Shame. Or should that be ‘Postdocalypse’?

Not IUPS-related tonight – but something that should concern the people there – should concern *us*. Especially the people WITH senior positions.

Scientific research has a lot going for it as a job.

There’s the big money, for a start.

[Actually, that was a joke, as my scientific readers will have spotted. The money is pretty lousy compared to other higher-end ‘graduate professional jobs’, at least if you factor in the years spent getting your PhD, aka your ‘Union Card’, and some postdoctoral experience. I don’t know what a PhD with quantitative/ mathematical/ computer skills makes going into finance, but I strongly suspect it is rather more than a postdoc gets. And I don’t know what a moderately successful lawyer with twenty-plus years experience makes, but I suspect it is a whole lot more than I earn after 25 years as a lecturer.]

But… the money is a living wage.

I live on it, so I should know.

And there is lots of other stuff to put in the plus column. You get to do something interesting and challenging. And, hopefully, something ultimately useful. You get a varied job. You get to solve problems. You get a lot of freedom to set your own timetable and what you are going to do. You get to travel. And you get paid to read, and think. I mean, how many jobs are there where they pay you to READ?

So all of those are positives.

And: for many – probably most – people in scientific research, there is much, much more to it. For most scientists, the ones who get or want tenured or permanent jobs, science is a vocation. For one example of how I know that, try the story here.

But, and increasingly so these days, a career in scientific research is an awfully hard road.

That is especially true for those in the trying-to-transition-to-a-permanent-job phase of a scientific career.

For an example, you should read this post by my Twitter mate ‘DrBillyo‘, aka Dr Bill Wilkinson. It says it far more eloquently than I could.

I think there are real systemic problems with a profession that does this to its most highly-skilled junior members. That takes people’s dedication, and years of training, and just lets it all go because they weren’t quite lucky enough.

Other people have said this on Occam’s Typewriter. I’ve said it before.

People have said it elsewhere.

It is time, in my opinion, that the Great and Good of science did something about it. At the moment, far too many of those in positions of power simply look a bit glum and wring their hands. The response when the problem is discussed often sounds a bit like the guys in The Sopranos when they learn that one of their fellow wiseguys has been ‘whacked’ (killed)

“Fuggeddaboutit. Whaddya gonna do? This, it’s the business we’re in.”

Well – it shouldn’t be.

Not like this.

Posted in Science policy, The Life Scientific, Uncategorized, Universities | 5 Comments

IUPS Part 1

A dispatch from the IUPS conference in Birmingham.

I have to admit to some trepidation when it comes to big international mega-conferences like the IUPS (International Union of Physiological Sciences). They have never entirely agreed with me. The first conference I ever attended, the IUPAB (B for biophysics) in Bristol in 1983, was one of the mega-jobs, and almost my first act as a conferee was to fall asleep in the opening plenary lecture.

By mega-conferences, BTW, I mean anything with an opening ceremony, dignitaries, 1000s of delegates (or at least 1000+) and twelve scientific sessions running in parallel – all the above also meaning the conference almost certainly has to take place in a large purpose-builit conference centre. Like a lot of other people, I guess, my natural preference has always been for the max-250 participants only-one-single-theatre and posters-plus-free-beer format, as in the Gordon Conferences and various other smaller meetings. As the years have rolled by I’ve tended to go to more of the small events and less of the big ones. Indeed, my last IUPS was Christchurch in New Zealand in 2001.

However, it’s not that often that the big circus rolls into a city just 90 min train ride away from home base. The prospect of meeting up with a few old friends – not to mention getting to sleep in an air-conditioned hotel room for a few days in the middle of a Summer heat-wave – was too good. So here I am.

One thing that sets mega-meetings apart, as already mentioned, is opening ceremonies. The last IUPS I attended had a formal Maori welcome, with dancing and singing, and the IUPS Council, all decked out in full academic robes like at a graduation ceremony, responding in Maori. (No, really. If you don’t believe me there are pictures). Top that. Sensibly the local crew didn’t try, but settled for a welcome from an eminent scientific guest, President of the Royal Society and Nobel Prizewinner Sir Paul Nurse.

Now, Paul Nurse commands pretty much universal respect from scientists, but I did slightly wonder what sort of reception he would get. This is because, as a notable molecular cell biologist, he could be said to be an examplar of the kind of ‘molecular sciences’ that physiologists in the UK often feel they are being squeezed out by. Typically of Nurse, he chose to tackle this head on, arguing that physiology remained central but needed other sciences – including the molecular ones – to provide the tools to get the job done. I’m not sure he really convinced the audience – many of whom probably have bruising experiences of being in departments or faculties run by cellular and molecular biologists who are not convinced physiologists are good for much in research terms – but it was a good try.

