Being mortal and being Crick

Two more book reviews from my reading list for this year.

On several occasions while reading Being Mortal, surgeon Atul Gawande’s book about end-of-life care, I could feel a lump swelling in my throat and tears behind my eyes pressing for release. I’m not an emotional type but this is an intense book.

The intensity is surprising since Gawande’s lucid style is very matter of fact. The sting comes entirely from the fact that his subject, mortality and death, affects us all. You feel it closing in as Gawande lists the ailments we are likely to encounter as we grow old and our bodies fail and turn against us. More distressing still are the stories of people who, faced with life-threatening conditions, were badly advised and found themselves separated from the world, abandoned to a slow, unpleasant demise punctured by tubes in a hospital bed or locked within the rigid regime of a care home that did not care.

Gawande’s charge is that amidst modern medicine’s obsession with ‘fixing’ people – to keep them from death – doctors have forgotten the importance of enabling people to live a life that is more than just breathing. It is a charge that sticks but this is not a tale of hopelessness because the heart of the book is filled with stories people who do care. People like Keren Wilson, who developed the concept of assisted living in Oregon in the 1980s to give more autonomy to the elderly; or Bill Thomas who took charge of a nursing home in upstate New York and turned it upside-down by focusing on its inhabitants, not its staff; or Jacqui Carson who stuck by the elderly residents the nursing home that she directs in Boston, an apartment building that enables independent living, as their capacities declined and their dependencies grew.

The lessons Gawande learned from these innovators – and other health professionals experienced in helping people to face life before death – are about giving people a clear view of a future that has suddenly shrunk and helping them to choose how to make the best of their remaining days, however limited the options. These lessons may seem obvious but they are not easily assimilated, as Gawande reveals through his own faltering efforts to care for his father, a man he had only ever known to be vigorous, when he is eroded by cancer and infirmity in his seventies.

Being Mortal may not be an easy read but it is a salutary early warning of the bell that tolls for all of us.

Matt Ridley's biography of Francis Crick

Matt Ridley’s Francis Crick: Discoverer of the Genetic Code is a concise biography of the great molecular biologist. At only 210 pages it lacks the heft of Robert Olby’s earlier biography — there is not even room for an index — though Ridley is the more entertaining writer. The book also lacks detailed annotations of the author’s sources, which is a shame since he has dug up several interesting nuggets that I hadn’t come across before. I was unaware, for example, that an early plan for James Watson’s best-selling book on the discovery of the structure of DNA, The Double Helix, had been to publish it as a two-part story in the New Yorker under the fantastically revealing title, “Annals of a Crime”.

Those quibbles aside, this is worthwhile biography of one of the greats of 20th Century science. It’s a speedy read but not a superficial hagiography. Crick’s life –  his successes and failures, his talents and foibles – are covered well and Ridley largely has the measure of the important scientific issues that defined and were defined by the man. If you think Crick’s only achievement was solving the structure of DNA, or are wondering why the UK is about to open a new biomedical research institute named in his honour, I suggest you start here.

Posted in Book Review | Tagged , | 1 Comment

The biologist who left me out in the cold

Two weeks, two books.

In Unweaving the Rainbow Richard Dawkins takes issue with the poets. He argues that the poetry revealed deep within Nature by scientific investigation is more wondrous than the musings of those who make do with superficial appearances. I picked it up because I am in the midst of writing a review of recent developments in structural biology and am hoping to touch on the issues of perception and how our burgeoning understanding of the molecular nature of the world affects – perturbs? –  our sense of self. I thought that Dawkins might have something interesting to say.

And he does, but it’s a bit of a ramble. The book starts out promisingly enough. It has a good title, borrowed Unweaving the Rainbowfrom Keats’ poem Lamiawhich contains the lines:

Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomèd mine—
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-person’d Lamia melt into a shade.

Keats’ complaint about the aesthetically destructive power of ‘cold philosophy’ and his easy seduction by mystery and superstition strike the modern scientific mind as little more than romantic notions and are easily dismissed. Dawkins has little trouble hitting his stride early on, and explores some interesting ideas en route to building his case for the enrichment of beauty by the good offices of science. However, his chosen path is not a very direct one and ultimately the book turns out to be a compendium of parts that don’t add up satisfactorily.

