“Science on Saturday” Goes to 11

This weekend I had the honour and privilege of being the first speaker for the 2019 Ronald E Hatcher Science on Saturday series of lectures held at, and organised by, Princeton’s PPL (Plasma Physics Laboratory).  I’ll let PPPL themselves explain what Science On Saturday is all about:

Science on Saturday is a series of lectures given by scientists, engineers, and other professionals involved in cutting-edge research. Held on Saturday mornings throughout winter, the lectures are geared toward high school students. The program draws more than 300 students, teachers, parents, and community members. Topics are selected from a variety of disciplines.

Named after the late Ronald E Hatcher, who ran and hosted the series for many years, Science on Saturday is a fun way to bring physics (and other lesser sciences) to the general public(s) and other scientists alike. I was bowled over by the enthusiasm and engagement of the audience, who braved a bracing Saturday morning to hear about the connections between Sabbath, Stryper, and Schrödinger.  (The free bagels and coffee before the talk were, I’m sure, not entirely incidental in attracting the audience. I certainly can vouch for the quality of the pre-lecture consumables.) The Q&A session at the end ran for over an hour, with many insightful questions from the audience, whose age range seemed to span ~ 9 to 90 years young!

A number of those who were in the audience e-mailed me after the talk to ask for a copy of the slides. I’ve uploaded them to SlideShare (sans videos, regrettably) to make them publicly available here:

 

Andrew Zwicker has been the energetic and entertaining host for Science on Saturday for, if I recall correctly, more years than he cares to remember. In parallel with his career in physics, Andrew has successfully forayed into politics, as outlined at his Wikipedia page. Before the lecture he told me about an exciting scheme to encourage more early career researchers into politics. I thoroughly understand the reticence of many scientists to get involved with the political sphere — my involvement with the Royal Society MP-Scientist pairing scheme a number of years ago was an eye-opener in terms of the mismatch that can exist between political and scientific mindsets — but we need to bite the bullet and dive in*, especially in an era when hard scientific evidence is so readily dismissed as “fake news”. (Apologies. Make that “FAKE NEWS” and add any number of exclamation marks to taste.)

On the day of my Science on Saturday lecture, a white supremacist march had been mooted to be held in Princeton (not the most likely of venues, it fortunately has to be said, for that type of hatemongering.) In the end, the basement dwellers never turned up — they claimed that it was a hoax. But the counter-protesters attended in their heart-warming hundreds…

I’d like to offer a very big thank you both to Andrew for the invitation to speak at “Science on Saturday” and to DeeDee Ortiz, the Program Manager for Science Education at PPPL, for organising the visit. A similarly massive thank you to Lori for all of her help and organisation, including providing the key musical “props” used during the lecture.


*Excuse the mixed metaphor. I love mixed metaphors. This, taken from Leon Lederman’s “The God Particle” as an example of writing by one of his PhD students, is my very favourite: “This field of physics is so virginal that no human eyeball has ever set foot in it.” (That quote tickles me so much that I use it as part of the introduction to the final year Politics, Perception, and Philosophy of Physics  module here at Nottingham.)

Should we stop using the term “PhD students”?

I’m reblogging this important post by Jeff Ollerton on retiring the description of postgraduate researchers as “PhD students”. This has been something of a bugbear of mine for quite some time now. We ask that PhD researchers produce a piece of work for their thesis that is original, scholarly, and makes a (preferably strong) contribution to the body of knowledge in a certain (sub-)field. Moreover, the majority of papers submitted to the REF (at least in physics) have a PhD candidate as lead author. Referring to these researchers as “students” seems to me to dramatically downplay their contributions and expertise. I’m going to follow Jeff’s example and use the term “postgraduate researchers” from now on. The comments section under the post is also worth reading (…and there’s something you don’t hear every day.)

Over to you, Jeff…

Jeff Ollerton's Biodiversity Blog

2018-11-10 17.40.18

Back in the early 1990s when I was doing my PhD there was one main way in which to achieve a doctorate in the UK.  That was to carry out original research as a “PhD student” for three or four years, write it up as a thesis, and then have an oral examination (viva).  Even then the idea of being a “PhD student” was problematical because I was funded as a Postgraduate Teaching Assistant and to a large extent treated as a member of staff, with office space, a contributory pension scheme, etc.  Was I a “student” or a member of staff or something in between?

Nowadays the ways in which one can obtain a Level 8 qualification have increased greatly.  At the University of Northampton one can register for a traditional PhD, carry out a Practice-based PhD in the Arts (involving a body of creative work and a smaller…

View original post 332 more words

The Worm That (re-)Turned at CERN

“The dateline is 2012. England is in the grip of a new regime of terror. Traditionally a land of great heroes and brave statesmen — Nelson, Wellington, Disraeli, Churchill – Britain now laboured under the yoke of a power guaranteed to strike fear into the hearts of all men. The country is now being run by women.”

