompetent.
  • In order to ensure a big grant income (to be used in assessing promotion), you must employ lots of postdocs. That ensures you won’t have time to check too carefully what they do, much less do anything original yourself.
  • You must have lots of collegiate spirit, and be able to recite by heart that excruciatingly embarrassing mission statement (oh, and by the way, your department has just been abolished).

An entire issue of the journal Homeopathy has been devoted to speculations about the memory of water.

The link to this issue is http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/journal/14754916 , but sadly you can’t read the papers without a subscription to the journal (and believe me, they aren’t worth paying much for). With luck, Ben Goldacre will be able to post the full text at badscience.net.

The first paper, The Memory of Water: a scientific heresy?, is by Peter Fisher, the editor of the journal. Peter Fisher, Homeopathic physician to the Queen, is a person whose name appears often in the original IMPROBABLE SCIENCE page, is not at unreasonable man, by the standards of homeopaths. He condemned roundly the recommendation by less-educated homeopaths of homeopathic pills for prevention of malaria. And he did agree with me that homeopathy had not got sufficient scientific basis to justify a BSc degree.

Peter Fisher’s introduction to the issue admits quite frankly that there is no strong evidence for water having memory of the sort that would be needed to explain the claims of homeopaths. There is nothing that explains the bizarre proposition that the medicine gets stronger the more you dilute it. There is nothing that explains the equally bizarre proposition that the water ‘remembers’ only the ingredient that you add, but conveniently forgets the countless other substances that it has encountered in the oceans and the bodies of the vast numbers of animals and plants through which it has passed.

Fisher is also sufficiently honest to include in his special issue a contribution “Can water possibly have a memory? A sceptical view“, written by José Teixeira (a physicist from the European Neutron scattering lab -see some of his publications).


To summarize this short overview, one can say that water is a ‘complex’ liquid with many fascinating, sometimes unique aspects. Except for some academic aspects concerning supercooled water, the structure of the liquid is well known. In particular, it is certain that:

(a) There are no water clusters in pure liquid water, but only density fluctuations.

(b) The longest life of any structure observed in liquid water is of the order of 1 ps [one millionth of a millionth of a second]

This is why any interpretation calling for ‘memory’.effects in pure water must be totally excluded.

The special issue on the memory of water takes us no further. After 200 years, there is still no good evidence.

The UK government, and UK vice chancellors, are exerting a lot of pressure to increase industrial funding in Universities. So far they haven’t listened at all to suggestions that research and commerce don’t mix well. It is asking too much of human nature to think that judgment about an experiment will not be influenced if you have a financial interest in one outcome rather than another. That is why the best researchers (at least in the biomedical field) avoid industry funding whenever possible: they want their results to be seen as independent.

It is well documented now that clinical trials tend to be distorted when they are funded by the pharmaceutical industry. See, for example, Lexchin, Bero et al,. in the British Medical Journal (2003), and Brennan et al. (2006) in the Journal of the American Medical Association, and the excellent book. The Truth About the Drug Companies, by Marcia Angell.

Brennan’s proposals for reducing this influence were well received on the whole, though they were opposed by a Dr K.J. Meador of Florida. But them Dr Meador’s letter ended with “Financial Disclosures: Dr Meador reported receiving grants from GlaxoSmithKline, Neuropace, SAM Technology, UCB, and the NIH; acting as a consultant to Abbott, Cyberonics, Eisai, GlaxoSmithKline, Neuropace, Novartis, Ortho McNeil, and UCB; obtaining honoraria from GlaxoSmithKline, Ortho McNeil, and UCB; and receiving salary from clinical electrophysiology, patient care, and an endowed chair at the University of Florida.”. Well, there’s a surprise.

It seems that this has dawned on the University of California. Their central administration, according to a report in Nature magazine (July 2007), has attempted to restrict the way the pharmaceutical industry buy favour in academia. The Nature editorial ends thus,

“. . . the latest policy tries to put the brakes on a trend towards heavier reliance on private funding that this fiscal squeeze has unleashed. The university’s campuses are understandably concerned about their ability to attract funding from all sources so that they can continue to operate at world-class levels. The best course available to them, nonetheless, is to follow the high standards that have recently been set at other academic medical centres, such as those at Stanford University, and to embrace the proposed policy. ”

Quite. It seems that the UK government and UK vice chancellors are going flat out for a policy that is already out of favour at Stanford. They are one step behind again. But then neither are Stanford, Yale and Harvard heading quite so enthusiastically down a path that takes power out of the hands of those who teach and do research.

Of course, Yale still has a Department of Pharmacology. Which is more than UCL has.

Postscript. There is nothing that the quackery industry likes to talk about more than the evils of Big Pharma. What they should remember is that the quackery industry is not only rich, but it is almost 100% fraud. Big Pharma may behave badly at times, but, with on the basis of pure research done largely in universities, they are also the folks who brought you general anaesthetics, antibiotics and all manner of things that have improved and lengthened lives.

Follow up

  • There are some sensible comments about industry funding here. There are always problems, but in some areas they are perhaps not as big as in the biomedical business.

Jump to Times Higher Education coverage

This is a longer version of comments published in the Times Higher Education Supplement, June 1, 2007. This longer version has now been printed in full in Physiology News, 69, 12 – 14, 2007 [download the pdf version].

It has now been translated into Russian.

Download pdf version of this paper.

I should make it clear that the term ‘bean counter’ is not aimed at accountants (we need good honest accountants). Rather it is aimed at a small number of senior academics and HR people who do not understand how to assess people.

How to get good science

David Colquhoun, Department of Pharmacology, University College London (May 2007).
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The aim of this article is to consider how a university can achieve the best research and teaching, and the most efficient administration.

My aims, in other words, are exactly the same as every university vice-chancellor (president/rector/provost) in the country. Continue reading

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