What’s Missing from the White Paper?

This post first appeared on the Campaign for Science and Engineering’s website on 19-5-16

With over 600 responses to the Green Paper consultation, Jo Johnson and his team have had plenty of advice to consider. And some of the White Paper content shows he clearly has listened. Whilst recognizing much that is encouraging in the document, I would like to highlight a few areas which have had little airing in other commentaries.

The bulk of the text concentrates on new providers, regulation and undergraduate teaching. For the latter, it is heartening to see that there is some rowing back from too simple a reliance on crude metrics to assess teaching ‘excellence’ in the TEF (the pace of change has also been reconsidered). The creation of an appropriate panel of experts to tension the numbers and to read accompanying narrative descriptions is to be welcomed. Whether this is sufficient to give the “robust framework… to measure teaching in its broadest sense” that the document claims will be set up, whilst criteria for measuring teaching excellence remain so ill-defined, is unclear.

However I have a more specific concern regarding how students rate different kinds of lecturers. Jules Holroyd and Jenny Saul in a careful analysis of existing evidence, have suggested the TEF could (unintentionally) be sexist. The evidence shows that white males score more highly in student assessments than do women or ethnic minorities, something likely to be reflected in the National Student Survey (one of the key metrics). I was alarmed to see there was no discussion of this issue in the White Paper but I understand the danger has indeed been recognized within BIS. I am told the narrative should allow institutions that have a high proportion of minority ethnic or women lecturers (for instance) to describe this and the probable consequences on the NSS scores for panels to take into account.

Secondly, my own institution of the University of Cambridge made very clear in its response to the Green Paper that divorcing undergraduate and research strands of the University would be extremely unhelpful, stating that such a separation would ‘irreparably damage the student and academic experience and the sector’s reputation’. Maybe I’ve missed something, but there seems only one sentence in the White Paper that links teaching and research and this specifically applies to funding. This does not amount to a recognition that the interplay between undergraduate teaching and research activity is important, despite the word holistic being used to describe the funding landscape.  From this it is hard to believe that the centrality of active researchers in providing a healthy learning environment has been appreciated.

I am sure that Ruth McKernan, CEO of Innovate UK is pleased to see that the overarching committee that Paul Nurse initially proposed should be called Research UK has now morphed before birth into UKRI  (UK Research and Innovation) so that the word innovation sits firmly in the title. It is also reassuring to see that, along with it and the seven Research Councils a ninth organisation to look after the dual support system for England now sits under this umbrella. However whether the seven individual research councils (plus Innovate UK) are satisfied with the degree of autonomy accorded them in this new structure is less obvious since UKRI is charged, for instance with advising the Secretary of State on the funding balance between research disciplines. An additional key but unanswered question is exactly how cross-disciplinary research will be facilitated by this structure. Although this new organisation is intended to place a greater focus on cross-cutting issues that are outside the core remits of the current research councils, how this will be done and who will set the budget for such work is left unspecified. I worry that genuine inter-Research Council work may still, as now, be at a disadvantage.

Finally let me highlight one further cross-cutting issue that I hope UKRI will focus on. It is one which ties in with my first point: diversity but also career development. RCUK has only recently put out its action plan for diversity. It is a plan that might be viewed as a first dipping of the toe in the water rather than a definitive list of the issues that need to be addressed. For instance, no requirement is placed on institutions to consider what excellence looks like or how promotion criteria are defined, both of which typically remain steeped in an outdated view of academics.  We need to see an expansion of such expectations from the new body.  Additionally, there is no mention of the nurturing of early career researchers or the skills they need to acquire if they are successfully to address the current pressing societal challenges. The absence of any mention of such UKRI responsibilities must not be allowed to mean that such responsibilities are not shouldered.

Overall, I am left fretting about the absence of many details of issues which will affect the state of the UK’s avowed strength in higher education. Just as with the Brexiteers, I worry the drafters are simply hoping that everything will come out all right eventually and the details can be left to be resolved at some unspecified later date. I hope this is an unfair comparison.





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The Competitive Streak in Academia

Does being competitive necessarily mean foregoing kindness? In essence this was the question posed to Uta Frith at the end of her public conversation with me last week (you can hear the whole conversation here). Uta didn’t give a completely explicit answer but it seems to me the answer has to be no, not necessarily, but it does depend who you are trying to compete with.

