’twas the night before Christmas…

Published at the Times Higher Education website Dec 24 2018.

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when, on a paper-strewn desk
A mouse is stirring, a blue-toothed pest…

Dear Santa,

I know I’m well past the deadline to submit this annual report and request, but if you’d seen the sack-full of papers I’ve just finished grading, you’d understand. I’ve been a very good boy over the past twelve months, securing a substantial rise in my Student Evaluation of Excelling in Excellent Performance in Teaching Excellence scores and establishing a new programme of physics-cum-engineering research on a topic of particular interest to your team, viz. Sleighed: Under what loads can reindeer achieve speeds of 100 mph or more? Our sponsor, Mr. Holder, is eagerly awaiting snowfall so we can test the latest developments in our state-of-the-art sleigh technology. The impact component of this case is particularly exciting, and we’re looking forward to rolling out the results in the New Year.         

I very much hope that I make it past the Elf Review Panel this time. As you may recall, the damning report from Relferee #3 was instrumental in my ending up on the Naughty List last Christmas. (Yes, I appreciate that the feedback on that particular piece of student coursework was perhaps less restrained than it could have been. And the relferee was absolutely correct to highlight this. But, in my defence, thirty-nine comma splices in a single paragraph would push anyone over the edge.)

I have followed the sage advice of your elves and have substantially reduced the number of presents requested. While I don’t agree with the elf panel’s suggestion that I was vigorously over-egging the pudding last year, I’ll admit that I was perhaps a little bit too full of Christmas spirit at the time I was writing the letter. (You’ll be pleased to note that the five star doggy hotel holiday for Maxwell, my Maltese, is not on the list this year.)

My 2018 Christmas list is as follows, Santa. Fingers crossed that at least one of these is going to appear below the tree this year. (And no fobbing me off with a subscription to the THE. Again.)

  • 4* Paper Detector. I’ve yet to get a definitive answer from anyone, at any level, in any institution, at any time as to what definitively defines a 4* paper in the Research Excellence Framework. No, it’s not the impact factor of the journal in which it’s published, they’ll say. Nor is it the name of the journal, or its perceived prestige. Nor is it the number of citations. Apparently, it’s all about research quality – the panel members actually read the papers and they know quality when they see it. I need a 4* Paper Detector this year, Santa, so I can see what they see.
  • Corporate-Speak DeBolloxerTMEngaging our stakeholders in innovative synergies, going forward, by expressing our USP in an environment where excellence is paramount ….” Arrrggghh. Make. It. Stop. Please, Santa, I really, really, really need the DeBolloxer this year so that I can translate, into gold old honest-to-goodness English, the torrents of this nonsense that infest and infect my inbox.
  • League Table Legends board game (with all-new Metrics Massager). This is both a fun and educational present, Santa. I’ll be able to learn all about the bells, whistles, tricks, and japes that make university league tables such an exciting part of the higher education landscape. Choose a university and manage it to maximise its league table ranking! No need to bother with all that old school 20th century stuff like trusting staff and providing an environment in which they can flourish. No, just rely on massaging the metrics until they bleed – so much more entertaining.
  • “When I Were A Lad…” box-set. (A total of 48 two hour DVDs, each narrated by Jordan B. Peterson, Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto, in his own inimitable style.) I’ve got to be honest, Santa, this one’s not for me. It’s instead a gift for one of my somewhat more jaded and knackered colleagues who, despite all evidence to the contrary, points to those halcyon days of yore when men were real men, women were real women, and students would rise at dawn to do triple integrals, vector calculus, and eigenvalue problems before breakfast, all the while debating the merits of a Keynesian approach to fiscal policy as they composed their latest symphony.

Yours in anticipation,
Philip (aged 50)
School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Nottingham, UK

When I were a lad…

…we’d have to get up for a morning tutorial at ten o’clock at night, half an hour before we went to bed… complete all 171,117 problems in each of Schaum’s Outline series on partial derivatives, fluid mechanics, and vector analysis before breakfast… work twenty-nine hours in the undergraduate lab (and pay the lab organiser nineteen and six for the privilege)… and when we got back to the halls of residence, the Hall Tutor would kill us and dance about on our graves while reciting Chapter 1 of Feynman’s Lectures In Physics, Vol I. 

