To be or not to be exceptional?

I can’t remember how I came across this video from philosopher Alain de Botton, but I feel seen.

Like many academics, I guess, I have always prized scholarly achievement. And of course, within our systems of research assessment, we are forever talking about notions of excellence and exceptionalism, spurred on by the relentless competition for jobs, grants, and admission to the ‘top’ journals, and by the powerful grip on our imaginations of the idea of the genius or hero scientist.

Increasingly, I have come to question my priorities, not only for my own quality of life, but also for the health of scholarly endeavour in general. Why do we so willingly submit, as de Botton puts it, to “the cruel absurdity of other people’s expectations”?

How might we find our way to a place where doing your job well is good enough? This question is hardly new, but it is one that many of us repeatedly fail to answer and, to me, it feels more urgent than ever.


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Books of 2020

I made what I think was a smart move at the beginning of 2020. Instead of waiting until the year’s end and then struggling to recall what I thought of the books I had read, I created a Twitter thread of one-line reviews as I completed each title. Here, finally, is the entire thread:

Books of 2020

Books of 2020 – a twitter thread. Click on the image for the high-res version.

You may find it easier to scroll through the thread on Twitter.

It has without doubt been an exceptional year. The arrival of the coronavirus pandemic in mid-March disrupted my working and commuting patterns in a major way, but it didn’t seem to create any extra time for reading. The time freed by the loss of a daily commute of at least two hours was absorbed by the expansion of the working day. I have if anything undershot my usual annual tally. No matter. It’s not a competition.

My habits did change somewhat: almost half of the twenty-one books I read were novels. Normally, I only manage three or four. I also succeeded in reading my highest ever proportion of women authors – 48%. One of these, Hilary Mantel, produced my favourite book of the year, The Mirror and the Light, the final instalment of her visceral and magisterial trilogy on Thomas Cromwell. I have already pegged her earlier novel on the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety, as one to tackle in 2021.

Otherwise, it is a little harder to discern the highlights. That’s not because of the books themselves. I think that is more of a reflection of the dulling effects of life during lockdown, where days without events blend into one another, the colours of life merging into a dull monotone.

But some do stand out. Oliver Morton’s The Moon: a History of the Future was that rare thing, a book of poetic non-fiction, while my first encounter with Toni Morrison in The Bluest Eye was short and sharp and cut to the heart. Brandon Taylor’s first novel, Real Life, is one of the few I’ve ever read to bring life in a laboratory to life, through the tortured isolation of its gay, black protagonist. By contrast, Kathryn Mannix’s hospice stories, With the End in Mind, brought death to life in a way that was blessedly reassuring.

Only one novel disappointed me: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin. I know it is regarded by many as a classic, but I was left out in the cold by its icy, alien landscapes. Everything else provided many moments of delight and insight, words to map out the world a little more clearly than before. I am grateful to all the authors I read. But for some reason the non-fiction titles figure more sharply in my memory, so I am especially thankful to Adam Rutherford for setting out his anti-racist manifesto (How to Argue with a Racist), to Philip Ball for unpicking the entanglement of physics with Nazism (Serving the Reich), to John Ziman for delineating the boundaries of science (Real Science), to Stuart Ritchie for his accounts of how and why those boundaries are crossed (Science Fictions), to Michael Sandel for examining the underbelly of ‘merit’ (The Tyranny of Merit), and to Margaret Heffernan for charting a more human course through the complex endeavours of organisations (Uncharted: How to Map the Future Together and Wilful Blindness). 


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Photographs of 2020

My computer tells me that I took over 2,400 photographs in 2020. Here are my favourites. I’m afraid I have failed to whittle them down to fewer than seventy-five. Click on the first image, taken on a winter walk on the first of January, to go to the album on flickr.

Photos of 2020

2020 was the year of lockdown, but we still managed to get out and about on occasion.


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No, DeepMind has not solved protein folding

(Please note that this post was updated on 12th Dec 2020 – see below)

This week DeepMind has announced that, using artificial intelligence (AI), it has solved the 50-year old problem of ‘protein folding’. The announcement was made as the results were released from the 14th and latest competition on the Critical Assessment of Techniques for Protein Structure Prediction (CASP14). The competition pits teams of computational scientists against one another to see whose method is the best at predicting the structures of protein molecules – and DeepMind’s solution, ‘AlphaFold 2’,  emerged as the clear winner.


