Spinning off without IP?

I’ve had the exceptionally good fortune of working with a considerable number of extremely talented, tenacious, and insightful scientists over the years. One of those was Julian Stirling, whose PhD I ostensibly supervised. (In reality, Julian spent quite some time supervising me.) Julian is now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Bath and is involved in a number of exciting projects there (and elsewhere), including that he describes in the guest post below. Over to you Julian…


Universities love spin-offs — they show that research has had impact! — but does the tax payer or the scientific community get good value for money? More importantly, does spinning off help or hurt the research? I fall strongly on the side of arguing that it hurts. Perhaps I am ideologically driven in my support for openness, but when it comes to building scientific instruments I think I have a strong case.

Imagine a scientist has a great idea for a new instrument. It takes three years to build it, and the results are amazing; it revolutionises the field. The scientist will be encouraged by funding bodies to make the research open. Alongside the flashy science papers will probably be a pretty dry paper on the concept of the instrument; these will be openly published. However, there will be no technical drawings, no control software, no warnings to “Never assemble X before Y or all your data will be wrong and you will only find out 3 months later!“. The university and funding agencies will want all of this key information to be held as intellectual property by a spin-off company. This company will then sell instruments to scientists (many funded by the same source that paid for the development).

The real problem comes when two more scientists both have great new ideas which require a sightly modified version of the instrument. Unfortunately, as the plans are not available, both their groups must spend 2-3 years reinventing the wheel for their own design just so they can add a new feature. Inevitably both new instruments get spun off. Very soon, the tax payer has paid for the instrument to be developed three times; a huge amount of time has been put into duplicating effort. And, very probably, the spin-off companies will get into legal battles over intellectual property. This pushes the price of the instruments up as their lawyers get rich. I have ranted about this so many times there is even a cartoon of my rant…

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We live in a time when governments are requiring scientific publications to be open access. We live in a world where open source software is so stable and powerful it runs most web-servers, most phones, and all 500 of the worlds fastest supercomputers. Why can’t science hardware be open too? There is a growing movement to do just that, but it is somewhat hampered by people conflating open source hardware and low-cost hardware. If science is going to progress, we should share as much knowledge as possible.

In January 2018 I was very lucky to get a post-doctoral position working on open source hardware at the University of Bath. I became part of the OpenFlexure Microscope project, an open-source laboratory-grade motorised 3D-printed microscope. What most people don’t realise about microscopes is that the majority of the design work goes into working out how to precisely position a sample so you can find and focus on the interesting parts. The OpenFlexure microscope is lower cost than most microscopes due to 3D printing, but this has not been done by just 3D printing the same shapes you would normally machine from metal. That would produce an awful microscope. Instead, the main microscope stage is one single complex piece that only a 3D printer could make.  Rather than sliding fine-ground metal components, the flexibility of plastic is used to create a number of flexure hinges. The result is a high performance microscope which is undergoing trials for malaria diagnosis in Tanzania.

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But what about production? A key benefit of the microscope being open is that local companies in regions that desperately need more microscopes can build them for their communities. This creates local industry and lowers initial costs, but, most importantly, it guarantees that local engineers can fix the equipment. Time and time again well-meaning groups send expensive scientific equipment into low resource settings with no consideration of how it performs in those conditions nor any plans for how it can be fixed when problems do arise. For these reasons the research project has a Tanzanian partner, STICLab, who are building (and will soon be selling) microscopes in Tanzania. We hope that other companies in other locations will start to do the same.

The research project had plans to support distributed manufacturing abroad. But what if people in the UK want a microscope? They can always build their own — but this requires time, effort, and a 3D printer. For this reason, Richard Bowman (the creator of OpenFlexure Microscope) and I started our own company, OpenFlexure Industries, to distribute microscopes. Technically, it is not a spin-off as it owns no intellectual property. We hope to show that scientific instruments can be distributed by successful businesses, while the entire project remains open.

People ask me “How do you stop another company undercutting you and selling them for less?” The answer is: we don’t. We want people to have microscopes, if someone undercuts us we achieved this goal. The taxpayer rented Richard’s brain when they gave him the funding to develop the microscope, and now everyone owns the design.

The company is only a month old, but we are happy to have been nominated for a Great West Business Award. If you support the cause of open source hardware and distributed manufacturing we would love your vote.

I wouldn’t even call ’em pathetic: The alpha-rated fragility of the Manosphere

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If you’re not familiar with the internet sub-culture known as the Manosphere, you may want to look away right now. This is going to get ugly.