Denis Noble then gave his IUPS President’s Lecture. Denis seems to have been ‘our man at the IUPS’ for as long as I can remember – he is in the photographs from Christchurch 2001, sitting on the platform in his robes – and it thus seemed appropriate for him to be doing the Big Beginning.

I only found it slightly odd to be hearing Denis do a speech that was only in English.

To explain that last, thinking back over the times I have seen Denis N presiding and/or speaking at conferences, I can remember speeches in Italian, Japanese. Korean, Maori (at Christchurch in 2001) and Medieval Occitan French. There may have been other languages I’ve forgotten. There is an interesting piece by Denis in the last Physiology News where he talks about the languages used at conferences over the years. It wasn’t always just English for the papers at the IUPS, as you will find out if you read his article.

I’d seen a version of Denis’ lecture before, but I think this one was better – though sadly lacking the gag about Denis being one of Richard Dawkins’ PhD examiners. It did a nice job of introducing the congress by explaining that many of the central dogmas of genetics and evolutionary biology, at least as perceived by dim people like me, are over-simplified (and even downright wrong). This, Denis argued, meant that physiology – the study of function in systems and organisms – was still central, and still essential. It was an excellent rallying cry, though again I had the feeling that, while we wanted to believe him, we were still a bit dubious as to whether a new dawn of plenty for physiology was around the corner.

The future of teaching – High tech from top to bottom

Apart from feeling ‘squeezed out’ by other trendier and more molecular disciplines, the other central challenge facing many working University physiologists might well be ‘teaching overload’. Physiology remains popular with life science undergraduates, and also still needs to be taught to seemingly ever-expandingnumbers of students in healthcare professional degrees. But as student numbers rise, and staff numbers fall, the problems of less people doing more work are obvious.

One of the things Deans and other senior types tend to tell you when you mutter about this is that ‘technology will provide the solution’. With this in mind I trotted along to a session this morning on New Technologies in Physiology Teaching, which was interesting, but also rather terrifying. I learned, inter alia, that you can wire yourself up and post your physiological variables to your Facebook page (don’t expect me to be doing this any time soon). I also learned that the ‘Pillcam’ cameras that you can swallow to provide a photo readout over many hours as the pill ‘proceeds’ through your GI tract top-to-bottom are now only a few hundred dollars (or other currency). The speaker, my old mate Prof Phil Poronnik from Sydney, opined this would make for a great GI physiology practical. Though you probably wouldn’t want to be the second person to be the experimental subject.

One questioner pointed out another snag, namely, what if the pictures showed something untoward-looking?

Which reminded me of the only time in my three decades in the trade that something slightly analogous to this happened in a class I was running. This was a 1st year medical student pulse and blood pressure practical some time in the early to mid 90s.

As I was wandering round officiating, or more accurately trying not to catch anyone’s eye, a puzzled-looking student called me over. ‘He’s got a double pulse’, he said, pointing to his slightly nervous-looking lab mate. And he had – feeling the second student’s pulse at the wrist, there was a double pulse wave, then a gap, then another double wave.

I didn’t have a clue what that could mean.

The student asked the obvious question:

“Am I alright? Is there something wrong?”

To which all I could think of to say was:

“Well, you look pretty healthy to me”

But I could see I would have to do better than that. I had a brainwave.

“I don’t know what that pulse pattern means, but I know a man who might. The Prof. He’s medically qualified”

With which I dashed off to find the Professor of Renal Physiology, the only man in our physiology department possessing a medical degree.

The Prof, when I’d found him, came and felt the student’s pulse.

“Do you drink a lot of coffee?” he asked.

“No. I don’t like coffee.” said the student, who was now looking distinctly worried.“Does that mean something? Am I alright?”

“Well” said the Prof, looking the student up and down with the eye of an experienced clinician “you look pretty healthy to me”.

Sometimes, as they say, it is less the words, than who the person is that is saying them.

Posted in Conferences, Grumbling, Medicine, Physiology, Universities | Comments Off on IUPS Part 1

Happy Birthday DC

DCIt is a pleasure to wish a Happy Birthday today to my friend Professor David Colquhoun, who, as he reaches the palindromic age of 77, is still fighting the various fights for good science – and reality in general – and against ‘Unreality’, managerial bullshit, Prince Charles and his ‘knight-starved’ toadies, and all sorts of other things. To see the kind of pace David is maintaining (which makes me tired just to read about it) see the ‘Diary’ page on his blog.