But you try and tell that to young people today and they won’t believe you…

[With all due credit to Messrs Cleese, Chapman et al.]


There’s yet another one of those irksome hand-wringing “…tsk, kids these days…articles in the Times Higher this week. Here’s a sample:

Even science students seem to struggle with mathematics. During my last few years of teaching in the UK, I was aggressively confronted by science undergraduates because I tried to engage them in an exercise that required them to calculate percentages. I was told that this was unreasonable because they were not, after all, doing a maths degree.

In twenty-one years of undergraduate science teaching (to date) I have not once encountered a student who baulked at the calculation of percentages. Granted, I usually teach physicists, but I’ve also taught chemists, chemical engineers, biomedical scientists, and pharmacy students. (I should note that I’m also not the least cynical academic teaching at a UK university.) The reactionary “eee by gum, they don’t know they’re born” whining is teeth-grindingly frustrating because it does a massive disservice to so many of our students.

Last week (as a Christmas, um, …treat) I decided I’d ask my first year tutorial group to attempt questions from an exam paper from 2001. I have done this for the last four or five years so it’s becoming a bit of a festive tradition. Here are two of the questions:

2001-Exam-p1_trimmed.jpeg

My tutees tackled these questions, and others, with quite some aplomb, despite the paper having been set when they were still in nappies. You may note that the questions involve mathematical (and physics) reasoning significantly more sophisticated than the calculation of percentages.

Deficiencies in the secondary/high school education system are too often lazily attributed to a lack of engagement or effort from students; that THE article is, of course, only the latest in a long line of Daily Mail-esque “We’re going to hell in a hand-cart” polemics in a wide variety of online and traditional forums [1]. In my experience, student ability or commitment has most definitely not dropped off a cliff at some point during the last two decades. Indeed, students are instead generally much more focused now due to the imposition of the £9250 per year fee regime; too focussed in some cases, many would say.

So let’s put the pearl-clutching to one side for a while and instead highlight the positives in higher education: the talents and tenacity of our students. In the midst of the madness that is Brexit, let’s not succumb to the lazy narratives and sweeping generalisations that characterise so much of public debate right now. After all, don’t we teach our students that critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning are core to their education?

[1] …or fora for those who are particularly pedantic and especially wedded to that fifties idyll of English  Latin as it should be, dammit. (Sorry, “damn it”. (Oops, sorry again, make that deodamnatus.))

 

Crossing The Divide: Communicating with the Comms Crew

IMG_5677.JPG

I’m just back from a fascinating and thought-provoking day at Woburn House Conference Centre in London where I had the pleasure of contributing to Making An Impact: Marketing and Communications in Higher EducationI’ll quote directly from the blurb for the conference:

 Making an impact: Marketing and communications in higher education will bring together communications, marketing, external relations and digital professionals to discuss the particular nature of university marketing and communications, to draw inspiration from outside the sector, and to examine case studies to help you progress and enhance your own marketing and communications strategy.

At the start of the academic year, the conference organisers, Universities UK, invited me to present and run a breakout session on the upsides and dark sides of social media in academia. I was delighted to have been invited, but what I found rather surprising, if not a little disconcerting, when I scanned down the list of hundred or so delegates this morning was that I was apparently the only academic attending.

Now, I realise that, as is clear from the blurb above, the conference was pitched at those in higher education comms, marketing, and external relations. But still. A conference on core aspects of HE that was largely academic-free is symptomatic of the troublesome “us and them” divide that increasingly exists between those “at the chalkface” and our marketing and comms colleagues at the “centre”. Although I’ve been fairly — or unfairly, depending on which side of the divide you fall — scathing of the more corporate aspects of HE branding, I of course fully recognise that we academics need the support and guidance of our colleagues in marketing and comms. But that runs both ways; there has to be mutual recognition of each other’s expertise. I hope that more academics will get involved with this type of conference in future.

Despite initially feeling like a stranger in a strange land, however, I got a great deal out of the conference. Robert Perry‘s opening presentation on “influencer mapping” was fascinating. Perry made a strong case for the much greater online influence of the individual academic over that of the institution, which chimes with our experience with Sixty Symbols (and Brady Haran‘s other channels): the lack of a corporate “sheen” in connecting and engaging with an audience is almost essential.  As a fellow geek, I was also intrigued by the “connectivity mapping” that Perry presented in the self-styled “Geeky Bit” part of his presentation.

