Do some science, you !*!!

Back a few days now from several weeks of holiday beyond the reach of broadband – yes, such places do still exist, even in Northern Europe – and am re-adjusting slowly. I feel rather de-inspired blogwise, though. It may be that this reflects being out of practise. I remember Henry Gee saying in a comments thread a while back that the only way to try to be a writer of any kind was to write regularly, preferably every day. His comments echoed those of many other writers writing about writing, Now, I haven’t written a word during my several weeks of holiday… Anyway, to try and ease back into the swing of things, here is a quickie.

Management in British science, particularly in academia, is traditionally pretty genteel. Over the quarter century odd I have been in the business, though, there has been a perceptible “hardening up” of managerial ways. This is widely seen in academia as a consequence of the endless targets that the Government has been setting UK Universities these last two decades and more, and the consequent generation of targets for individual scientists to fulfil, mostly in terms of grants and papers. A useful recent summary of this, for those not in the UK and/or not at “Principal Investigator” level, can be found on Dorothy Bishop’s blog.

Of course, it could be worse. Out in industry, I recall one of my friends telling me about his (UK) PharmaCo sending the management consultants and senior brass in to each research team to “weed out” the less committed as part of one of their periodic downsizing“resizing” exercises. In this particular round, each member of the scientific team was asked to come in and sit for a couple of hours in front of a several-strong team of PharmaCo management suits and external consultants. The research team members had both to justify their own role, and to “vision” their “personal five year plan”. The joke doing the rounds, according to my friend, was that this almost invariably resulted in the loss of the best bench scientist (or scientists) from each team. The general view in the labs, he told me, was that this happened because such folk were often the least good at bullshit managerial-type vision-talk – or perhaps they just decided they couldn’t be bothered.

But still, it could be worse…     …I guess.

If you wonder how much worse, you could take a look at this inspired sketch from British comedians Arnstrong and Miller, called

“Glengarry Glen Science”

[*WARNING!* This clip contains, erm, “industrial” or “Anglo-Saxon” language. Though not literally Anglo-Saxon, if you catch my drift. Anyway, do not click if easily offended by the F-word]

It couldn’t really happen… could it?

I’ve certainly never been sworn at, or threatened, by a manager or superior. Well, apart from being told that I might lose my lab space. Or be moved to a much grottier building.

However – I should say that the UK-based scientist who sent me this (now working in a biotech start-up, but a veteran of many years in both Universities and Big Pharma) added the following comment:

“I think Armstrong and Miller must have met some of the great professors in [names Faculty in a major UK University] and [name of major UK research charity]… Several persons spring to mind.”

So perhaps it is not as far-fetched as you might think.

So… any comments? Anyone on the bad end of any serious Glengarry-ing they feel able to talk about? And do we think things have got generally more “in your face”?

PS If you don’t know the original model for the sketch, it is David Mamet’s classic play about Chicago real estate salesmen, Glengarry Glen Ross – see here for a clip from the film version.

About Austin

Middle-aged grouchy white male. Hair greying but hasn't all fallen out yet. Spreading waistline ill-concealed by baggy jumper.Semi-extinguished physiology researcher turned teacher. Known for never shutting up. Father of two children (aged 6 and 2) who try to out-talk him. Some would call that Karmic Revenge.
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10 Responses to Do some science, you !*!!

  1. Åsa Karlström says:

    well, I did drive a Ford Focus one time …. 😉

    As for the screaming… not me personally, one of my former collegeues though got screamed at rather rudely and vulgar in the corridor after a meeting with an upset prof. I’m just happy it wasn’t me, since I would’ve lost it. Sorry, there is only that much I can take as an adult ^^

    To be more on the serious side though, I do think there might be a problem with tightening times and people who haven’t really had any training in “management” and what may and may not be appropriate behaviour towards subordinates/trainees. Not to mention the whole “telling beforehand what is expected and not” – since that is more often than not, imho, assumed to be understood….

  2. Tom Ruginis says:

    Threats of violence is no way to motivate workers.

  3. Mike Fowler says:

    “Vision” is not a fupping verb (can we say the F word here now you’ve broken the seal?). If “Management speak” means “incoherent babbling” as this suggests, I’m glad I don’t speak it. Although it seems like we have to include more of this crap in grant proposals these days.
    And I have been threatened (in a ‘you’ll never work again in this field’ way) in the past. I didn’t take it too seriously (although it was upsetting), as most other people in the field knew the threatener. Long story. Short version: I’m still working in that field.

    Hmmm. “The Threatener”. A new Hollywood vehicle for Mickey Rourke, methinks. Works on so many levels.

  4. Stephen Curry says:

    I’ve never really encountered this sort of behaviour personally though do recognise the creeping effect of dubious management metrics.

    Thanks for digging out that sketch Austin – I had never seen it before. I’m a big fan of Mamet’s play – fantastic swearing (but also a penetrating view into the sharp end of market forces) – and saw it on the London stage many moons ago. The film version is first class as well.

