Random Acts Of Selfless Kindness

The piece below features in this week’s Times Higher Education as part of an article entitled “Is these still a place for kindness in today’s harsh academic environment?“. My original title was that above, which is a play on Jack Womack‘s almost criminally overlooked “Random Acts of Senseless Violence“, a cyberpunk-esque tale of a crumbling society. Given the lack of impact of Womack’s meisterwerk, the THE sub-editors were absolutely right to re-title my contribution to the article as “Kicking Against The Me, Me, Me”. And, as ever, the piece was improved immensely by Paul Jump‘s edits. I’m posting my contribution to the article here for those who don’t have a subscription to the THE. 


It’s exactly one month to Christmas Day as I write this. Academics and students alike should be drafting their letters to Santa and looking forward to the festive season after toiling all term in lecture theatres, seminar rooms, workshops and – very occasionally – libraries.

Except that today is also the first day of the latest round of strike action by members of the UK’s University and College Union. This time, the issue isn’t just pensions: the strike is also in protest at pay, equality, casualisation and workloads. But universities’ reactions are familiar from the previous strike in 2018, with reports of draconian measures being taken against not only striking staff but also, unforgivably, students who support them.

It is clear that senior management and rank-and-file staff are unlikely to be on each other’s Christmas card lists this year. Nonetheless, in these days of ever-increasing and ever-more-infuriating corporatisation and depersonalisation of universities, it’s important not to lose sight of the collegiality that still exists, and the sense of community that is fostered when students and staff (of all stripes – from the cleaners to the professoriate) look out for each other.

This has certainly been the case during my 25 years in the University of Nottingham’s School of Physics and Astronomy. Indeed, the often-clueless, metrics-driven management style foisted upon us from on high results in an “us versus them” mentality that only serves to bring us even closer together. I hesitate to use the hoary old Dunkirk spirit cliché, especially in these days of Brexit-inspired Little-Englander fervour, but it certainly captures that sense of fighting back from the chalkface. In solidarity.

It’s the little things that matter most: those seemingly small acts that cultivate a culture of kindness, kicking against the me, me, me of metrics and the tediously relentless pseudostatistics of league tables. I’ve lost count of the number of times that students and staff have gone the extra mile to brighten up someone else’s day, week, month or year. Examples range from the tea-room coordinators who put aside particular fruit, biscuits and cakes because they remember just what each member of staff likes with their beverage of choice for “elevenses” (Anna, we salute you!) to the tutees who turn up with gifts, cards and messages of thanks for their tutor; the anonymous faces in the lecture theatre who take the time to nominate members of staff for various teaching awards; and the graduates who email unexpectedly, years after they finished their degrees, to describe how fondly and gratefully they look back on their time at university.

Sometimes these random acts of kindness make you smile. And other times, I’ve been moved to tears. A couple of years ago, I was in the middle of a phone call when a knock on the door interrupted the conversation.

“Just one second!” I called out, and finished the call as quickly as I could. When I opened the door, there was no one there. But at my feet there was a big box of chocolates and a card containing the simple message: “Thanks for everything”. It was from a student who was severely autistic, with whom I had communicated almost exclusively via email over the years of their degree.

Forget my latest publication, or research grant, or citation count. That simple message meant so much more.

 

Let’s pick(et) our battles wisely

VROOMFONDEL: We demand that machine not be allowed to think about this problem!

DEEP THOUGHT: If I might make an observation…

MAJIKTHISE: We’ll go on strike!

VROOMFONDEL: That’s right. You’ll have a national philosophers’ strike on your hands.

DEEP THOUGHT: Who will that inconvenience?

MAJIKTHISE: Never you mind who it’ll inconvenience you box of black legging binary bits! It’ll hurt, buster! It’ll hurt!

     From Fit The Fourth of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, Douglas Adams.  Broadcast on BBC Radio 4, March 29 1978.


I suspect that this is going to be a contentious post.

Having spent my time on the picket lines over the last eight (non-)working days…

…and last year,

… I am acutely aware of, and deeply sympathetic to, the issues underpinning the strike. The speeches at yesterday’s closing rally — including that from the ever-impressive Lilian Greenwood, Labour MP for Nottingham South (and someone for whom I will again be voting in a week’s time) — brought home the exceptionally precarious and deeply unfair working conditions that so many university employees endure under zero hours contracts. Even Spiked! magazine — whose coverage of universities usually fixates on hysterical fantasies about the infestation of evil, leftist, free-speech-suppressing, no-platforming Cultural Marxists indoctrinating our children — saw fit to publish a rousing article supporting the strikes.

There has similarly been a series of compelling and affecting pieces over the last few weeks that drive home the damage that the ever-accelerating corporatisation and marketisation of our universities is doing to education. One of the more comprehensive analyses I’ve seen is The Seven Deadly Sins of Marketisation in British Higher Education by Lee Jones, Reader in International Politics at Queen Mary University of London. Thoroughly recommended.

But what have these eight days on strike actually achieved?

Yes, I know that we’ve demonstrated a great deal of solidarity and that the time on the picket lines has been morale-boosting (and at least it wasn’t as sodding cold as last year). But still, pragmatically, what did we achieve?

Here at Nottingham, at least, the response from the “powers that be” has been a deafening silence. (And Nottingham’s hardly alone in this.) For many departments, including my own, it’s been business as usual; the car park has been full, lectures and lab sessions went ahead with nary a disturbance, and coursework was dutifully marked and returned to students. This is not to downplay in any way, I hasten to add, the heartening efforts of my UCU colleagues and our incredibly supportive students, including, in particular, those who occupied UoN’s iconic Trent Building…

And I’ve also got to highlight the incredible energy, charisma, and tenacity of Matt Green, the President of Nottingham’s UCU Committee, who has been as outstanding as ever.

But the upshot of our eight day strike is that …drum roll… the UCU is going to call for yet more strikes in January. The argument is that we’ve got to keep the pressure up. But who, exactly, are we pressuring? Or, as Deep Thought puts it in that salient quote that opens this post, who, exactly, are we inconveniencing? We’ve hardly brought senior university management to their knees, have we?

For those who, like me, were on the picket lines — and, indeed, for those who weren’t — ask yourself this: which of the options below hurts the university more? Which is more likely to cause some sleepless nights for the senior executive?

A. An empty seminar room or lecture theatre,

B. A five- or ten-strong picket line chanting at a university entrance,

or,

C. A low score in the National Student Survey/ low league table ranking/ damaging media coverage for their university?

Not only did we have PVCs and other senior staff crossing picket lines with wild abandon, but quite a few union members — and, indeed, some erstwhile union reps — didn’t strike, let alone picket. University management will be well aware of this lack of engagement with the strike either now or when the figures for non-pay in January are returned. They save on the salary bill and they can rest easy that the impact on students’ progression is minimal, at best, and negligible, at worst.

Because what most matters to universities is their brand. If we want to have greater influence and bargaining power I would argue that we have to be a little more canny in our tactics and exploit exactly the corporatisation and marketisation culture we criticise and that underpins the behaviour of the 21st century university. (I’ve written before about the frustrating tendency of the left to not always be entirely cognisant of the value of “optics” and PR.)

Sceptical? Here are a few examples of brand management that might help to make my case…

Along with a number of APM colleagues, I spent six months chasing up a (very modest) honorarium payment for an invited speaker. Six months. The speaker eventually reached the point where, exasperated, she tweeted about the University’s lack of payment to her tens of thousands of followers (tagging in @UniOfNottingham). Within minutes she had a response from UoN, and within days the money was in her account.

Down the road, at Nottingham-Trent University (Guardian University Of The Year 2019), Liz Morrish was subject to disciplinary proceedings when a post hit 10,000 views on Liz’s own blog and trended at the Times Higher website, as described in the article linked in the tweet below.

And Warwick hardly covered itself in glory in this appalling case because they placed their brand management well ahead of students’ safety. That’s how engrained the importance of protecting the university brand can be.

“The top six universities are like the most beautiful cities in the world, reputable even if they have failing ­sewers, arrogant mayors and dodgy no-go areas…A folklore builds up around them, as do money and fans.”

(From Beyond the super-brands, universities are strengthening their positions, Times Higher Education)

So let’s stop trying to repeatedly use the same seventies strategies to attack a 21st century problem. Let’s think a little bit more about what really matters to university managers.

It’s not the students*.

It’s not the staff.

It’s the brand.  


 

* …although it’s certainly the student numbers.

Peterson, Scepticism, and the Art of Persuasion

I’m writing this from the not-so-sunny climes of Maidstone West station, waiting for the 09:03 to take me to London St Pancras (via the wonderfully-named Strood), from which I’ll get the train to Nottingham. I’m travelling back from Maidstone after a Skeptics In The Pub talk last night in the Market House pub there. It’s been over three years since my last visit to Maidstone SITP, which was again at the invitation of Rob Millar, the local Skeptics… coordinator. Thank you, Rob, for the invitation, the hospitality, sorting out accommodation, locating a guitar amplifier at the eleventh hour [1], and your careful chairing of what became a rather “robust” Q&A session at the end of the night.