That’s how The Two Ronnies mini-series The Worm That Turned kicked off all the way back in 1980. I realise, however, that this, um, lost gem of eighties British TV may have passed some of you by. Let me rectify that right now. Here’s the first episode. Sit back and enjoy (for want of a better term) this classic take on gender politics by those masters of subtle-as-a-sledgehammer satire…

The Two Ronnies was a firm favourite in our household as I grew up during the 70s and 80s. The Worm That Turned ran for eight consecutive weeks, although my memory ain’t what it once was and I assumed that it had gone on for much longer. It certainly seemed that way at the time…

Much more amusing than the series itself, however, is that, almost forty years after it was broadcast, there’s a certain type of gentleman for whom the premise of The Worm That Turned is less hackneyed eighties comedy and much more a chillingly accurate prediction of the sub-Orwellian dystopia that he and his poor, repressed, downtrodden mates now have to endure. The comments under that YouTube video are comedy gold…

YouTubecomments.png

I was reminded, and not for the first time in recent years, of The Worm That Turned as I followed the reaction to Alessandro Strumia‘s overwrought, poorly-researched, and cliche-ridden diatribe about women in physics. For those of you who haven’t been following the story, in a nutshell this is what happened: Prof. Strumia stood up at the 1st Workshop on High Energy Theory and Gender  and delivered a talk bemoaning the drive towards greater gender balance in physics. He trotted out the same zombie arguments about male vs female ability/aptitude/preference for physics that have been addressed and/or debunked time and again. (More on this below but if you’re not aware of Angela Saini’s Inferior and/or Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender and Testosterone Rex, put down this blog post right now and go and do something less boring instead (as another staple of 80s British TV used to put it). Read Saini’s and Fine’s books).

Tellingly, and not entirely unexpectedly, Strumia’s slides (which are here) include mention of cultural Marxism so one might guess that a certain Canadian YouTube guru (and social scientist [1]) inspired at least a little of the “woe is men” pearl-clutching. Just like James Damore before him (another fan of the ubiquitous Canadian guru), Strumia wears the mantle of the ever-so-courageous rational scientist “speaking truth to power” and just “telling it like it is”, when, in fact, and despite his loud claims to the contrary, he’s wedded to a glaringly obvious ideology and unscientifically cherry-picks his data accordingly. In Strumia’s case, there’s also a pinch of seething resentment mixed in. (But again, that’s hardly new. Gentlemen of Strumia’s persuasion tend to get very distressed and emotional about women getting above their station; anything from a Ghostbusters movie to female superheroes featuring on tins of pasta can set them off…)

Molyneux

The Guardian, The Times, The Independent, the BBC, and the New York Times, among very many other august publications, have covered the Strumia story in depth. It’s worth reading those articles, of course, but I would also take the time to trawl the Twitter thread below for the lowlights of Strumia’s talk…

Moreover, you should read Jess Wade‘s article in New Scientist.

[Update 10:41 03/10/2018. See Joachim Kopp’s comment below (and my response) re. Jess’ initial tweet above.]

Strumia’s arguments are tediously predictable and totally derivative. Like Damore, his cherry-picking of the data is at astronomical levels. Heterodox Academy, not exactly a left-leaning organisation, laudably took a detailed overview of the literature on gender differences hot on the heels of the furore about Damore’s “manifesto”. I recommend that you take a look at those HA articles; note that the literature is very, very far from unequivocal on the matter of gender differences.

Strumia is clearly a well-cited scientist — he was not exactly shy about highlighting this during his talk — so he must know that any useful review of the literature should be well-balanced and cite both sides of any controversy. But he made no attempt to do this during his talk at the CERN workshop. Instead, he behaved like any tabloid hack, evangelical MRA YouTuber, or pseudoscientist keen to play to the gallery, and completely skewed his sampling of the literature so that he selected only those publications that aligned with his ideology. That’s not how we physicists do science. (Well, at least it’s not how we squalid state physicists do science…)

I’ve been down this road before. Many times. I wrote a post titled The Natural Order of Things a couple of years back to rebut the arguments of those, like Strumia, who misleadingly present the literature on gender differences as cut-and-dried in their favour.  And yet, instead of attempting to address the points I make in that post, those who contact me to complain about my views on gender balance instead trot out the received wisdom ad nauseum, with no attempt to revise their stance in the light of new data or evidence. (With that potent mix of arrogance and ignorance that is the signature characteristic of so much internet traffic, they cite The Blank Slate or Baron-Cohen’s work, assuming, on the basis of no evidence at all, that I have yet to read either.)  I’ll quote Philip Ball yet again: “It’s as if they’re damned if they are going to let your actual words deprive them of their right to air their preconceived notions.”