We’ll need the traditional trigger warning before we start…

If you find that you are unable to respond to criticism of sexism without randomly arranging terms such as SJW, white knight, cuck, kill yourself, bitch, whore, rape, professional victims, PC gone mad, First Amendment, feminazi, and/or fuck (or other assorted expletives) into grammatically dubious and arbitrarily capitalised boilerplate then you may find the following post both intellectually and emotionally challenging. A strong and potentially damaging kneejerk response or, indeed, extreme overreaction may result.

You have been warned.

My apologies for the need to include a trigger warning but, as we’re about to see, the Manospherians (Manospheroids?) are a hyper-sensitive and fragile bunch. They take offence at the drop of a fedora so it’s only fair to give any Manosphere-dweller that might be reading a heads-up — there’s some content ahead that they’re going to find ‘problematic’.

In the short video below, the wonderful somegreybloke explains the Manosphere so much better than I ever could. It’s well worth somewhat less than two minutes of your time…

To summarise Mr. Greybloke’s already pithy summary, the central premise of the average Manospherian is that “white heterosexual men living in affluent Western societies are the most oppressed and discriminated-against people in the world…living under the jackboot of a misandrist gynocracy… [because] the evil feminazis that control the vagina supply have imposed a secret genital boycott.”

Got that? Like Mr. Greybloke, this shocking revelation was news to me until I was introduced a few years back to the, ahem, ‘content’ generated by a number of leading lights in the Manospherical movement via this video series from the (Minchin-esque) Michael Rowlands. Oh, and of course this classic (from the aforementioned (first link above) Harry Brewis.)

Now, usually, the Manosphere’s residents are safely and happily ensconced in YouTubia, where they preach to their converted subscriber bases (which typically number of order a million or so). One of its denizens, however, has moved overground of late to participate in real world politics. I’m talking about the guy pictured in the Sky News tweet below…

Carl Benjamin — or, to use his Manospherian identity, Sargon of Akkad (…yes, I know; let’s move swiftly on) — is second on UKIP’s list for MEP candidates in the South-West of England (should the European Parliament elections go ahead.)  As David Baddiel points out in his tweet above, Carl, an out-and-proud Manospherian, tends to get very worked up and emotional about that misandrist gynocracy that’s happening under our noses (….if we’d only wake up.) Now, as a similarly out-and-proud social justice warrior (SJW), I’ve got to say that there’s nothing wrong, at all, with emotional responses. But Mr. Benjamin is a fully signed-up member of the “Fuck Your Feelings” brigade, who loudly claim that they put rational, dispassionate argument above all else. So here is Carl dispassionately musing on the subject of Eliot Rodger, the 22 year-old who murdered six people in California in 2014 because women rejected him…

(And just as I was writing this post, I note that The Guardian has, earlier this evening, picked up on the video above (although they don’t include the clip itself in the article): UKIP MEP candidate blamed feminists for rise in misogyny )

In case you couldn’t quite get the jist of Carl’s message there, here’s what the UKIP South-West MEP candidate (945K YouTube subscribers and counting) had to say about the murders:

When someone takes the option of absolute, insanely last resort, you have to wonder what kind of system is producing them. And I tell you what … it is a fucking feminist system that’s doing this

But it gets worse.

I tangled with “Sargon” and a few of his chums — including the gentleman advocating for paedophilia described in this Twitter thread – a few years back; I described Mr. Benjamin as “odious” on more than one occasion back then and I’ve certainly not seen any reason to revise that opinion just yet. (This was before I copped on and realised that, by reacting, I was simply taking the bait and doing nothing more than helping generate Patreon income for Benjamin and his ilk.) Kristi Winters, a political scientist based in Germany, has documented many instances (here are just a few) of Mr. Benjamin’s cluelessness on feminism and social justice. Indeed, she formally debated Benjamin a number of years ago, deftly highlighting the paucity of his ‘arguments’.

Benjamin’s “I wouldn’t even rape you” tweet neatly sums up all you need to know about the man’s quality of argumentation and wit in just five words. As Jess Phillips, MP, at whom Benjamin targeted his tweet, points out:

While the reading comprehension of a not-insignificant fraction of the “Sargon” fanbase doesn’t quite stretch to understanding the role that the inclusion of “even” plays in his infamous tweet, Mr. Benjamin himself certainly knows. He very deliberately left out the word when he called his mum to tell her about how naughty he’d been, and then uploaded the footage. (Yes, you read that right. A 38 year old man, and father of two, filmed himself calling his mum to tell her what he didn’t say to an MP about raping her. And then uploaded it for his cheering fans.)

