Sure you’re not meant to take it seriously


Originally published at physicsfocus.

It’s a little over two years since my first post for physicsfocus and I’m sad to say that this one is going to be my last. I found out last month from Chris White – the physicsfocus editor, self-confessed word monkey, and the bloke who’s been in the unenviable position of having to edit and upload my ranty, vitriol-fuelled posts for much of the time I’ve been writing for the blog – that the site is going to be discontinued in the very near future. *Sob*

I was invited to contribute to physicsfocus in late 2012 by Kelly Oakes, who established the blog and whose infectious enthusiasm for, and commitment to, the project played a major role in my decision to start blogging. (Kelly moved to take up the role of Science Editor for Buzzfeed towards the end of the first year of physicsfocus.) Prior to physicsfocus I had eschewed blogging with the usual, somewhat sniffy, “I could never find time for that” excuse, which, as my physicsfocus colleague, Athene Donald, points out, is a far from compelling reason not to blog.

I owe a great debt of gratitude to Kelly for the invitation to write for physicsfocus. Over the last two years I’ve found blogging to be not only a great form of catharsis, but an especially useful way to hone my writing and to train myself out of the staid, formulaic style that is the hallmark of the academic paper. (You know the type of thing, “In recent years, phenomenon X has become of increasing interest…”. Yawn.) And, more simply, I just enjoy blogging, even if I agree entirely with Douglas Adams: “Writing is easy. You only need to stare at a piece of blank paper until your forehead bleeds.” (I’ll add a belated #TowelDay hashtag in honour of Adams. I’d very likely never have signed up to the burble of Twitter either if it weren’t for physicsfocus.)

Given the title above, and the preceding few paragraphs, you could be forgiven for thinking that this is going to be a rather light-hearted swansong post. ‘Fraid not.

Something absolutely momentous happened last month in Ireland and I could never forgive myself if I let the moment go without getting my thoughts down on paper (well, in pixels at least). I was in tears at times as I followed the #MarRef tweets, and overjoyed by the final result: 62.1% yes to 37.9% no. (1,201,607 votes to 734,300 with a turnout of 60.5%). I found this tweet particularly affecting:

And this brought another lump to my throat:

I was raised in the heart of rural Ireland, in the 70s and early 80s, in a border county (Monaghan) and in a strongly Catholic environment: rosary every night, mass as often as was humanly possible, First Holy Communion, Confirmation, Catholic primary school followed by an all-boys Catholic secondary school (nicknamed The Sem because it used to be a seminary), sacraments, the Stations of the Cross, confession. (Christ. Confession. I still shudder when I think about walking into that darkened – and too often dank – cubicle to confess my sins.) In other words, I experienced the full gamut of the pomp and circumstance that is the Catholic faith.

And I despised it.

The dismissal of my faith, such as it ever was, happened when I was a teenager. As a young child, I was, however, deeply confused and concerned because I simply couldn’t understand what was wrong with me. Why couldn’t I just believe like everyone else at school? Why did I have these doubts? Surely I was destined for hell if I didn’t just accept what I was told in church? After all, Jesus was clearly not best pleased with Thomas when he asked for evidence (John 20:24-29).

Thomas was rather an inspiring character for me. He did exactly what the majority of us would have done in his situation: he refused to put his trust in hearsay and asked for evidence of the resurrection. And yet, throughout my days at school and church, Thomas’ entirely reasonable doubt was portrayed as a major character flaw – something to be avoided by true believers. Jesus certainly saw it as a problem: “Then Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed’.” (For those who would argue that science and religious mythology should coexist happily, they need to tackle Jesus’ clear admonition of Thomas using rather more compelling arguments than the type outlined here. Faith is anathema to science. This letter in New Scientist a few weeks ago makes the point rather well.).

As a young boy the fact that I could strongly identify with Thomas’ scepticism, despite the fact that his justified doubt was very much frowned upon by priests and teachers, continually worried the bejaysus out of me. It was, however, a couple of defining, and unsettling, moments in class that began to set the seal on my rejection of Catholic beliefs and dogma (and, ultimately, of religious mythology in general). The first of these I describe in the video below, filmed by Brady Haran almost five years ago and which – as you’ll see if you visit the YouTube site – has now accrued well over 12,000 comments. (I’ve noted before that Brady’s videos often attract comments and discussion ‘below the line’ which are significantly more intelligent and better informed than is the norm for YouTube comments sections. This, unfortunately, is not quite the case for the “Do physicists believe in god?” video.)

The second, particularly unnerving, episode at primary school happened when the teacher asked the class the following question (I can’t remember in what context): “If you could be anyone for a day, who would it be?”

Hands shot up around the classroom. “Superman”. “The Six Million Dollar Man”. “The Bionic Woman”. “Luke Skywalker”.

My answer?

“God, sir”.

I truly believed that my teacher would be really happy with that answer – after all, who was the most important being in the cosmos? Who had we been told was the most wonderful, all-loving father? On that basis, who wouldn’t want to be God for a day and experience all that love?