The opening section is followed by three chapters of examples, all drawn from physics, that are clearly designed to illuminate the beauty revealed when science penetrates beneath the surface. But the execution feels clunky. Dawkins invokes the image of the barcode to explain first spectroscopy, then the analysis of sound by Fourier techniques and finally DNA fingerprinting. This an odd choice of metaphor since the barcode is a thoroughly pedestrian image that widens rather than bridges the gap between scientific and aesthetic sensibilities. His working of the material also felt laboured. Dawkins is clearly more at home (as later in the book) on matters biological and evolutionary. I’m not sure it was intentional but I was left to conclude that the scientific analysis of nature necessarily involves a large amount of tedious spadework: you have to dig for your nuggets. That’s not a bad message but I’m not sure how many converts it will have won.

These chapters are followed by one that unpicks human credulity; Dawkins makes some worthwhile points but he also works over some easy targets – astrology and paranormalism – in a rather long-winded and unsubtle fashion. He is on better form warning of the dangers of not properly appreciating probability but slips again in the following chapter by devoting much of it to an extended attack on the writings of Stephen J Gould which, at a distance of 17 years, seemed to have lost its purpose.

The Spy who Came in from the Cold

In the home stretch there is a rather nebulous argument in favour of ‘good poetic science’ – the useful and appropriate application of metaphor – but Dawkins’ efforts are undermined by being interwoven with an rather defensive rebuttal of those who apparently have not read The Selfish Gene with sufficient attention. This section also dwells on accounts of how our evolutionary history is embedded in our genes and our brains; while quite interesting in themselves, I struggled to relate these to his central thesis. In the end I was glad to be done with Unweaving the Rainbow. Good here and there for making you think but dare I say it lacks poetry?

The second book of my reading fortnight was John le Carré’s 1963 classic The Spy who Came in from the Cold, which was recommended to me by Mike Taylor. In contrast to Dawkins’ wayward perambulation, this was a taut, brilliantly constructed narrative – cold, hard, cynical, tragic. I devoured the book in two days. John Banville said of it: ‘A masterpiece, the best espionage novel ever written’ and I’m not about to disagree.

Posted in Book Review | Tagged , | 3 Comments

This week – reading, thinking and linking

This past week I have been doing so much reading and writing for work that there has been no time to prepare anything substantial enough for a proper blog post, even if I have been stirred by the excessive protests of Mark Walport or the over-selling of what is actually a nice piece of virology.

But I have squeezed in a little additional reading on the side and thought I would take a couple of minutes to pull the links together.

“Check me out. The top two knuckles of my left hand look as if I’d been worked over by the K.G.B.” If you take only one thing away from this blogpost, for God’s sake let it be this: in the New Yorker, Roger Angell writes beautifully, wittily and with unsparing honesty of his life as an old man.

In the Boston Review, Stephen Shapin’s superb essay traces the association and dissociation of science and virtue.

On Tuesday the UK House of Commons voted to approve the use of mitochondrial transfer treatments; Mark Henderson reveals the pivotal role of Prof Doug Turnbull, a scientist who worked hard to overcome ‘failure to communicate’.

Measles is on the loose in the US, stoking furious debates between pro- and anti-vaxxers. There really should be no debate on the matter, though the proper tenor of that discussion is something for us all to consider. For now, this impressive animation in the Guardian gives a beautifully clear excellent demonstration of how herd immunity can only be achieved with high rates of immunisation.

Guardian Measles Vaccine Animation

It should come as no surprise to university folk to learn that metrics are getting out of hand. This is complex territory but John Gill in the Times Higher is not happy – and neither are many academics.

Mention of metrics inevitably calls to mind the REF, the UK’s six-yearly self-assessment and self-flagellation exercise. It’s something of a bête noir for neuroscientist and super-blogger David Colquhoun, who has an interesting proposal for reforming UK universities so as to avoid the more insidious effects of the REF. I don’t always agree with David but he always makes you think.

Elsewhere on the cultural landscape, I read another good book by novelist James Salter and delighted in Andy Marmery’s fun making rockets with water bottles and ethanol. The RI Channel is going from strength to strength — this week they also released videos of the 1980 Christmas lectures by crystallographers David Phillips and Max Perutz.

That said and much as I love my crystallography, the video highlight of this week is the news that Simon Singh’s and John Lynch’s fabulous film about Fermat’s Last Theorem is now available on the BBC iPlayer. In my humble opinion it remains one of the best science documentaries ever made. Treat yourself (UK only, I’m afraid).

With apologies to Ed Yong, who has been in the linking business for much longer and does it so much better.

Posted in Communication, History of Science, Science & Media, Science & Politics | Comments Off

All That Is, by James Salter

In 2013 I was captured, captivated by the spare prose of James Salter’s The Hunters, a story of the tense competition between US fighter pilots in the Korean War. All That Is is similarly spare, and like The Hunters quite a masculine novel, but it is a different beast.