I got to know David reasonably well a few years ago through our shared interest in debunking ‘pro-Unreality’ folk (like homeopaths), and managerial bullshit, as well as a shared admiration for the late, great AV Hill. I was particularly pleased that when I was editing Physiology News we ran David’s wonderful article on ‘How To Get Good Science’, (or PDF) which seems more prophetic with every passing year.

However, I actually first met David much longer ago – thirty years ago , in fact – when I was a callow and very inexperienced PhD student at UCL. I think I will take the risk of embarrassing David – if he should ever read this – by explaining how.

As a very green first year PhD student one of my main jobs was to ‘validate’ the use of the resonance frequency of inorganic phosphate, in 31-P NMR spectra, to estimate the pH of the solution the inorganic phosphate was dissolved  in. The interesting point was that this solution might be the cytoplasm of a living cell, including inside an intact organ. However. in practise what I mostly did for my first year was run a lot of titrations of ‘model solutions’, generating numerous rather dull titration curves.

In these days of ubiquitous personal computers, Excel and stats packages, it may seem surprising that the issue of fitting a titration curve to the experimental data was not one with an easy off-the-shelf pre-packaged solution, but back them (1983 or early 1984) it wasn’t – at least not in the lab where I worked. If we wanted to fit a theoretical curve to the data we would need to work out how. My supervisor didn’t know how, and nor did the lab head. A statistician we consulted via the UCL ‘Stats Clinic’ was clearly both startled and amused we would ask him anything so basic, and referred us to ‘a man called Colquhoun in Pharmacology… he’s written a basic stats book and knows about these things’

So I rang David up, and trotted along to see him with my question about fitting titration curves. Thinking back, he was also clearly a bit surprised the answer wasn’t obvious to me, muttering something like “Errm… well, it’s a sum of least squares, isn’t it?” On spotting that this wasn’t something that automatically made sense to me, he took the time to explain least-squares curve fitting, so that I could go back and program it on my lab’s much-prized Hewlett Packard – and only – computer (probably one of these, from the look of it). . He was very gracious about it, sparing an hour of his time (which I dare say he couldn’t afford), and never actually saying anything like: ‘Surely you know how to do this?’ – even if he might have been thinking it. Many years later this data finally appeared in a paper here.

Looking back from the perspective of being not-too-far-off the sort of age David was then, what strikes me is that he treated my question with complete seriousness, even though I wasn’t his student and it wasn’t really a very interesting question. I was reminded of this some years later when I read something David had written in a beautiful piece about one of his heroes, Bernard Katz:

“[Katz’s] lack of pomposity is nicely illustrated by an occasion in 1974 when a young PhD student was giving his first demonstration at a Physiological Society meeting. The demonstration involved voltage-clamp of muscle fibres, and his supervisor had properly suggested that when a visitor came in to see the demonstration, he should be asked if he was familiar with the methods before launching into an explanation. A middle aged man came in and ‘I went through the motions and asked him if he was familiar with the method, to which he replied “..a little…”. I then explained my demonstration, to which he listened patiently’.

It was only later that the student discovered that his visitor had been BK, who had spared the student’s blushes by not revealing his identity. It was the universal experience of his colleagues that he was a person with enormous enthusiasm, always willing to discuss with the most junior of them the details of their work and to offer advice.”

Somehow, that description of BK always reminded me of my first meeting with David three decades ago, and also made me think of the way in which the best of scientific traditions are passed on down the generations. Though as a scientist I am several leagues below David, let alone BK, I’d like to think that over the years I have tried to do the same when approached by students and colleagues with queries and questions.

Anyway – happy birthday, DC.

Posted in Getting old, History, Pseudoscience, The Life Scientific, Uncategorized, Universities | 2 Comments

Father’s Day

I must admit I hadn’t noticed it was Father’s Day until I switched on the computer this morning, what with us being a notoriously ‘Something’s Day’-averse lot at Chez Elliott. I was, BTW, not woken with croissants and coffee. let alone a gift certificate for a year’s subscription to Private Eye (ah well – next year, perhaps). Though come to think of it, not being woken up might have been my Father’s Day present.

When I checked Twitter while sinking this morning’s first dose of triple-strength Java (special Aldi ultra-discount brand) I saw that Prof Stephen Moss had posted something about reaching the age where he had ‘passed’ his father’s total. My father Gerald used to comment on the same thing once in a while regarding his own dad – who I never knew, as he died aged 69 in 1957, four years before I was born (you can find a little bit about him here).

Of course, as those who read here regularly will know already, this is the first Father’s Day for me – and for my brother Gavin – without our father Gerald, who died in early March. Which reminded me that, though we’ve never made a thing of Father’s Day, once I’d worked out that it was (!) it would usually prompt me to ring the old man up for a chat.