My teacher’s response? “Satan wanted to be God”.

I was nine. I had nightmares.

A common response to these anecdotes goes something along these lines: “Oh, dear. That’s shocking. But that was a problem with your particular over-zealous teacher, it’s not a problem with Catholicism/faith/religion per se. Our faith is all about acceptance, love, and reasoned belief”. Except, demonstrably, it’s not.

The events surrounding the same-sex marriage referendum in Ireland have brought home the appallingly divisive and prejudiced attitudes that are often borne of religion. What reason, other than prejudice – bolstered, if not engendered, by religious belief – could there be for a no vote? (This is a genuine question and if you have an answer, please let me know in the comments section below. But please don’t tell me it’s about the supposed negative effects of same-sex parenting on children. My fellow Dublin City University alumnus, David Robert Grimes, dealt with this issue conclusively in The Guardian on the day of the vote).

How can anyone claim that religion invariably provides a superior ethical/moral framework to humanism when the Catholic Church has said that Ireland’s yes vote is a defeat for humanity? How can anyone who would like to establish a fairer, kinder, more equal society – i.e. the very virtues Jesus proclaimed (and I can quote chapter and verse if you’re interested, one of the questionable benefits of spending a good part of thirteen or so years on your knees in the name of Catholicism/Christianity) – identify with that type of prejudice? Why in the name of the Almighty Zarquon would anyone with any scrap of compassion and respect – let alone love – for their fellow humans vote no if it weren’t for the stranglehold of religious faith?

The title of this post is taken from the insightful musings of the delightful Fr. Dougal McGuire in the very first episode of Father Ted: “Sure it’s no more peculiar than all that stuff we learned in the seminary, you know, heaven and hell and everlasting life and all that type of thing. You’re not meant to take it seriously.” (Coincidentally, Ardal O’Hanlan also grew up in Co. Monaghan.)

Dougal further expounded on his difficulties with religious faith in a discussion with Bishop O’Neill in the Series 2 episode entitled “Tentacles of Doom”. Here we can clearly see that his doubts are not just related to Catholicism but are truly ecumenical in scope:

Bishop O’Neill: So Father, do you ever have any doubts? Is your faith ever tested? Any trouble you’ve been having with beliefs or anything like that?

Father Dougal: Well you know the way God made us, and he’s looking down at us from heaven?

Bishop O’Neill: Yeah…

Father Dougal: And then his son came down and saved everyone and all that?

Bishop O’Neill: Uh huh…

Father Dougal: And when we die, we’re all going to go to heaven?

Bishop O’Neill: Yes. What about it?

Father Dougal: Well that’s the part I have trouble with!

I would very much like to believe that Father Ted played a big role in helping to secure the Yes vote. Others have certainly pointed out the importance of Ted in accelerating the decline of the church in Ireland: “a comedy that affectionately mocked the old ways while simultaneously, mercilessly exposing them”.

At this point those of you familiar with WB Yeats’ take on the Irish – “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy” – may well be nodding sagely to yourselves. I’ll admit that it does seem rather mean-spirited to be berating Catholicism to this extent when it was so soundly defeated last month. But the issue here is much, much broader than just Catholicism.

This upsetting article is from the Guardian last week. We live in a world where we can communicate virtually instantaneously with friends and family across the world, observe the universe as it was roughly 13 billion years ago, and mimic the conditions present only fractions of a second after the big bang. And yet a huge proportion of humanity remains in thrall to Bronze Age/Iron Age/New Age myths (of a staggering variety of hues).

“An abiding sense of tragedy”? Yep. Yeats was spot on.

I’ve really enjoyed reading my colleagues’ posts, and occasionally venting my spleen, for physicsfocus. I’ll miss the site immensely. I’m going to sign off with the signature closing words of the late, great, and brilliantly acerbic Dave Allen: “Thank you, good night, and may your god go with you”.

Image: The incredulity of St Thomas, by Caravaggio

6 Responses to Sure you’re not meant to take it seriously

    1. transcendentape says:

      If you plan to continue blogging elsewhere, please post it here or through one of Brady Haran’s hundreds of youtube channels. I was lucky to happen upon your writing through Brady, and I’d hate to miss it if you carry on in a new location.

    1. Hamish Johnston says:

      Perhaps the most interesting question is why it took so long in Ireland? Most other staunchly Catholic western societies liberalized decades ago. A classic case in point is Quebec, which 60 years ago would have been very similar to Ireland both in terms of its Catholic nationalism and cultural isolation. Yet Quebec went through a rapid “quiet revolution” in the late ’60s and is now one of the most liberal societies in the west.

    1. Kuldeep Panesar says:

      I have enjoyed immensely your posts over the years, which have contained much food for thought, humour, and a refreshingly frank and honest critique of the nonsense that surrounds scientific research. If only there were more voices like yours, and people brave enough to stick their head above the parapet.