Don’t believe everything you read in the media

There followed much breathless reporting in the media that AI can now be used to accurately predict the structures of proteins – the molecular machinery of every living thing. Previously the laborious experimental work of solving protein structures was the domain of protein crystallographers, NMR spectroscopists and cryo-electron microscopists, who worked for months and sometimes years to work out each new structure.

Should the experimentalist now all quit the lab and leave the field to Deep Mind?

No, they shouldn’t, for several reasons.

Firstly, there is no doubt that DeepMind have made a big step forward. Of all the teams competing against one another they are so far ahead of the pack that the other computational modellers may be thinking about giving up. But we are not yet at the point where we can say that protein folding is ‘solved’. For one thing, only two-thirds of DeepMind’s solutions were comparable to the experimentally determined structure of the protein. This is impressive but you have to bear in mind that they didn’t know exactly which two-thirds of their predictions were closest to correct until the comparison with experimental solutions was made.* Would you buy a satnav that was only 67% accurate?

So a dose of realism is required. It is also difficult to see right now, despite DeepMind’s impressive performance, that this will immediately transform biology.


Impressive predictions – but how do you know they’re correct?

Alphafold 2 will certainly help to advance biology. For example, as already reported, it can generate folded structure predictions that can then be used to solve experimental structures by crystallography (and probably other techniques). So this will help the science of structure determination go a bit faster in some cases.

However, despite some of the claims being made, we are not at the point where this AI tool can be used for drug discovery. For DeepMind’s structure predictions (111 in all), the average or root-mean-squared difference (RMSD) in atomic positions between the prediction and the actual structure is 1.6 Å (0.16 nm). That’s about the size of a bond-length.

That sounds pretty good but it’s not clear from DeepMind’s announcement how that number is calculated. It might be calculated only by comparing the positions of the alpha-Carbon atoms in the protein backbone – a reasonable way to estimate the accuracy of the overall fold of the protein. Or, it might be calculated over all the atomic positions, a much more rigorous test. If it is the latter, then an RMSD of 1.6 Å is an even more impressive result.

But it’s still not nearly good enough for delivering reliable insights into protein chemistry or drug design. To do that, we want to be confident of atomic positions to within a margin of around 0.3 Å. AlphaFold 2’s best prediction has an RMSD for all atoms of 0.9 Å. Many of the predictions contributing to their average of 1.6 Å will have deviations in atomic positions even greater than that. So, despite the claims, we’re not yet ready to use Alphafold 2 to create new drugs.

There are other reasons not to believe that the protein folding problem is ‘solved’. AI methods rely on learning the rules of protein folding from existing protein structures. This means that it may find it more difficult to predict the structures of proteins with folds that are not well represented in the database of solved structures.

Also, as reported in Nature, the method cannot yet reliably tackle predictions of proteins that are components of multi-protein complexes. These are among the most interesting biological entities in living things (e.g. ribosomes, ion channels, polymerases). So there is quite a large territory remaining were AlphaFold 2 cannot take us. The experimentalists, who have been successful in mapping out the structures of complexes of growing complexity, have still a lot of valuable work to do.

While all of the above is supposed to sound a note of caution to counter some of the more hyperbolic claims that have been heard in the media in recent days, I still want to emphasise my admiration for the achievements of the AlphaFold team. They have clearly made a very significant advance.

That advance will be much clearer once their peer-reviewed paper is published (we should not judge science by press releases), and once the tool is openly available to the academic community – or indeed anyone who wants to study protein structure.

Update (02 Dec, 18:43): This post was updated to provide a clearer explanation of the RMSD measures used to compare predicted and experimentally determined protein structures. I am very grateful to Prof Leonid Sazanov who pointed out some necessary corrections and additions on Twitter.

*Update (12 Dec, 15:35): Strictly this is true, but it misses the more important point that the score given to each structure prediction (GDT_TS) broadly correlates with the closeness of its match to the experimental structure. As a result, I have deleted my SatNav crack.

For a deeply informed and very measured assessment of what DeepMind has actually achieved in CASP14, please read this blogpost by Prof. Mohammed AlQuraishi who knows this territory much better than I do. His post is pretty long but you can skip the technical bits explaining how AlphaFold 2 works. He gives a very good account of the nature of DeepMind’s advance; in AlQuraishi’s view, AlphaFold 2 does represent a solution to the protein structure prediction problem, though he is careful to define what he means by a solution. He also acknowledges that there are still some significant improvements to be made to the programme, but regards these as more of an engineering challenge than a scientific one. He agrees that AlphaFold 2 won’t be used any time soon for drug design work. AlQuraishi also gives an excellent overview of the implications of this work for protein folders, structural biologists and biotechnologists in general, and offers some very interesting thoughts on the differences between DeepMind’s approach to research and that of more traditional academic groups.