Next up was the engaging and informative Sian Griffiths, Education Editor for the Sunday Times, who was interviewed by Michael Thompson of Universities UK. This was a wide-ranging discussion covering everything from the unhelpful defensiveness of a certain breed of  university press officer to whether unconditional offers for university applicants are a good idea. (As an admissions tutor, the latter certainly piqued my interest.)

IMG_5693.JPG

Closing the morning session, we had Kirsty Walker, Director Media Relations, University College London and Beth Button, Campaigns Manager, Universities UK on the #MadeAtUni campaign. Georgina Munn’s tweet below captures the core rationale for #MadeAtUni. (Georgina is Customer Success Manager at The Access Platform (TAP)).

At this point I had not imbibed caffeine for a good ninety minutes, so rushed to grab a coffee before the palpitations kicked in. (Again.) Then it was up two flights of stairs to the Boardroom for a session on crisis management from Will Marsh, Head of Media at Bristol University, and Tom Sheldon, Senior Press Manager for the Science Media Centre. Universities UK worked Will hard for the conference — not only did he co-present this session but he and I jointly delivered a breakout session after lunch (see below). Will discussed the tragic student suicides that have happened at Bristol University over the last two academic years, describing just how he and his team dealt with the issues with sensitivity and insight. (Unsurprisingly, the Daily Mail did not exactly cover itself in glory in its coverage of the tragedies. Handling intrusive tabloid coverage was a recurring theme of Will’s talk.)

Tom Sheldon similarly made mention of tabloid hyperbole in his presentation…

IMG_5701.JPG

Despite being very much of the “glass half-empty, fallen on the ground, crushed to bits…and we’ll never get the wine stains out of the carpet” persuasion, I was hugely encouraged by Tom’s slide below:

IMG_5703.JPG

In case you can’t read the text above, the headline message is that 90% of the UK public (via the MORI Public Attitudes To Science survey in 2014) trusted scientists working for universities to follow the rules and regulations of our profession. That is remarkable (and, from certain perspectives, rather at odds with attitudes to academics across the pond).

Will and Tom’s Q&A had to be curtailed so we all could go to lunch. Will and I made our way back to the Boardroom for our session, “Communications professionals and researchers: Collaborating for success”. I discussed my rather polarised relationship with social media. Working with Brady Haran on Sixty Symbols, Numberphile (and, very, very occasionally, Periodic Videos), and with Sean Riley on Computerphile, has completely changed how I think about not only public engagement but teaching in general. But I’ve also written about the deep downsides of social media engagement both here at Symptoms… and elsewhere.

The key message I wanted to get across to the comms/marketing audience in the room (who kindly listened to me drone on for twenty minutes or so) was that it’s a mistake to think that there’s an adoring public out there waiting for academics to enlighten them about our most recent world-leading, pioneering, game-changing, cutting-edge (add buzzwords ad nauseum…) research. As ever for this type of presentation, I asked how many in the audience had heard of GamerGate (just five hands went up) or Anita Sarkeesian (three hands raised). This is a concern, given that this was an audience of (social) media professionals. My slides are below.

Will’s presentation focussed on just how a university Media and Communications team can collaborate with academics who have been targeted on social media (and beyond) due to research which is perceived as contentious. Remarkably, one especially contentious area of research turns out to be work on chronic fatigue syndrome. Will, depressingly, discussed how Bristol academics have received death threats due to their work in this area. (This article in The Guardian, which Will cited, highlights one example of targeting of a Bristol researcher.)

There is, of course, no silver bullet solution to protecting academics from the adverse consequences of engaging publicly. (The related issue of just where the line is drawn between professional and personal online activity was something that was raised in the Q&A session following our presentations.) Will made this point repeatedly for very good reason throughout his talk. Regardless, however, of just how we respond to each crisis, what is essential is that there are always good lines of communication and a strong professional relationship between the comms/media team and the academic staff.

For all of these reasons (and many more), next time I attend a conference on marketing and communications in HE, I sincerely hope that, as an academic, I’m not in a minority of one.