Apart from the cherry-picking, there’s also the inadvertent comedy of Strumia’s credulous and uncritical methodology to savour. He assumes — on the basis of what evidence? — that citations scale directly with IQ levels, assuming a nicely arbitrary “6 sigma among 10^9 persons” (why 6 sigma? why 10^9?) criterion to ‘fit’ his data. Leaving aside his plucked-from-thin air” assumptions here, there’s a rather more robust analysis of the “tails of the distribution” argument from Janet Hyde and Janet Mertz in their analysis of gender, culture, and mathematics performance.

Why would IQ be immutable? Or independent of environmental influences? And why would citations be solely dependent on IQ? Do prestige, track record, and/or serendipity not play a role? And this is before we even get to the question of the extent to which citations are a measure of scientific quality in the first place. Not everything that counts can be counted…

I’m not going to rehearse, (re-)repeat and rehash the arguments here. They’re covered at length in both The Natural Order Of Things and in a stream I did shortly after the furore about Damore’s manifesto hit:

The slides I used for the discussion in that stream are here. I’ll just highlight one slide in particular:

MathsPerformance.png

On the left hand side of that slide are the distributions of eighth grade girls’ and boys’ mathematics scores (in the traditional — well, recently traditional — blue and pink, respectively) for the 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). Unlike Strumia’s naive, unquestioning, and simplistic argument that males “universally” feature in the tails of IQ distributions, what we see here are strong geographical differences in maths ability [2]. While boys in Bahrain outperform girls in the tail of the distribution towards higher maths scores, in Tunisia the situation is reversed, whereas in the Czech republic the mark distributions overlap. So, far from having an innate, immutable, “hard-wired” distribution, there are strong geographical variations.

Similarly, and as discussed elsewhere in that stream above, there are distinct temporal variations when it comes to male vs female performance in maths over the years. It is rather difficult to reconcile these geographical and temporal variations with Strumia’s argument that everything can be reduced down to innate male vs female aptitudes and/or preferences. (That’s not to say that there aren’t real differences in male and female brains…)

Despite disagreeing entirely with Strumia’s lazy ‘analysis’, however, I have deep qualms about just how his comments and views are being addressed. Suspension (or, worse, dismissal) plays directly into the martyrdom mindset that underpins and strengthens the popularity of Peterson, Damore et al. (“Those feminazis are quashing free speech.”)  Strumia is in a much different position to Tim Hunt, for example. The latter — despite loud, uninformed protestations (that continue to this day) about a man “losing his livelihood” — was retired at the time he made his misjudged comments at a science journalism conference in Korea back in 2015. Hunt was, in fact, an honorary professor at UCL (and, by definition, was therefore not paid by the university). Strumia is not retired, although some are strongly of the opinion that he should be retired forthwith.

Instead of outright dismissing the man, Strumia’s views should be dissected and dismissed for what they are: hyperbolic, over-simplistic, cherry-picked polemic more befitting a politician than a scientist. His arguments, such as they are, should be taken apart and used as, for one, an example of the lazy lack of appreciation and/.or cherry-picking of the wider literature that is the hallmark of the “Men just are hard-wired to be better at science. Deal with it, ladies” mindset. Let’s not play directly into his and others’ hands by fuelling the narrative that they are oh-so-brave free speech warriors silenced by the “feminazi establishment”.  Their fevered imaginations can conjure up scenarios much worse than Messrs Barker and Corbett ever did…

Update 09:29 03/10/2018: Just been sent a link to Jon Butterworth’s biting and brilliant take on Strumia’s attack of the vapours. Thoroughly recommended.


 

[1] Yes, psychology is a social science. It’s always chuckle-worthy to hear fully paid-up members of the Cult of Peterson whine incessantly about the social sciences while simultaneously failing to appreciate just where psychology lies on the academic landscape. (And while we’re on the subject, psychology is hardly the most robust of the sciences in terms of reproducibility and credibility. Peterson really should follow his own teachings (and parables) and spend a little more time considering the beam in his own discipline’s eye before whining about the mote in others’…)

[2] I should note that, despite some physicists’ biases to the contrary, ability at math(s) is not the be-all-and-end-all when it comes to intelligence.

