Crossing The Divide: Communicating with the Comms Crew

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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.)

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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…

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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:

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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…

How Not To Do Spectral Analysis 101

I will leave this here without further comment…

JesusHChrist

*bangs head gently on desk and sobs quietly to himself*

Source (via Sam Jarvis. Thanks, Sam.):

The original ‘peer-reviewed’ paper is this: Găluşcă et al., IOP Conf. Ser. Mater. Sci. Eng. 374 012020 (2018)

 

 

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?

 

 

 

ECR blues: Am I part of the problem?

A very quick lunchtime post to highlight that this week’s Nature is a special issue on the theme of young scientists’ careers, and, as it says loud and clear on the front cover, their struggle to survive in academia. There are a number of important and timely articles on just how tough it is for early career researchers (the ECRs of the title of this post), including a worrying piece by Kendall Powell: “Young, Talented and Fed-Up“.

One of the things that struck me in the various statistics and stories presented by Nature is the following graph:

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Note how older scientists (and I’m soundly in the 41-55 bracket) now hold the large majority of NIH grants, and how different it was back in 1980. I’d like to know the equivalent distribution for grants in physics. If anyone can point me (in the comments section) towards appropriate statistics, I’d appreciate it.

In any case, I recommend taking a read of those articles in this week’s Nature, regardless of where you happen to be on the academic career ladder. As Powell’s article points out, Nature got a short, sharp response to its tweeted question about the challenges facing ECRs…

Politics. Perception. Philosophy. And Physics.

Today is the start of the new academic year at the University of Nottingham (UoN) and, as ever, it crept up on me and then leapt out with a fulsome “Gotcha”. Summer flies by so very quickly. I’ll be meeting my new 1st year tutees this afternoon to sort out when we’re going to have tutorials and, of course, to get to know them. One of the great things about the academic life is watching tutees progress over the course of their degree from that first “getting to know each other” meeting to when they graduate.

The UoN has introduced a considerable number of changes to the “student experience” of late via its Project Transform process. I’ve vented my spleen about this previously but it’s a subject to which I’ll be returning in the coming weeks because Transform says an awful lot about the state of modern universities.

For now, I’m preparing for a module entitled “The Politics, Perception and Philosophy of Physics” (F34PPP) that I run in the autumn semester. This is a somewhat untraditional physics module because, for one thing, it’s almost entirely devoid of mathematics. I thoroughly enjoy  F34PPP each year (despite this amathematical heresy) because of the engagement and enthusiasm of the students. The module is very much based on their contributions — I am more of a mediator than a lecturer.

STEM students are sometimes criticised (usually by Simon Jenkins) for having poorly developed communication skills. This is an especially irritating stereotype in the context of the PPP module, where I have been deeply impressed by the quality of the writing the students submit. As I discuss in the video below (an  overview of the module), I’m not alone in recognising this: articles submitted as F34PPP coursework have been published in Physics World, the flagship magazine of the Institute of Physics.

 

In the video I note that my intention is to upload a weekly video for each session of the module. I’m going to do my utmost to keep this promise and, moreover, to accompany each of those videos with a short(ish) blog post. (But, to cover my back, I’ll just note in advance that the best laid schemes gang aft agley…)

Are flaws in peer review someone else’s problem?

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That stack of fellowship applications piled up on the coffee table isn’t going to review itself. You’ve got twenty-five to read before the rapidly approaching deadline, and you knew before you accepted the reviewing job that many of the proposals would fall outside your area of expertise. Sigh. Time to grab a coffee and get on with it.

As a professor of physics with some thirty-five years’ experience in condensed matter research, you’re fairly confident that you can make insightful and perceptive comments on that application about manipulating electron spin in nanostructures (from that talented postdoc you met at a conference last year). But what about the proposal on membrane proteins? Or, worse, the treatment of arcane aspects of string theory by the mathematician claiming a radical new approach to supersymmetry? Can you really comment on those applications with any type of authority?

Of course, thanks to Thomson Reuters there’s no need for you to be too concerned about your lack of expertise in those fields. You log on to Web of Knowledge and check the publication records. Hmmm. The membrane protein work has made quite an impact – the applicant’s Science paper from a couple of years back has already picked up a few hundred citations and her h-index is rising rapidly. She looks to be a real ‘star’ in her community. The string theorist is also blazing a trail.

Shame about the guy doing the electron spin stuff. You’d been very excited about that work when you attended his excellent talk at the conference in the U.S. but it’s picked up hardly any citations at all. Can you really rank it alongside the membrane protein proposal? After all, how could you justify that decision on any sort of objective basis to the other members of the interdisciplinary panel…?

Bibliometrics are the bane of academics’ lives. We regularly moan about the rate at which metrics such as the journal impact factor and the notorious h-index are increasing their stranglehold on the assessment of research. And, yet, as the hypothetical example above shows, we can be our own worst enemy in reaching for citation statistics to assess work outside – or even firmly inside – our  ‘comfort zone’ of expertise.