I promised Rob and the other SITP regulars that I’d upload the slides I used, so here they are:

 

The majority of the talk was focused on “Uncertainty To 11…” themes, and I was delighted that Maidstone Skeptics asked very many perceptive, smart, and challenging questions about the nature of the quantum world (and much more). I just hope that my lengthy discourse on spatial frequencies through the medium of Stryper‘s sartorially-challenged stage attire was not the cause of too much indigestion last night. (Extra brownie points to the SITP regular who correctly identified both Stryper and Bad News [2] from the photos in my presentation. Clearly a man who, like myself, knows a little too much about eighties metal…)

Given that this was a Skeptics crowd, I felt obliged to include a couple of diversions from the quantum-meets-metal theme on the nature of skepticism, the devaluation of expertise, and the hysteria and hypocrisy of certain reactionary factions/fanatics in relation to university education. Those gender studies and lefty sociology courses mean that the nation is doomed, don’t you know…?

Hat tip to Tony Padilla for making me aware of Lance’s over-excited tweet above. Mr. Forman doubles, triples, and quadruples down on his pearl-clutching in a series of increasingly hyperbolic responses, including this:

Lance’s call to root out opinions he doesn’t agree with in order to, ahem, protect free speech — as one uber-reactionary pundit would put it, you can’t make this up — isn’t, of course, an entirely original demand. Jordan Peterson, along with other members of the self-styled Intellectual Dark Web — stop sniggering at the back there — has been howling for academics’ heads on a plate for quite a number of years because they simply will not toe the line, do as they’re told, and goddamn teach his preferred doctrines.

Mention of Peterson’s self-help psychobabble last night (see Slide #17 above) led to quite a heated discussion in the Q&A session following the talk. Three years ago I spent quite a bit of time lampooning Deepak Chopra’s “quantum woo”to a receptive Skeptics audience in Maidstone. What I find so difficult to get my head around is that very many of those who would identify as “rational skeptics” (or similar), and who rightly dismiss Chopra’s fairy tales out of hand, also represent a significant proportion of Peterson’s core fanbase. And yet, as I discussed at length in a talk for Nottingham’s Agnostic, Secularist, and Humanist society last year, Peterson’s “12 Rules For Life” and “Maps of Meaning” push the bullshit meter just as far above 11 as anything Chopra has written. Peterson’s style-over-substance, read-into-it-whatever-you-like, self-help gobbledegook also, hilariously, has very much in common with the wilfully impenetrable junk that is produced by the worst of the postmodernists he so despises.

Although there have been very many forensic dissections and demolitions of Peterson’s purple prose — with both this and this worthy of special mention — it was Private Eye that really got the measure of the man in a pitch-perfect parody of the vacuity of his writing:

Peterson_small

One important difference between Peterson and Chopra, however, is that the latter, while sharing Peterson’s charisma, oratory flair, and style-over-substance shtick, is not a poster boy for the worst type of reactionary right wing fervour, misogynistic movements (incels, in particular), and transphobic hate groups. Nor does Chopra, to the best of my knowledge, share, support, and help disseminate and normalise the views of Viktor Orbán [3], the infamously authoritarian Prime Minster of Hungary who is waging war on liberal values and shutting down university courses that don’t align with his personal ideological preferences. A recent article in the New York  magazine nailed it (and puts all of Peterson et al.‘s hand-wringing about no-platforming, “cancel culture”, and the like in context):

… if you are going to popularize the idea that leftist academics and human-rights organizations are poisoning the minds of children, and fomenting a subversive ideology antithetical to the health of your nation, then you simply cannot meet with an authoritarian prime minister who has used nearly identical arguments to justify state crackdowns on independent universities and NGOs — then issue no public explanation of why you took this meeting or objection to reports characterizing your conversation as convivial — and call yourself a principled defender of liberal values.

And to hammer it home:

Meanwhile, it isn’t hard to see how Peterson and Orbán might see eye to eye. The latter has effectively banned “gender studies” from his nation’s universities, while the former has called on his nation to do the same. What’s more, in a diatribe that Orbán’s speechwriters may wish to crib from, Peterson went so far as to suggest that left-wing instructors at a Canadian teachers college should be prosecuted for crimes against the state.

Lance Forman’s tweet above looks positively moderate in this context.

The central problem, however, is that the cult of personality surrounding Peterson (and, indeed, Chopra) is such that counter-arguments, data, and evidence are not going to sway those who feel that the great man has personally “spoken” to them via “12 Rules For Life” (or, in Chopra’s case, “The Seven Spiritual Laws for Success“) and changed them for the better. I asked the following question last night of the SITP regular who was a fan of Peterson:

“You say that Jordan Peterson’s “12 Rules For Life” spoke to you and made a difference in your life. How? Can you give me a specific example of something he wrote that had such an impact on you?”

“……..”