Undoubtedly there are many PIs who are ultra-competitive. They may be competitive with their peers; they may make this abundantly clear in terms of wanting to be the first to achieve some landmark experiment or to solve an apparently intractable problem. But this does not necessarily mean – although sometimes it may – that they are unpleasant about the competition. It can be an entirely personal driver. Sometimes indeed the only person they are competing with is themselves, constantly pushing themselves to new heights as it were. I think I would put myself in that camp. Competition in that case might be seen as simply an additional bit of adrenalin rather than something inherently nasty. (Of course, sometimes one can end up being very nasty to oneself, but that’s a different story.)

Nevertheless, some people will indeed be competitive directly with others. In this category I am reminded of the person I met to discuss diversity issues with in a university not my own who, when I mentioned I had just come from their VC’s office and what a nice room it was, proudly told me that their office ‘was bigger’. I felt we were not off to a good start on the more subtle philosophical front of discussing gender issues, albeit the person was entirely committed to increasing the number of women studying STEM in their faculty. Moving on from that, some people will indeed play dirty in a competitive spirit in their approach to research. This can be just as true amongst team members as PIs, one of whom may be tempted to sabotage a peer’s experiment so that they can gain kudos themselves. Pressure to publish may lead to some very unattractive, indeed unethical behaviour. This is where competition gets truly nasty and where, the current HE system may indirectly promote it due to too many criteria for success embodying the ‘winner takes all’ spirit.

To resolve this, at least in part, we need to re-evaluate what success looks like. Can we value looking after PhD students well – which could translate into ‘kindness’ – and not just the number of papers churned out? Can we think about impact in terms of the broad contributions of a PI and not just impact factor of journals they publish in (remember DORA)? The publication of the University of Cambridge’s book The Meaning of Success more than two years ago was meant to kickstart this debate about what we value, with the suspicion that rethinking this could disproportionately benefit women. I do not believe it has had as much traction as we would have hoped.

Nevertheless I think posing the question as competition versus kindness highlights one part of the debate we need to have. Some competition may be healthy. Trampling on other people in order to get on should never be rewarded! Uta herself is a shining example of someone who hasn’t done this. One can see this through the help she has given to many of her students over her long and successful career and through the virtual network she has set up (known as Science and Shopping and to which I belong) to remind people that we can be mutually supportive and have some fun too without losing our identity as serious scientists.

I wrote a thumbnail sketch several years ago about Uta and I stand by what I wrote then about her. It is one of the reasons I wanted to invite her to participate in my public ‘Conversations’ at Churchill College. These conversations are designed to tease out what makes my interviewees tick, what set them on their path to success and what keeps them awake at night. All the Conversations from this year – with Carol Robinson, Mary Beard and now Uta Frith – can be listened to through the Churchill College website. Churchill was the first Cambridge College to vote to admit women but, as I’ve said before, our gender statistics are still far from 50:50. These public Conversations are a part of my strategy to raise the profile of the college with respect to women. When I proposed them, though, I hadn’t really thought this through very carefully, about what it would mean for me to be the interviewer trying to frame a dialogue that would appeal to the very diverse audience I hoped to attract. It’s all very well to think ‘Desert Island Discs without the music’, as I did. But I’m no Kirsty Young and carrying the interview forward in ways that are informative but not intrusive suddenly struck me (in the days before my first event with Carol) as quite a challenge.

I needn’t have worried because all three interviewees are such remarkable, articulate and fascinating women I could happily have continued talking for twice as long as time permitted. So I look forward to next year’s series (all lined up, but I will keep their names under wraps until we’re ready with the publicity) with slightly less trepidation. I need also to rememberi that pride comes before a fall and I could yet spectacularly go wrong in front of the audience!

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Putting a Value on the Intangible

Does being around trees make you less stressed? A recent study claims it does and, for many of us, green spaces undoubtedly confer a sense of peace and a place to sit and relax. Do trees confer benefits that can be measured? Economists want to do this since they want to weigh up the pros and cons of planting trees in urban areas (versus, presumably, loss of space and the cost of maintaining them) and there are a variety of formal routes  to do this.  (As an aside, I am not sure exactly what these calculations factor in – trees’ ability to take up greenhouse gases; reduce pollution and hence reduce hospital admissions for asthma; in hot countries reducing air conditioning bills….- any or all of those may be taken into account although I’m not convinced they are.) The sums accredited to trees are large. Close to where I used to live there was a long-running legal battle about chopping down some beautiful plane trees that were, correctly or not, identified as culprits in local residential housing subsidence. The battle was only partially won (the trees were lopped rather than felled) but during the battle the local Councillor produced a statement with the request that

‘The Council should undertake a full assessment of the CAVAT values equating to £345,000 – £420,000 for the three trees (plus uncalculated collective amenity value).’