Benjamin doubles, triples, and quadruples down on his tweet at any available opportunity, claiming that he doesn’t care about the “moral outrage” it generates. But then, as with most who claim to be vigorous defenders of freedom of speech, who whine incessantly about putting “facts above feelings”, and who throw around the “snowflake” label with relish, Mr. Benjamin does not respond at all well to jokes at his expense. When a “Sargon of Akkad” parody account was set up, instead of taking the criticism (the “banter”) on the chin, Carl was very clearly outraged. Some might even say that he was hurt. By jokes.

He’s also not quite grasped the concept of freedom of speech.

I’ve just finished reading the incredible “Rising Out of Hatred” by Eli Saslow. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It’s a powerfully affecting account of how Derek Black — son of Don Black, godson of David Duke, and arguably the most important person in U.S. white nationalism before he rose out of the hatred — came to change his views and mindset. That happened not through ostracising and demonising the man but, remarkably, because his (Jewish, Hispanic, liberal, progressive) friends listened, countered the prejudices and deeply engrained ideology, and changed his views. They changed him.

I’d like to think that Carl might similarly one day realise just what role he is playing in stoking up hate and division; he’s been lauded by no less than Richard Spencer as a “gateway” to the alt-right. I don’t think he’s entirely comfortable with that dubious accolade. But he’s got a long way to go before he can let go of the fragile rage that drives him. It is now nearly two years since Heather Anable, a contributor to a channel called The Skeptic Feminist, was murdered by her boyfriend. Carl Benjamin, along with a number of other sick individuals, participated in a livestream, hours after Heather’s murder, to laugh at her death. Even some of his fellow Manospherians were disgusted by this.

I wouldn’t even, Carl.

I wouldn’t even.


I did not ever meet Heather but I got to know her via Facebook messages while I was a member of a social justice/feminist FB group for a few months. Heather was the first to see the good in someone. The irony is that she would have tried her best to talk with Benjamin, to try to find some common ground and to appeal to his humanity. She’d have loved to have read “Rising Out of Hatred.”

Image credit: http://whenthekidsgotobed.com/2013/03/12/the-bookshelf-no-girls-allowed/

Vying with the viva

This week’s Times Higher Education‘s cover feature is “Lighting The Way“, on the theme of PhD supervision. Along with five other academics, across a range of disciplines, I was invited by Paul Jump to contribute my thoughts on the role of the PhD supervisor. The editorial (by John Gill) sums up my central point as “the fundamental responsibility [of the PhD supervisor] is still to nurture independence such that the doctoral candidate ceases to be a student and becomes a peer.” That’s a fair summary. I also reiterated my commitment to referring to PhD researchers, rather than PhD students, in line with Jeff Ollerton’s important suggestion.

I’ve had the “Vying with the Viva” title of this post stuck in my head for a little while now and the publication of the Times Higher article seems as timely a moment as any to jot down some tips for PhD students  researchers who are preparing for a viva voce examination. I should first say that just about everything you need to know about doing a PhD is covered in a wonderful book by an alumnus of the Nottingham Nanoscience Group, James Hayton, whose PhD it was my absolute pleasure to supervise. I cannot recommend that book highly enough (and not only because it demonstrates that Dr. Hayton managed to survive my supervision and come out the other side relatively unscathed, if perhaps swearing a little more often than is strictly necessary.) James also has a great blog, website, and series of videos on the many peaks and pitfalls of doing a PhD.

I thought, however, that it might be helpful for those about to undertake a viva to hear from someone who has examined PhD candidates (as both external and internal examiner) at the rate of about three or four per year (on average) over the last couple of decades. At this point in my career, I have also been primary supervisor for a total of twenty-six students. (Twenty-two have completed their thesis to date. The remaining four are in 1st year (Oli), 2nd year (Joe), and the final year (Alex and Filipe) of their PhD project, respectively.)*

I should stress that what I write below is UK- and Ireland-centric and is from the perspective of a condensed matter physicist/nanoscientist (although I could also just about get away with calling myself a chemical physicist/physical chemist, given the research we do.) The examples chosen obviously reflect my research background and examining experience but the advice is, I would say, broadly applicable for all disciplines.

My own viva, back on a snowy January morning in 1994 — with the wonderfully-monickered Iggy McGovern, physicist and poet, as my external examiner** — was very similar in style to those I’ve since attended as examiner rather than candidate. The PhD researcher sits on one side of a table, with the examiners — one from a different university (the external), the other from the same university as the candidate — seated opposite. Sometimes (though very, very rarely in my experience), the PhD supervisor will also attend, and in Ireland it’s more common to have a moderator in place to ensure that the candidate and examiners don’t come to blows. (Joke. Usually.)