Update 09/11/2018: I’ve just scanned this week’s Times Higher Education over breakfast and read Charlotte Galpin‘s insightful and timely article on academics engaging via video: “Video must not kill the female stars of public academic debate“. Her article certainly resonated with me — Galpin echoes a number of the points that Will and I raised during our breakout session yesterday:

Live streaming, live tweeting, posting and podcasting of academic events has become a standard part of universities’ dissemination strategies, and I had been asked to participate in this one just months into my first lectureship. Yet, it is not clear that the wider implications of the practice have been considered in any depth.

My university has been supportive, but it also expressed surprise over my Daily Express experience, and reassured me that nothing like that had happened before.

It beggars belief that a university can express surprise at the type of backlash Dr. Galpin received. This lack of appreciation of just how toxic and aggressive it can get “out there” is troubling and needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. For one thing, Galpin’s article should be on the list of required reading for all HE media and comms professionals. Anita Sarkeesian’s TEDx talk should similarly be part of the learning resources for Social Media for Academics 101…

Is physics boring?

This is a guest post by Hannah Coleman, a 2nd year physics undergrad here at Nottingham. (Hannah’s YouTube channel is well worth a visit for insights into student life and the trials and tribulations of studying physics.)


One of the more unusual aspects of being an undergraduate is that you are sometimes asked to attend staff meetings as a ‘student representative’. I’ve attended many meetings in my past life where people waffle on for a very long time about all things that should be done but never actually happen. Thankfully the Outreach Committee meetings in the School of Physics and Astronomy don’t fall into that category.

One of the agenda points today was feedback from the Diversity Committee. Our school really works hard to tackle diversity issues in physics, not just for our undergraduate courses, but also, and especially, for A Level physics. Data from 2016 indicates that only 1.9% of girls progress to A Level physics, while 6.5% of boys choose the subject. The other two sciences (and maths) have a much less pronounced gender split.

There are many complicated and subtle reasons why girls choose not to study physics at A Level and university, and these need to be countered very early on. However, one reason that was discussed more than briefly at today’s meeting was the idea that physics is boring. In a room filled with half a dozen physicists, this is a ridiculous notion. Yet I think it is worth considering.

I can only really speak from personal experience, but I have vivid memories of being routinely disappointed by science at school. I received most of my secondary education in South Africa under the IGCSE system, in a school that was mostly driven by money and results, but I had some really good teachers. There were only two male teachers and they taught art and geography, so I certainly wasn’t lacking female roles models in the sciences. I remember both of my maths teachers being very enthusiastic, and they made the classes fun, and the problems seem like puzzles. (I still managed to bag myself an E at IGCSE, but that’s a story for another time).

But the physics sucked.

Now, physics is a truly incredible subject, and the people who study it tend to be fairly passionate and enthusiastic. With the amount of time spent banging your head against a wall while trying to make sense of some problem or other, the enthusiasm is almost a prerequisite. So why is school physics so boring?

I think physics at school is robbed of almost everything that makes it such a fascinating subject. Velocity is boring. Potential energy is boring. Friction is boring. It can all be so incredibly dry when it’s void of any greater context and/or taught by someone who doesn’t particularly enjoy the subject. I remember looking forward to the one lesson of the year that had anything to do with astronomy, only to be hugely disappointed because we learnt about the solar system. Don’t get me wrong, the solar system is pretty incredible, but it felt like we learnt the same facts we learnt at primary school. Where were the quasars, the black holes and the expanding universes?

I saw this same disappointment countless times as a secondary school teaching assistant, and I tried my best to explain to those kids that all of physics was just as interesting if they were willing to dig deeply enough. But I think the curriculum probably lost them pretty quickly.

As someone who has returned to study later in life, I have often thought about (and over-analysed) the reasons I didn’t pursue physics after GCSE. The three things I come back to time and again are the perceived difficulty of the subject (‘it’s too hard for someone like me’), the lack of role models (‘people like me aren’t successful in the field’), and just how dull it was at school. The latter frustrated me the most as a kid, because it wasn’t a perceived fault within me. I knew my teachers could have been teaching us some really cool stuff, but I was worried it wouldn’t change at A Level or university and I’d be stuck doing something that didn’t enthuse me.

The fundamentals of physics don’t have to be boring (and I’m sure all of my lecturers would argue that they most definitely aren’t!). So what’s so special about friction? Why should I be interested in potential energy? Let’s face it, cars on inclined planes aren’t exactly the most fascinating things, but the underlying laws that govern how they interact have so many applications, and are actually kind of cool just by themselves. I hope that if we can show a few kids a different side to physics, then they might be more adventurous with their A Level choices.