      I hope that your blogging continues elsewhere.

Still not in the World University Rankings Top 50? Five sure-fire routes to successful academic management

quality-787673_960_720Originally published at physicsfocus.

Last time round I bemoaned the “inspirational leader” model of management that infests universities but promised that I’d be a little more constructive in my next post. In the meantime, this splendid piece on the mismanagement of universities (written by Rob Briner, a professor of organisational psychology at the University of Bath) appeared in the Times Higher Education. In an article that provides many important insights into the malaise in management, this is perhaps the pithiest: “For all but the most careerist, obedient and authority-respecting academics, it is difficult to feel committed to goals that seem, indeed often are, arbitrary”.

THE.pngBriner points to the underwhelming appraisal of senior university managers in this year’s Times Higher’s Best University Workplace survey. The statistics show that almost 50% of all academic staff surveyed are not satisfied with the leadership of their university. Tsk. There is clearly considerable room for improvement. I would suggest that a conservative target of a 20% reduction in the Staff Disgruntlement Index (SDI) should be set (to be reached in – when else? – 2020), and progress towards this goal should form part of the annual Personal Development and Performance Review process for senior management. (Let’s call it our 2020:20 Vision.) The survey reveals that there are many senior managers who could benefit from advice and guidance on how to up their game and enhance their personal effectiveness so as to ensure that their key behavioural competencies are best exploited in attaining their university’s SDI targets. (Ooops, sorry about that – please forgive the momentary lapse into the university vernacular.)

University managers are exceptionally busy people, of course, so I thought it best to distil my advice on leadership improvement into five simple take-home messages.

1. Trust your staff

The majority of academics are highly motivated, hard-working, and keen to establish a strong reputation in their research field and to teach to the best of their ability. They want to do original work that makes a difference. They understand entirely how much competition there is for grants and how much effort they’ll have to put in to maintain their research group.

When they secured a permanent position, they were fully aware of the weight of expectation and the amount of effort it was going to take to do ground-breaking work. They know this because they had worked as a postdoc prior to getting their lectureship and will have had to compete against very strong odds to win that position. (This letter in last month’s Physics World sums up the situation for physics postdocs in the UK. About 1.7% of the postdoctoral population in physics per year can expect to get a permanent position.)

So trust them. And trust the judgement of the school/department/institute that offered them a permanent position. Don’t assume that your staff need to be continually monitored via the same sets of pseudo-statistical, faux-objective, and flawed metrics that all other universities (ab)use. Why not forgo all of that nonsense and help your university genuinely stand out from the crowd?

2. Don’t insult our intelligence

Look, it’s very simple. As a university, you can’t write this type of guff and expect anyone to take you seriously:


Nor should we need to tell you that this is misjudged and misguided:


…and if you think that trumpeting “Pursue Impossible” as your latest slogan is a good idea, maybe you should reconsider just how much money it is that you’re sinking into your “extensive consultation and market research” budget:


Content-free management- and marketing-speak is spiraling out of control in academia (see Colquhoun, passim). What’s particularly galling is that the type of student/teacher/researcher we’d like to attract – i.e. someone with critical thinking skills sufficiently well-developed that they can easily tell when they’re being sold a pup – is going to be put off by trite and embarrassing marketing slogans. If you really can’t help but chase a W1A-esque marketing approach, then at least have the gumption to realise that prestige and brand go hand in hand: for a university, not all publicity is good publicity.

So stop telling us that you’re “committed to excellence” (and parroting other empty drivel from the lexicon of #CorporateUniBollox) and specify explicitly what it is you’re going to do. How much will you spend, on what, and over how many years? Otherwise you’re about as convincing as a directionless politician trotting out empty clichés about appealing to the “aspirational class”.

3. Herding isn’t helpful

Stop wasting so much of our time on redisorganisation by attempting to herd us into your latest Strategic Prioritised Localised Research Themes scheme (to be followed in six months’ time by the new-and-improved Universal Targetified Globalised Research Themes scheme.)

There has been a very welcome, albeit sometimes rather stilted, evolution of research towards multidisciplinarity over the past couple of decades. It is a massive waste of time and effort, however, to erode disciplinary boundaries only to replace them with new barriers arising from the formation of research ‘silos’ based on university strategic priorities (which, of course, are informed by (i.e., cribbed from) the priorities of the research councils and funding bodies).

At Nottingham, for example, we currently have five Global Research Themes (capitalised and italicised, of course – this is important stuff): Cultures and Communication, Digital Futures, Health and Well-Being, Building Long-term Societies, and Transformative Technologies. (Let’s leave aside for now the question of just how fundamental scientific research that doesn’t focus on applications is smuggled into the Global Research Themes.) We’ve recently had a time-consuming Research Priority Area-defining exercise foisted upon us to identify something like thirty RPAs which are embedded within the Global Research Themes. (The graphic which maps out the interdependencies between the RPAs is, excitingly, becoming ever more complex and colourful.) And that’s before we embark on the new Centre and Institute identification process in the coming months.