Breaking Through the Barriers

A colleague alerted me to this gloriously barbed Twitter exchange earlier today:

Jess-Cox.png

Jess Wade‘s razor-sharp riposte to Brian Cox was prompted by just how Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell has chosen to spend the £2.3M [1] associated with the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics she was awarded today. Here’s the citation for the Prize:

The Selection Committee of the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics today announced a Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics recognizing the British astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell for her discovery of pulsars – a detection first announced in February 1968 – and her inspiring scientific leadership over the last five decades.

In a remarkable act of generosity, Bell Burnell has donated the entire prize money to the Institute of Physics to fund PhD studentships for, as described in a BBC news article, “women, under-represented ethnic minority and refugee students to become physics researchers.” 

Bell Burnell is quoted in The Guardian article to which Brian refers as follows: “A lot of the pulsar story happened because I was a minority person and a PhD student… increasing the diversity in physics could lead to all sorts of good things.”

As an out-and-proud ‘social justice warrior’, [2] I of course agree entirely.

That rumbling you can hear in the distance, however, is the sound of 10,000 spittle-flecked, basement-bound keyboards being hammered in rage at the slightest suggestion that diversity in physics (or any other STEM subject) could ever be a good thing. Once again I find myself in full agreement with my erstwhile University of Nottingham colleague, Peter Coles:

[1] A nice crisp, round $3M for those on the other side of the pond.

[2] Thanks, Lori, for bringing those wonderful t-shirts to my attention!


 

 

“The surface was invented by the devil” Nanoscience@Surfaces 2018

NaS.png

The title of this post is taken from an (in)famous statement from Wolfgang Pauli:

God made solids, but surfaces were the work of the devil!

That diabolical nature of surfaces is, however, exactly what makes them so intriguing, so fascinating, and so rich in physics and chemistry. And it’s also why surface science plays such an integral and ubiquitous role in so many areas of condensed matter physics and nanoscience. That ubiquity is reflected in the name of a UK summer school for PhD students, nanoscience@Surfaces 2018, held at the famed Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge last week, and at which I had the immense pleasure of speaking. More on that soon. Let’s first dig below the surface of surfaces just a little.

(In passing, it would be remiss of me not to note that the Cavendish houses a treasure trove of classic experimental “kit” and apparatus that underpinned many of the greatest discoveries in physics and chemistry. Make sure that you venture upstairs if you ever visit the lab. (Thanks for the advice to do just that, Giovanni!))

IMG_4616.JPG

Although I could classify myself, in terms of research background, as a nanoscientist, a chemical physicist, or (whisper it) even a physical chemist at times, my first allegiance is, and always will be, with surface science. I’m fundamentally a surface scientist. For one thing, the title of my PhD thesis (from, gulp, 1994) nails my colours to the mast: A Scanning Tunnelling Microscopy Investigation of the Interaction of Sulphur with Semiconductor Surfaces. [1]

(There. I said it. For quite some time, surface science was targetted by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) as an area of funding whose slice of the public purse should be reduced, so not only was it unfashionable to admit to being a surface scientist, it could be downright damaging to one’s career. Thankfully we live in slightly more enlightened times. For now.)

Pauli’s damning indictment of surfaces stems fundamentally from the broken symmetry that the truncation of a solid represents. In the bulk, each atom is happily coordinated with its neighbours and, if we’re considering crystals (as we so very often do in condensed matter physics and chemistry), there’s a very well-defined periodicity and pattern established by the combination of the unit cell, the basis, and the lattice vectors. But all of that gets scrambled at the surface. Cut through a crystal to expose a particular surface — and not all surfaces are created equal by any means — and the symmetry of the bulk is broken; those atoms at the surface have lost their neighbours.

Atoms tend to be rather gregarious beasties so they end up in an agitated, high energy state when they lose their neighbours. Or, in slightly more technical (and rather less anthropomorphic) terms, creation of a surface is associated with a thermodynamic free energy cost; we have to put in work to break bonds. (If this wasn’t the case, objects all around us would spontaneously cleave to form surfaces. I’m writing (some of) this on a train back from London (after a fun evening at the LIYSF), having tremendous difficulty trying to drink coffee as the train rocks back and forth. A spontaneously cleaving cup would add to my difficulties quite substantially…)

In their drive to reduce that free energy, atoms and molecules at surfaces will form a bewildering array of different patterns and phases [2]. The classic example is the (7×7) reconstruction of the Si(111) surface, one of the more complicated atomic rearrangements there is. I’ve already lapsed into the surface science vernacular there, but don’t let the nomenclature put you off if you’re not used to it. “Reconstruction” is the rearranging of atoms at a surface to reduce its free energy; the (111) defines the direction in which we cut through the bulk crystal to expose the surface; and the (7×7) simply refers to the size of the unit cell (i.e. the basic repeating unit or “tile”) of the reconstructed surface as compared to the arrangement on the unreconstructed (111) plane. Here’s a schematic of the (7×7) unit cell [3] to give you an idea of the complexity involved…

