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Posts Tagged ‘science’


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.

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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.

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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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While reading and correcting a PhD thesis on ‘flu virus I thought I would check what strains I have encountered.

In February 1978 after playing a match for what was then RC Hermance (now HRRC) on a Sunday. I fell ill on the Tuesday, called home and was picked up by my mother.  Unfortunately, though a very smart person, critical thinking was not part of her education, which stopped at 16, and she dabbled in homeopathy. So I got sicker, spent 4 days at 41°C or above, but happily was then under our local GP (my mum was not daft) and was receiving anti-pyrogenic injections.  That time is a bit hazy, though my mother did say she thought she would lose me, so I must have been pretty ill.  This turns out to be an H1N1 virus, which only affected those under 26 years old. As this article  argues this particular ‘flu virus seems likely to have emerged from a lab (bio warfare) accident in the USSR or from vaccination (infection?) tests with live virus in China or the USSR, since the strain was almost identical to that from 26 years earlier and had not been seen in the wild in the intervening quarter century.

Fast forward to 1999 and I get a call from Tristan Bernard, past teammate at RC Hermance (now Life President, well deserved, a true evangelist for the sport) asking for a bed for him and a mate who were watching the World Cup; Liverpool was on a commute between games. A great evening, stated off in the Vines, and finished with a meal sometime after 2 am. A few days later ‘flu – this was I think brought to the UK by an Australian supporter and was an H3N2 strain virus. Not a major health incident for me though, a few days in bed and I was fine.

So the worst that rugby has done for me is ‘flu, twice, though I do have a wobbly ankle joint too.

As a side issue the murky past of the 1978 H1N1 ‘flu virus highlights the stupidity of allowing the gain of function engineering of pathogens. Regardless of whether the 1977 ‘flu virus did re-emerge from a lab, accidents, by definition, happen and viruses such as ‘flu remain an obvious war tool. I would be far more worried by N. Korean efforts in the molecular biology of viruses than by a few missiles with nuclear warheads. The latter can be stopped in flight, whereas viruses cannot.

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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.

 

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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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