University management has really only one job when it comes to supporting research: ensure that the best ideas are fostered. Just pay heed to Message #1. Don’t put artificial barriers in our way and let collaborative links and projects develop from the bottom up.

4. Massaging metrics isn’t management.

I think that, deep down, you know this, don’t you? You know that those spreadsheets – all those lovely numbers lined up in columns with colourful headings and listed to three or four ‘significant’ figures – give only an illusion of objectivity. You recognised some time ago that tables of metrics are an entirely inaccurate measure of the value of a school, a department, a ‘unit’, or an individual member of staff. You may even have read this, or this, or this and realised that, yes,using pseudostatistics and number abuse as a proxy for management is simply wrong and, in the worst cases, unethical.

And so you try to placate us. You tell us that “Of course we don’t base our decisions on a simplistic consideration of metrics like impact factor, H-index, grant income, NSS scores…”. But then you have the gall to advise us that we should choose our collaborators on the basis of citation patterns and H-indices. Or that we should improve our NSS league table position when the numbers are often so small that the opinions of one or two students can make all the difference. Or that grant income targets need to be met, regardless of how (in)expensive a scientist’s research might be or how well their research is progressing.

It doesn’t need to be like this. You can make a difference. Challenge the empty-headed abuse of metrics at every committee meeting you attend. Put your head above the parapet and point out that the emperor is stark bollock naked.

5. Chasing rankings is rank futility

By all means crow about your university’s position in a national/international league table if you must. And, if you really are so inclined, cherry-pick the tables to get the results that put your university in the best light. It’s grubby, reeks of desperation, and makes a mockery of any claims about your university’s commitment to developing the critical thinking skills of students. If, however, that’s what you think you need to do to secure your institute’s position in the ‘global marketplace’ then so be it.

But it’s likely that you were once an academic. You may even have taught – or, indeed, may still teach – students the value of being (self-)critical and rigorous in their approach to data. So ask yourself why you now expect staff, students, and parents to credulously swallow the idea that university rankings are in any way credible? Take the time to pop into the Student Room and read what A-level and undergraduate students have to say about university league tables. It’s rather telling that they are significantly more sophisticated and worldly-wise in their appraisal of university rankings than is typical for senior management.

It is futile to chase volatile and methodologically-suspect world university rankings. We become known as a world-leading university when we do world-leading research and teaching. It’s not a difficult equation. Your job, as senior management, is to establish the conditions to allow that to happen.

And that brings us neatly back to Message #1…


Follow the leader?


Originally published at physicsfocus.

I very much hope that a meeting I attended last week at the University of Cambridge will prove to be a key moment, and a major catalyst, in accelerating change in academia. Delivering Equality: Women & Success was billed as a “summit of senior leaders progressing change in academia”, and, as Athene Donald discusses over at her blog, was timed to coincide with both the anniversary of the publication of The Meaning Of Success and International Women’s Day.

The meeting challenged stereotypes and (un)conscious bias, was often thought-provoking and provocative, and regularly confronted the received wisdom – in particular on the question of meritocracy. I learned a great deal both in the formal sessions and via conversations with the delegates over coffee/lunch. Nonetheless, I could have done with rather less of the vapid, corporate, faux-inspirational, TED-style delivery that was a feature of some sessions and is increasingly infesting and infecting academic meetings.

I must admit that I was rather surprised to have been invited to the summit in the first place. The delegate list read like a Who’s Who of UK Academia – Vice-Chancellors, PVCs, Deans, Directors, Chief Executives, Masters of Colleges, Heads of Department, Presidents… Not only am I not in any way involved with the upper echelons of ‘leadership’ at the University of Nottingham (or elsewhere), I have absolutely zero aspirations in that direction. (I think that my invitation to the summit might possibly have been related to this article on parenthood and academia in the Times Higher last year, to which I contributed some thoughts.)

Athene’s post on the background to the Delivering Equality meeting is important and thoroughly recommended. Here I want to focus not so much on the variety of issues that were discussed, but on the implicit – and often explicit – message throughout the day that change should be inspired by, and set in motion by, ‘leaders’: we rank-and-file academics should look to our leaders for inspiration. This is perhaps to be expected given that the summit was targeted at senior leaders, but I am deeply uncomfortable with the concept of leadership in academia. It’s yet another example of the corrosive influence of corporate thinking on our universities. Let me explain.

The ever-inspiring Mary Beard features in The Meaning Of Success. I love this line from her interview: “I’m also such an academic that if somebody says something I don’t agree with, my autopilot response is to answer back.” She also perceptively finds “that the people who are most talented in helping me rethink my ideas often don’t measure up to the more usual marks of success”. Indeed.