This is now the third time this has happened during a Q&A session. I don’t like putting people on the spot but I find it fascinating that when asked to highlight just one instance of Peterson’s writings that made a difference, each time I get a blank response to that question. This is entirely in line with Peterson’s writing style. He resonates with so many because, as Nathan Robinson explains so well in his classic take-down, Peterson’s writing is so nebulous and unclear that the reader takes their own meaning from the text. To be fair to Peterson, that type of writing takes a particular kind of skill. I only wish I’d realised this long before now [4] but it’s eerily reminiscent of the boilerplate that drives the horoscope market, as described in a classic Physics World article by Iggy McGovern [5]: Aspects of Low Resolution Horoscopy.

This leaves us with a conundrum. If even a hardened sceptic — an atheist/agnostic who rejects the likes of Deepak Chopra’s woo, for example — is taken in by Peterson’s guff, how can they be persuaded to be just a little more, um, sceptical (or, indeed, skeptical)? I am not at all suggesting that my approach last night — a rather full-on lampooning of Peterson — is any way to reach across the aisle, cathartic and fun though it was. Moreover, as an academic whose political leanings are left of centre, I will often be seen as one of the enemy. It is therefore going to be difficult, if you’ll excuse the understatement, to convince the Peterson faithful– whose numbers, I am willing to bet, include Lance up there — that I am not seeking to indoctrinate their children/ cause the collapse of Western civilisation/ establish a Cultural Marxist collective where it will be an ABSOLUTE PRIORITY to outlaw right wing views (delete/expand to taste).

So how do we connect? If we want to get beyond preaching to the converted, we obviously have to first find common ground with those who don’t share our political/ideological mindset. That’s tricky. But for the less evangelical of Peterson’s flock, science might be a way in. Or music. Or, indeed, both. There’s this book I could recommend…


[1] Thanks also to Ben for providing said amplifier.

[2] If you’re a Spinal Tap fan and you haven’t seen either of The Comic Strip Bad News specials, beg, borrow, or download the episodes asap. I guarantee that you won’t be disappointed. Sample quote, from Bad News’ lead guitarist and singer, Vim Fuego (aka Alan Metcalfe): “ I could play “Stairway To Heaven” when I was 12. Jimmy Page didn’t actually write it until he was 22. I think that says quite a lot.”

And here’s the Bad News boys in action…

[3] Thanks to Rob for bringing my attention to Peterson’s meeting with Orbán.

[4] Thanks, Lori, for drawing this parallel with horoscopy.

[5] Iggy was the external examiner for my PhD. He’s a poet as well as a physicist so knows a thing or two about writing style. This video with Iggy was a lot of fun to make back in (gulp) 2011…

What Is “University”?

On Thursday I’m going to be a member of a panel discussion, as part of a broader event, on the convoluted and compelling question of the fundamental role of universities in society:

What Is University?

Thu, 7 November 2019. 16:00 – 19:00 GMT. Teaching & Learning Building, UP.

This event is for academic and administrative staff, students and alumni of the University of Nottingham and asks:

  • What do you think is the purpose of a university?
  • What do you think it should be and might be in the future?

This is your opportunity to hear from senior figures with varying administrative and academic roles in the University of Nottingham, ask your questions, and share your views.

4 pm Afternoon tea and display of current students’ videos of What is ‘University’? – (Atrium, Teaching and Learning Building)

5-7pm Panel conversation, chaired by Prof Jeremy Gregory, FPVC for Arts:

  • Prof Shearer West, Vice-Chancellor
  • Prof Pam Hagan, Senior Tutor and Director of Student Well-being, School of Medicine
  • Dr Paul Greatrix, University Registrar
  • Prof Philip Moriarty, School of Physics and Astronomy
  • Mr Andrew Winter, Campus Life Director
  • Ms Stacy Johnson, School of Health Sciences and Deputy Hall Warden
  • Prof Peter Stockwell, School of English

Long gone are the halcyon days of dreaming spires and ivory towers — if they ever existed outside the less-than-entirely-fevered imaginations of a certain class of academic — and universities are increasingly being forced to question their place in the world…

WeDontNeedNoEducation.png

I’m looking forward to the event on Thursday — it promises to be a timely exploration of just why it is that academics do what they do. For homework (of my own), I’m going to ask some of those best placed to tell me about the role and function of a university education: our students. Today’s Politics, Perception, and Philosophy of Physics (PPP) session is going to focus on the “What Is “University”?” question. I’ll report back to the panel during Thursday’s event on the students’ feedback (and will write a follow-up post in due course.) For now, here are my slides for today’s PPP session. (As ever, however, the majority of the time will be given over to student discussion and debate.)


Update Nov 5 2019

The students provided a great deal of fascinating feedback and insightful contributions on this topic… (More on what they had to say in a future post.)