OK, on with those tips for a successful viva (in no particular order)…

1. Have a practice viva.

2. Have a practice viva.

3. Have a practice viva. Excuse my hammering home the message quite as bluntly as this but if I were forced at gunpoint to give only one piece of advice it would be the following: ask your PhD supervisor to do a mock viva with you and do not take “no” for an answer. If there’s another academic member of staff or postdoc willing to be involved, all the better — they can take the role of the internal examiner and your PhD supervisor can pretend to be the external. They should aim to grill you mercilessly. And if it takes two or three attempts at the mock viva to fully prepare you for the real thing, so be it. (The mock need only take an hour or less. That’s enough, generally, to identify where there might be issues.)

We do this in our group at Nottingham for every PhD researcher (a couple of weeks before their actual viva) and we do not hold back. They leave the mock viva feeling somewhat shell-shocked but that’s entirely the point: it’s much better to come to terms with key gaps in knowledge or understanding before the actual viva. And in the end, most of our alumni find that the real viva was a piece of cake compared to the mock.

4. Every word in your thesis is examinable.  Do not simply rearrange the words in a textbook or a review article when it comes to writing the background material. Know what those words mean. For example, if you’re an experimentalist, don’t write about particular functionals used in density functional theory (DFT) if you have absolutely no idea what a functional is (and how it differs from a function). Or, if you’re a theorist, don’t wax lyrical about phase errors in a phase-locked loop if you haven’t a clue as to how a PLL does what it does. (These are both examples I’ve encountered when I’ve been external examiner.)  And it goes without saying that you don’t cut and paste from that article or textbook. That’s plagiarism. Even if it’s just one sentence. And, no, “I couldn’t word it better than it was written” isn’t an excuse. But you know that.

5. Don’t ramble. If you don’t know the answer, just say so. Obviously, try not to reply to each question you’re asked with “I haven’t a clue” but you are not expected to know the answer to everything. Indeed, the examiner is often asking because they don’t know.  If you start rambling you can very easily start digging yourself a hole out of which it’s sometimes difficult to crawl. I certainly did this in my own viva because I chatter when I’m nervous.

6. Don’t neglect the fundamentals. This is where most PhD candidates come unstuck. There seems to be a perception that the viva will focus on the minutiae of the most arcane technical detail in your research over which you have probably lost many nights of sleep. The overwhelming odds are that your examiner won’t even have noticed this aspect of your work. They’ll focus on the much bigger picture. (See also #7.)

If your PhD is on simulating intermolecular interactions, for example, be damn sure that you are completely au fait with those pair potentials due to Morse and Lennard-Jones that you covered all the way back in Year 1 or Year 2 of your undergraduate degree. Similarly, if you’ve been determining forces from a potential energy landscape measured by an atomic force microscope, ensure that you have slightly more than a passing familiarity with scalar and vector fields. Dig out those undergrad vector calculus notes and make sure you understand how force and potential are related, for one.

You can’t, of course, prepare for every question. But it’s worth thinking carefully about which key principles of physics/chemistry underpin your research. (We’ll take the 1st and 2nd laws of thermodynamics as given. You can, of course, state the 1st and 2nd laws with confidence, right?) In the case of my viva, Prof. McGovern took me from vibration isolation for a scanning tunnelling microscope (STM), to the eddy current damping exploited in most STMs, to Faraday’s law of induction. (Thanks for that, Iggy.)

7. Think big. I tend to start the vivas I do with a simple question along the lines of “Why did you do a PhD?” or “Which aspect of your work is the most important/you’re most proud of?” or “Explain your work in a few sentences and in language that a GCSE student could understand.” My aim is to try to put the candidate at their ease. This backfires sometimes, however, because the candidate clearly is not expecting a general question of this type. Sometimes they are completely flummoxed.

A key part of the viva process is to ascertain the extent to which you understand the broader context of your work. Why is it important? Why should anyone care? What value does it have in terms of pushing your field of study forward? You need to sweat the small stuff, to borrow a phrase from our friends across the pond, but you also need to be able to see the wood for the trees.

8. “My supervisor told me to do it” is never, ever, ever the right answer. You’re being examined to assess your ability to be an independent researcher. If you don’t know why you did a particular experiment or calculation the way you did, find out right now. And ask yourself whether that really was the best way to do things. (I should note that I’ve been given “My supervisor told me to do it” as a reply on significantly more than one occasion.)

9. Forewarned is forearmed. Look up your examiners’ group web pages and publications. Take some time to familiarise yourself with the research they’ve done. Unless something has gone badly astray in the examiner selection process, their research area is not going to be light years from yours. Do your homework and you might even be able to preempt a question or two.