20,000 Leagues under the THE

This monstrous tome arrived yesterday morning…

THE-rankings.png

I subscribe to the Times Higher Education and generally look forward to the analogue version of the magazine arriving each week. Yesterday, however, it landed with a fulsome house-rattling thud as it hit the floor, prompting Daisy, the eight year old miniature dachshund whose duty it is to ward off all visitors (friend, foe, or pizza), to attempt to shred both the magazine and the 170 page glossy World University Ranking ‘supplement’ pictured above that accompanied it.

I should have smeared the latter with a generous helping of Cesar dog food [1] and have her at it.

Yes, it’s yet another rant about league tables, I’m afraid. I’ve never been one to hold back on the piss and vinegar when it comes to bemoaning the pseudostatistics underpinning education league tables (be they primary school OFSTED placements or the leaderboards for august higher education institutions). I’m lucky to be in very good company. Peter Coles’ annual slamming of the THE rankings is always worth reading. (He’s on especially good form for the 2019 season.) And our very own Head of School, Mike Merrifield, has described in no uncertain terms just why university league tables are bad for you.

But this time round, and notwithstanding that WB Yeats quote I love so much [2], there’s going to be a slightly more upbeat message from yours truly. We need to give students rather more credit when it comes to seeing through the league table guff. They’re a damn sight more savvy than some imagine. Before I describe just why I have this degree of faith in the critical thinking capabilities of the next generation of undergrads, let’s take a look at a few representative (or not, as the case may be) league tables.

I’ve got one more year to go (of a five year ‘gig’) as undergraduate admissions tutor for the School of Physics & Astronomy at Nottingham. Throughout that time, I have enjoyed the healthy catharsis of regularly lambasting league tables during not only my University open day talks (in June and September) but for every week of our UCAS visit/interview days (which kick off again in mid-November).

I routinely point to tables like this, taken from the annual Graduate Market report [3]:

GraduateMarket2017-2018

Tsk. Nottingham languishing at #8. Back in 2014-2015 we were at # 2:

GraduateMarket2014-2015.png

Clearly there’s been a drop in quality to have slipped six places, right?

No. There’s nothing “clear” about that supposition at all. Universities and university departments are not football teams: it’s ludicrous to judge any institution (or department therein) on the basis of a single number.

Not convinced? Just sour grapes because Nottingham has ‘slipped’?

Well, take a slightly closer look at Table 5.8 directly above. Let’s leave the Nottingham “also-ran”s to one side, and focus on the top of the pops, Manchester. They’re an impressive #1 when it comes to employer perception…yet #28 in the Good University Guide. So which number do you prefer? Which has more credibility? Which is more robust?

Still have residual doubts? OK, let’s instead focus in on individual schools/departments rather than consider entire universities. (And don’t get me started on the university-wide Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF)’s gold, silver, and bronze medals…) Here’s where Nottingham stands in The Times’ Physics and Astronomy league table:

TimesTop10.png

Yay! Go Nottingham! In at #5 with a bullet. Up a whopping thirteen places compared to last year. (Incidentally, our undergraduate applications were also up by over 20%. This correlation between league table placement and application numbers may not be entirely coincidental…)

Wow. We must really have worked hard in the intervening year. Or perhaps we brought in “star world-class players” on the academic transfer market to “up our game”?

Nope.

So what was radically different about our teaching and/or research compared to the previous year that led to this climb into the Top Ten?

Nothing. Zilch. Nada.

Feck all.

Indulge me with one last example.  Here’s the most recent (2014) Research Excellence Framework ranking for physics…

REF2014.png

Nottingham is the only school/department to remain in the Top 5 over two rounds of this national research assessment exercise. (Last time round (in 2008) we were joint second with Bath and Cambridge). Again, Yay Nottingham!, right? Or does it perhaps speak rather more to a certain volatility in the league table placements because any peer review process like the REF is very far from being entirely objective?

Both Peter Coles and Mike Merrifield (among many others) have pointed out key reasons underpinning league table volatility. I’m not about to rehearse those arguments here. Instead, I’ll highlight a couple of rather encouraging Reddit threads I’ve read recently — and that’s not something I tend to write too often — related, at least partially, to Nottingham’s open days. The first of these Mike has very helpfully highlighted via Twitter:

 

There is indeed a lot to be said for brutal honesty and I am delighted that the pseudostats of league table placements are being questioned by open day audiences.