Anyway, as a kind of Father’s Day tribute to Gerald I thought I’d post one of the obituaries of him that I’ve written. This one (without the links) was done for the Guardian’s Other Lives feature, but they decided not to use it – I think it was probably because it was too long after his death. In contrast to some of the other things I and others have written about Gerald, this one is a bit more personal and less science-y.

And before you ask, the the quotation story is, my brother swears, 100% accurate.


Professor Gerald Elliott

Our father Gerald Elliott, who died in March aged 82, was a scientist for six decades, but would tell us he ‘might have been a lawyer, but for the war’. Gerald’s father was a prosperous 1930s City solicitor, but war crippled his business. The office was bombed three times and finally completely burnt out in the London blitz; bankruptcy followed and the family lost their home.

Gerald found refuge from this turmoil in building radio sets and in his studies at Eltham College, winning a place to read Physics at Oxford. He went up to Lincoln College in 1951 after national service in the Royal Engineers. Gerald’s early life left him with three lasting beliefs: in the importance of family; in fairness and social justice, expressed via centre-left politics; and in internationalism, which became central to his scientific life.

As a 22 year-old student Gerald read Crick and Watson’s 1953 paper on DNA structure and decided to become a biophysicist. His main field for nearly 60 years was muscle contraction, with a long-running ‘side-line’ on the transparent tissues of the eye. His ideas became mainstream thinking in the eye, but not – to his disappointment – in muscle. Gerald was never one to go with the flow. He always insisted on the facts, or data, per se, and not a subset of them that fitted mainstream or fashionable theories – whether in science or in politics.

Gerald spent the late 50s and 60s researching at King’s College London, meanwhile fighting the 1966 and 1970 general elections for Labour in Croydon North East (against Bernard Weatherill, later Speaker of the Commons). In 1969 he became founding Physics Professor at the new Open University. Gerald liked to say that the ‘University of the Air’ was one of his political hero Harold Wilson’s two great achievements (the other being keeping Britain out of the Vietnam War). Life at the OU was not always easy, but Gerald never ceased to believe in the ideal, and idealism, behind it. He retired formally in 1996, but continued research work subsequently at Cardiff University, and finally at Oxford in the Dept of Ophthalmology.

Gerald’s internationalism took him around the world to laboratories and conferences across six decades – despite a long-standing fear of flying! -and he was happy to try a few words in around a dozen languages. He met his second wife, Hungarian biochemist Katalin Pinter, when lecturing in Hungary for the British Council. They renovated a 17th century Brittany farmhouse together, where Gerald enjoyed entertaining an assortment of family, friends, and past and present colleagues.

Outside work, Gerald’s passions were company, music and poetry. He was apt to reach for a line of poetry to mark a significant event, sometimes with startling results. On being told he was to become a grandfather for the first time, his memorable response (quoting his favourite TS Eliot) was: ‘Birth, copulation and death. That’s all the facts, when you come to brass tacks’.

Gerald married our mother Deborah in 1960, when both were students at King’s – early family outings included Aldermaston Marches with baby Austin in a pram. They divorced in the early 1990s. She survives him, as do Katalin, ourselves, and five grandchildren.

Austin and Gavin Elliott


Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

I blame the parents

From time to time, I am given to wondering why I have achieved so little in life generally.

Answers suggested by my friends and family have included ‘laziness’ ‘not trying hard enough’ ‘lack of confidence’ ‘too unfocussed’ ‘too much procrastinating’ ‘laziness’ (again) ‘not wanting to push yourself” ‘too much talking, not enough doing’, ‘not getting up early enough’ and, er, ‘laziness’.

However, I now realise that it WASN’T MY FAULT.

It is, it turns out, all down to my having been born in August.

Thanks goodness for that.

[And, in which case, I can blame the parents.]

Though, as this article points out, being born in August – indeed, being born in the very same week in 1961 as me – hasn’t done a certain former Law Professor turned politician any harm.

Posted in Family business, Getting old, Grumbling, Humour, Procrastination | 4 Comments

Gerald Elliott 1931-2013




























Gerald Elliott  26th January 1931 – 6th March 2013


The media this week has been running quite a few features about the 60th anniversary of the publication of the DNA structure in Nature, and of course the other papers that appeared with it.

However, the anniversary has an extra meaning for me.