MickSeven

The arrangements and behaviour of atoms and molecules at surfaces are very tricky indeed to understand and predict. There has thus been a vast effort over many decades, using ever more precise techniques (both experimental and theoretical), to pin down just how adsorbed atoms and molecules bond, vibrate, move, and desorb. And although surface science is now a rather mature area, it certainly isn’t free of surprises and remains a vibrant field of study. One reason for this vibrancy is that as we make particles smaller and smaller — a core activity in nanoscience — their surface-to-volume ratio increases substantially. The devilish behaviour of surfaces is thus at the very heart of nanoscience, as reflected time and again in the presentations at the nanoscience@Surfaces 2018 summer school.

Unfortunately, I could only attend the Wednesday and Thursday morning of the summer school. It was an honour to be invited to talk and I’d like to take this opportunity to repeat my thanks to the organising committee including, in particular, Andy Jardine (Cambridge), Andrew (Tom) Thomas (Manchester), Karen Syres and Joe Smerdon (UCLAN) who were the frontline organisers in terms of organising my accomodation, providing the necessary A/V requirements, and sorting out the scheduling logistics. My lecture, Scanning Probes Under The Microscope, was on the Wednesday morning and, alongside the technical details of the science, covered themes I’ve previously ranted about at this blog, including the pitfalls of image interpretation and the limitations of the peer review process.

Much more important, however, were the other talks during the school. I regretfully missed Monday’s and Tuesday’s presentations (including my Nottingham colleague Rob Jones’ intriguingly named “Getting it off and getting it on“) which had a theory and photoemission flavour, respectively. Wednesday, however, was devoted to my first love in research: scanning probe microscopy, and it was great to catch up on recent developments in the field from the perspective of colleagues who work on different materials systems to those we tend to study at Nottingham.

Thursday morning’s plenary lecture/tutorial was from Phil Woodruff (Warwick), one of not only the UK’s, but the world’s, foremost (surface) scientists and someone who has pioneered a number of  elegant techniques and tools for surface analysis (including, along with Rob Jones and other co-workers, the X-ray standing wave method described in the video at the foot of this post.)

Following Phil’s talk, there was a session dedicated to careers. Although I was not quite in the target demographic for this session, I nonetheless hung around for the introductions from those involved because I was keen to get an insight into just how the “careers outside academia” issue would be addressed. Academia is of course not the be-all-and-end-all when it comes to careers. Of the 48 PhD researchers I counted — an impressive turn-out given that 50 were registered for the summer school — only 10 raised their hand when asked if they were planning on pursuing a career in academia.

Thirteen years ago, I was a member of the organising committee for an EPSRC-funded summer school in surface science held at the University of Nottingham. We also held a careers-related session during the school and, if memory serves (…and that’s definitely not a given), when a similar question was asked of the PhD researchers in attendance, a slightly higher percentage (maybe ~ 33%) were keen on the academic pathway. While academia certainly does not want to lose the brightest and the best, it’s encouraging that there’s a movement away from the archaic notion that to not secure a permanent academic post/tenure somehow represents failure.

It was also fun for me to compare and contrast the Nottingham and Cambridge summer schools from the comfortable perspective of a delegate rather than an organiser. Here’s the poster for the Nottingham school thirteen years ago…

summerschool2005.jpg

…and here’s an overview of the talks and sessions that were held back in 2005:

summerschool2005_schedule.jpg

A key advance in probe microscopy in the intervening thirteen year period has been the ultrahigh resolution force microscopy pioneered by the IBM Zurich research team (Leo Gross et al), as described here. This has revolutionised imaging, spectroscopy, and manipulation of matter at the atomic and (sub)molecular levels.

Another key difference between UK surface science back in 2005 and its 2018 counterpart is that the Diamond synchrotron produced “first light” (well, first user beam) in 2007. The Diamond Light Source is an exceptionally impressive facility. (The decision to construct DLS at the Harwell Campus outside Oxford was underscored by a great deal of bitter political debate back in the late nineties, but that’s a story for a whole other blog post. Or, indeed, series of blog posts.) The UK surface science (and nanoscience, and magnetism, and protein crystallography, and X-ray scattering, and…) community is rightly extremely proud of the facility. Chris Nicklin (DLS), Georg Held (Reading), Wendy Flavell (Manchester) and the aforementioned Prof. Woodruff (among others) each focussed on the exciting surface science that is made possible only via access to tunable synchrotron radiation of the type provided by DLS.