I didn’t become an academic in order to be led. Nor did I become an academic to lead others. I’m an academic because I want to contest, argue, debate, explore, and challenge the received wisdom. And, as Prof. Beard puts it, to answer back. I don’t want to follow the leader(s), particularly not when, as described below, they so often demonstrate a remarkable paucity of original and creative thinking. Similarly, I expect PhD students and postdocs in the group to challenge me all the time – if they’re not doing this then I’m simply not doing my job right.

And it’s not just universities that are fixated with leadership. The research councils, including, in particular, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), are committed to “developing leaders”. As just one example, a very large amount of public funding was invested in their Leadership Fellowships programme over a number of years. (Disclaimer: I held one of these fellowships.)

The traditional role of academia – to speak truth to power – has been usurped, like so many aspects of the 21st-century university, by bland – though no less damaging for their blandness – corporate concepts such as brand management, ‘customer’ loyalty, and, of course, leadership. (The other aspect of corporate culture that has been imported, of course, is a rewards system which often has very little connection with performance, as discussed in an article in yesterday’s Observer: ‘Eye-watering’ salary rises for university chiefs cannot be justified, says report.)

Hand-in-hand with the concept of leadership comes a strong and corrosive focus on top-down management and centralisation: leaders have to be seen to be leading. This in turn leads to endless rounds of implementing university-wide strategic priorities, with the leaders scrabbling to assert their particular ‘vision’ for the institution. Academics at the chalkface are expected to fall in line and are not trusted to do their job without the benefit of ‘inspirational’ leadership.

The ubiquitous leadership meme would perhaps be a little less burdensome if academics were led on the basis of original and innovative strategies. But we’re not. Here’s a short, but wholly representative, excerpt from the strategy document of a leading Russell Group university. It doesn’t matter from which university’s blurb I’ve taken this, because it could have come from practically any of them:

“Our vision is to deliver research excellence across all academic disciplines…”

That’s not vision. That’s a total absence of vision. For all of the reasons discussed here, it’s a completely vacuous commitment. It’s worrying enough that this vision statement was written down in the first place; what makes it worse is that it was signed off by the leadership of the university in question. You can also be sure that the assessment of that research ‘excellence’ will be based on precisely the same tired chasing of metrics and league table rankings – no matter how flawed and volatile those tables might be – as every other university.



Lacking creativity.

Devoid of critical thinking.

I think an E grade would be a fair assessment of the majority of university strategy documents.

So what’s the alternative? Well, this blog post is already long enough as it is. In my next post I’ll grasp the nettle and suggest some alternatives to the ‘iconic, inspirational leader’ model. In the meantime, and with tongue placed rather firmly in cheek, I’ll leave you with Douglas Adams’ thoughts on governance and leadership

The major problem—one of the major problems, for there are several—one of the many major problems with governing people is that of whom you get to do it; or rather of who manages to get people to let them do it to them.

“To summarize: it is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it.”




Originally published at physicsfocus.

As a professional physicist – as I sometimes like to pretend I am – I would estimate that at least 70% of my working week is spent on words, not numbers. Many of the undergrads here at Nottingham don’t appear to be entirely comfortable with this when I point it out. Indeed, quite a few students have specifically told me that they didn’t do physics to write essays and that they will go out of their way, in terms of module choices and exam questions, to avoid having to work with words.

But not all of our students have such an adverse reaction to the more qualitative side of their subject.

I have been extremely impressed by very many of the blog posts and articles produced, as coursework, for a fourth-year module we introduced this year, “The Politics, Perception, and Philosophy of Physics”. The majority of the coursework pieces to date have been uploaded at the course blog, and the quality of writing is generally very high. And it’s not just me who thinks this: I was delighted when both Physics World and physicsfocus agreed to publish coursework articles submitted by students.

A key point about the students taking the course, however, is that they were forewarned, repeatedly, that the module was devoid of mathematics. I stressed, during an introduction to Year 4 modules at the start of the academic year, that they would be assessed on the basis of blog posts and articles they submitted. In this sense, they’re a self-selecting ‘sample’ and thus perhaps not entirely representative of the class as a whole.

On the other hand, all physics undergraduates at Nottingham, even those who take our Physics with Theoretical Physics course, are required to do experiments in Year 1 and to submit formal reports on their lab work. (All undergrads also, of course, submit project reports in later years.) The title of this blog post stems from my marking of a set of first-year lab reports a few weeks ago, where the same errors in writing cropped up time and time again. (It’s not the first time that this has happened in my 17-odd years of teaching at Nottingham…)

I’ve been meaning to put together a video which not only lays out what is expected from physics undergrads for their lab reports – which, to be fair, is often not quite as clear and well-defined as it could be – but also highlights those common failings that cause so much wear and tear on my red pen. I managed to finally get round to doing this, after literally years of procrastination, over the Christmas break and I’m including the video here. I’d very much welcome and value feedback from physicsfocus readers.