Posted in Protein Crystallography, Science | 23 Comments

Nature’s new open access option – a few first thoughts

A news article published online in Nature this morning discusses the announcement of new open access options in the Nature family of journals.


The details are in the article, but the basic story (written by Holly Else) is that authors wanting to make their work OA can pay an APC of €9,500 or choose a ‘guided’ route, which is about 50% cheaper but splits the price between reviewing and publishing.

I am quoted briefly in the piece but, as is often the way when you are approached by a journalist for comment, there is much more to say that there is room in the article. So, given that I had devoted a chunk of my free time on Saturday morning to answering Holly’s questions, I thought I would post my complete answers here. These will make more sense if you read her article first to understand the new OA options at Nature journals.

1) What do you think of the costs of publishing OA in Nature?

It looks very expensive. In part that is because most academics have no idea of the per article cost of the subscription model, which is also very expensive. Clearly, there are costs associated with being selective but I wonder if the introduction of this pricing structure will make people ask if the selectivity is worth it. In part the selectivity is driven by arbitrarily limiting the number of papers published in each Nature title. So the filtering is done both for quality and the limit imposed on the number of pages or articles published per year. A better scheme would not artificially limit the number of articles and judge solely on quality. I suspect NPG know that they can charge these sorts of sums because they are also selling a brand that unfortunately still has far too much sway when it comes to research assessment.

2)  What do you think of the guided OA approach? 

It’s an interesting innovation and it is good to see this sort of experimentation. But it immediately raises questions. Why would someone pay €9500 for OA if a cheaper route is available? Also – how would reviewers feel about Nature titles essentially selling their free labour to authors (in the case where a review is done but the paper is rejected)? I think this opens up an important question about the way that commercial publishers co-opt academic labour without paying for it.

3) Do you think it offers a way to make article processing charges more affordable for selective journals?

Not really because the charges outlined (even by the guided route) are more expensive than the APC for Nature Communications, which is a selective OA journal (APC set at €4530 from Jan 2021).

4) Do you have any concerns over the way that the reduction in the APC is tied to guided approach?

Some. In addition to those noted above, while prices are transparent, costs are not. The rationale for the split of costs before and after peer review is opaque. The high cost means access to NPG titles may be limited to wealthy labs or universities willing to pay for prestige.

5) How significant is it that Nature is offering open access publishing for the first time?

Very significant. It shows that cOAlition S and the OA movement in general is winning the argument about the value of ensuring that publicly-funded research results should be freely accessible if the world is to derive maximum benefit. We have seen this in 2020 in the rush of subscription publishers to make SARS-Cov-2 research freely available during the pandemic. What works for trying to deal with Covid-19 will also work for other major challenges such as climate change, antibiotic resistance, cancer research etc.

6)  What does this all mean for the future of open science and Plan S?

It marks an important step forward, albeit one loaded with caveats. It keeps the debate about the fitness of the APC model of OA alive and will hopefully stimulate even further exploration of alternative solutions.


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Teaching online: how to use an iPad as a whiteboard

Last week I gave my first online tutorials in which I needed to scribble on a whiteboard and show the students their exam scripts from last term, which had been posted to my home. To solve both of these problems, I spent a bit of time figuring out how to share my iPad and iPhone screens within Microsoft Teams running on my Apple MacBook. For anyone wanting to do the same, I thought I’d share what have I found.

Photo of laptop and monitor set-up for teaching online

Lights, laptop, action – getting ready for a tutorial

The solutions turn out to be relatively straightforward; and some will likely work with other video-conferencing programmes, like Zoom, which also permit screen-sharing.

The easiest solution: 100% Teams

First, the simplest solution works just using MS Teams and doesn’t require any additional software. Once you have joined or started the meeting in Teams on your laptop, the trick is then to join the same meeting via the Teams app on your iPad (and/or iPhone).

Then, from your iPad, choose ‘Share’, then ‘Share screen’, and finally click ‘Start Broadcast’. The app will count down from three before the screen sharing starts and should appear on your laptop screen.

At that point, on your iPad you can switch to whatever app you want to use. As a whiteboard, I find the MS PowerPoint app on the iPad pretty handy. You can use the Draw menu (and an Apple Pencil) to access pens and an eraser tool. The advantage of PowerPoint is that you can also prepare material in advance of the tutorial and scribble annotation on that while teaching.

Since you can share the screen from any iPad app in MS Team, you can also turn your iPad or iPhone into a video camera or overhead projector. That’s what I’ve done in the photo above using an adjustable iPhone holder that clips to the desk. A good tip if you are doing this is to have the iPhone camera in photo mode (for the highest resolution). It also a good idea to turn the ‘Autolock’ delay to its maximum value (5 min), since that reduces the likelihood that the screen will go blank. Just remember to touch the screen now and then (e.g. to update the focus point) to keep the iPhone active.

Alternative 1: using Quicktime

If for any reason you don’t want to be signed in to the MS Teams meeting from more than one device, another way to share your iPad (or iPhone) screen is to use Apple’s free QuickTime app. Thanks to @jr_pritchard for pointing me to the Business Insider article that shows you how.

First, plug your iPad into the laptop using a USB cable. Then on the laptop, launch QuickTime and from the File menu, select ‘New Movie Recording’. QuickTime will default to using the webcam built into your MacBook but if you click on the little down arrow next to the red record button, you can choose your iPad as the camera. The QuickTime window on your laptop then shows the feed from your iPad. All you need to get this into MS Teams is share the screen that has the QuickTime window in it.

As with the first method, you can switch the iPad to whatever app you like – to PowerPoint if you want a whiteboard or to the iPad camera if you want to use it an an overhead projector.

Alternative 2: using Reflector 3

Reflector 3 is an app that allows you to use the AirPlay capability built into iPads and iPhones to share their screens with your Apple MacBook. It offers essentially the same functionality that you get with the QuickTime solution described above but offers a little more flexibility (e.g. with screen size and orientation) and doesn’t need a cable. The downside is that the app costs about £17, but you can try it free for 7 days to see if it’s the solution for you.

Alternative 3: using Sidecar

Apple recently introduced a tool called Sidecar (located in the System Preferences), which allows you to covert your iPad into a second monitor. This is handy if, like me, you sometimes travel with your MacBook and iPad as it gives you extra monitor space on the road. You can use the ‘Displays’ tool in the System preferences to set up your preferred screen arrangement. By default, I think Apple puts the iPad screen immediately to the left of your MacBook Screen. For more information on the capabilities and equipment requirements of Sidecar, check out this AppleInsider article.

With Sidecar running, you can then launch PowerPoint from your MacBook and drag the window over onto the iPad screen. From here, you can use the tools in the Draw menu to scribble or erase till your heart’s content. To share this within a Teams meeting running from your laptop, when you choose ‘Share screen’ you need to make sure to pick the screen corresponding to the iPad in the selection offered. You should also be able to select just the PowerPoint window, which I would recommend maximising to fill the iPad screen.

In my experience, although this works and is a free and cable-free option, the responsiveness of PowerPoint was less than in the set-up that allow you to run the PowerPoint app on your iPad. But, different strokes for different folks, as we scribblers are wont to say.

Anyway, hope that was helpful. Best of luck with your online teaching!

Finally, this blogpost started out as a thread on twitter to which many people contributed. Particular thanks to @jr_pritchard, @dasaptaerwin, @ArttuRajantie, @DavidDye9, and @psobolewskiPhD.

Posted in Science | 5 Comments

In defence of the bureaucracy of equality, diversity and inclusion

The UK government’s new policy to reduce bureaucracy in research institutions aims at an easy target. But the bonfire of administration lit by the Prime Minister’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, risks burning down the foundations of much-needed efforts to value the many different people on which the health of UK R&D depends


Should an interest in bureaucracy be a protected characteristic? I think a case can be made. But Dominic Cummings thinks not and that is why his fingerprints are all over the government’s recent policy paper announcing its determination to reduce bureaucracy in research, innovation and higher education.

A direct result of this policy is that universities applying for funding to the National Institute of Health Research no longer need to hold a silver Athena SWAN award affirming their commitment to gender equality. But the policy reaches even further. Universities are entreated not to feel under pressure to participate in any other voluntary schemes that increase bureaucracy and distract unis from their ‘core activities’. The schemes are not named but will include the Race Equality Charter (REC), Stonewall’s Workplace Equality Index (which aims to support LGBTQ+ people) and the government’s own Disability Confident campaign. The message seems clear: efforts to promote equality, to value diversity, or to be inclusive are not core. They are a bureaucratic distraction and are no longer welcome.