I was gutted to have missed Stephen Jenkins‘ review and tutorial on the application of density functional theory to surfaces. DFT is another area that has progressed quite considerably over the last thirteen years, with a particular evolution of methods to treat dispersion interactions (i.e. van der Waals/London forces). It’s not always the case that DFT calculations/predictions are treated with the type of healthy skepticism that is befitting a computational technique whereby the choice of functional makes all the difference but, again, that’s a topic for another day…

Having helped organise a PhD summer school myself, I know just how much effort is involved in running a successful event. I hope that all members of the organising committee — Tom, Joe, Andy, Karen, Neil, Holly, Kieran, and Giovanni — can now have a relaxing summer break, safe in the knowledge that they have helped to foster links and, indeed, friendships, among the next generation of surface scientists and nanoscientists.


 

[1](a) Sulphur. S.u.l.p.h.u.r. Not the frankly offensive sulfur that I had to use in the papers submitted to US journals. That made for painful proof-reading. (b) I have no idea why I didn’t include mention of photoemission in the title of the thesis, given that it forms the guts of Chapter 5. I have very fond memories of carrying out those experiments at the (now defunct) Daresbury Synchrotron Radiation Source (SRS) just outside Warrington in the UK. Daresbury was superseded by the Diamond Light Source (DLS), discussed in this Sixty Symbols video.

[2] Assuming that there’s enough thermal energy to go around and that they’re not kinetically trapped in a particular state.

[3] Schematic taken from the PhD thesis of Mick Phillips, University of Nottingham (2004).

Jess Wade: Scientist on a Mission

I got an e-mail with a link to an article in today’s Guardian about the irrepressible and inspiring Jess Wade just before I went to get my afternoon cup of tea. I’ve rushed back, tea in hand, to quickly blog and say how delighted I was to see Jess’ efforts recognised not only by my favourite newspaper — I know, I know, typical sandal-wearing, muesli-munching, beardy, lefty, Cultural Marxist, Guardian-reading academic [1] — but also by the recent award of the Institute of Physics’ Daphne Jackson prize.

As the Guardian article describes, Jess is a postdoc working in the field of organic electronics at Imperial College. I have been aware of Jess’ work and her efforts in public engagement and the promotion of physics to girls for quite some time but most recently met her at a SciFoo ‘unconference’ at the Googleplex, Mountain View, CA (which was …checks diary…almost a year ago. Wow. Time flies.) Jess led a session on gender balance and diversity in science and it was easily the most energetic and engaging session of the entire conference (and that’s saying something, given the competition).

I had brought a copy of Angela Saini’s Inferior with me to read on the plane to SciFoo. Inferior, a t-shirt of whose cover Jess is proudly wearing in the photo accompanying the Guardian article, was deservedly Physics World’s Book Of The Year 2017. (Here’s Jess’ review). Jess had brought about ten copies of Inferior with her to the SciFoo event which she distributed for free at the session! (I should stress that Jess is neither on commission nor did she have a grant from which to buy the books — she bought them with money out of her own pocket.)

I am pleased to say that Jess will be coming to Nottingham Physics & Astronomy later this year to give a talk on her research and that Angela Saini will be speaking to the Science Faculty here for International Women’s Day 2019.

Now, usually the last place you want to spend any time online is below the line, even when it comes to The Guardian’s comments section (as Philip Ball has pointed out). But it’s worth scanning down through the comments under Jess’ article for comedy value alone. The same tedious, uninformed, unscientific, zombie ‘arguments’ about gender balance that are rebutted so well in Inferior (and in Cordelia Fine’s work) are trotted out by rather disgruntled individuals who have a particularly buzzy bee in their bonnet about the natural order of things. I particularly liked this exchange:

JessCiF.png

I’d really like to hope that JohnJNorris’ comment up there is a pitifully weak attempt at a joke. But given the below-the-line commentary that accompanies virtually any article on gender in science, it’s not against the odds at all that JohnJ is being deathly serious.

“Outrunner’s” riposte is priceless in any case…

[1] OK, most of that’s true. But not the sandals. Definitely not the sandals. I’ve never worn sandals in my life. *shudder* And, to be honest, I’m really not quite certain what a Cultural Marxist is. Or does. But, apparently, academia is absolutely infested with them.

In the interests of transparency…

A couple of weeks back there was a damning piece in The Guardian on the ever-expanding culture of casual contracts in academia. The University of Nottingham unfortunately featured heavily. Here’s a key quote from the article. (Greg is not the real name of the academic in question).

Over time, [Greg] took on more work: one day of teaching at Nottingham and another at a rival university. These were casual contracts: short-term, and paying him only by the hour. As such, they offered more experience than income. So he also did some gardening and, where possible, wrote for a local newspaper.