The responses to this rather snobbishly overwrought comment elsewhere on Reddit also made my heart sing:

Reddit.png

You can read the responses at the thread itself but I especially liked this, from ‘Matthew3_14’:

Reddit_response.png

I’d quibble with the “outside of the top 5ish” proviso (as you might expect), but otherwise “Matthew3_14” echoes exactly what I’ll be telling visiting applicants for our courses in the coming months…

If you like Nottingham, the rankings are irrelevant.

If you don’t like Nottingham, the rankings are still irrelevant.

Go to the place where you feel best.


[1] …for small, yappy-type dogs.

[2] “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy that sustained him through temporary periods of joy.”

[3] Yes, it’s irritating that we now unblinkingly refer to students as a market. That’s a whole other blog post or five.

 

The war on (scientific) terror…

I’ve been otherwise occupied of late so the blog has had to take a back seat. I’m therefore coming to this particular story rather late in the day. Nonetheless, it’s on an exceptionally important theme that is at the core of how scientific publishing, scientific critique, and, therefore, science itself should evolve. That type of question doesn’t have a sell-by date so I hope my tardiness can be excused.

The story involves a colleague and friend who has courageously put his head above the parapet (on a number of occasions over the years) to highlight just where peer review goes wrong. And time and again he’s gotten viciously castigated by (some) senior scientists for doing nothing more than critiquing published data in as open and transparent a fashion as possible. In other words, he’s been pilloried (by pillars of the scientific community) for daring to suggest that we do science the way it should be done.

This time, he’s been called a…wait for it…scientific terrorist. And by none other than the most cited chemist in the world over the last decade (well, from 2000 – 2010): Chad A Mirkin. According to his Wiki page, Mirkin “was the first chemist to be elected into all three branches of the National Academies. He has published over 700 manuscripts (Google Scholar H-index = 163) and has over 1100 patents and patent applications (over 300 issued, over 80% licensed as of April 1, 2018). These discoveries and innovations have led to over 2000 commercial products that are being used worldwide.”

With that pedigree, this guy must really have done something truly appalling for Mirkin to call him a scientific terrorist (oh, and a zealot, and a narcissist), right? Well, let’s see…

raphaportrait2The colleague in question is Raphael Levy. Raphael (pictured to the right) is a Senior Lecturer — or Associate Professor to use the term increasingly preferred by UK universities and traditionally used by our academic cousins across the pond — in Biochemistry at the University of Liverpool. He has a deep and laudable commitment to open science and the evolution of the peer review system towards a more transparent and accountable ethos.

Along with Julian Stirling, who was a PhD student here at Nottingham at the time, and a number of other colleagues, I collaborated closely with Raphael and his team (from about 2012 – 2014) in critiquing and contesting a body of work that claimed that stripes (with ostensibly fascinating physicochemical and biological properties) formed on the surface of suitably functionalised nanoparticles. I’m not going to revisit the “stripy” nanoparticle debate here. If you’re interested, see Refs [1-5] below. Raphael’s blog , which I thoroughly recommend, also has detailed bibliographies for the stripy nanoparticle controversy.

More recently, Raphael and his co-workers at Liverpool have found significant and worrying deficiencies in claims regarding the efficacy of what are known as SmartFlares. (Let me translate that academically-nuanced wording: Apparently, they don’t work.) Chad Mirkin played a major role in the development of SmartFlares, which are claimed to detect RNA in living cells and were sold by SigmaMilliPore from 2013 until recently, when they were taken off the market.

The SmartFlare concept is relatively straight-forward to understand (even for this particular squalid state physicist, who tends to get overwhelmed by molecules much larger than CO): each ‘flare’  probe comprises a gold nanoparticle attached to an oligonucleotide (that encodes a target sequence) and a fluorophore, which does not emit fluorescence as long as it’s near to the gold particle. When the probe meets the target RNA, however, this displaces the fluorophore (thus reducing the coupling to, and quenching by, the gold nanoparticle) and causes it to glow (or ‘flare’). Or so it’s claimed.