 

 

How To Write Your PhD Thesis Without Going Insane

Next Wednesday (Nov 6) the School of Physics & Astronomy will host a lunchtime seminar — at 1:00 pm in C12 in the main Physics Building — given by James Hayton, with the wonderfully descriptive title of “How To Write Your PhD Thesis Without Going Insane”. If my rapidly depleting and deteriorating memory doesn’t fail me, it’s been four years too long since Dr. Hayton last visited the School. I had the honour of supervising James’ (far-from-unchallenging*) PhD work and I always look forward immensely to his talks: engaging, entertaining, and essential listening for PhD students researchers and their supervisors alike**.

Here’s a brief description of the talk:

Writing is an essential skill for any PhD student (or professional academic). But writing can also be a significant source of stress. In fact, stress is so common that many people assume that it’s supposed to be stressful and you just have to suffer your way through.

But one of the reasons why writing is seen as so stressful is that very few people are trained to do it well. With the right approach, you can transform your writing from a barrier to work through into a powerful tool to help you communicate your research

In this talk, you’ll learn 3 key aspects of writing to help you communicate clearly and confidently, write a better thesis, faster, and maybe even enjoy the process.

…and a bio from James himself:

I completed my PhD in Physics here at Nottingham way back in 2007. Unlike many of my colleagues, I actually enjoyed the writing process, not only finishing writing in just 3 months, but  passing my viva with zero corrections.

I went on to two postdoc contracts in France and Spain before starting to coach PhD students in 2010. Since then, I’ve worked with hundreds of individual students and trained thousands more through webinars and online courses. I also published “PhD: an uncommon guide to research, writing & PhD life” in 2015.

Here’s James in action at Edinburgh five years ago. On Wednesday, I’m told that we’ll be getting a new, improved, revised, and revigorated version…***


*James was always a pleasure to work with, even during the most frustrating moments. It was the physics and instrument design/construction that were the challenging bits…

** Although James and I have ever-so-slightly diverging views on the value of a mock viva

*** …of the talk. (And possibly James.)

“Some down-to-earth blue sky thinking”

“… a dangerous convergence proceeds apace 

as human beings confer life on machines and

in so doing diminish themselves. 

Your calculus may be greater than his calculus 

but will it pass the Sullenberger Hudson river test?”

from “Insulting Machines”, Mike Cooley

(Published in AI and Society 28 373 (2013))


Last week, I listened to some of the most thought-provoking — and occasionally unsettling — presentations and discussions that I’ve encountered throughout my academic career. On Tuesday, I attended, and participated in, the 2019 Responsible Research and Innovation Conference (organised by Nottingham’s Graduate School and the Institute for Science and Society), while on Wednesday the School of Physics and Astronomy hosted the British Pugwash Ethical Science half-day conference:

More on both of these soon. But before I describe just why I found those conferences as affecting as I did, I wanted to highlight last Monday’s session for the Politics, Perception, and Philosophy of Physics (PPP) module. This was the first of this year’s PPP sessions where the students were given free rein to contribute via debate and discussion, and both Omar Almaini (the co-convenor of PPP) and myself were exceptionally impressed by their thoughtful and spirited contributions. (The first three sessions of PPP are in the traditional lecture format. Sessions 4 – 11 are much more akin to the seminar style that is common in arts and humanities disciplines but is very much not the norm in physics courses.)

I have always found the clichés surrounding the STEM vs arts & humanities divide extremely tiresome, and it’s a delight when our students demolish the lazy stereotypes regarding the supposed lack of communication skills of physicists. (Similarly, one of the invited speakers for PPP this year, the sociologist Harry Collins, has shown that social scientists can perform comparably to – or even better than — physicists when it comes to answering physics questions. See “Sociologist Fools Physics Judges” (Nature, 2006) for compelling evidence. More from (and about) Prof. Collins in future posts…)

The title of last Monday’s PPP session was “The Appliance (and non-applicance) of Science” and the slides are embedded below. (Those of you who, like myself, are of a certain vintage might recognise the tag line of the title.)

 

The students drove an hour-long discussion that initially focussed on the two questions given on Slide #3 of the PowerPoint file above but rapidly diverged to cover key related points such as science comms, public engagement, hostility to expertise, and political polarisation. The discussion could have extended much beyond an hour — there were still hands being raised after we’d been in the seminar room for 90 minutes. As is traditional for PPP, I noted down students’ points and questions on the whiteboard as the discussion proceeded. Here are just two of the eight whiteboards’ worth of material…

IMG_8048

IMG_8056

(The remainder of the slides are available at the PPP website.)

In case you can’t read my appalling hand-writing, one of the first points raised by the students was the following:

“Curiosity is more than a valid reason to fund research” 

This view kicked off a lot of discussion, culminating in the polar opposite view expressed at the bottom of the whiteboard summary below: “What’s the point of funding anything other than global warming research?”