All That Is

Initially I was concerned that Salter’s compact style might be ill suited to the span of his narrative, which tracks the life of Philip Bowman from his time in the navy during World War II, and through his life and career as a publisher in New York. Salter sweeps through Bowman’s war experience and early post-war years, and loops back to his childhood, in the space of twenty pages. But then I simply fell into step with the author. There was no click; somehow the mist cleared and I recognised a trusted friend.

Bowman’s life unfurls in under four hundred pages. This is a big book thanks to its subject – how to live – but it does’t feel like a big book because of the poetic economy of Salter’s prose. He writes of the efflorescence of Bowman’s first deep relationship: “It was love, the furnace into which everything dropped.” The surety of such observations and the elegant, almost unseen, architecture of Salter’s writing permeate the novel; only very rarely does the poetry seem forced.

The style is all of a piece with the self-confidence that grows within Bowman as he sees himself forging a path through life, both in his relationships with women and his developing professional prowess. And yet, he is never quite in control—he and the people around him are buffeted by events—and nor can he completely understand or connect with the people who fill his life. There is a plangent note of loneliness that seems inevitable but has somehow to be confronted.

All That Is is a rewarding read. James Lasdun’s review goes into more detail on the themes explored in Salter’s narrative and is pretty much on the money.

Posted in Book Review | Tagged | 7 Comments

Open access and the humanities

At the end of 2013 and 2014 I wrote blog posts on Occam’s Corner (over at the Guardian) to list and briefly review the books I read in each of those years. I want to develop this practice into a good habit because it spurs me to read; and I hope it might also serve to flag up titles of interest to others. I am planning to do the same thing again when 2015 draws to a close but this time I am trying to ease the task by writing short reviews as I go along.

So here goes with the first one because I have just finished Martin Paul Eve’s Open Access and the Humanities (subtitled Context, Controversies and the Future).

Open Access and the Humanities (cover)

This book will mainly be of interest to humanities scholars, particularly if they have felt overwhelmed or bamboozled by the STEM-led drive to open access modes of scholarly publishing. I hope many of them will read it. Eve is up-front about being an advocate but lays out the issues with care and candour. The implications of the changes under way in academic publishing may be widely disputed but this is no heated polemic. As further incentives to humanities readers, at 152 pages in the printed version the book is concise and, appropriately, there is an open access version that can be downloaded for free.

Open Access for the Humanities is divided into five short chapters that cover the background to open access, the economics of academic publishing in a digital world, the implications of new forms of licensing, monographs (the longer form of academic writing favoured in the humanities) and innovations in peer review that arise from the shift to OA.

Inevitably there is some overlap in the opening sections with Peter Suber’s Open Access (which I reviewed previously) but few of Eve’s readers will have read that book and he serves them well by providing a cogent digest of the history and technicalities of OA. I particularly appreciated his tracing of the roots of OA to the open software movement and, in particular, to Richard Stallman’s innovative thinking about how new models of licensing needed to be developed for a digital world. Throughout, Eve’s examination of how the drive to OA intersects with strong academic, economic, political and cultural cross-currents is studded with insight. He usefully separates the economics of publishing from the economics of academic prestige, questions the shifting perceptions of value of humanities scholarship situated within an increasingly marketised university system and a digital culture that demands greater transparency and engagement, and finds some common ground for humanities scholars and the authors of scientific research.

Although Eve clearly favours an OA future for humanities scholarship, he is careful to explore the counter arguments. Sometimes these are dealt with immediately, as in his challenge to the writings of Robin Osborne on this topic (PDF)); elsewhere it is left to the reader to weigh up the issues.

Ultimately, although he may not have cut the Gordian knot preventing the humanities from warmly embracing OA (which academic community has?), Eve has at least unpicked some of it with his assiduous inspection of the arguments. I would have to read the book again to do full justice to a treatment that engages a complex topic on all fronts but I’m afraid don’t have the time right now. I do know that I shall be returning to Open Access for the Humanities for guidance as the debates rumble on.


Posted in Book Review, Open Access | Tagged , | Comments Off

Impressions of Australia

I have been struggling to write something about my trip to Australia in August, my first visit to that great continent and undoubtedly a highlight of 2014. In my determination to get away from the rather banal what-I-did-on-my-lecture-tour-and-family-holiday trope, I ended up loading the first draft with too much historical and philosophical baggage. By one point I had even included mention of the career-defining voyages of Darwin and Huxley, as if they bore any comparison to our month long flit across the country.

