Posts Tagged ‘research’

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.


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Friday Pat Eyers pushed our two papers on new screens we have developed for sulfotransferases up onto Biorxiv. More about the history of this work later. For now the briefest of summaries.

The heparan sulfate 2-O sulfotransferase paper is here

and the tyrosine sulfotransferase paper is here.

The key messages are:

(1) Mimetics of PAPS, the universal sulfate donor, that inhibit sulfotransferases are present in kinase inhibitor libraries.

(2) We demonstrate selectivity, in that some compounds inhibitor one sulfotransferase better than they do the other.

(3) PAPS mimetics look like providing a rich vein of sulfotransferase inhibitors of varying selectivity, rather like ATP mimetics have done for kinases.

(4) We have two very effective high throughput screens, which means no sulfotransferase is now beyond our reach.

Sulfation has been frustrating due to the lack of chemical tools to selectively inhibit a particular sulfotransferase. With these two papers we can foresee such tools in the not too distant future and with these, we can unpick the role of sulfation in biology, from development, through homeostasis to disease.

Exciting times!

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Congratulations to Aiseta!

On Monday 4 December Aiseta Baradji successfully defended her thesis. A long journey and a hard one as ever with its ups and downs, surprises and a certain amount of head scratching over data that push us in new directions. In the end a great thesis that will be consulted in the labs of her supervisors for a long time. Now onto the next phase.


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Two postdoc positions are available in my lab.

Both are part of the larger, European Commission-funded FET-Open programme, ArrestAD, which has recently been funded.

Position 1 aims to characterise heparin-binding proteins in Alzhiemer’s disease.

Position 2 aims to develop inhibitors to Golgi sulfotransferases. (more…)

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The ArrestAD team had its kick off meeting in Paris on 5 January 2017. This was held on Paris, the base of our coordinator, Dulcé Papy-Garcia and was hosted by the APHP in the Espace Scipion. Team members from outside Paris stayed at the Hotel La Demeure  situated nearby and though on the Boulevard St Marcel, nice and quiet.

The kick off meeting started with a presentation form our coordinator, which provided the backdrop for the day. Science presentations from the participants then followed. These provided an overview of the position of the field of the participant and then summarised research plans. In a multidisciplinary project, one cannot be fully up to speed with the other fields, so we all learned a lot. The more technical part of these presentations gave us an opportunity to discus the nuts and bolts of our research plans and how these fitted together. It…

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A little late this year, but then there are many calendars, so it is surely the start of the New Year for someone, somewhere, today. (more…)

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This is a question raised at the end of the excellent article by @Amy_Harmon regarding Open Access and preprints is can biomedical scientists evaluate each other without journals?

The short answer is a resounding yes.  Physical scientists and mathematicians have been posting much of their research as preprints on arXiv for a few decades, with no prejudice to their ability to evaluate the quality of work or of individuals.

The counter argument raised by many in biomedical sciences, from scientists to some journal editors can be boiled down quite simply: We are special and cannot possibly do this.

Various arguments are put forward, from competition (=fear of scooping) to intellectual property. These arguments are heard in many biomedical/biology departments, sometimes leading to quite heated discussions. It is also interesting to note that the defenders of the status quo are not necessarily the older members of the community.

There is a simple answer. Yes you are special, but not in the good sense of the word. (more…)

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