(CAVAT is one of the formal ways to do the sums.)

Economists like to measure everything, it seems to me, even if a measurement as fundamental as GDP can be endlessly argued about with the result the numbers are remarkably uncertain . I am not infrequently left wondering how useful any of their numbers may be; at the very least the error bars are huge. Nevertheless, despite our groans it isn’t just the HE sector that has to be quantified by governments, so do our open spaces. But, to come back to my opening sentences, how does one evaluate the benefit of mental well-being per tree? Although I have read a variety of articles on this recently, the prompt for this post actually comes from moving office (in my department, finally, after being threatened with it three years ago) and reflecting on the new view I have from it, which includes some young trees. And also from showing a friend round my home in the Master’s Lodge recently and observiing her delight in the setting.  I realise just how much I have benefited in a completely incalculable way from the view (see the picture) that my office in the Lodge now offers. It is fantastic, peaceful, green, lush and ever-changing. I am far more likely to work in my home office now than I ever was when I lived elsewhere with a Velux window as the only window in the loft conversion that was my ‘home office’, accordingly with no view whatsoever from my desk.

fellows gardenA recent view at dusk from my ‘home office’ in the Master’s Lodge.

I know it. I am spoiled. But that brings me to the much more serious point about widening participation and equal opportunities for all our children. Virginia Woolf stressed the challenges for women writing when, like Jane Austen they had to hide their writing whenever visitors turned up; the mathematician Mary Somerville had the same problems. In A Room of her Own Woolf spelled out the long history of the impossibility of a woman being able boldly to hide herself away to think and write. Few women – perhaps Emilie de Chatelet in her mansion, maybe George Elliot who was ‘professionally’ a writer and anyhow so far beyond the social pale in her living arrangements perhaps a little ink on her fingers didn’t matter – could indulge themselves.

It applies also to schoolchildren who have no private space where they can go to think without interruption. As a teenager I remember visiting a friend’s family who lived in Council housing and everything and everyone was crammed into a tiny space. How my friend managed to find peace enough to complete her work to get her to university I cannot imagine (no noise-correcting headphones then to drown out the shrill noises of a large family), but she did succeed in being the first of her family to do so.

Children who have no quiet space to work indoors, and increasingly no public libraries to escape to either, will be put at huge disadvantage when it comes to getting through their exams with flying colours whatever their inherent intellectual abilities. And children who are brought up in concrete jungles, the sorts of housing estates that were mistakenly built in the ‘60’s and are frequently being torn down now, and who lack the peace brought by trees, by lawns or streams, will also suffer. Children’s mental health is very visibly suffering from many of the challenges of modern life, as the sacking of Natasha Devon for speaking out on the issue this week brings into sharp focus.

This intangible benefit is something that having moved from one perfectly civilised space to another even better one really has brought home to me. I don’t need an economist to evaluate the value per square metre of the lawn outside my window, or the precise – or even imprecise – value of the stunning dawn sequoia I can admire every time I look up from my desk. (This impressive tree, centre stage in my photo, was probably the first in the UK, given I think to the first Master Sir John Cockcroft as a gift for the College brought back from the Himalayas.) I don’t need an economist because I can feel it in my very being and am deeply grateful.

However, as we in the College work on widening participation, we can go into schools, we can attempt to raise aspirations from an early age, we can inform, demystify Oxbridge and the college system and do all we can to encourage students from the broadest range of backgrounds to apply. But we cannot overcome social disadvantage brought about by bad housing estates or unemployment and lack of cash. The Government loves to berate Oxbridge for doing insufficient on the widening participation front, but doesn’t want to face up to generations of lost opportunities and dwindling social support. We all must continue to fight, wherever we live, for trees, for libraries, for better housing estates as well as simply raising aspirations. With austerity as the Government’s watchword this is more important than ever.