Eventually I came to my senses and realised all I really wanted was to tour through the photographs that I took of a place I thought I knew, from frequent encounters in films and on TV, but which I found at every turn to be delightfully discombobulating.

So here goes.

I knew of course that Australia is filled with weird and wonderful creatures that are not readily seen in Britain but nothing quite prepares you for that first encounter with a Kangaroo, which happened for us at the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary near Brisbane.

They have such an apparently relaxed and thoughtful outlook on life.

That chilled demeanour is also shared by Koalas, Australia’s greatest and most obvious statement of cuteness.

In the seas off Queensland, we came across humpback whales. We have been whale-watching several times before in the coastal waters near Boston in the US but have yet to tire of meeting these magnificent creatures…

…even if they are rather shy.

We flew to Lady Elliot Island at the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef for a day of snorkelling with the fishes. It’s a tiny place, just long enough for a landing strip.

The day was rather overcast and rainy but, as long as you kept your wetsuit zipped, the sea — and the sea creatures – remained inviting. We dived in from three separate locations around the island, equipped with a high-definition GoPro 3 video camera, which allows me to share just a couple of minutes of a quite wonderful experience:

South of Brisbane, on the recommendation of Jenny Martin, we visited O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat. The view from the balcony of our chalet, which was propped up on stilts among the leafy canopy, was quite beautiful.

Just as impressive was the wild-life. We caught our first glimpse of a wallaby, foraging furtively in the undergrowth.

But the birds were particularly eye-catching. You have to wonder why the birds of Britain have to be so drab in comparison.

From Brisbane we flew south to Sydney which felt like an odd blend of London and New York, mixed in with a large dose of something new. The underground stations were at once familiar and unfamiliar.

Of course we paid homage to Sydney’s iconic architecture, first the the opera house where we enjoyed Rigoletto…

…and then the harbour bridge, which we battled across on a grimy day of wind and rain.

The vibe in Melbourne was different but no less lively. It had the most European feel of all the cities we visited. We enjoyed the jangle of old and new…

…and, once again, the proximity to the water…

…which provides endless opportunities for taking photographs that are dead arty.

From Melbourne I took a day trip to Hobart on Tasmania to give a lecture to the local Chemical Society. It was a short visit but there was just enough time to drive to the top of Mount Wellington – a climb that defeated Darwin. It’s a shame he missed such a spectacular view.

And finally we headed to Perth for the last stop of our trip. Perth is sleepier than Sydney or Melbourne but still has its own charms, not the least of which were the heat and the light. All through our tour the Australian mid-winter foxed us with its warm sunshine and six o’clock sunsets.

The birds seemed to be enjoying the sunshine too, either at rest…

…or in the air.

In the last days of our visit, Australia still had surprises in store. No-one quite knows how the Pinnacles formed.

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised at nature when it has triumphed time and again even in the harshest conditions, both in plant…

…and animal form.

That insect – a beetle? – is scuttling across rippled sand dunes…

…that were big enough for surfing, Australia’s final bemusing and amusing gift to us.

Those still not tired by this stage can see more pictures in the Australia album on my flickr account. Here’s hoping that 2015 will bring something to match the excitement of our antipodean adventure.



Posted in Science, Travel | Tagged | 5 Comments

Vanity project

I haven’t written a book. And this is it.

Cover photo

Well, I did write it of course. The words are mine. But there is nothing new here. I’ve just pulled together a selection of my blog posts from the last six years and self-published it as a hard-back book titled A Thousand Nothings using the services of It wasn’t that hard.

Still. It is a bit… awkward. I’m telling myself that I have done this for my parents, which is why the book has been rushed out in time for Christmas. But truth be told, I was also curious to see what a book by me might look like. And maybe, just maybe, it might entice a few more readers to my blog.

Anyway, here is the blurb I came up with for the back cover:

“I won’t promise to post regularly; that way I will avoid the repetition of future apologies for failing to write. I won’t promise to be unembarrassed to admit that I am a blogger. I won’t promise to have anything terribly insightful to say. But I will share my experiences of science – such as they are and as frankly as I can.”

With these words Professor Stephen Curry started writing his science blog in 2008. His aim was to demystify the business of being a scientist working in the UK in the 21st century but the journey turned out to be much more engaging than he had ever imagined. This book contains a personal selection of his most interesting and significant blog posts. It is probably too long.”

All of my proceeds from this vain endeavour will be donated to Amnesty International. If I detect the faintest sniff of interest, I will try to come up with an ebook version. I’m also publishing the book under a Creative Commons CC-BY licence so there is an open access version available as a PDF (8.9 MB).