He was pulling five jobs, working up to 70 hours a week. And he was still only making £22,000 to £23,000 a year before tax – below the national average. 

According to The Guardian article (which cites, and I quote, “official figures”), 45% of all staff at the University of Nottingham involved in teaching, or teaching and research, count as casual labour. This is, The Guardian claims, comparable to the national situation where somewhat over half of all academics are on casual contracts. The University of Nottingham has challenged the statistics in The Guardian article. And the UoN branch of the University and College Union (UCU) has in turn challenged the response from UoN management.

I’ve written previously about the intense competition that exists for lecturing positions. (As I tell the PhD and postdoctoral researchers in the group here, I know that what I had in terms of academic “outputs” to secure a lectureship at Nottingham back in 1997 wouldn’t even get me within sniffing distance of a short-list today). This competitive pressure underpins the growing casualisation of staff in the ways described by The Guardian. As a colleague here at Nottingham put it (in one of many letters responding to that article),

How ironic that you should publish Nicholas Maxwell’s plea (Letters, 17 November) for universities to engage in intelligent public education on the same day that you reveal sector-wide exploitation of academic employees. Our generously remunerated vice-chancellors have already high-tailed it in the opposite direction, content to undermine intellectual standards while easing many young adults towards unrecoverable debt.

Peter Shaw
Professor of biochemistry, University of Nottingham

I meant to write a post about that Guardian exposé long before now but I’ve been up to my ears with teaching, admin, reviewing (and, very occasionally, research) commitments so the blog has had to to take a back seat. In any case, many others, particularly in that lengthy series of letters, have said just about everything I wanted to say. What I instead want to focus on here is the flip-side of the casualisation coin: the extent to which the working patterns of permanent academic staff, and, equally importantly, their non-academic colleagues, are under-estimated, under-reported, and too often under-valued.

Last week was the first “session” for what’s known as the Transparent Approach to Costing (TRAC), an annual survey of just how academics spend their time. Various schools are selected each year and their staff asked to complete a record of the number of hours spent on different activities: teaching, research, “other income generating activities”, “support general”, and “sickness”.  This involves filling out a timesheet of activities split into those categories.

So what’s wrong with that, you might ask? Feeding back an accurate record of academic work patterns to the funding bodies must surely be a useful exercise to help inform and assess spending commitments. Isn’t that a laudably transparent approach? The problem is that it’s not the raw data on the hours spent on these activities that are returned. Instead, the percentage of time on research vs teaching vs admin is returned by the university to HEFCE. The TRAC methodology, along with the research councils’ grant application processes, assumes a 37.5 hour working week (and a 44 week working year). That strikes me as an approach that’s not entirely lacking in opacity.

In the interests of full transparency, therefore, I thought I’d keep a diary of just how I spent my time during Week 1 of the TRAC 2016-2017 survey. Here we go…


Monday November 21 2016

05:30 – 06:15 Finish off reviewing paper that has been on my “To Do” list for three weeks. Second reminder from the editor to submit the review arrived yesterday.

06:30 – 07:15 Having logged in to e-mail to find link to submit review of paper, check e-mails. Check over proofs of recent paper to be published in Nanotechnology. Read proofs of new undergraduate prospectus and note suggestions for changes.

08:00 Office. Check e-mail. Send quick response to colleague re. seminar (see below) and answer questions from students re. coursework for Year 4 module.

08:30 Meet up with invited speaker for the F34PPP module at the campus hotel.

09:00 Seminar by invited speaker for F34PPP module.

10:15 Coffee with invited speaker. Discuss organisation of workshop planned for next year.

11:00 More e-mails. Check UCAS statistics for undergraduate applications. Meet (very) briefly with PhD student to discuss research progress.

12:00 Lunch with visiting seminar speaker.

13:00 Undergraduate admissions meeting. (I’m UG admissions tutor).

14:00 Walk visiting seminar speaker back to hotel. Respond to e-mails when I get back to office.

15:00 School Operations Group meeting.

16:00 Meeting with PhD student and postdoctoral researcher. Visit lab. to see what’s happening.

16:30 Meeting with PhD student.

17:00 Notice that speaker’s camera tripod has been left in my office. Bring tripod back to hotel. (Not quite certain as to which TRAC category is most appropriate here…).

19:00 Another hour of e-mails before getting my son ready for bed.


Tuesday November 22 2016

05:00 – 06:00 Write 500 words of popular science book I’ve been working on over the last year. Deadline: January 2017 (gulp). Again, not quite certain as to which TRAC category this falls under (if any). Is it impact or not?

06:00 – 07:00 E-mails. Again. Handle questions related to our 1st year undergraduate scholarships and other admissions-related enquiries. Send e-mail to 1st year lab organiser to apologise that my report marking is most likely going to be late.