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Embedding the People in our Labs

Scientists are people, they have emotions and they interact with their peers, their students, their professors….and indeed the public. Sometimes, however, scientists are represented as interacting with little more than glassware or white lab coats. We can be perceived as living in a hermetically sealed bubble of our own construction occasionally churning out papers which are too abstract for others to appreciate, and are presumed to be always devoid of emotion. This representation is a travesty of what life as a scientist is like.

Perhaps it is for this reason that Hope Jahren’s book Lab Girl is being received so positively: she is open and frank about her life as a scientist. Her passion for the world of plants (ancient and modern) shines through, alongside the extraordinary lengths she has gone to in order to make her science count, the hours she has slaved away and the challenges she faced en route. Challenges which include bipolar disorder, dropped in half way through the book so lightly one could almost miss it, despite its extreme effects upon her from time to time. Sexism is only mentioned in passing, but lurks just beneath the surface. Chasing after grants is described much more explicitly, as is her excitement as she dreams up new experiments to test her hypotheses out. You don’t have to be a (paleo)botanist to appreciate her descriptions, which are wonderfully evocative.

However, this isn’t meant to be a book review. I have come across three already in my casual reading; there are bound to be more out of there if you look. First up was the New York Times  which gave it such a rave review I instantly went out and bought the book. Subsequently I came across both the Guardian’s write up by Helen Pearson and fellow OT blogger Jenny Rohn’s review in Nature.  All three are very positive, stressing different elements of this engaging and original book. However, I want to highlight a slight niggle I had when reading it, which comes back to my opening sentences.

Jahren writes movingly about her science, her passion (a word I use with caution for reasons I have described before) for it and about how it shapes her every day. She describes feelings and situations most scientists would recognize in their generalities, though the specifics may differ for every discipline and individual. For the non-scientists, who one hopes will read the book, our way of life may look extreme but that is part of the book’s power. But what is missing is the flesh and blood of the people around her. ‘Bill’ is a central character: her long-serving technician of many years’ standing features prominently. Yet he is a cypher, for all his name crops up with great frequency. The book is centred around Jahren; the others are mere shadows. Yet that is not how science is done. We thrive by discussion, by argument, by doing and listening. These are not lone activities. Science is not done in an interpersonal vacuum, yet when such a central character as Bill has little solidity (other than that he solidly, unquestioningly supports Jahren)and is painted so faintly, we can’t understand – or indeed convey –  the complexity of the reality of ‘doing’ science.

Following on from my last post, it seems to me that for all the revealing personal touches Jahren makes about herself, without the web of her collaborators taking shape the dialogue is incomplete. I wrote something similar when I described another plant scientist’s book: Seed to Seed by Nicholas Harberd. In this earlier post I noted the absence of his group of students as a source of ideas, inspiration or challenge. In other words, he too seemed to exist in a solipsistic world that I think is not an accurate reflection of how most of us proceed.

What I think makes both these otherwise illuminating and intriguing accounts of how scientists operate somewhat disappointing (and I suspect it is mere coincidence that both these books are written by individuals in similar disciplines, though asking very different questions) is that they can feed the view that scientists are egotistical folk for whom other people don’t really matter very much. The Frankenstein myth is alive and well and it is unfortunate if books that are in so many ways stimulating and refreshing nevertheless convey the message that other people either aren’t important or are only there to serve the master brain. A key role for a group leader to adopt is that of nurturing future talent. Not just take them to a conference and feed them pizza (as Jahren describes), but challenge them, stretch them, advise them and encourage them to enable the next generation to work out who they are. Our contribution can be as much about this nurturing as about our own high profile papers or the conferences we speak at.

Maybe it’s that I’m nosey, but having read Jahren’s book and been carried away by her wonderful prose and neat analogies, I wanted to know more about her helpmeet Bill and what made him tick. If reviews of a book about doing science are going to make it into mainstream papers, I want that book to represent the full richness of doing science. I don’t want it to feed the idea that we are lone geniuses whom lesser talents should be proud to serve. It is absolutely clear that Jahren does not think like this (as her appendix on how she approached the generation of some of the more mind-blowing numbers in the course of her teaching made clear), but the book lets the opportunity to spell this out slip. Let us not leave the humanity of what we do be left out; let us not feed the fears of so many of the public who think we are cold, unfeeling  machines who don’t care about the consequences of our actions. Collectively we aren’t like that, but perhaps we could do more to overcome such public anxieties.