I don’t know why I feel so exposed.


Update, 08 March 2015: I finally got around to formatting the book so that if could be made available as a ebook, which is now on sale for just £0.99 at  I also took the opportunity to trawl through the text to weed out residual typos and errors. These changes have also been made to the printed and open access versions.


Posted in Scientific Life | 10 Comments

Prize-winning video

Well this is nice. The Celebrating Crystallography video made last year by the Royal Institution, which I narrated and helped to script-edit, has won the the EuroScience New Media award. Full details are available on the RI blog but it’s great to see a project come to such fruition.

The film came about as a result of an STFC grant on which Mike Glazer and I were co-applicants, alongside the Gail Cardew from the RI. The project itself was led by Rob Cawston who was the RI’s web channel manager and worked on it alongside Ed Prosser. Of course the script of any film is a key element but the real genius here for my money is the imaginative and funny way that the story was animated by the folks at 12foot6. Even if I do say so myself, it’s a joyous 3 minutes that gives a great snapshot of an important piece of science.

Ed has promised me a photo of the “ridiculously heavy trophy thing” which I will add in due course. Until then, please have a look at the winning video.


Posted in Communication, Science, Science & Media | 4 Comments

Copyright Infringement

This morning I received an email from a publisher inviting me to write a chapter for an ‘upcoming hardcover edited collection’ on a topic of research to which I have made a number of contributions over the years.

I politely declined because of the terms of the copyright transfer agreement that the publisher was good enough to provide up front. I have obscured the name of the company but otherwise it read:

“I (and my coauthors) hereby assign and transfer to XX all rights of copyright ownership and permissions to the article/chapter, including without limitation or restriction, all rights of reproduction, derivation, translation, distribution, sale, reuse, and display of the work, in whole or in part, including recompilation, cross-publication and stand-alone publication, in any and all forms of media now or hereafter known, including all electronic and digital media, as protected by the laws of the United States and foreign countries and to authorize others to make such uses of the work. These rights will become the property of XX from the date of acceptance of the article/chapter for publication and extend for the life of the copyright. I understand that XX, as copyright owner, has authority to grant permission to reproduce the article/chapter.”

As little as three years ago I might have seriously entertained an invitation encumbered by such conditions. But such agreements are, in my view,  no longer fit for purpose in academia.

I work at a university that receives a substantial portion of its income from the public purse and I rely on public funding for my research. I agree it is appropriate to pay a reasonable charge for the costs of quality publishing services — as part of making the work freely available, which in turn is part of returning value to the public for its investment and adding further value to it by ensuring that dissemination and use of my work within and beyond the academic community is as effective as possible.

The clause above infringes my capacity to do my duty as part of the scientific community. Could I suggest that publishers still using such clauses contact their lawyers and start re-writing?


Posted in Open Access, Scientific Life | 14 Comments

Digital culture: my so-called week

My week, my cultural week, started last Sunday when I found time to catch up with Radio 4’s five-part series on Dorothy Hodgkin, an extraordinary scientist who was brought vividly to life through readings of her letters. Hearing the words created an immediacy that I am not sure I would have grasped from the printed page. If you have not yet heard it, the series is also available as a podcast.

On Monday I stumbled across Cosmonauts: How Russia Won the Space Race on BBC4, a fabulous feature-length documentary, constructed around interviews with the ageing spacemen and women and reels of archive footage that I had never seen before. What incredible risks they took and what stories they had to tell — at least those who came back alive.

I am still not quite sure what to make of Brian Cox’s latest televisual outing, Human Universe. There’s no doubt that it is sumptuously made, with a cinematic sweep to match the ambition of the story that is being told, and punctuated with Cox’s signature enthusiasm. The chase to locate the landing site of the Soyuz capsule just descended from the International Space Station was a particular delight and the final shot in the first episode of the ancient obsidian spearhead being laid on the snow beside the charred spacecraft was a powerful moment of weapons-grade symbolism.

My problem is local, I think. It’s me. I’ve heard a lot of this story before although, to be fair, the series is drawing on recent research — for example on models of how orbital wobbles may have provoked evolution in new directions — and, quite reasonably, it hasn’t been made with the professorial likes of me in mind. Henry Gee, late of this parish, took great exception in the Guardian to the perceived human exceptionalism of Human Universe and provoked a noisy argument in the comment thread. I take Henry’s point about the lack of a clear narrative in human evolution — I admire his book, The Accidental Species — and the dangers of seeing humans as something apart from the rest of creation, but I didn’t hear those notes so loudly in Cox’s delivery and am perhaps more forgiving of the limited scope of sixty minutes of television.