As described in a recent article in The Scientist, however, there is compelling evidence from a growing number of sources, including, in particular, Raphael’s own group, that SmartFlares simply aren’t up to the job. Raphael’s argument, for which he has strong supporting data (from electron-, fluorescence- and photothermal microscopy), is that the probes are trapped in endocytic compartments and get nowhere near the RNA they’re meant to target.

Mirkin, as one might expect, vigorously claims otherwise. That’s, of course, entirely his prerogative. What’s most definitely not his prerogative, however, is to launch hyperbolic personal attacks at a critic of his work. As Raphael describes over at his blog, he asked the following question at the end of a talk Mirkin gave at the American Chemical Society meeting in Boston a month ago:

In science, we need to share the bad news as well as the good news. In your introduction you mentioned four clinical trials. One of them has reported. It showed no efficacy and Purdue Pharma which was supposed to develop the drug decided not to pursue further. You also said that 1600 forms of NanoFlares were commercially available. This is not true anymore as the distributor has pulled the product because it does not work. Finally, I have a question: what is the percentage of nanoparticles that escape the endosome?

According to Raphael’s description (which is supported by others at the conference — see below), Mirkin’s response was ad hominem in the extreme:

[Mirkin said that]…no one is reading my blog (who cares),  no one agrees with me; he called me a “scientific zealot” and a “scientific terrorist”.

Raphael and I have been in a similar situation before with regard to scientific critique not exactly being handled with good grace. We and our colleagues have faced accusations of being cyber-bullies — and, worse, fake blogs and identity theft were used –to attempt to discredit our (purely scientific) criticism.

Science is in a very bad place indeed if detailed criticism of a scientist’s work is dismissed aggressively as scientific terrorism/zealotry. We are, of course, all emotional beings to a greater or lesser extent. Therefore, and despite protestations to the contrary from those who have an exceptionally naive view of The Scientific Method, science is not some wholly objective monolith that arrives at The Truth by somehow bypassing all the messy business of being human. As Neuroskeptic described so well in a blog post about the stripy nanoparticle furore, often professional criticism is taken very personally by scientists (whose self-image and self-confidence can be intimately connected to the success of the science we do). Criticism of our work can therefore often feel like criticism of us.

But as scientists we have to recognise, and then always strive to rise above, those very human responses; to take on board, rather than aggressively dismiss out of hand, valid criticisms of our work. This is not at all easy, as PhD Comics among others has pointed out:

One would hope, however, that a scientist of Mirkin’s calibre would set an example, especially at a conference with the high profile of the annual ACS meeting. As a scientist who witnessed the exchange between Raphael and Mirkin put it,

I witnessed an interaction between two scientists. One asks his questions gracefully and one responding in a manner unbecoming of a Linus Pauling Medalist. It took courage to stand in front of a packed room of scientists and peers to ask those questions that deserved an answer in a non-aggressive manner. It took even more courage to not become reactive when the respondent is aggressive and belittling. I certainly commended Raphael Levy for how he handled the aggressive response from Chad Mirkin.

Or, as James Wilking put it somewhat more pithily:

An apology from Mirkin doesn’t seem to be forthcoming. This is a shame, to put it mildly. What I found rather more disturbing than Mirkin’s overwrought accusation of scientific terrorism, however, was the reaction of an anonymous scientist in that article in The Scientist:

“I think what everyone has to understand is that unhealthy discussion leads to unsuccessful funding applications, with referees pointing out that there is a controversy in the matter. Referee statements like these . . . in a highly competitive environment for funding, simply drain the funding away of this topic,” he writes in an email to The Scientist. He believes a recent grant application of his related to the topic was rejected for this reason, he adds.

This is a shockingly disturbing mindset. Here we have a scientist bemoaning that (s)he did not get public funding because of what is described as “unhealthy” public discussion and controversy about an area of science. Better that we all keep schtum about any possible problems and milk the public purse for as much grant funding as possible, right?

That attitude stinks to high heaven. If it takes some scientific terrorism to shoot it down in flames then sign me up.


[1] Stripy Nanoparticle Controversy Blows Up

[2] Peer Review In Public: Rise Of The Cyber-Bullies? 

[3] Looking At Nothing, Seeing A Lot

[4] Critical Assessment of the Evidence for Striped Nanoparticles, Julian Stirling et al, PLOS ONE 9 e108482 (2014)

[5] How can we trust scientific publishers with our work if they won’t play fair?