As regular readers might know, my father Gerald was a PhD student in the King’s College Biophysics Unit where the x-ray photos of DNA were taken, though not at the time – he didn’t arrive there until 1954, the year after the papers appeared. The first person he shared a lab with at King’s was Ray Gosling, Rosalind Franklin’s PhD student, and the person who took the famous photograph 51. Gerald would sometimes talk to me about the lab, and the people. He also wrote about it a little bit, see for instance here.

The 1953 papers in Nature also played a role in Gerald’s going to King’s to be a graduate student, after he read them as a Physics undergraduate at Lincoln College Oxford.

Sadly, Gerald didn’t live to see the DNA 60th anniversary. He died suddenly on March 6th, aged 82, in Oxford.

It’s a few weeks now, obviously. Though it doesn’t feel that long.

Indeed, it’s now a whole month since his funeral, also in Oxford, on March 25th.

The time since has gone incredibly quickly – ‘in a blur’ as people say.

And I’ve been meaning to post something here, of course – but somehow it has never got finished.

Not easy to sum up your father, perhaps.

Actually, my brother Gavin had one decent go when he tweeted:

– and all of that is true.

I used to mention Gerald here quite a bit, so the Occam’s regulars likely know something about him, though I don’t think any of them knew him ‘offline’ except the sadly-missed Maxine Clarke. Sometimes Gerald would even show up on the blog to comment. For an account of his life and career there is a sort of first-draft obituary over here, penned by one of Gerald’s Open University colleagues with some help from me. There will be more obituaries to come, hopefully including at least one in-depth scientific one.

I think perhaps the easiest way to get something – anything – up here is just to repeat what I said about Gerald at the funeral last month. Both my brother and I had the job of trying to somehow sum Gerald up, as a father and friend in my brother’s case, and as a father and scientist in mine. A slightly tough ask, given we had six minutes each (!), but we did our best. Anyway, here’s mine (with one or two links added):



[Oxford   March 25th 2013]

Sixty years ago, almost to the month, Francis Crick and Jim Watson published probably the most famous scientific paper of the 20th century, a single page on the structure of DNA.

The 1953 paper also marks the start of Gerald’s career as a research scientist. He would often recount how it was reading the paper as a final year physics undergraduate at Oxford that convinced him that biology was the place where, as someone wanting to do scientific research, he could put his training in physics to the best use. Thus in 1954, the following year, he went as a graduate student to the same King’s College laboratory where the X-ray pictures that had helped lead to the DNA structure had been taken. There he joined the orbit of figures like Maurice Wilkins, and became part of the great rise of biophysics and biological structure determination of the second part of the 20th century.

Gerald was lucky in coming upon his professional path in life early, and having found it, he never wavered much from it. Like many scientists, retirement hardly slowed him down; he was publishing experimental papers until only a couple of years ago, and published a detailed account of his ideas on muscle – the scientific problem that had most preoccupied him through his career – only last year. Indeed, on the day he died, the last email Gerald sent was to Professor Hugh Huxley, one of the great figures of muscle biophysics, whom Gerald would have first met in the early 50s. So – a scientist to his very last day.

The arc of Gerald’s scientific career, of course, was also the arc of the family’s history – of our history, as my brother Gavin has already described. It took Gerald from King’s in the 50s and 60s, where my mother and my brother and I entered the picture, to Cape Cod and Pittsburgh in the late 60s, back to London when Gerald joined the OU, and lastly to Oxford. Thus our lives were bound up with his career in science.

Scientists leave behind them their body of published work, but also other things – they leave  a scientific family, made up most obviously of their graduate students and others they have taught or mentored. Gerald was very proud of this scientific family, which included a Nobel Prize Winner, and the Vice Chancellor of a major British University, and many other eminent researchers, some of whom I can see with us today.

Beyond this immediate scientific family there was also a much bigger circle of Gerald’s scientific colleagues, friends and acquaintances. If you went to a conferences with Gerald, as I did a number of times, you would always be introduced to more members of this ‘Gerald diaspora’, who came from many countries across the world. He would introduce you to them – often in their own language, or something a bit like it, as Gerald was prepared to chance a few words in nearly a dozen languages. If they were particularly impoverished he would also often ask you to buy them a beer.

Finally, in searching for something to sum Gerald up as a man and a scientist, I remembered that he had often told me how much poetry had meant to him – particularly TS Eliot’s work, and especially the Four Quarters. Gerald once gave me a book of Eliot’s poems – I was probably one of the rarer male recipients! – and in looking through it I came across the following words. They are from the final stanza of Little Gidding, the last of the Four Quartets, and I think they would stand as well as any words could as an epitaph for Gerald.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time


Thank You.

Posted in Family business, Getting old, History, The Life Scientific, Uncategorized | 6 Comments