I am convinced my own science is all the richer and better for the personal interactions I have had. I have tried to touch upon such human connections when I have written tributes to two of my own late mentors (Ed Kramer and Sir Sam Edwards).  If ever I write an autobiographical book – which is definitely not currently on my to-do list – it will need to encompass the web of people who have inspired me, driven me on (or driven me mad) because that is how science is done. Not in splendid isolation.

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Culture and Science

Culture arguably sits at the centre of our society, but what it means isn’t always clear. To many, too many I would say, it only refers to the ‘arty’ stuff: literature, films, art and music perhaps. That science could be part of culture, whilst rarely explicitly stated as impossible, generally seems to be regarded as not being the case. But then, what is science? What is included in science and what is not? These questions that have long bothered me have been brought into sharper relief by my stint as chair of the (pilot) Science Advisory Council  (SAC) for the Department of Culture, Media and Sports (DCMS). One of the first questions posed, by SAC member Geoff Crossick, was ‘what do we mean by science?’. Within the SAC we are taking it to mean ‘everything covered by one of the research councils’, so a pretty catholic description. It would certainly include much of the heritage industry (clearly relevant to DCMS’s activities), as well as the more obvious laboratory and social sciences as well as health (up to a point; no need to clash with the Department of Health’s remit).

Questions about culture are close to Geoff Crossick’s heart. He is a former head of the AHRC and co-author of a recent AHRC report discussing the importance of culture for our society. Understanding the value of arts & culture it represents the outcome of the Cultural Value Project and was published last month. This week a meeting is being held to reflect on its findings. By its very nature it seeks to define what ‘culture’ is, and then explore what impact it has on our society, including our well-being. As such it is highly relevant to the work the SAC does and I was honoured that Geoff invited me to participate in this week’s meeting (although I have been away and so unable to accept). It implies that through our work on the SAC and more broadly he believes that I, as a scientist, have something to offer the cultural debate, and I hope I do. But first we have to get past what ‘culture’ is and here I still think the debate has been too narrowly framed. Or rather, I think using the word culture to exclude science simply highlights the limitations of our language. In turn, this deficiency in language hinders our broader thinking (this is in no way meant as a criticism of the report’s content).

The report itself specifically aims to broaden the coverage compared with previous discussions and states

‘It is interested not just in publicly-funded concert halls, art galleries, theatres and museums, important as these are; but also commercial film, music and literature; young people getting together in a band, amateur choirs, local art clubs and reading groups, and people crafting at home or in local clubs; as well as those engaging in prisons, hospitals and care homes.’

Implicitly from this it is clear that the scope will restrict itself to those things that are ‘arty’ in a broad but not merely professional sense. Nevertheless, there is no sense that attending a science festival or participating in a citizen science project might count as ‘culture’

Our language does not have a suitable word to cover this broader sense of culture. Nor do we have a word that encompasses science in all its manifestations. In German, Wissenschaft has conveys this broad sense of knowledge, and if the Germans want to be more specific they can use Naturwissenschaft to indicate they are referring to the Natural Sciences. The English vocabulary is lacking any such single word. As a result we end up splitting our world into culture and science as if there is a neat dividing line. Paul Nurse, in his 2012 Dimbleby Lecture  said

‘I am passionate about science because it has shaped the world and made it a better place, and I want to see science placed more centre stage in our culture and economy.’

I quite agree, but as long as we explicitly and implicitly identify this sharp division between the two parts of our rich world we are failing.

The absence of a suitable word drives us to keeping the different parts of our knowledge-based activities (a horrid phrase, but I can’t use culture for obvious reasons) compartmentalised. A while ago I took exception to Stephan Collini’s distinction between ‘scientists’ and ‘scholars’ for exactly the same reason. It divides us when we should be sharing what each of us can bring to this particular party. It encourages pitting science against the humanities (as I’ve also written about before). Such splitting can only be damaging to the way we, collectively, approach the world and bring up the next generation. I wish there was an easy solution but I think it is a dialogue we should not be wary of facilitating.

May 1st 2016 For those interested in seeing these ideas taken further, Brigitte Nerlich has published her own blogpost exploring linguistic distinctions in other languages. There is further debate in her comment stream too.

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