Except that the message isn’t at all clear, a feature we have come to expect from the Johnson administration of which Cummings is such a central part. This is a surprise given Cummings’ evident prowess as a campaigner. But he has played his own prominent role –  as Mr Magoo – in the confused drama of Britain’s attempts to deal with Covid-19.

Of course, Cummings isn’t against all bureaucracy – just the bad bits that get in the way of delivering desirable outcomes. In an extremely long blogpost from 2014 he recounts story after story of how dysfunctionality within the civil service frustrated his and Michael Gove’s attempts to drive through a policy on Free Schools at the Department of Education in the early years of the Cameron-Clegg coalition of 2010-2015. Cummings is a disruptor, who wants to move fast and break things; his focus is on outcomes. To get things done he wants the power to issue orders that will simply be obeyed, and to fire those who fail to deliver. He looks longingly at the executive agility enjoyed by small start-up companies and super-rich entrepreneurs like Larry Page, Peter Thiel and Elon Musk.

And he has a point. There is a tendency for large organisations to fixate on process rather than outcome, and it takes visionary leadership to overcome that. But for all its extraordinary length and numerous hyperlinks, his analysis lacks sophistication or any evident concern for people. His faith in the capacity of the decentralised processes of markets and science to solve problems has some merit, but ultimately comes across as blinkered. The market failures that led to the banking crisis of 2007 and the imbalance of power between nations and mega-corporations like Google, Facebook and Amazon are not discussed. Cummings’ scientific preoccupations are centred on physics and mathematics rather than on biology and sociology, where the diffuse complexity of the systems under study would soon snuff out the over-confidence of his pronouncements.

Tellingly, there is no mention in the piece of attempts to sell his vision for educational reform, which may have been a worthy one, or to win the hearts and minds of civil servants to the cause. Instead there is a litany of complaints about them having the temerity to want to spend time with their families, either by working flexibly or taking a holiday now and then. You get the sense of a man for whom the ends justify the mean, and his means come across as pretty mean.

Cummings is right to express frustration at the civil service’s tendency to deal with incompetence by promoting the offender out of department where they have wreaked havoc. Healthy organisations demand that actions have consequences. But his argument has been torpedoed by his own refusal to acknowledge fault for breaking lockdown rules last Spring, an episode that eroded so much public trust in the government’s efforts to deal with the public health crisis. His unrepentance is all of a piece with Cummings’ messianic arrogance: rules are for less important people. He has little conception of how respect of the law can bind organisations and nations in common purpose.

The bigger picture is absent too from his attempts to staff his office. There is a nod in his blogpost to the value of cognitive diversity, but this extends only far enough to include the different professional experiences of his white, male colleagues. Cummings’ recent recruitment of ‘weirdos and misfits’ has been notable only for its success in attracting young men who have flirted with racism and eugenics.

For all his wide reading, Cummings would do well to consult the works of Margaret Heffernan, who writes with far greater insight and human understanding on how to get the best out of people in large organisations.

Which takes me back to the large organisations known as universities. No one who works in one will be unaware of the frustrating bureaucracy that grows out of their complex structures and the multitudinous demands placed upon them – by students, staff, funding agencies, regulators, and government. Increasingly, those demands have rightly included the need to show how our universities are advancing across the battlegrounds of equality, diversity and inclusion.

The goal of refashioning traditionally hierarchical institutions so that they are open to all people of talent is a noble, necessary and extraordinarily difficult one, as the slow pace of change attests. To reach it requires not just vision and leadership, but excavation of every procedural nook and cranny.

In many institutions, like my own, progress towards the goal is benchmarked and incentivised by the array of voluntary frameworks mentioned above: Athena SWAN, the REC, the Stonewall WEI and the Disability Confident scheme. Each requires a long, deep dive into data and processes. Applications for Athena SWAN and REC award are particularly onerous in this regard and have rightly come in for criticism. They are seen as overly bureaucratic tick-box exercises that can distract energy and attention away from the ultimate goals. Cummings is right to remind us to keep our eyes on the prize. The outcome that matters is real change, not the badge earned from a successful application.