  5. Henry Gee says:

    I’d seen that sketch on TV and thought at the time how ‘knowing’ it was. In my opinion Armstrong and Miller should be better known – they are (in my opinion) much more hardcore than, say, Mitchell and Webb, and similar estate agents solicitors comedy partnerships. In their first series they had this great running sketch called ‘Nude Practice’ about a firm of vets who went about their practice totally nude, a fact that went unremarked by everyone else (like one of those nightmares I guess). It sounds cheesy but was killingly funny.

  6. Austin Elliott says:

    I’ve never been threatened, or sworn at, and neither has anyone at PI level that I know personally. The nearest I have heard from my cronies is the “You’ll never work in this country again!” line, which a couple of people I know were treated to. Incidentally, it didn’t prove true in either case.

    I have heard a few tales over the years of lab bosses swearing at subordinates, though in several it was not exactly totally personal, more along the lines of:

    “Have you !!*!ing losers seen Cell today? We’ve been !!*!ing scooped! You were too !!*ing slow! All of this was a !**!ing waste of time!”

    ** Dumps in-preparation manuscript theatrically into wastepaper bin**

    One story I did hear recently, which is perhaps a subtler but more insidious form of bullying, was of a scientist on probation (i.e. in a tenure track job but pre tenure review) having to report regularly on their progress to the Human Resources Director. Now, one can see making progress reports to someone who could hopefully give you useful advice (like a more senior scientist), but to an HR person?

    Perhaps the worse things that have happened to me in my career have been acts of omission. For instance, I was once due to move my lab to a nice new building. The first that a subgroup of us in the Department knew that we weren’t moving as planned was when the next in the sequence of meetings of those moving took place, and we weren’t invited. No one ever told us to our faces that we weren’t getting in. Nor were we told the criteria for exclusion, although (as is the way of academia) they leaked out soon enough.

    Faced with that kind of alternative, being told upfront (even not all that sensitively) would probably be an improvement. I am certainly of the view, in managerial terms, that having things out in the open is better than having them left unsaid – if only because brooding over what is not said, but might be implied, loses far more time than simply being pissed off with what has been said.

    In general, as several people have already said, putting the system under pressure puts people under pressure, which then passes on down the line. And I am not sure how much organising training for those in roles of responsibility really helps – it is more a question of whether the boss has the empathy to put themselves in the other person’s shoes, and thus consider their feelings.

  7. Jennifer Rohn says:

    I think I’m too lowly in academia to have had the chance to be exposed to that sort of thing. Interestingly, the management I worked with in industry were among the most down-to-earth people I’ve known — but perhaps because it was recent a spin-off from academia, the mould hadn’t yet had a chance to creep.

  8. Heather Etchevers says:

    Jennifer: tell me you’ve never been scooped and been exposed to theatre such as in Austin’s previous comment?

    All of this rings sufficiently true and sometimes comes close to my experience (or what I fear it could be) that I think I will go cower, trembling, in a corner of the lab now.

  9. Austin Elliott says:

    My little piece of “theatre of the scooped” was close to one very charismatic head of a large lab I used to know, and who several of my drinking buddies worked for. This chap was not a swearer. He did have the taste for the theatrical, though, and was of a rather, er, “mercurial” nature. Thus one day he would be back from a conference, and very “up”, and it would be:

    “We’re doing great… we’re nearly there… One last push…! You’re all bloody brilliant.”

    – and then the next day it would be the Ms. tossed in the bin routine and:

    “Have you seen Cell? We’re too late. Too slow. You blew it.”

    As you can imagine, this did not make him a terribly easy guy to work for – since you never knew, on any given day, which version of him you would be dealing with.

  10. Michael Taggart says:


    re: Glengarry Glen Research.  A few years ago, I was invited to dinner by a newly-appointed Research Dean who, it turns out, was wishing to sound out whether there may be support for some of the ‘radical’ procedures he wished to put in place to ‘correct’ poor performance in the Faculty now in his charge.  One was to award £1,500-£2,000 in to the bank account of any PI obtaining a Research Council grant.  True. 

    Knowing that this chap was previously an SDP supporter and at the time of the conversation a Labour supporter I mentioned that this seemed rather Thatcherite and was, actually, rather demeaning to the values that led many into academia in the first place.  It never happened (to my knowledge).  Maybe no one actually got a RC grant.

    I shouldn’t have been surprised.  The same person two years previously was my line manager.  On one occasion, I informed him, even though there was no obligation to do so as I had already informed HR, that the next day I would be at home in support of AUT (as was) strike action.  He exploded with the comment:

    "I view taking strike action when your salary is supported by charitable funds (mine was not) as contemptible and immoral and if you insist on doing this I won’t forget it".   

    Of course, about 10 minutes later he came to apologise, probably after seeking counsel from a more experienced ‘manager’ or maybe after finding out from HR that I, of course, was foregoing my salary for the strike day – but that’s what we are dealing with.  It does indeed happen.


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