David Colquhoun, a world-leading pharmacologist at University College London and a blogger of quite some repute, has repeatedly pointed out the dangers of lazily relying on citation analyses to assess research and researchers. One article in particular, How to get good science, is a searingly honest account of the correlation (or lack thereof) between citations and the relative importance of a number of his, and others’, papers. It should be required reading for all those involved in research assessment at universities, research councils, funding bodies, and government departments – particularly those who are of the opinion that bibliometrics represent an appropriate method of ranking the ‘outputs’ of scientists.

Colquhoun, in refreshingly ‘robust’ language, puts it as follows:

“All this shows what is obvious to everyone but bone-headed bean counters. The only way to assess the merit of a paper is to ask a selection of experts in the field.

“Nothing else works.

“Nothing.”

An ongoing controversy in my area of research, nanoscience, has thrown Colquhoun’s statement into sharp relief. The controversial work in question represents a particularly compelling example of the fallacy of citation statistics as a measure of research quality. It has also provided worrying insights into scientific publishing, and has severely damaged my confidence in the peer review system.

The minutiae of the case in question are covered in great detail at Raphael Levy’s blog so I won’t rehash the detailed arguments here. In a nutshell, the problem is as follows. The authors of a series of papers in the highest profile journals in science – including Science and the Nature Publishing Group family – have claimed that stripes form on the surfaces of nanoparticles due to phase separation of different ligand types. The only direct evidence for the formation of those stripes comes from scanning probe microscopy (SPM) data. (SPM forms the bedrock of our research in the Nanoscience group at the University of Nottingham, hence my keen interest in this particular story.)

But those SPM data display features which appear remarkably similar to well known instrumental artifacts, and the associated data analyses appear less than rigorous at best. In my experience the work would be poorly graded even as an undergraduate project report, yet it’s been published in what are generally considered to be the most important journals in science. (And let’s be clear – those journals indeed have an impressive track record of publishing exciting and pioneering breakthroughs in science.)

So what? Isn’t this just a storm in a teacup about some arcane aspect of nanoscience? Why should we care? Won’t the problem be rooted out when others fail to reproduce the work? After all, isn’t science self-correcting in the end?

Good points. Bear with me – I’ll consider those questions in a second. Take a moment, however, to return to the academic sitting at home with that pile of proposals to review. Let’s say that she had a fellowship application related to the striped nanoparticle work to rank amongst the others. A cursory glance at the citation statistics at Web of Knowledge would indicate that this work has had a major impact over a very short period. Ipso facto, it must be of high quality.

And yet, if an expert – or, in this particular case, even a relative SPM novice – were to take a couple of minutes to read one of the ‘stripy nanoparticle’ papers, they’d be far from convinced by the conclusions reached by the authors. What was it that Colquhoun said again? “The only way to assess the merit of a paper is to ask a selection of experts in the field. Nothing else works. Nothing.”

In principle, science is indeed self-correcting. But if there are flaws in published work who fixes them? Perhaps the most troublesome aspect of the striped nanoparticle controversy was highlighted by a comment left by Mathias Brust, a pioneer in the field of nanoparticle research, under an article in the Times Higher Education:

I have [talked to senior experts about this controversy] … and let me tell you what they have told me. About 80% of senior gold nanoparticle scientists don’t give much of a damn about the stripes and find it unwise that Levy engages in such a potentially career damaging dispute. About 10% think that … fellow scientists should be friendlier to each other. After all, you never know [who] referees your next paper. About 5% welcome this dispute, needless to say predominantly those who feel critical about the stripes. This now includes me. I was initially with the first 80% and did advise Raphael accordingly.”

[Disclaimer: I know Mathias Brust very well and have collaborated, and co-authored papers, with him in the past].

I am well aware that the plural of anecdote is not data but Brust’s comment resonates strongly with me. I have heard very similar arguments at times from colleagues in physics. The most troubling of all is the idea that critiquing published work is somehow at best unseemly, and, at worst, career-damaging.  Has science really come to this?

Douglas Adams, in an inspired passage in Life, The Universe, and Everything, takes the psychological concept known as “someone else’s problem (SEP)” and uses it as the basis of an invisibility ‘cloak’ in the form of an SEP-field. (Thanks to Dave Fernig, a fellow fan of Douglas Adams, for reminding me about the Someone Else’s Problem field.) As Adams puts it, instead of attempting the mind-bogglingly complex task of actually making something invisible, an SEP is much easier to implement. “An SEP is something we can’t see, or don’t see, or our brain doesn’t let us see, because we think that it’s somebody else’s problem…. The brain just edits it out, it’s like a blind spot”.

The 80% of researchers to which Brust refers are apparently of the opinion that flaws in the literature are someone else’s problem. We have enough to be getting on with in terms of our own original research, without repeating measurements that have already been published in the highest quality journals, right?

Wrong. This is not someone else’s problem. This is our problem and we need to address it.

Image: Paper pile. Credit: https://pixnio.com/it/oggetti/libri/libri-documento-educazione-informazioni-conoscenza-leggere-ricerca-scuola-stack-studio-lavoro