IMG_8049

“Humanity came and destroyed the world”

The theme of the PPP session last Monday was chosen to align with the Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI2019) and Ethical Science conferences on the following days. This post would be 10,000 words long if I attempted to cover all of the key messages stemming from these conferences so I’ll focus on just a few highlights (out of very many). This story, by Dimitris Papadopoulos‘ daughter, was a sobering introduction to the motivations and agenda of RRI2019…

Dimitris was a driving force behind the organisation of RRI2019 (alongside colleagues in the Graduate School) and in his presentation he highlighted key aspects of the RRI framework that would recur time and again throughout the day: generational responsibility; designing for the future;  the realisation that what we create often has a lifespan far beyond our own; “the burden is not on the individual researcher” but we are collectively changing the planet.

He also stressed that, in his view, the primary task of science is not just to understand.

In the context of RRI I have a great deal of sympathy with Dimitris’ stance on this latter point. But I also found it rather unsettling because science that is as disinterested as possible and focussed solely on understanding the nature of the world/universe around us has to be a component of the research “landscape”, not least because, time and again throughout history, curiosity-driven science has led to truly disruptive innovations. (Some to the immense benefit of humanity; others less so, admittedly.) Moreover, we need to be exceptionally careful to retain the disinterested character of pure scientific research when it comes to ensuring public trust in just what we do — an issue to which I returned in another RRI2019 session (see below).

Prof. Sarah Sharples, PVC for Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion, was next to speak and made powerful and pointed arguments that senior university (and, indeed, University) management, politicians, and funding bodies of all stripes need to take on board: look beyond simplistic metrics and league tables when it comes to assessing what it means for research to be successful. Sarah highlighted the importance of unintended consequences, particularly when it comes to the ironies of automation; clinical care, in particular, is not just about recording numbers and data.

IMG_8068

Pete Licence, Professor of Chemistry and Director of The GlaxoSmithKline Carbon Neutral Laboratory, continued on the theme of being wary and cognisant of the possibility and potential of unintended consequences, but stressed that sometimes those consequences can be much more positive than we could have ever anticipated. Pete described his collaboration with a number of Ethiopian scientists, which has radically changed both his and their approach to not just the science but the economics associated with green chemistry. He also echoed Sarah Sharples’ key point on the matter of ensuring that we never lose sight of the humanity behind the metrics and tick-boxes: too many lenses mean that, paradoxically, we can often lose focus…

Maybe, Minister?

The RRI conference then split into parallel sessions. This unfortunately meant that I couldn’t go along to the Society and Responsibility discussion — which I was keen to attend (not least because my friend and colleague Brigitte Nerlich was a member of the panel) – as I was participating in the Responsibility in Research and Policy session happening at the same time, alongside Chris Sims (Head of Global Policy Impact at UoN and the Chair and organiser of the session), Steven Hill (Director of Research at Research England, and formerly Head of Policy at HEFCE), and Richard Masterman, UoN’s Associate PVC for Research Strategy and Performance. (All-male panels are never a good look but, in the organisers’ defence, the panel was not initially male only — the original speaker, Dr. Karen Salt (Director of the Centre for Research in Race and Rights at UoN), unfortunately couldn’t make it — and the parallel Society and Responsibility session involved an all-female panel.)

Steven and I have debated and discussed the issues surrounding HEFCE’s, and the research councils’, approach to research impact on a number of occasions — some more heated than others — over the years. (I was very pleased to find that we seem to have converged (give or take) on the middle ground after all these years.) After Chris framed the key themes of the panel discussion, we each had approximately ten mins to make our case. Steven’s ccontribution focussed on the core issue of just how research should (or should not) inform policy and just what RRI should look like in that “space”.

The trade-offs and tensions between researchers and politicians were a core theme of Steven’s argument. To a scientist, the answer to any question is invariably “More research is needed”; a politican, on the other hand, ideally has to make a decision, sometimes urgently, on the basis of the evidence at hand. And the last thing they want to be told is that more research is needed. This was also the resounding message I got at Westminster when I participated (along with my Physics & Astronomy colleague Clare Burrage) in the Royal Society’s MP-Scientist scheme back in 2013: science really is not as far up the pecking order as we scientists might like. For this reason, I enthusiastically recommend Chris Tyler‘s illuminating “Top 20 things scientists need to know about policy-making” to the PPP class every year.

Steven mentioned Roger Pielke Jr’s “honest broker” concept — whereby scientists should be entirely disinterested, fully objective reporters of “The Truth” (however that might be defined) when interacting with politicians and policy. In other words, any tendency towards activism — i.e. promoting a particular (geo)political standpoint — should be avoided entirely. I have major qualms with Pielke’s thesis but Ken Rice (aka “…And Then There’s Physics“) has dealt with these much more comprehensively and eloquently than I could ever manage.

