Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Scientific progress’ Category


An article in the New Statesman this summer argues that the British degree has lost its value. The evidence is largely restricted to:

  1. A complaint by students at the University of Sheffield (course not mentioned) which resulted in an uplift of the marks, particularly at the bottom end.

Without context this is a non-argument. Was the course new and there was a mismatch between what was delivered and examined? Was the marking rogue (not everyone does their job with due diligence…)?  And so on.

There follow a few paragraphs that provide no evidence, but plenty of hand waving.

The last paragraphs consider the increase in the number of students going to university and asks the question, sure, if access if wider, there should be more at the bottom, more failures. A corollary is that schools are doing no better now than they used to.

I agree there has been some grade inflation, which has two sources. The first is using the full range of marks available, rather than deciding in advance that there will be no more than one first class degree each year. Current practice is the right thing to do and past practice was wrong. The second source of grade inflation is due to the law of unintended consequences. Legal challenge, now possible because students can access their marks (transparency can only be a good thing) means there are issues at degree borderlines. Common responses have been to avoid all marks at borders (of course this fails singularly to solve the problem, since the final mark is an average of many, so student still end up under the border) and to push students up a % or two if their final marks are below a border. These and other responses to the problem have had an inflationary effect, but I would estimate it to be more more than a few %.

Counter arguments to very substantial and continual grade inflation are:

GCSEs and A-levels are harder than they were, and students are better prepared for university (just as primary students are much better prepared for the jump to secondary). While every year ministers and sections of the press whinge that the all time high level of passes represent a failure, the teaching profession (who have forgotten more about teaching than ministers or members of the 4th estate ever knew) argue the opposite. I always take the expert over others and my limited personal experience of the matter supports the views of the teaching profession.

University courses have changed. At least for STEM courses, they are much harder and demand a lot more effort on the part of the students (my personal opinion is we have gone too far) than 40 years ago, when I was an undergraduate. There is far greater challenge and courses develop skills that in STEM subjects were not even touched on, such as critical thinking and critical analysis of data. Back in the day you either figured this out or you didn’t, so this was learned by the time-honoured system of osmosis. Importantly, a student’s abilities in these areas had no impact on the degree awarded. There is perhaps a generational difference between the young (18-35 and the middle aged and older graduates >35), with the former better at critical thinking  and analysis than their elders.

Read Full Post »


My e-mail of July 6 has yet to elicit a response. That is over 3 weeks ago, and our representatives should at the least acknowledge receipt of correspondence from their constituents within two weeks. Of course, it is quite possible that, as my representatives grapple with the complexities of their new hi-tech offices and systems, things are slipping through the net. So today I have resent the e-mail. With summer holidays on (though an MEP should maintain a skeleton staff at all times, since they have the taxpayer-funded budget for this), I would expect to receive a reply by the Bank Holiday.

Read Full Post »


I have written the following to my Brexit Party Representatives in the European Parliament. At the heart of parliamentary democracy is the idea that our representatives do indeed represent the interests of their constituents, regardless of Party politics. Of course interests have to be balanced but when these are win-win, there can be no reason for not representing a particular interest. As the matter is not a personal one, then I have also put it on my blog, since there is no reason for secrecy.

I will, of course, post any further correspondence, unless it is confidential for some reason.

“Dear Ms Fox (& cc’ed to Mr Nielsen and Mr Bull)

I am writing to you as one of your constituents regarding an issue which affects me personally and the region. As a University Professor I have over the years been awarded research funds from various Framework Programmes. Most recently, I am part of the €4M FET-OPEN programme “ArrestAD”. This aims to test a new paradigm for Alzheimer’s Disease screening and lay the foundation for a new class of drugs that would arrest the disease.

FET-OPEN projects are very much blue skies and in our case we appear to have hit the jackpot. The trials of the diagnostic in Paris and Warsaw  are quite spectacular and our own work has shown that the targets which ArrestAD has proposed are eminently druggable.

ArrestAD is a 4 year programme. As in any blue skies research, towards the end of the penultimate year a decision is made by the research team whether we should apply for a new, larger project, under one of the translational programmes available under H2020, or to can the idea, in the event it isn’t going to deliver.

Since ArrestAD is delivering its promise, the team will be going forward and applying for a translational programme. This will involve further clinical centres and greater industry participation, since we need more patients and, for drug development, far greater resource.

Alzheimer’s being what it is, ArrestAD obviously impacts widely and not just on myself: there are substantial social and economic ramifications for our region, the UK, and beyond.

The problem we face is that with a so-called No Deal Brexit, the UK loses access to funding from H2020 and the future framework programme. There is no  legislation in the UK Parliament that would guarantee funding as a 3rdcountry. The upshot is that Brexit will prevent my continued contribution to this likely life-changing research programme. Importantly, it will prevent the UK from reaping economic benefit (clinical trials, pharmaceutical industry).

As my representative in the European Parliament, it is imperative that you work to find a solution, which ensures that the drug development arm of this project remains based in the UK, and that the UK is able to participate fully in the wider clinical trials of the diagnostic. I think you would agree that given the impact of this dreadful disease, this is in everyone’s interests.”

Read Full Post »


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.

Read Full Post »


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.

Read Full Post »


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.

Read Full Post »


A discussion today with a student asking about the use of the Royal “we” in a report about his work. I agree, this is wrong. My suggestions were the first person singular and the passive. The passive gets a bad press in places, but it does work; the repetition of “we” or “I” grates, the latter particularly so because it can convey a strong sense of ego. Though as I pointed out, this depends how it is used. It was common in single author papers for the author to use “I”. The practice has disappeared due to multiauthorship and the urge to make scientific observations look objective. We finished by joking about the feudalism implicit in the use of ‘my laboratory’, as if this was some sort of sentient being, and then I wondered out loud whether one might not, in a multiauthor paper state:

“In experiment X (Fig. X), blogs demonstrated that….” And then later “In experiment Y (fig. Y) Doe indicated….”

Tonight a tweet from @UtopianCynic

UtopianCynic tweet

reminded me of my earlier conversation. Indeed, why bother with all the rubbish associated with authorship position? Why not have a list of authors and in the paper report who did what and who thought what?

It would then be clear (i) who pulled together the original hypothesis; (ii) who did the experiments; (iii) who thought up the interpretations of the data.

I think I might try this out.

This also solves the long-standing problem of blaming whoever is at the bottom of the pile when a paper is found to have manipulated data. Someone will be explicitly on watch and someone else will have done a particular measurement under that person’s watch.

It will be obvious who should walk the plank, and reaching for lawyers will only result in keel hauling, because it will be all written down and signed off.

 

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »