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.

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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.