That said, I fared a little less well with the second episode which grappled with the question of why we are here — how is it that the laws and constants of physics permit a universe that will support life? The revelation that the laws that govern the universe are considerably simpler that those of cricket was cute if not entirely convincing. I got the essence of the big idea, that an infinity of multiverses must eventually produce one that is just right for life but, dammit, why must physics be so strange? I guess I can’t blame Professor Cox for that.

I got a firmer grip on multiverse theory when I watched Particle Fever, my second feature-length documentary of the week. Directed by Mark Levinson and edited by the legendary Walter Murch, Particle Fever gave a riveting account of the theory and practice of the hunt for the Higgs boson at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. The whole quest — and even the theory — came alive through the cast of characters that the film tracked through the tortuous and dramatic early years of the experiment. I was captivated. The film is higher level than Human Universe but by focusing on a single question manages to remain accessible.

Things took an analogue turn on Saturday afternoon when I went to Tate Britain to see the Late Turner Exhibition. I admired his sea-scapes at the National Maritime Museum back in January and was no less impressed by this collection. There were burning skies aplenty. I particularly liked his pictures of Venice and Rome but it was an especial joy to see him capture light and feeling in watercolours painted on his many trips to Europe. On these visits friends would marvel at his industry. It is as if he had to feel the world pouring through his eyes and out through paint and charcoal and ink onto the page.

Not every work appealed. I struggle to connect with the paintings based on stories and heroes from classical antiquity. Other works, formatted into circular or octagonal frames seemed forced or gimmicky. I was relieved therefore in the penultimate room to come across a selection of his sea pictures, including one of my favourites, Waves Breaking against the Wind.

Turner's Waves breaking against the wind (1840)

 Waves breaking against the wind (1840) — Tate Collection

On first viewing I had been puzzled at the yellow colour that Turner used for the sky. At the time I wrote, “What is it about that wash of yellow at the upper right that is so appealing? I’ve never seen a sky that colour and yet it still has me convinced.” Seeing it again yesterday I suddenly remembered that I had seen a sky of more or less that colour during a trip to Australia in the summer and that I had captured it, digitally. I should have known to trust Turner.

Grey cloud and yellow sky

Grey cloud and yellow sky (2014) — Curry Collection

Posted in History of Science, Science & Art, TV review | Comments Off

Debating the role of metrics in research assessment

I spent all of today attending the “In metrics we trust?” workshop organised jointly by HEFCE and the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at Sussex University. This was part of the information-gathering process of HEFCE’s independent review of the role of metrics in research assessment; the review has a particular focus on how metrics might be used in the Research Excellence Framework (REF) that determines block grant allocations to university departments and research institutes. I was attending because I am a member of the review steering group.

The day promised to be one of vigorous debate because the consultation process that closed earlier in the summer had attracted over 150 responses — soon to be published — and these presented a wide range of views on the dangers and potential of metrics. And so it proved to be, with three panel sessions exploring “The changing landscape for research metrics”, “The darker side of metrics: gaming & unintended consequences” and the question of whether there can be reasonable progress “Towards responsible uses of metrics”. Sandwiched between these was a bazaar in which various metrics vendors displayed their wares.

I don’t have time tonight to capture the range of points and insights that were offered during the course of a interesting day but was somewhat reassured by the widely shared expressions of belief that any use of metrics in research assessment — or as a probe of the propagation or impact of research into the wider world — has to be done with care. The mantra that metrics should inform judgements and not replace them was repeated by many participants and will hopefully soon be enshrined in set of principles to be known as the Leiden Manifesto.

Almost a lone voice, Prof Dorothy Bishop presented a provocative case for supplanting the cumbersome system of peer review in the REF with a much lighter touch analysis of departmental h-indices calculated for research-active staff — an idea that she has previously outlined on her blog. Dorothy showed that, at least for some disciplines (including natural sciences and psychology), use of this metric generated scores that correlated well with resource allocations from the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise (the forerunner of the REF). (Update: as David Colquhoun points out below, Dorothy showed today that most of the correlation is actually due to the the number of people in each department — and she has since detailed her proposals in a new blogpost). The particular advantages of this approach are the cost saving — reckoned to be somewhere between £60m and £100m — and the elimination of the bias that arises from panel members’ affiliations. But it remains to be seen if the method is applicable across all disciplines; or if it fulfils some of the other purposes of the REF, which include examination of broader impacts and demonstrating the commitment of UK research to quality control through periodic self-examination (a feature that plays well at the level of government).