10. We are almost always on your side. Yes, there are one or two complete bastards out there who are deeply insecure and unpleasant individuals; they’ll take pleasure in attempting to humiliate a candidate during a viva. I’ve not encountered one of these (thus far) but I’ve certainly heard from postdocs who have had to suffer arrogant, patronising, and, in the worst cases, bullying PhD examiners.

To put this in context, however I have now done somewhere between sixty and seventy vivas (as external or internal examiner) over the course of my career to date and I’ve not encountered this type of behaviour. I would also very much hope, of course, that I have not made any of the PhD candidates I have examined feel as if they were being patronised (or worse.) We examiners want you to pass!

11. Try to enjoy yourself. Despite receiving quite a grilling from Prof. McGovern, I enjoyed my viva. It’s nerve-wracking, of course, but when you’re talking about the research you love with someone who is genuinely interested in the work, it can also be exhilarating.

No, really. It can.

I’ll leave you with a wonderfully affecting Sixty Symbols video that follows my friend and erstwhile colleague at Nottingham, James Clewett, through his viva experience…

To quote James,

“In the end…it was a very comfortable… very enjoyable experience. It was something that, in hindsight, I’d do it again.”

Oh, and that reminds me…

12Don’t wear shorts.

* Thank you Mike, Mick, Li, Rich, Fiona, Matt, Andy, Manu, James, Adam, Pete, Cong, Rosanna, Haya, Sam, Julian, Cristina, Ioannis, Morten, Jeremy, Simon, Alex, Filipe, Joe, and Oli.

** It was a lot of fun to work with Iggy seventeen years after my viva on this video:

 

Science Rhymes (and resonates)

So, on April 29th this is happening:

My colleague Gerardo Adesso, who leads the Quantum Correlations group here at Nottingham — who have a very clever logo indeed, it must be said — is a man of many talents and has been writing poems and limericks to accompany each Physical Review Letter he publishes. He’s decided to extend that poetry challenge to other scientists via the Science Rhymes event described in the tweet above.

Gerardo was kind enough to relax the rules ever so slightly for yours truly — I was given special dispensation to write a song rather than a poem for “Science Rhymes”. I’ve been banging the drum for the importance of bridging the STEM-arts & humanities gap at every available opportunity so leapt at the chance when Gerardo asked if I could contribute. The song I’ve written, (un)certain, is embedded below (via SoundCloud), followed by the lyrics. The theme is resonance, which is at the core of the dynamic force microscopy technique we use in our research (as described in this video; at about the 3:04 minute mark into (un)certain, I’ve sampled the sound of the force microscope signal.) There’s also a heavy dose of quantum mechanical allusion mixed (none so subtly) into the lyric — we work with single atoms and molecules (and, indeed, single chemical bonds) so are very definitely in the quantum regime.

“Resonance” is, of course, used in a much wider sense than just its technical physics (and engineering) context: “in tune with…“, “on the same wavelength…“, “in harmony…” all describe how we connect — how we resonate — on a very human level. (un)certain is about the certainty of that type of resonance. Think of it as a quantum love song…

 

(un)certain

a time and a place

in our reciprocal space

closer than close

yes, we resonate…

entangled webs we weave

our universe is calling

a matter of phase or faith?

 

…and as the waves come crashing down

we collapse into this state

uncertainty fades

we’ve finally found our way

 

worlds apart

and we lucked out

 

for Lori

Blast from the past

While searching my e-mail archive for a message from years ago, I stumbled across this unpublished submission to the letters page of the Times Higher Education. More than a decade later, I’m still smarting a little that they didn’t accept it for publication…

From: Moriarty Philip
Sent: 30 November 2008 20:48
To: letters@tsleducation.com
Subject: Comment on “‘Clever crazies quitting science” (THE 27 Nov)

Bruce Charlton of the University of Buckingham argues that modern scientists are boring because they are mild-mannered, agreeable, and socially inoffensive (News, 27 November).

What a dickhead.

Philip Moriarty, Condensed Matter Scientist

School of Physics & Astronomy
University of Nottingham
Nottingham NG7 2RD

 

An avid fan writes…

This arrived in my mailroom pigeonhole today — a proper, honest to goodness, old-school letter (but, disappointingly, written in boring monochrome rather than the traditional green.) It’s a response, of sorts, to my recent letter to The Sunday Times. I can’t quite decide as to whether it’s a pitch-perfect parody — the line about girls not instinctively “learning to throw” is perhaps a little too good — or if my aggrieved correspondent somehow joined Jacob Rees-Mogg in teleporting here from the 18th century…

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