My concerns about the words-numbers divide are, however, much broader in scope than the niggles on structure, punctuation,[1] and grammar outlined in the video. Having taken on the role of undergraduate admissions tutor this year, I am now even more aware of the extent to which the A-level system exacerbates the arts-and-humanities-vs-STEM divide. I grew up in Ireland where our equivalent of the A-level system, the Leaving Certificate, makes both English and maths mandatory, and where a larger range of subjects (typically seven) is studied in the final two years of secondary school.

I was lucky to do not only all three science subjects and maths for my Leaving Certificate, but also French and English. And Irish. (Some might well say “Is fearr Gaeilge briste, ná Béarla clíste” but then they haven’t heard my spoken Irish. Or my English, for that matter.) There are, of course, other examples of education systems where there is a greater breadth of subjects than is typically the norm in the UK – Scottish Highers, International Baccalaureate. The A-level system, on the other hand, too often means that students end up making a stark choice between the STEM and arts/humanities pathways too early. This is a great shame because it serves to entrench the ‘two cultures’ divide that CP Snow criticised so forcefully almost 60 years ago.

Simon Jenkins, the Guardian’s resident STEM-skeptic, regularly bemoans the negative perception of the value of the arts and humanities as compared to, as he sees it, the unquestioned importance of STEM subjects to society. He was on fine form on New Year’s Day, arguing in an article, “Easy to sneer at arts graduates – but we’ll need their skills”, that “a humanistic education” produces better-rounded and more creative types who “seem better equipped to use their imagination and challenge conventional wisdom”. Last year Jenkins also provoked quite some ire by arguing that STEM graduates, particularly computer scientists, lack the ability to communicate effectively.

This may perhaps come as something of a surprise to readers of physicsfocus, but I have quite some sympathy with Jenkins’ concerns about the extent to which an arts and humanities degree has been ‘devalued’ in terms of its perceived value to society (and, by extension, to the individual graduate). I have always rather disliked articles and reports proclaiming that physics is so much more intellectually challenging – i.e. ‘harder’ – than other subjects. Yes, physics is conceptually challenging. And, yes, it’s intellectually stimulating and demanding. And yes, as I’ve discussed before for physicsfocus, it requires a heck of a lot of work and effort in order to ‘get it’. But, as Dave Farmer explains in a perceptive, important, and smart post, there are many types of intelligence, and there are many types of aptitude.

There are physicists at all career levels whose analytical maths abilities are truly remarkable. But ask some of them to write 500 words which are engaging and thought-provoking, and they’re flummoxed. Echoing the points made by Farmer, a capability with mathematics is just one type of intelligence. Attempting to quantify such a multi-faceted and complex human characteristic via an aptitude in one area, or, worse, via a single ‘IQ’ value, is as ludicrous as, errmm, reducing the value of a university to a position on a league table.

An ability to communicate effectively is essential, independent of subject, discipline, or career. University physics departments across the country have for years complained about the reduction in the rigour of A-level maths, and have introduced first-year ‘refresher’ modules in order to bring incoming students up to speed in mathematical techniques. But similar primers in written communication have not been introduced. Given the lack of subject breadth of the A-level system, and the associated absence of the development of writing skills for many STEM-focused students, one could make the argument that there is an equally pressing, if not greater, need for formal teaching of written communication skills in Year 1 of a physics degree.

Where my views diverge dramatically from those of Jenkins, however, is with his argument that arts and humanities graduates are necessarily more creative than those with degrees in STEM subjects. Science is intrinsically creative and Jenkins does his important arguments about the value of the arts and humanities a great disservice by playing down to lazy stereotypes of STEM graduates.

Equally importantly, an arts and humanities degree is no guarantee of an ability to communicate concepts in a clear, engaging, and effective style. I’ll leave you with Exhibit #1 – an excerpt from the work of Prof. Karen Barad, of the Philosophy Department at the University of California Santa Cruz. (I suspect that I’ll be returning to a discussion of Barad’s work for a future physicsfocus post).

“Multiply heterogeneous iterations all: past, present, and future, not in a relation of linear unfolding, but threaded through one another in a nonlinear enfolding of spacetimemattering, a topology that defies any suggestion of a smooth continuous manifold. Time is out of joint. Dispersed. Diffracted. Time is diffracted through itself. It is not only the nature of time in its disjointedness that is at stake, but also disjointedness itself. Indeed, the nature of ‘dis’ and ‘jointedness’, of discontinuity and continuity, of difference and entanglement, and their im/possible interrelation ships are at issue.”

Thanks to my colleague at Nottingham, Brigitte Nerlich, for bringing my attention to that quite remarkable piece of impenetrable writing, via this blog post.

_ _ _

[1] I’m a fan of the Oxford comma.

Image Credit: 

An experiment in post-proposal peer review


Originally published at physicsfocus.

I’m a huge fan of post-publication peer review (PPPR). It’s the future of scientific publishing and it’ll be de rigeur – rather than a novelty – for the next generation of scientists. Because if that doesn’t happen, science and society are going to continue to suffer from gaping holes in the quality-control mechanism that is traditional peer review.