I was also put in mind, on more than one occasion during Steven’s presentation, of “The Thick Of It” clip below (which also features in the PPP course each year. Apologies for the audio quality.)

Richard then outlined the University of Nottingham’s views on the policy-research interface, before I presented the following [1]:

 

The ensuing discussion amongst the panel members, with a lively Q&A from the floor, touched on many of the same points that had been raised during the PPP session the day before: the disinterestedness of research, basic vs applied science, polarisation in politics, trust in scientists (and other professions), the commercialisation of academic research (which was the subject of a particularly pointed question from Jane Calvert in the audience – more on whom below), and balancing public, political, academic, and commercial drivers.

Synthetic Aesthetics and The Wickedness of Global Challenges

In the first session after lunch, the aforementioned Prof. Calvert, of the School of Social and Political Science at Edinburgh, presented an enthralling keynote lecture entitled Responsible Innovation and Experimental Collaboration, in which se described her adventures in synthetic biology, with a particular focus on cross-disciplinary interactions between artists, scientists (of both the social and life variety), and designers.

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A particularly fascinating aspect of Prof. Calvert’s talk was the description of her work on the Synthetic Aesthetics project, from which a book (among many other “outputs”) has stemmed. I’ll quote directly from the blurb for the book because it captures the core message of Jane’s talk:

In this book, synthetic biologists, artists, designers, and social scientists investigate synthetic biology and design. After chapters that introduce the science and set the terms of the discussion, the book follows six boundary-crossing collaborations between artists and designers and synthetic biologists from around the world, helping us understand what it might mean to ‘design nature.’ These collaborations have resulted in biological computers that calculate form; speculative packaging that builds its own contents; algae that feeds on circuit boards; and a sampling of human cheeses. They raise intriguing questions about the scientific process, the delegation of creativity, our relationship to designed matter, and, the importance of critical engagement. Should these projects be considered art, design, synthetic biology, or something else altogether?

I have a long-standing interest in the interface between the arts and the sciences — see, for example, The Silent Poetry of Paint Drying, and these posts — so was fascinated by the interweaving of function, form, and, errmm, fungi in the Synthetic Aesthetics project…

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The second post-lunch keynote was from Prof. Phil McNaghten (Wageningen University & Research (WUR), Netherlands), whose work with Matthew Kearnes and James Wilsdon on the ESRC-funded “Governing At The Nanoscale: People, Policies, and Emerging Technologies” project (published in this Demos pamphlet) was more than partly responsible for sparking my nascent interest in the sociology of (nano)science and technology more than a decade ago. Phil’s talk at RRI2019 focussed on how RRI was embedded in practice and policy at the local (WUR), national (EPSRC), and international (Brazil, which is enduring vicious cuts to its science budget) levels.

The Sounds of (Responsible) Salesmen…

I unfortunately only caught the last fifteen minutes or so of the Molecules and Microbes parallel session — chaired by Pete Licence and featuring Prof Steve Howdle (Chemistry, Nottingham), Prof Liz Sockett & Dr Jess Tyson (Life Sciences, Nottingham), and Prof Panos Soultanas (Chemistry, Nottingham) — and so can’t really comment in detail. Panos’ impassioned plea for support for basic, curiosity-driven science certainly resonated, although I can’t say I entirely agreed with his suggestion that irresponsible research wasn’t an issue. (I may have misinterpreted what he meant, however — I didn’t catch all of his presentation.)

The closing plenary was expertly chaired by Dr. Alison Mohr, who introduced, in turn, Dr. Eleanor Kershaw (Synthetic Biology Centre, UoN), Prof. Richard Jones (Physics, University of Sheffield (and erstwhile PVC for Research and Innovation there), and Prof. Martyn Poliakoff. I have known Richard for over fifteen years and have always enjoyed his informed and engaging takes on everything from nanotechnology to transhumanism to the UK’s productivity crisis, via a variety of talks I’ve attended and his blog, Soft Machines. (I also had the pleasure of spending a week at an EPSRC sandpit back in 2007 that was coordinated and steered — in so far as it’s possible to steer a room-full of academics — by Prof. Jones.)

In his plenary, Richard stressed the “scientist as responsible salesman” theme that he has put forward previously (as one of many dimensions of responsibility.) For a characteristically comprehensive analysis of responsible innovation (and irresponsible stagnation), I thoroughly recommend this Soft Machines post.

Martyn Poliakoff brought the conference to a close in his ever-engaging and inimitable style, with a compelling vision of what he and his colleagues have described as a Moore’s law for chemistry,

… namely that over a given period, say five years, sustainable chemists should strive to reduce the amount of a chemical needed to produce a given effect by a factor of two and this process should be repeated for a number of cycles. The key will be to make the whole concept, especially the economics, work for everyone which will require a change in business model for the chemicals market.