 

 

 

Social Media and Academics: Beyond the Brand

I enjoyed Sara Custer’s thought-provoking Times Higher Education article on the perils of social media for academics  and was prompted to add my tuppence-worth. Here’s the post in question for those outside the paywall…


Sara Custer’s timely and thought-provoking feature article on the ups and downs of social media in academia struck a loud, resonant chord with me. A few years back I deleted my Twitter account, subsequently blitzed my personal YouTube channel, and put my blog on an extended hiatus. This act of social media suicide – as my soon-to-be-teenage daughter likes to refer to it – was prompted by a number of the factors described, or alluded to, in Custer’s article: the toxicity, the time-wasting, and the sheer, utter stupidity of indulging in pointless playground spats online.

My personal Twitter nadir came in a 1:00 am exchange with Louise Mensch where her riposte to a carefully crafted tweet was “LOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOL!!!”. Followed by a tweenage meme. Sigh. What was I doing with my life? (On the plus side, I was blocked by the legend-in-his-own-lunchtime that is Milo Yiannopoulos after just two tweets. With Deepak Chopra, one tweet was enough… (Add smiley emoji to taste.))

I’m not going to rehearse the reasons behind my disconnection and distancing from social media. (For those masochistic enough to be interested in all the tedious detail, it’s available at the now resurrected blog.) Nor am I going to trot out some trite, patronising, vacuous, TED-esque “Twelve Reasons You Too Should Shut Down Your Social Media Accounts” self-help guff. (Not this time at least. I’m not entirely blameless when it comes to the listicle thing, however.) Social media are just tools for communication. And, as Custer highlighted, not only do (most) academics like to communicate, communication is our core ‘business’; our raison d’etre. We also tend to be a fairly argumentative species. From that perspective, the social media ecosystem is our natural habitat in many ways.

But one aspect of social media engagement that is still not sufficiently well-recognised by universities in their headlong rush to encourage as many of their academics, and, increasingly, students, to connect online (so as to maximise that all-important impact factor) is just how viciously toxic it can get. And, make no mistake, that toxicity can bleed offline into real life. While Custer’s article highlights how universities consider the potential effects of social media posts and profiles on their brand (both positive and negative), many of those august institutions seem rather less concerned about highlighting the downsides of a social media profile to their staff and, even more worryingly, are not always as supportive as they could be when things go wrong. (That’s not a veiled criticism of the University of Nottingham (where I’m based), by the way. The School here is very supportive and our HoS is active on a variety of social media platforms and well aware of the risks).

What used to be the preserve of cesspits like 4chan is increasingly overground online, polluting mainstream sites such as YouTube and Twitter. Whitney Phillips, Angela Nagle, and Mike Wendling have each very convincingly argued this point in “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”, “Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right”, and “Alt-Right: From 4chan to the White House”, respectively. And yet when I speak at academic meetings and workshops whose focus is the application and exploitation of social media, I find that there is often a worrying lack of appreciation of just how bad it can get. Mention of GamerGate and Anita Sarkeesian, for example, draws blank stares and a lack of raised hands when I ask those in attendance if they’re familiar with the torrents of abuse and threats that Sarkeesian and others have received. Here’s just one week of Sarkeesian’s Twitter feed from a few years back. I also strongly recommend this video to any student or academic thinking about posting their research online.

I’m a middle-aged physicist whose research focuses on pushing, poking, and prodding single atoms. And I’m a bloke. As compared to a female PhD student in, oh, let’s say, gender studies, I have it ridiculously easy indeed when it comes to communicating my research online. But it’s not just gender studies that’s in the firing line. Certain online gurus, including the lobster- and dragon-fixated Jordan B Peterson, would have it that entire schools of education, sociology, English, and swathes of the humanities are all deeply suspect at best (and fundamentally corrupt at worst), and, as befits those champions of free speech, should be shut down forthwith. And Peterson, for one, has a substantial flock hanging on his every word.

University management and funding bodies need to inform themselves about just how viciously toxic it can get on social media. Too often, their perception seems to be that there’s an adoring public “out there” waiting with bated breath to hear about the latest research findings. This is breathtakingly naïve. For many, academics and experts are part of the problem, not the solution. Universities need to start thinking beyond the brand.