Spinning off without IP?

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


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

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

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

Julian.png

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vying with the viva

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Have a practice viva.

2. Have a practice viva.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, really. It can.

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

To quote James,

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

Oh, and that reminds me…

12Don’t wear shorts.

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

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

 

Blast from the past

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

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

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

What a dickhead.

Philip Moriarty, Condensed Matter Scientist

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

 

Standards at Cambridge just ain’t what they used to be…

I’ve been swamped with the day job of late so my rate of blogging has accordingly dropped substantially. But I woke up this morning and blearily-eyed checked my Outlook inbox, to find, nestling between the usual spam conference invitations from predatory publishers [1], an e-mail about this Guardian article: Cambridge University rescinds Jordan Peterson invitation. (Thanks, Lori. Peterson to wake up to at 6:00 am. You’re too kind.) And I just can’t let this go without a quick post before I get back to the e-mail backlog.

Just what the hell was Cambridge thinking?

Peterson’s pathetically transparent, overwrought, and highly lucrative “anti-PC” crusades are of course entirely at odds with the ethos of Cambridge, and the university’s staff and students quickly and forcefully pointed this out. [2]

But what I can’t get my head around is how and why the invitation to Peterson was made in the first place. One would hope that Cambridge of all places would very carefully consider and vet the scholarship of any visiting fellow. Fellowships are generally exceptionally difficult to secure. Did no-one involved with inviting Peterson take the time to read and assess his writings and witterings?

This, for example…

(from his, um, “seminal” Maps Of Meaning.)

Cambridge took that seriously? Over the years, I’ve received green ink letters and e-mails that rank at the top of the Baez scale that make much more sense.

Or what about Peterson’s lobster nonsense, as, for example, forensically dissected by Bailey Steinworth, a third year PhD student researcher, in her masterful take-down last year? Here’s Steinworth’s closing argument. (I urge you to read the entire piece.)

“No biologist would argue with Peterson that dominance hierarchies have probably existed for a long time, but it’s also true that plenty of animals live together without the need to assert dominance over one another. It seems as if his discussion of lobsters illustrates far more about his own worldview than it does about human behavior, but he’s the psychologist, not me. “

Peterson’s lobster fixation is a fantastic example of what Feynman described as Cargo Cult science — all of the hallmarks of science but lacking the essential objectivity and self-critical reasoning.  But yet this level of “scholarship” is good enough to warrant a visiting fellowship at one of Britain’s most august seats of learning?

And the less said about Peterson’s wilfully uninformed playing to the gallery when it comes to climate change, the better.

It takes a minimal amount of background reading about Peterson to discern the “Emperor’s New Clothes” character of his appeal. It’s rather depressing that academics of the calibre of those who lecture in the hallowed halls of Cambridge couldn’t manage this modicum of research. As a starting point, I thoroughly recommend Nathan J. Robinson’s profile of Peterson: “The Intellectual We Deserve“. Or for a rather more pithy insight into Peterson’s style-over-substance shtick, Private Eye nailed it in this parody.

It’s very worrying indeed that the standard of scholarship required of visiting academics at what is arguably Britain’s most prestigious university [3] has slipped this low [4]. 


[1] These somehow always seem to make it through Nottingham’s otherwise rather gung-ho spam filter…

[2] Peterson will be rubbing his hands with glee at the news that his invitation has been rescinded. What better example of the “PC orthodoxy”/cultural Marxists/leftist snowflakes/ (…insert tiresome cliche of choice...)  clamping down on his free speech could there be? He’ll dine out on this for quite some time.

[3] Settle down, Oxford.

[4] However, Cambridge — or, at least, its associated publisher, Cambridge University Press — has form when it comes to pseudoscientific woo.

’twas the night before Christmas…

Published at the Times Higher Education website Dec 24 2018.

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

Dear Santa,

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

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

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

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

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

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

When I were a lad…

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

2001-Exam-p1_trimmed.jpeg

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

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

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

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

 

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…

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