I’m about to describe an experiment which takes the online/public peer review process back a couple of steps from the point of publication. But before I do that, it might help if I explain just why I’m such an enthusiastic advocate of PPPR.

Over the past couple of years, and along with colleagues at Nottingham, NIST, and Liverpool, I’ve been embroiled in a rather heated debate about the validity of a substantial body of research focused on the structure of coated (aka ‘stripy’) nanoparticles. I blogged about this for physicsfocus around about this time last year, and was delighted when our paper critiquing the nanoparticle research in question was finally published in PLOS ONE a couple of months ago.

Long before the paper appeared in PLOS ONE, however, we had made it available (via the arXiv) at the PubPeer PPPR site, for what is perhaps best described as pre-publication peer review. This led to a large volume of very helpful comments (and, it must be admitted, the occasional less-than-helpful post) from our peers. The PubPeer contributions of one of those peers, Brian Pauw, were so insightful and important that he ended up being added as a co-author to the paper.

In addition to highlighting the benefits of open and public next-generation peer review, the striped nanoparticle controversy made me intensely aware of a number of shocking deficiencies in the traditional peer review system. First is the demonstrated inability of traditional peer review to always filter out junk. I don’t want to harp on about the deficiencies in the striped nanoparticle work (which is faulty, rather than fraudulent) so let’s turn to a truly shocking example of the failure of traditional peer review: the nano chopsticks farce, as Brady Haran and I discuss in this Sixty Symbols video:

Social media, in particular the Chemistry Blog and ChemBark sites (and their associated Twitter feeds), exposed the chopstick ‘breakthrough’ as a staggeringly poor Photoshop job within days of the paper being published. It was retracted just two months after its publication.

A decade before this chopsticks debacle, the nanoscience community endured the rather less cack-handed, arguably quite clever, and remarkably systematic fraud of Hendrik Schön. I firmly believe that if post-publication peer review had existed in the early 2000s that Schön’s fraud would have been identified much, much sooner than it was. (Note how quickly the PubPeer community identified problems in the then-acclaimed, but now-retracted, STAP results published at the start of last year.)

PPPR isn’t, however, all about laying bare fraudulent work. At its best it’s exactly how the scientific method should work: authors should be willing to have their work discussed, debated, and dissected by their peers both before and after – particularly after – its publication. Compare and contrast with the following response from a well-respected, influential, and – for those who care about simplistic and flawed metrics – very high impact-factor journal, after I asked whether they’d be interested in publishing our critique (which eventually became the PLOS ONE paper described above):


Or, in other words, our journal is not interested in following the scientific method.

From PPPR to PPrPR

The deficiencies in peer review of course extend to the assessment of grant proposals. As I was writing this post, a link to an article published in Nature a couple of days ago appeared in my Twitter timeline (thanks @NKrasnogor), highlighting that the ratings of Medical Research Council proposals from external referees do not correlate well with the probability of the grant application being funded. This, of course, will not come as a great surprise to many researchers.

Some time ago I suggested to the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) that they carry out an experiment where they send the same set of proposals to entirely independent prioritisation panels (and referees), and subsequently check for correlations between the rankings of the various panels. This is particularly important given that EPSRC blacklists researchers on the basis of where their grant proposal falls on the ranked list returned by the prioritisation panel.

EPSRC hasn’t run this experiment.

I’m trying a rather different peer review experiment of my own. Late last year I discussed the possibility of open peer review of a grant proposal, rather than a publication, with PubPeer and, subsequently, The Winnower. While PubPeer facilitates open review of any publication with a DOI, The Winnower, founded by Joshua Nicholson, combines open access publication with PPPR. The Winnower kindly agreed to publish our EPSRC proposal, Mechanochemistry At The Single Bond Limit, which, for the reasons discussed in this article in Physics World, is my first for EPSRC in quite some time. With the DOI provided by The Winnower, we subsequently set up a PubPeer thread related to the proposal.

As the ‘Pathways to Impact‘ section of the proposal lays out, the entire impact case is based on public engagement (rather than, for example, commercial exploitation). A key component of that public engagement programme, should the grant application be successful, is that my colleague Brigitte Nerlich will be an ‘embedded’ sociologist within the research team. Brigitte will observe, and blog/tweet about, just how the scientific method plays out in the course of the project. It therefore makes a great deal of sense to extend the public engagement aspects of the proposed research to the grant application process itself, i.e. to incorporate post-proposal peer review (PPrPR).

Coincidentally, and fortuitously, a week or so after the discussions with PubPeer and The Winnower, Dorothy Bishop tweeted a link to an important and very relevant paper by Daniel Mietchen in PLOS Biology (not one of the journals I usually read).

The closing sentence of the abstract to this far-sighted paper is worth quoting at length:

“The article … explores the option of opening to the public key components of the [grant application review] process, makes the case for pilot projects in this area, and sketches out the potential that such measures might have to transform the research landscape in those areas in which they are implemented.”

The motivation for making our EPSRC proposal available for comment and criticism via The Winnower and PubPeer is exactly as that abstract describes – it’s a question of opening up the grant application/review process to public scrutiny. My aim over the coming months is – EPSRC and reviewers permitting – to make available, here at physicsfocus, the referees’ reports and, ultimately, the outcome of the panel ranking process.

It’s an experiment that may return a null result, of course, in that there could well be a deafening silence in response to making the proposal (and, hopefully, the subsequent reviews) publicly available. After all, I don’t believe that there are too many academics fretting about finding more reviewing to do. But then, a null result is still very often an important finding that can provide key insights.

Let’s just run the experiment and see…

Image credit:

Should I stay or should I go now? The postdoc mobility myth


First published at physicsfocus.

Far back in the mists of time, in the great and glorious days of Britpop, Forrest Gump, and John Major’s “Back to Basics”, I was a postdoc[1]. It was my first postdoctoral position after completing my PhD at Dublin City University in late 1993 and I loved the research I was doing, the working environment, and the camaraderie and teamwork of the Nottingham group.

But I hated the underlying volatility of the post.

After completing a two-year postdoc, I was funded by consecutive short-term contracts. At any time the funding stream could have dried up, and I would have had to move on. I got lucky: I secured a permanent lectureship post after three years at Nottingham and I’ve stayed there ever since – the School of Physics and Astronomy is a fantastic place to work.

I know for a fact, however, that the research ‘outputs’ I had in 1997 – enough for a lectureship at the time – wouldn’t get me within sniffing distance of a shortlist today. The bar has been raised dramatically for postdocs over the intervening years. Increasingly, the route to a permanent academic position involves first winning a fellowship through a highly competitive process.

One of the factors which is very often taken into consideration when selecting for both fellowship and lectureship positions is the “mobility” of the candidate. Indeed, the Leverhulme Trust now explicitly states in its advice to applicants that mobility is a key criterion: “Priority will be given to applicants who show evidence of mobility during their academic careers to date.”

The blunt statement that mobility will be used as a criterion in selecting fellows – with no attempt to qualify this in terms of the personal circumstances of the applicant – reveals some worryingly simplistic and out-dated thinking from the Trust. They are not alone, of course, in assuming that mobility must necessarily be an advantage for a researcher, as this recent article points out in the context of EU funding programmes. The arguments about mobility in that piece resonated with me because I coordinate a Marie Curie Initial Training Network (ITN) project which funds 14 early-career researchers across six countries. Researcher mobility for ITN projects is not only advantageous from the point of view of the European Commission, it’s essential – I can’t employ a UK national on a Marie Curie ITN contract in Nottingham. (Can someone please make sure that this nugget of EU funding policy wings its way to Nigel Farage? I want to watch him spontaneously self-combust…)

The argument that is often made – and which was voiced during a lengthy twitter debate with my Head of School[2] and others on this topic yesterday – is that a postdoc, let’s say Dr. Globetrotter, who has moved from group to group is likely to have greater drive, motivation, and scientific independence than her colleague, Dr. Stayen-Putt, who has remained at the same institution throughout her undergrad, postgrad, and postdoctoral career.

I really don’t buy this argument at all.

Skewing the selection process towards candidates who are willing to ‘up sticks’ and move to a new group every few years immediately disadvantages – and, at worst, discriminates against – those whose personal circumstances and family commitments mean that they do not have the freedom to move. I, for one, would not have been willing to disrupt my children’s lives on a regular basis simply so I could demonstrate a commitment to mobility to a fellowship panel. And I find it rather insulting that this could have been interpreted as a lack of scientific drive, motivation, and independence.

The assumption that scientific independence correlates positively with mobility also needs to be challenged. There is no evidence at all that a postdoc who has been in the same institution for their entire career is any less scientifically independent, or any less scientifically motivated, than a researcher who clocks up the air miles. Indeed, I can think of reasons why there could be a negative correlation between mobility and scientific independence – it takes considerable time to establish oneself at a new institution, to learn to interact with a new group of colleagues, and to work out how you can carve out a niche to “make a mark”.

Moreover, there’s a rather straightforward, pragmatic reason why mobility may not be conducive to establishing scientific independence. Experimental physics is not easy – the ‘kit’ is often complicated and frustratingly temperamental (particularly for non-commercial systems which the researcher has built themselves). If the experimental infrastructure in an institution is very well-matched to a researcher’s scientific goals it would be perverse for them to move simply so that they can tick the mobility box.

And finally, the wonders of the interwebs mean that researchers are connected like never before. In this context, the Leverhulme Trust’s focus on mobility as a criterion in awarding fellowships is particularly quaint, given the extent to which research groups now network and interact virtually.

Image: Britpop, an automatic association with the early 90s – but the bar has been raised for postdocs since then. Credit: Danny PiG/Flickr. Reproduced under a Creative Commons licence.

[1] …and a Douglas Adams fan.

[2] My P45 is in the post.