08:30 — 11:30 Travel to Bury (beside Manchester) for a visit to Holy Cross School to talk about career opportunities in physics, and how to apply for physics degrees. Spent majority of time on trains marking 1st year lab reports and answering e-mails. (Also take time to check comments on a YouTube video I uploaded recently. Never a good idea…)

11:30 – 14:30 Visit to Holy Cross School. Lunch with Head of Physics.

14:30 – 18:00 Trains back to Nottingham. More 1st year lab report marking. Write “Comma splice. You need a full stop here” more times than I’ll ever care to remember. More e-mails. Lots of correspondence re. tomorrow’s UCAS visit day. E-mail informing me that new sample holder has fallen in the bottom of the ultrahigh vacuum chamber. Sigh.


Wednesday November 23 2016

05:00 – 06:00 A few hundred more words for the pop. sci. book. Best part of the working day. (Still don’t know whether this is TRAC-able, however).

06:00 – 07:00 Draft letter related to admissions.

09:15 – 10:45 Flurry of e-mails and informal meetings related to first UCAS visit day of the season. Mark one more lab report in “gaps”.

11:15 – 12:00 Visit lab to chat with PhD and postdoc researchers. More e-mails.

12:00 – 15:45 UCAS visit day (includes lunch with parents of applicants)

16:00 Brief meeting with PhD student.

16:15 E-mails: budget management on an EU grant and a reference for an alumnus of the group.

17:00 – 17:40 Skype conversation with mature student thinking of applying for physics degree course.

21:00 – 22:00 Spend a little time working on a manuscript that has been in “gestation” for far too long.


Thursday November 24 2016

06:00 – 07:30 Too far behind on lab marking (deadline today). Forgo spending time writing book to mark lab reports.

09:00 – 12:00 Normally this should be my 1st year lab demonstrating session. Due to admissions activity this week (and previous weeks), this session is being covered by a colleague. Spent time marking 1st year lab reports instead (and, of course, the mandatory e-mailing activity in “parallel”).

12:00 – 13:30  Lunch with colleagues (and an alumnus of the group who is visiting UoN today).

13:30 – 14:00 E-mails.

14:00 Meeting with 3rd year project students.

14:30 Meeting with tutee interested in possibility of summer internship in nanoscience group. Brief tour of labs.

15:00 – 18:00 Lab report marking.

21:00 Not feeling too well…


Friday November 25 2016

05:00 E-mail colleagues and tutees to say that I am not going to be in today due to illness — not been a good night. Tutorial scheduled for 15:00 today cancelled.

14:00 Still feeling queasy but rather better than twelve hours earlier. Start marking again.

19:00 Five hours’ marking completed (with periodic tea breaks).  


Saturday November 26 2016

06:30 – 10:00 Lab report marking.

15:00 -17:30 Lab report marking.

19:00 – 20:30 Lab report marking. (Almost infinitely preferable to Strictly…, which rest of family is watching).


Sunday November 27 2016

06:00 – 7:30 Lab report marking.

08:45 – 09:45 Lab report marking during my daughter’s ice skating lesson.

18:00 – 19:0021:30 – 23:30 Lab report marking


 

That’s 57 hrs, give or take the odd tea break. Note the lack of any type of hands-on research save for one hour spent on a paper. I am not griping in any way that the total number of hours is rather larger than the nominal HEFCE/RCUK 37.5 hr working week. Moreover, my hours are entirely in line with those of many of my colleagues (and, indeed, are a distinct improvement on the 80 hr weeks many early career academics work. When they start their lectureship they need to set up their research group, deal with a new world of administration, and often teach in parallel. (Many departments, however, set a minimal or reduced amount of teaching for the first few years of a lectureship.)

I enjoy my job. (Well, OK, let’s be honest, I can’t put hand on heart and say I always enjoy marking lab reports. But even marking has its upsides. I think…). And at least some aspects of the job remain effectively a hobby. The hours totted up above aren’t a problem; there are many people who work much longer hours in much more stressful jobs. (I’m not a junior medical doctor, for example). The thing that grinds my gears, however, is that a process which goes by the name of the Transparent Approach to Costing is anything but transparent.

Universities rely a great deal on the good will of staff (at all levels), lecturers’ love of their subject, and the willingness to do the best we can for our students. Yet as higher education becomes ever more corporate, university management reduces academics and teachers, the lifeblood of the university, to simplistic metrics and numbers on spreadsheets. They no longer connect with those working at the chalk-face and are too often cosseted away from the rank-and-file of academia. This not only demoralises staff but does a disservice to the students who pay a great deal of money to be taught by academics who would like to feel rather more valued by their institution.