I hope others might chime in with their impressions and analyses of the day. Already there is a Storify aggregation of some of the tweets that tracked the different sessions. I include below my contribution, which was part of the session on the darker side of metrics. It has been lightly edited to clarify and sharpen some points but remains brief and incomplete. This debate is far from over.

“I come here today very much with an open mind on many aspects of metrics, though I fear that may largely be because I am still somewhat confused. So I am glad to have the opportunity to participate in today’s discussions. Already, I am beginning to see some interesting things.

On some topics my mind is made up. I remain sick of impact factors, for example, because of the way that they are so commonly mis-applied in the assessment of individuals or individual pieces of research. I don’t need to rehearse the arguments that I laid out in a blog post of the same name in 2012, except to say that impact factors are a powerful illustration of how a relatively innocent innovation in quantitation can be perverted and do real damage to the research community. I don’t think there is much dispute on that point (though I was surprised and disappointed to come across defenders of this metric in the discussion at the end of this session).

I am worried about people being seduced by the apparent objectivity of numbers. We saw something of that last week in the excitement whipped up by the announcement of the World University Rankings in the Times Higher Education (THE). In the preamble to its explanation of the methodology  the THE describes the ranking process as a “sophisticated exercise”, that is “carefully calibrated” to provide “the most comprehensive and balanced comparisons”. It ranks universities on a composite score drawn from estimates of a range of indicators of teaching, research volume and influence, industrial income, and international outlook.

The Times Higher are good enough to be open about the methodology but when you read exactly how they assemble and weigh the various components, you read statements such as “we believe…”, “UGs tend to…”, “our experts suggested that…” or worse: “the proxy suggests that…”. And so you can see that, although it may be sophisticated, the measure is clearly also subjective. It is not sophisticated enough to assign error bars or confidence intervals to the scores given to universities and I think that’s unhealthy. It seems as if the rankers are laying claim to a level of precision that cannot be justified.

And that tendency for numerical ‘measures’ to wrap themselves in an pseudo-objective authority is a longstanding problem with metrics; in the end people adopt them without thinking hard enough about where they came from.

As a result, I am worried about the word ‘metric’. It implies measurement but, although there are now an increasing number of things that we can count — thanks to the increasing computerisation and connectedness due to the internet — there is still much uncertainty (as we heard this morning from Cameron Neylon) about what those numbers are measuring or what they mean. We still struggle to define quality and impact, never mind being able to measure them. But that is OK and we should not be shy about admitting the difficulty of making judgements about quality or impact — or conceding the limitations of the things that we are counting.

But I think it would be more honest if we were to abandon the word ‘metric’ and confine ourselves to the term ‘indicator’. To my mind it captures the nature of ‘metrics’ more accurately and limits the value that we tend to attribute to them (with apologies to all the bibliometricians and scientometricians in the room).

As someone who is from Ireland, where we have been telling stories for thousands of years — from a time before stories were written down, never mind cited and counted — I was pleased to have heard the word ‘story’ (or its posher cousin ‘narrative’) mentioned so many times in the session this morning. Stories matter to people and although it is now a commonplace to assert that ‘the plural of anecdote is not data’, I wonder if that is always true.

I think that in some ways the diversity of activities and qualities and impacts that are part and parcel of the academic enterprise can only be captured in stories and in narratives. We should be honest about our limited abilities to describe these attributes with quantitative indicators. More than that, we should not be shy about celebrating the wonderful stories that we can tell. I look forward to the publication of the REF2014 narratives (sorry, stories) because I think many of us will be pleasantly surprised to find out about the different ways that research work has vaulted over the walls of academia and into the real world — where it matters.

And finally, wearing the hats associated with my involvement in Science is Vital (SiV) and the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), I want to emphasise the important political dimension of the REF, which is that it provides a mechanism for the research community to demonstrate that it is accountable — to government and to the tax-payers who fund us. I think that is important. (And I think that is it important for the researchers on the ground buy into the process and participate — it is not sufficient to leave this to provosts, vice-chancellors and research managers).

With that in mind, and not forgetting the limitations of quantitative indicators, researchers shouldn’t be too prissy using numbers that have some meaning — especially if they are aggregated at levels that can attenuate the noise in the system. At SiV and CaSE, the case for continued investment in UK science is based in part on the productivity and quality of our research base. In part that is estimated through numbers of publications, and citation rates. The UK has 1% of world’s scientists but produces 6% of publications, and about 14% of the most highly cited papers. Do we really believe those numbers are meaningless? They are not the whole story of course. It is just as important — I am aware of the presence of sophisticated policy analysts such as Ben Martin and Andy Stirling in the room today — to be able to talk about the need maintain a research and university infrastructure so we have generative and absorptive capacity for innovation. (Not to mention the intrinsic value that research gives to human existence by satisfying our curious nature).