[Quote taken from A New Approach to Sustainability: A Moore’s Law for Chemistry, M. Poliakoff, P. Licence, and M. George, Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 57 12590 (2018)]

“Remember your humanity, and forget the rest.”

Although the word Pugwash has an alternative “resonance” for many of us kids of the sixties/seventies, the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, and the subsequent International Student/Young Pugwash movement, take their name from the town in Nova Scotia, Canada where Joseph Roblat and Bertrand Russell established, in 1957, the international organisation to bring together scientists and public figures to address global security, armed conflict, and the threat of weapons of mass destruction (including, in particular, nuclear warfare). The Pugwash conferences were initiated two years after the Russell-Einstein manifesto was issued, which in turn stemmed from Russell’s deep fears about atomic weapons:

The prospect for the human race is sombre beyond all precedent. Mankind are faced with a clear-cut alternative: either we shall all perish, or we shall have to acquire some slight degree of common sense. A great deal of new political thinking will be necessary if utter disaster is to be averted.

Jo(seph) Roblat was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995 “for efforts to diminish the part played by nuclear arms in international affairs and, in the longer run, to eliminate such arms.” 

I have organised a number of joint events with British Pugwash — more specifically, with Andrew Gibson, the British Pugwash Student Manager — over the last few years, including a PPP seminar given back in Nov. 2016 by Prof. John Finney (UCL), Pugwash Trustee, and a tireless advocate for the organisation. Alongside Peter Jenkins, Chair of British Pugwash, John kicked off the Ethical Science conference at Nottingham last Wednesday with a fascinating account of the history of Pugwash and, in particular, Jo Rotblat’s inspiring life.

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Dr. Ian Crossland then discussed the ethics and intergenerational issues surrounding nuclear power, followed by a stirring presentation by Sam Harris, climate activist and Nottingham Trent Labour Society’s campaigns officer, on Labour’s Green New Deal.

LauraNolan.pngA  particular highlight of not just the Pugwash conference but of all of last weeks’ events was Laura Nolan‘s remarkable presentation, delivered with tons of energy and passion. (I try to avoid the p-word, given that it’s an obnoxiously lazy cliche, but in this case it is more than justified.) Laura, a Trinity College Dublin computer science graduate, resigned from Google, where she was a software engineer, in 2017 after she was asked to work on a project whose focus was the enhancement of US miltary drone technology. Laura’s story is recounted in this important Guardian article. (See also this interview.) The quote below, from that article, captures the issues that Laura covered in her talk at the Pugwash conference.

“If you are testing a machine that is making its own decisions about the world around it then it has to be in real time. Besides, how do you train a system that runs solely on software how to detect subtle human behaviour or discern the difference between hunters and insurgents? How does the killing machine out there on its own flying about distinguish between the 18-year-old combatant and the 18-year-old who is hunting for rabbits?

Anuradha Damale — currently of Verification Research, Training and Information Centre, and a fellow physicist — had a tough act to follow but she delivered a great talk with quite some aplomb, despite having lost her voice! Anuradha covered the troublesome issue of nuclear weapons verification programmes, and despite the lack of vocal volume, participated in a lively Q&A session with Laura following their talks.

I’m going to close this post with the source of its title: “Down-to-earth blue sky thinking”. The inspiring video embedded below was shown by Tony Simpson — who also discussed Mike Cooley’s pioneering work on the influence of technology on society (and whose prose poem, “Insulting Machines“, is quoted above) — during the closing presentation of the Pugwash conference.

I’ve waffled on for much too long at this point. Let’s hear instead from those whose actions spoke so much louder than words…

 


 

[1] It’s unfortunately not clear from the embedded SlideShare widget of the slides but I cited (and quoted from) this influential blog post when crediting Gemma Derrick and Paul Benneworth with coining the “grimpact” term.

Spoken Substance: Empower, Encourage, Engage

It was an absolute pleasure to meet up with the inspiring Joe Fitzpatrick a few weeks back for an interview for his Spoken Substance project. In Joe’s own words,

Spoken Substance aims to connect the unbelievable to the achievable. We interview people from all industries and backgrounds to engage, empower & encourage young people, parents and education workers towards positive choices. Our guests have walked the same streets, gone to the same schools, and lived in the same system as our audience, and share their stories to guide listeners to similar successes or advise on relatable problems. It’s not how great your story is, but how well you understand it. Spoken Substance is all about passing on lessons learned through life experience for the next generation.

This video gives a great insight into what Spoken Substance is all about:

And here’s the full interview I did with Joe: