Science, art and Art

Last week I attended the award ceremony of the Wellcome Image Awards. Every time I go to this event I tell myself I’ll submit an entry for the following year, but somehow I never manage to get a submission organised. I suspect my opportunities are dwindling because the standard of entries seems to be getting higher and higher.

Rita Levi-Montalcini

The competition is often dominated by images from microscopy. Many of these are beautiful and arresting but this year I was pleased to see more entries that were more self-consciously artistic – with a capital ‘A’. They told stories rather than simply creating eye-catching abstractions from cells or biomolecules captured in microscopes, and I say that as someone who has worked in the molecular realm for the whole of his research career and made efforts to convey the strange appeal of studying life at the level of the atom.

My favourite piece in this year’s competition is the digital painting of Rita Levi-Montalcini by Russian artist Daria Kirpach. Levi-Montalcini, an Italian Jew, was forced to work in secret during the Mussolini regime. After the end of World War II she moved to continue her research in the USA and was jointly awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering nerve growth factor (NGF). Her life and her life’s work – and her elegant style of dress – are rendered with graceful simplicity in Kirpach’s portrait.

However, the competition judges were of a different mind and selected a haunting rendition of Crohn’s Disease called “Stickman” as the overall winner. But I am happy to concede that it too is a powerful work of Artistry.

Of course, your tastes may differ too. Have a look for yourself. You can see all 22 entries  on Wellcome’s web-site – and vote for your favourite.


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Interview with the author

Those of you who have read all 346 posts on my Reciprocal Space blog will have no need to read this one. You probably already have a sense of what I do and what I’m like – my science, my hobbies, my hobby-horses, and my foibles.

But on the off chance that you’re new here, or are a faithful reader who just can’t get enough, here is an interview I did with The Free Think Tank. I say ‘interview’ though this was no Michael Parkinson affair. There was no cosy tête-à-tête in comfy armchairs. Instead, it was pure Web2.0 – they sent me an email with questions, I wrote my replies, and they posted the whole thing online, prefaced by a short introduction and illustrated with a photo taken of me at the EBI last year which refutes the hypothesis that black shirts make me look slim.

Stephen Curry speaking at the EBI in 2016Does my tum look big in this? 

I figured there was no point in doing the interview without giving honest answers, so I tried to be candid, even if I couldn’t prevent myself straying from seriousness from time to time. These things are all a matter of taste but I think my interview is definitely funnier than the ones with Jim Al-Khalili and Athene Donald, though probably not as comedic as Dean Burnett’s

Whether it’s more informative or inspirational to younger minds, I will leave for you to decide.


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Status Report – February 2017

I said when I started this blog in 2008 that I would not promise to post regularly, so as to avoid the endless repetition of apologies for failing to write. And I’m not about to start apologising now, even though the regularity of my posting is not what it once was – not even close. But I’m disappointed that I seem to have got out of the habit and I’d like to turn that around. 

I’ve been busy, you see. I know it’s a boring and commonplace excuse. I know we’re all busy – and, believe me, I try not to trot out that answer whenever anyone starts up a casual conversation with “How are things?”, but here I am in mid-February and only now have I a moment to pause and have a look around at 2017. 

I’m not going to go into all the details tonight but in the past couple of weeks there has been — among other things — the all-too-common academic treadmill of exam marking (a pile of scripts to be second-marked still awaits me in the office) and a slew of grant proposals to be graded for an upcoming panel of the European Research Council. That was a lot more interesting that marking exams which – no offence to my students – is a very repetitive task, but I’ll talk about that another time since it takes me into the topic of research evaluation, which has become something of a hobby horse. 

While on that horse I was also recently occupied helping to prepare the announcement of the news that Imperial College has signed the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment – something I’ve been campaigning for more or less since the initiative was launched back in 2013. Again I’ll have more to say on that subject another night. Soon, I hope. 

And speaking of campaigns, Science is Vital is currently pressing government and parliament to ensure that, whatever happens in the Brexit negotiations, the UK fights to keep close and productive research relationships with the EU (including funding mechanisms if at all possible) and protects the rights of EU nationals working as researchers in this country. The plans for our lobby a couple of weeks ago gobbled up more chunks of time in early 2017.

Science is Vital Lobby - Jan 2017We might be smiling but inside we’re crying. Brexit – what a shambles. 

The lobby itself was great, but in some ways also a disappointment. Andrew Steele and I wrote up an account for Robin Ince’s new Cosmic Shambles site and I scribbled another one for the SiV blog. What was great was the passion on show from the supporters, about thirty of them, who turned up to plead with MPs. But we had struggled to rally the numbers we needed to button-hole every single parliamentarian and the woeful performance of Parliament in the debates over the Article 50 Bill only reinforced the scale of the task ahead.

I thought I’d be getting the hang of Brexit by now but find I’m just getting more and more angry at the reckless stupidity of it all. I’ve tried to seek out Leave voters on Twitter who can point me to the upsides of Brexit and drawn a series of blanks. Scientifically, economically, socially, this is just the wrong direction for this country. Last Saturday night I went with my family to to Bridget Christie’s angry, funny Edinburgh show about Brexit and to see her spitting and spluttering with artful incredulity about it all was cathartic – but only for a while. I think I’m going to spend the rest of my life agitating as a Brexit-skeptic. It’ll serve those buggers right. In the meantime, watch this space – there’s more to come. 

Queue fo rBridget ChristieQueue for Bridget Christie on a cold, wet February night

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ICYMI No.10 – New Year’s Resolution

Along with many of my academic colleagues from across the nation, I was asked by the Times Higher Education to set down at least one new year’s resolution for 2017.

I drew inspiration from Richard Hamming (whom I wrote about way back in the glory days of 2009)…

By the way, now that I have reach number 10 in this “In case you missed it” series, I think I will dispense with the numbers.



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2016 in pictures

Rather than attempt to sum up this tumultuous year in yet more words, let me share with you some of the photographs I took in 2016.

The image below is an embedded album from my Flickr account. I’m not sure that it does very much so it’s probably best to click on the image. This will take you to the album on Flickr where you can click through the pictures in your own time. There are 52 in total.

2016 in Pictures

Happy new year!


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ICYMI No. 9: Preprints and Embargoes

I’m rather late getting round to this but, for the record, here is a piece I wrote for Research Fortnight in late November on the challenges that preprints pose to embargoed press releases of research reports.

The tl;dr version (though the piece is only 800 words!) is that the benefits of preprints very likely outweigh the convenience of embargoes.


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ICYMI No.8: Being Professorial

I was among several people who contributed to a feature in this weeks’ Times Higher Education on being a professor.

My brief was (briefly):

“Questions you might want to address are whether you should somehow have to conduct yourself differently? Dress more smartly? Speak more seriously? Do people treat you differently? Does an element of imposter syndrome kick in? And what about workload and direction?

The idea is to give a personal perspective that, nevertheless, gives a few pointers to people who have just become professors.”

I tried my best, as did several of my professorial colleagues… though the piece didn’t go down well with everyone. 😉


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President Trump – first response

This morning I was asked for a comment on the implications of the US presidential election for the scientific world. This was my immediate response:

Unlike the day after the EU referendum vote, when I was bitterly upset, I just feel numb today. I don’t know if that is a kind of despair settling in because despair is precisely the wrong type of reaction to Trump winning the US presidential election. Throughout the campaign he showed himself to be a fascist and racist who bragged about his mis-treatment of women. He showed scant regard for truthfulness and espoused denialist views on climate change. It seems unlikely that the scientific and research prowess of the USA will flourish under such a president, but perhaps the checks and balances built into the US constitution will provide some sort of protection (notwithstanding the fact that the Republicans appear to be in control of Congress and the Senate).

More worrying is the sense of a turn in the tide of history arising from Trump’s victory and the Brexit vote. I’m in my fifties and in my lifetime I have seen Britain join the EU, I have seen the end of the Cold War, and the end of apartheid in South Africa. In my own home nation I have seen the IRA lay down its arms. And yet here we are witnessing the rise of divisive nationalist and xenophobic instincts, which have been deliberately agitated in both recent election campaigns.

Clearly part of the disgruntlement at the status quo is due to the unequal spread of the benefits of globalisation (exacerbated by the lack of consequences for rich bankers in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis). That has to be addressed politically. For researchers, increasingly branded as a self-serving elite that is out of touch with the common people, we need to redouble our efforts to stand up for evidence, and for the intrinisically international nature of what we do. We need to work harder to demonstrate the relevance of our work to the wider population and the values that underpin it. In the UK we are already pretty good at public engagement but I think we may not be good enough for the times that we now find ourselves in.

Update (14:11, 11 Nov 2016): Part of my response was reported in an update to this article in Nature.


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Higher Education and Research Bill – Letter to my MP

Science is Vital this week launched a campaign to seek amendments to the Higher Education and Research Bill 2016. The bill is a rather dry and procedural piece of legislation but hidden amongst its many sections and schedules are real threats to the autonomy and independence of UK universities and to the capacity of the research community to guide the research agenda.

The particular issues at stake are summarised on the Science is Vital website and laid out in more detail in a piece I wrote for the Guardian. We hope as many people as possible will write to their MPs to voice their concerns and ask for the necessary amendments to be made. Writing letters is always a bit of a chore so in case it might help some to get over the activation energy barrier, here below I am posting the letter that I have sent this evening to my MP, Mr Bob Stewart, the member for Beckenham. Please feel free to re-work for your own missive.

Dear Mr Stewart

Higher Education and Research Bill 2016

I write as your constituent and as a professor at Imperial College to express my grave reservations about several aspects of the Higher Education and Research Bill 2016, which is currently before Parliament.

As written, the bill removes long-standing legal protections of the autonomy of UK universities and research councils that have been vital to the health these institutions and to the tremendous strength of the UK research base. It is crucial that the bill be amended.

The issues at stake are rather complex, which I think explains why it has taken some time for concerns to bubble to the surface. I have laid out my arguments about the major weaknesses of the bill in an article published online this week in the Guardian.

In short, the bill seriously undermines important academic freedoms of universities by giving the Secretary of State the power to give guidance on what courses may be taught, a power that is amplified by creation of an Office for Students with the authority to remove the university status of institutions. On the research front, the bill concentrates further power in the hands of government by giving the Secretary of State the authority to create or abolish research councils and to redirect their research remit. Such decisions will not require consultation or parliamentary scrutiny.

I understand the practical reason behind this shift of power – to enable flexible decision-making in reshaping higher education and research – which on the face of it seems sensible enough. But the loss of parliamentary scrutiny is nevertheless deeply worrying. The present minister Jo Johnson may not have any intention of abusing these powers – and indeed he has tried to offer some verbal reassurances. But who is to say what his successor might do? It would be wiser to build protections into the legislation from the outset.

The key amendments required can be summarised as follows:

  • Remove the provision (Part 1, Sections 2(2) & 2(4)) allowing the Secretary of State to give guidance to the Office for Students on what courses may be taught by universities.
  • Change the provision (Part 1, Section 43(1)) allowing the Office for Students (a body appointed by the Secretary of State) to revoke the right of institutions to grant degrees and retain the name ‘university’, so that each such decision requires parliamentary assent.
  • Change the provision (Part 3, Section 87(5)) allowing the Secretary of State to create or abolish a research council, or to alter their remits without parliamentary assent.

Without these amendments there is a real risk that this Parliament will preside over a serious weakening of the independence enjoyed by our universities and our research base. As a university professor, clearly I have a conflict of interest in this matter, but this is not special pleading. Important cultural institutions are at stake – as well as the national interest.

While the academy might occasionally have butted heads with governments on a range of issues over the years, I hope you will agree that such disputes are an essential part of the life-blood of an open democracy. Ideas have to be tested to destruction if sound decisions about the best interests of the country are to be made.

I would be grateful if you could find the opportunity to relay these concerns to the Minister for Universities and Science and, if possible, to communicate them on the floor of the house.

I would be more than happy to meet in person to discuss these issues in greater detail.

Yours faithfully…


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Ways of Seeing

It is the weekend and I have been treating myself to some time with the paper. Usually, I buy the Saturday Guardian. On occasion I will also get The Observer on a Sunday but most weekends I don’t have the time to absorb both. Sometimes even one newspaper is too much.

Reading material on the dining table

The book review section is a particular favourite and one of the reasons I have switched away from the digital version of the paper that is served on the web. Not only does this afford the nostalgic and tactile pleasures of the paper paper, but it also releases me from the linear tether of online searches into the comradely hands of the editors, on whom I rely each week to dish up a collection of the new and the unexpected.

I am rarely disappointed, but the joy of novelty is almost invariably accompanied by sweeping feelings of helplessness amid a rising tide of “yet more stuff”. Not only does each fresh volley of book reviews bring new titles to add to my list of the unread, but the reviews invariably also refer to earlier books and authors previously unknown to me. Worse still for my self-confidence, the reviews tend to be written by people whose learning embraces whole movements and epochs of human history, and whose judgement of the achievements of humankind down through the ages rings with cast-iron assurance. Am I the only reader drowning in information who gawps at such a firm grasp of the world? So much knowledge on show makes me uneasy. It compounds my fear of being a dilettante – flitting here and there across the periphery of the world of ideas without really understanding the centre.

In truth this isn’t so serious fear because it doesn’t put me off my weekend read. I can tolerate the discomfort for the sake of the rewards. Such as last weekend, when, in Mary Beard’s review of James Stourton’s new biography of art historian Kenneth Clark, I was once again pleased and disconcerted to have my ignorance taken by surprise. Although I had thrilled at Clark’s Civilisation, his beautiful 1969 television documentary on the importance of European art, I guess I should have expected that not everyone was so impressed. The teenage Mary Beard was also delighted by it on first viewing but learned quicker than I did to mistrust the “great man” approach to history. And nor was the critic John Berger, whose own later documentary, Ways of Seeing, Beard noted in her review as a important critical response to Clark (who nevertheless still has his defenders).

I had never heard of Berger or his 1972 television series which, it turns out – why did I expect anything else? – is widely regarded as a seminal piece of work. Nevertheless, I was sufficiently intrigued to seek out Ways of Seeing online. All four of the 30 minute episodes are available on YouTube.

As was the style of the time the presentation is rather static – large chunks of each episode consist of Berger in a studio, standing in front of a plain screen, just talking. His patterned shirt and 70’s hairstyle strike a more relaxed tone than Clark’s buttoned-up tweediness, but to my ear the accent was no less posh and the story he had to tell no less riveting.

I would need to watch Civilisation again to triangulate precisely for points of opposition. Although there are clear references to Clark’s interpretation of the meaning of art and, in particular, the nude, Berger’s agenda is radically different. His aim is not history per se, but to interrogate the process of looking.

Each episode is a short essay. The first discusses the importance of context, remarking specifically on how modern reproductions of works in print and on television easily detach them from the artist’s intention. The second brings a thoughtful, feminist perspective to the nude and how such paintings reflect the power imbalance between men and women. The third discusses the development of oil painting as a particular way of representing real objects, especially possessions that denote the wealth and status of those who commissioned works of art. And the last episode shows how colour photography has largely supplanted this function of oil painting, but also altered it through widespread use in advertising to create images that, rather than showing achieved wealth and status, foment modern anxieties of aspiration.

But that is just a potted summary. I will leave you to discover for yourself. As Berger himself says in closing the documentary, everything “must be judged against your own experience.”


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Pride and Prejudice and journal citation distributions: final, peer reviewed version

Today sees the publication on bioRxiv of a revised version of our preprint outlining “A simple proposal for the publication of journal citation distributions.” Our proposal, explained in more detail in this earlier post, encourages publishers to mitigate the distorting effects on research assessment of journal impact factors (JIFs) by providing a simple method for publishing the citation distributions that are so incompletely characterized by the JIF.

Citation Distribution preprint -revised

Since it was first published on 5 July 2016, the preprint has been downloaded well over 11,000 times. It was widely reported in various news outlets and has generated a large volume of commentary on social media (see metrics tab for the article at bioRxiv). As an exercise in post-publication peer review we could hardly have wished for a better response.

In revising our preprint, we have tried to take on board the most substantive criticisms raised online and in follow-up emails from a number of people. These criticisms and our explanation of how we have addressed them are laid out in the Responses to Comments document that is published today alongside the revised preprint (as Supplemental File 4). We are extremely grateful to all those who took the trouble to engage in these discussions and believe that the new version of the preprint provides a much clearer explanation of the rationale behind our work.

We discussed the option of submitting the revised preprint to a peer-reviewed journal but decided in the end not to do go down this route. This decision is primarily motivated by the fact that the preprint has already received extensive peer review from more than a dozen commentators and is unlikely to be altered significantly by further scrutiny. We also feel, given the core message of the article (which is in any case more of a policy paper than a research paper), that there is symbolic value in sticking with a publication venue that does not have an impact factor. However, that choice should not be taken to imply any veiled criticism of the more traditional practices of publication through a scholarly journal, in particular also of work previously posted as a preprint. The mores and modes of academic publishing may currently be the subject of lively discussion but that is a debate for another time and another place.

Finally, we hope that our preprint will continue to be read and discussed, and that its recommendations will be implemented widely by research journals to improve clarity in reporting citation metrics (as some of the journals associated with the undersigned have already done). This is the last revision that we intend to post (barring corrections for any residual errors of fact), so it should be treated as the version of record. Like any traditional journal article, our preprint must now stand or fall on the merits that it has today, the moment of publication.

Vincent Larivière, (Université de Montréal, Canada)
Véronique Kiermer, (PLOS, USA)
Catriona J. MacCallum, (PLOS, UK)
Marcia McNutt, (National Academy of Sciences, USA)
Mark Patterson, (
eLife, UK)
Bernd Pulverer, (The EMBO Journal, Germany)
Sowmya Swaminathan, (Nature Research, USA)
Stuart Taylor, (The Royal Society, UK)
Stephen Curry, (Imperial College, UK)


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ICYMI No.7: a day in the life of a naked scientist

In case you missed it last week, I had a segment in the Naked Scientist’s 15th anniversary radio show. Or rather, three segments, based on a day-in-the-life-of-a-scientist piece that I wrote a few months back on the Guardian, that were woven into an hour-long programme devoted to (and titled) Scrutinizing Science.

If you have the time I’d recommend listening to the complete show because the whole is very much greater than the sum of its parts, most of which, I’m bound to say, are better than my contribution.

Naked Scientist Web Page

For the program I reworked my original article to pull out themes linked to scientific careers, scientific publishing and dealing with the media – and recorded them in a studio at the university (the links take you to the audio and text for each segment). The pieces don’t quite have the lightness of touch of the original. Plus, I’m not a huge fan of my own voice and winced here and there at my phrasing, but your mileage may vary.

I’m not really selling this, am I? It’s probably just a bout of impostor syndrome and everything’s fine. Anyway, my thanks to producer and presenter for Graighagh Jackson for the chance to contribute to the Naked Scientists’ anniversary programme.


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