So although there are risks, I think we should count on some indicators to inform our judgements, to test and challenge our stories (so as to mitigate our biases), and to help us tell those stories to ministers and the public. Those risks are real but I think they can be counteracted by transparency and debate. I am optimistic that the research community is up to that challenge.”


Posted in Science, Scientific Life | Tagged , , , | 9 Comments

Popular neuroscience book suggestions

Neuroscience isn’t really my thing, so when my teenage daughter came asking for suggestions of a good popular book on the subject I took to Twitter. Several people kindly made suggestions, while others asked to be notified of the outcome of my quest. It seems to be a popular subject.

Here, in no particular order are the titles that were offered.

Graham Steel, one of my OA buddies, was first off the mark and ‘highly recommended’ Barry Gibb’s The The Rough Guide to the Brain (2012). 

Dorothy Bishop, an Oxford professor of psychology suggested Eric Kandel’s In Search of Memory (2007) as ‘autobiography with historical account, so you appreciate where understanding came from’.

Steve Black, a friend from my college days, offered Vilayanur Ramachandran’s The Emerging Mind (which are his 2003 Reith Lectures and are available from the BBC website) and his earlier Phantoms in the Brain (1999).

I myself had been thinking of David Eagleman’s Incognito (2012), which science writer Amy Harmon told me she is presently reading. Eagleman chimed in on Twitter* to confirm the sagacity of this choice.

Many thanks to all who made recommendations. If you have read any of these titles (or others not listed), please let me know what you thought. My daughter will be much obliged.


Update 1 (15 Sept; 08:52): After posting this, several other suggestions have come in through the comments (see below) and on Twitter.

Steve Royle enjoyed The War of the Soups and the Sparks (2007), which focuses on the discovery of neurotransmitters.

Ron Reid felt Christof Koch’s The Quest for Consciousness (2004) to be worthy of consideration even if it is a bit more academic. He also recommended various titles by Oliver Sacks, including The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, Awakenings and Uncle Tungsten; Nicole Slavin would add Musicophilia to that list of Sacks favourites.

Mirco Musolesi called Sebastian Seung’s Connectome (2013) ‘a great read’, a view with which Amy Harmon concurred.

John Tweedle declared Paul Broks’ Into the Silent Land (2004) to be ‘brilliant’.

And finally (for now), Peiro Raimondi recommended Ramachandran’s The Tell Tale Brain (2012) as a ‘beautiful compendium of all his other works (see above).


Update 2 (15 Sept; 21:17): The recommendations have kept on coming, so here is another slew.

Tom Pollard (and several others) judged the graphic novel approach taken by Matteo Farinella and Hana Ros in Neurocomic (2013) to be ‘beautiful’.

As an undergraduate, Matthew Apps was inspired by Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained (1993).

As a PhD student, Narender Ramnani was influenced by Steven Rise’s The Making of Memory (2003). 

Ned Jenkinson recommended Neuroscience: an historical introduction (2014) by Mitch Glickstein. The single reviewer on Amazon also seemed to be impressed.

Aidan Horner thought Charles Ferneyhough’s Pieces of Light: the new science of memory (2013) was great. It was shortlisted for the Royal Society Winton Prize 2013 and the 2013 Best Book of Ideas Prize — and recommended by Frank Norman in the comments below.

Divija Rao mentioned (but did not assess) Rhythms of the Brain (2011) by Gyorgy Buszáki. However, Amazon reviewers called it ‘scholarly’ and ‘dense but readable’. Science writer David Dobbs declared it to be ‘an amazing book’. But it may be a bit pricey for the casual reader.

Olga Rodriguez recommended Michael Gazziniga’s Who’s in charge (2011) but, cryptically, not for teenagers who she thought would be better off with the works of Oliver Sacks (see above for titles).

For Shane O’Mara Carl Sagan’s Broca’s Brain (1988) was the book that hooked him on psychology.

And finally for now, @eegrapher really enjoyed the bite-sized chunks in Mo Costandi’s 50 Human Brain Ideas You Really Need to Know (2013).

Thanks again to all who took the trouble to share their favourites. Now, which one shall I get for my daughter…?


*I would have embedded some of the tweets I got but can’t seem to get Twitter to play with WordPress tonight. 
Posted in Book Review | Tagged , , , | 11 Comments