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Something rather different today and seasonal to boot. It is the strawberry season and pick your own does seem to result in the accumulation of very large quantities of fruit. I guess it always looks like less in a field. Indeed, there have been a few cries for help on Twitter and elsewhere, as people contemplate a huge pile of strawberries at home, wondering if they can possibly eat them. My late father had three excellent solutions.

In no particular order: Continue Reading »

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Helium shortage


For those who follow the news, though helium is rather common in the solar system, it is rare on earth. The shortages were predicted some years ago, and were put off only by the Pentagon agreeing to put some of its strategic reserve into the market.

We now face the first self-inflicted shortage: helium is now rationed in the UK. Self-inflicted, because we waste it, e.g., balloons and no recovery of the gas at point of use. This of course is all down to cost, and testimony, in a small way, to the failure of applying market principles across the board without any strategic consideration.


Universities are always cash strapped, and over the last few decades there has been a drop  in the number of PhDs funded by the UK government. In essence stipends have been increased (absolutely necessary and credit to The Wellcome Trust for pushing this), but funding has not increased commensurately. So numbers have dropped.

The response of institutions has been to push for more overseas students and to develop, from internal monies various funding  schemes. However, generally this has only served to replace losses in numbers funded by government. Gone are the days when every PI expected a new PhD student every year. This has a detrimental effect on research culture, as it leads to centralisation, a reduction in diversity (in the broadest sense of the word) and fewer trained scientists. The UK relies extensively on scientists trained elsewhere for its R&D and we need to do more in relation to training. Granted science is a mobile and international profession, but without contributing proportionally to the global talent pool, our R&D may wither in the long run.

The problem is money: institutions have limited funds they can use for PhD studentships. Our European model, where PhD students are fully funded for a set number of years (usually 3-4, sometimes a few more) is in my view preferable to the US one, where students work to support themselves. This is for the simple reason that the latter model can lead to feudalism and abuse of power, which is well documented.

There is money available for institutions willing to take leadership on the Open Access Agenda.

An aggressive pursuit of an Open Access agenda, as has been done in Germany, The Netherlands and Sweden, and most recently UC, means cancelling subscriptions to the journals of the Big Four. This frees up a substantial budget, with no ill effect on research and scholarship. A portion of the funds would, of course, need to be used to hire librarians supporting document sourcing by UG and researchers and the balance to fund PhD students. I note that teaching UGs these skills is important, since most STEM workplaces (industry, where many STEM graduates and postgraduates work) do not have large libraries. One advantage of using internal funds is that one can select and so only take the very best candidates, rather than restricting enrolment to those with access to funding. While such proposals will likely be met with horror by a good many academic staff, once in place it appears that no one notices much change and continues to work productively. This is the experience of countries and institutions that have cancelled subscriptions to one or more of the Big Four.

Sadly, with my University running workshops on “How to get published in Nature”, it appears that we are 20 years behind the times and this simple and effective means to improve teaching and research (PhD students being an engine room for research) is unlikely to see the light of day here.

Vote or be damned


We now have two UKIP parties, UKIP led by Batten, and The Brexit Party led by Farage. They and their MEPs rarely turn up for work yet collect a big fat salary.

There is ONLY ONE WAY to stop these freeloaders getting a fat salary for no work: vote for someone else.

How to get rid of these scum

  1. Register to vote and go and vote (MEP elections will follow the Council ones).
  2. Check that 10 of your mates are registered and that they go and vote on the day.
  3. Make sure each of your 10 mates gets 10 of their mates out.

That way we get a result.

Who to vote for? Anyone, but not UKIP or The Brexit Party.

Why will this work?

The elections to the European parliament are by proportional representation. That means each party is allocated seats according to the % of the vote they get.

This is completely different to how we elect Councillor sand MPs, where the candidate with the most votes in a ward/constituency gets elected, regardless of the % of the vote a party gets across all constituencies in the country.

Core  UKIP voters vote anyway. The reason UKIP gets MEPs is because the rest of us cannot be bothered to turn up and vote. So there are less votes in total and the UKIP % is inflated accordingly. The more of us vote, the lower their %, the fewer MEPs they get. It is that simple.


Following a request to comment on a future university-wide workload management scheme, I thought it useful to put my comments in a public place, as these schemes are proliferating.

Simple questions that should be answered before any effort is put into devising and implementing such a scheme:

1. The motivation question

What is it for and who benefits?

The answer to the first is ‘fairness’, and, therefore, the beneficiaries are the employees.  That is, such schemes will ensure that activity and productivity are quantified, so Bloggs, a well-known skiver, will be found out, and made to contribute to teaching and research. People buy into this, without critically examining the evidence: is Bloggs actually skiving? If Bloggs is not putting in a decent shift, perhaps there are good reasons for this, such burn out. In any event, do we need a detailed workload scheme to manage Bloggs? The answer is no, it is perfectly possible to manage Bloggs without such a scheme, as long as a Head of Department has some simple information: is Bloggs producing papers and is Bloggs teaching? If productivity on the first count is low, then Bloggs can pick up more teaching.

What the workload system does create is a hierarchy, a value system, which equates to a class system. So some colleagues are upper class, others middle class and yet others lower class. It not surprising that class ridden Anglo cultures that have never had a revolution in the modern (1789) sense love workload systems. This does nothing for fairness and poisons the workplace, reducing collegiality. The importance of a class system is evident from the tone and content of presentations by senior management. It also provides senior management with an ‘achievement’, so justifying what Piketty termed ‘super manager salaries’ that have spread from the private sector to the upper echelons of universities. As Piketty points out, the success of this new breed of managers is down to luck, not skill.

2. The dimensional analysis question

Is this measurable and what are the units?

Another simple question, which should be the first posed by a scientist, yet is rarely is. The answers have always been poor, unlikely to gain a pass mark.

Any workload management scheme needs quantitative measurements: teaching, administration and research activity are given values. These must have some sort of unit. One can argue that this is possible for the first two, in that qualitatively they can be measured in a unit of time. This can only be qualitative, particularly in the instance of small group teaching, since individual students are extremely variable in their needs, a simple consequence of humans being an outbred animal. For research, there are different units, and likely more than one. Reading could be given a time unit, writing not so. I challenge anyone to come up for a singular unit for supervision and training of research staff, since this is dependent on the individual and the project. Acquisition of resources is often simply measured in cash terms, nice and simple. But who gets the credit? PI? Co-I?. And how about Bloggs, who isn’t on the grant, but asked a key question that sparked the entire idea? Again we come back to the importance of collegiality. Damage that and you damage the entire teaching and research enterprise.

A workload scheme represents a metrification of employee activity. As such it is the cornerstone of lazy management, where rather than putting in the effort to make a professional judgement, an individual’s activities are boiled down to a score. This will fail to increase productivity or to make workloads fairer. I say that with confidence, because our own School/Institute scheme has failed on both counts. Reading a colleague’s papers on the other hand provides a rather different view, but that is something that senior management could not contemplate, because it takes them out of the decision -making loop.

I would recommend a read of this article on the failure of metrification to achieve its aims.

Finally, can anyone provide evidence that a workload management scheme increased teaching quality and the research productivity of an institutions? Any such evidence has to have the effects of new hires stripped out.


ArrestAD

After preprinting our two papers (here and here) on inhibitors of sulfotransferases they were submitted to Biochem J. The referees made some excellent suggestions – a bit of work, but the extra controls add even more certainty, which is never a bad thing.

The papers are published back to back.  The Biochemical Journal recognised the fundamental importance of the papers in opening up a new area of signalling  with an accompanying editorial by Sharon Yeoh and Richard Bayliss, as well as the issue cover.

Our papers describe the first high throughput assays for sulfotransferases, the enzymes that transfer sulfate from PAPS to their substrates. These assays were developed in parallel for three Golgi sulfotransferases; the two tyrosyl protein sulfotransferases, which sulfate selected tyrosines on proteins, and heparan sulfate sulfotransferase 2, one of the polysaccharide sulfotransferases responsible for the sulfation of heparanosan, and so producing the protein binding…

View original post 120 more words


As the UK political class is consumed by Brexit and that in the US by the Mueller investigation, things are happening in the world.  Chatting with my brother on the ‘phone this weekend I was amazed to hear that Vancouver has been hit by wildfire smog. So I checked the map. Yes, BC is on fire.

While logging doesn’t help, drought is a major contributor. The coastal ranges of BC where there have been substantial fires are a wet place, a temperate rainforest. These don’t catch fire easily unless it doesn’t rain.

Look south of the border and the entire west is on fire.

It would be wise to act vigorously before it is too late. Brexit here has a major lesson. No country can go it alone and maintain its current level of civilisation and development, we are too interdependent. Alone, you lack many key ingredients that we take for granted, from medicines to electronics, because these are by necessity made (or parts are) somewhere else. The super rich buying up properties in New Zealand as a bolt hole against the catastrophe that is global warming are rich and stupid in equal measure: New Zealand may be ‘safe’ physically, but have they considered where the factories making their medication is? No.

While some politicians in some countries take this seriously, it isn’t where it should be on the agenda – in top spot, with a regular broadcast in the news of CO2 production, as one can get for electricity generation (just one source of greenhouse gases) in the UK for @myGridGB. The reason why this has not happened yet is not one of science communication, but one of corruption and an unwillingness of government to lead.

Silence is not golden


Today the TUC and CBI, who are not usual bedfellows to say the least, came out once again stating what a disaster Brexit will be for workers and business, respectively.

What we could call the government’s ‘risk management’ documents are now in the public domain and they make grim reading.

Meanwhile, much of the UK press continues to harp on about sunny Brexit uplands. There is no political opposition. So-called conservative rebels are all playing politics and vying for position (with the exception of Ken Clarke). Her Majesty’s opposition does the same. Opposition is provided by the TUC, CBI and individuals, which last time I checked is not how a Parliamentary democracy is meant to function.

Interactions in the necessarily limited (in terms of numbers and types of people) Twitter community demonstrate the predicament we are in.

The Grim Leavers, continue to duck all the evidence, though their numbers seem to be reduced and they are largely confined to ad hominem. They go quiet the moment issues of funding the Leave campaign are raised.

Conservative ministers and MPs duck and dive, often block on Twitter. In the few interviews where they are challenged or at a Parliamentary Select Committee their performance is so poor that in any other employment their employer would likely sack them on the spot.

Core Corbyn supporters, and Labour MPs in general, fail to acknowledge the challenge that Brexit will make the Labour manifesto impossible to deliver and go quiet on this question. Waiting for the Conservative Party to destroy itself only works if you have taken a diametrically opposite position. The Labour Party have not.

The Labour party and many of its members also seem not to understand the difference between income and wealth. The latter is not taxed and can only be taxed as part of a large economic bloc. Social progress is impossible without tackling wealth inequality and income tax cannot reduce this.

So we are here:

1. We don’t have any English political leaders in the two largest parties, the other two parties are too small to make a parliamentary impact.

2. In the absence of leadership, I see little political appetite to revoke the Article 50 notification.

3. One interpretation is that May is giving the Brexiteers enough rope to hang themselves, one task they are excelling at, and then will reverse Article 50 notification. This is wishful thinking, her track record on immigration against all the evidence, suggests that immigration is a key driver for her and one reason why as a Remainer, she has become a Brexiter. Immigration is what defines her as a politician, she is after all the architect of the Windrush scandal. So she has no ‘cunning plan’ and will not revoke Article 50.

4. Brexit is likely to happen, because the UK has done nothing about the Irish Border or the rights of EU citizens in the UK. Brexit will be the disaster predicted before the referendum. A second referendum is possible, but would require a parliamentary majority, unlikely given Parliament’s track record on Brexit and the lack of evidence-based thinking on show.

5. Any transition will require the UK to actually put something sensible on the table rather than tabloid rhetoric. With just seven months to go, there is no sign of anything remotely sensible.

6. Hard times are likely post Brexit – on a scale not seen since the 1930s.

7. The assumption that we can post Brexit re-apply for membership successfully is no more than a guess. I can see a scenario where re-joining the EU will require very major concessions on Gibraltar, Schengen and all our other opt outs, including the financial ones. It is also quite possible that we are not let back in at all, because the continued asset stripping of the UK (people and business) effectively exports unemployment from the EU27 to the UK and boosts their employment and economies. An economy heading south is not a very attractive proposition, when you can do trade deals with, say, ASEAN, whose middle classes outnumber the entire UK population by several fold.