My female colleagues in our medical research departments are well aware of the shortcomings of Athena SWAN. Nevertheless, they are seriously disappointed by the loss of the leverage that the link between Athena SWAN and NIHR funding brought to the university’s efforts to advance gender equality.

The drive to reduce bureaucracy would have been better framed as a drive to reduce unnecessary bureaucracy. Unfortunately, government has given the impression it believes that attention to the culture with universities should be downgraded in favour of a focus on our ‘core’ activities, which it defines as research and education. The insistence on the primacy of these core activities is repeated no fewer than four times in the government’s policy paper. In my view that is a fundamental error. The environment within which academics and support staff operate is critical to the quality of the research and education that they deliver.

It is to be hoped that university leaders will maintain support for EDI work, but in times when financial pressures are only increasing, some institutions may be tempted to drop the subscriptions needed to remain part of charter schemes. The NIHR’s commitment to equality and diversity may have dimmed, but other major UK funders such as the Wellcome Trust and UKRI have signalled their intent to move these issues to the centre of their decision-making on funding. In one of her first public statements as UKRI’s new chief executive, Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser has declared her intention “to create a system that values difference”.

Science Minister Amanda Solloway has also sent some encouraging signals. In a speech made just days after the policy paper appeared, she spoke passionately about the importance of diversity and well-being for the future of UK R&D. It would be helpful if she could clarify how her vision is to be enacted alongside the Cummings’ arson attack on bureaucracy.

Ironically, the government’s policy may actually undermine attempts by Advance HE to reduce the bureaucratic burden of Athena SWAN and the REC and to make them more effective tools for change. Advance HE’s dependence on subscriptions might tempt them to leniency in judging weak applications for fear that universities, now told they should “not feel pressured to take part” in such schemes, will then withdraw to pursue equality by their own lights.

Naturally, it is healthy always to review how we might do things better (as has happened, albeit stutteringly*, with Athena SWAN and as is now happening with the REC). Alternative and more effective ways of advancing equality, diversity and inclusion in our universities could certainly be envisaged. But it would be foolish to assume these will not involve bureaucracy or administration. Easy solutions are not available for hard problems. If you want to bring about organisational and cultural change, you cannot avoid the grunt work of rethinking every process, every training programme, every decision, every appointment. Cummings may have a point about bureaucratic bloat, but the values under-pinning his prescriptions are invisible. Beyond vague notions of devolving power – and his supremely unhelpful lessons in rule-breaking – he has little to offer in the way of workable alternatives. That bit is up to us.

*See also this analysis from my OT co-blogger, Athene Donald. 


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Our Beirut Brexit

At 6:18 on the afternoon of Tuesday 4th August a huge store of ammonium nitrate exploded at the port of Beirut. The blast, one of the most powerful non-nuclear explosions in history, killed nearly 200 people, injured thousands more, and left over a quarter of a million homeless. In the immediate vicinity, the blast wave overturned cars and tore the cladding from buildings; windows were shattered in homes as far as 10 km from the epicentre. Three of the city’s hospitals were destroyed. With an economy already on its knees from the ravages of political corruption and Covid-19, the citizens of Beirut now have to pick up the pieces of lives and livelihoods demolished by a catastrophe that beggars belief.


The ruins of the port of Beirut after the explosion on 04 Aug 2020

Four years after the referendum that pronounced Britain’s decision to quit the European Union, the citizens of the United Kingdom are still sifting through the debris of a political detonation that at times seems no less catastrophic. Some will protest at the comparison. Some of the threads of the metaphor might snap under the strain, but enough remain attached to make a connection. I thought after all this time that the UK government would have made some accommodation with reality, that some sense of direction would have emerged, but I find myself still floundering, still knotted with frustration, and still fearful of the future. Brexit has been a political, economic and moral disaster for this country. There has been no healing, no rebuilding. We are a splintered nation wandering shell-shocked amid the wreckage of that fateful day in June 2016.

The comparison came to me a couple of weeks ago as I was listening to four experts on the BBC Radio4’s The Briefing Room examine the progress made in securing the UK’s future trading relationship with the EU. There hasn’t been much, it turns out – the two sides are “still very far apart”. As the four experts grappled with the complex realities of trade in goods and services with the EU and with other nations, of research and development, of fishing rights, of security, of traveling with pets, or of regulation of state aid, labour laws and environmental standards, the problems mounted. These are difficult issues, inevitably interlinked, and the way forward remains unclear. On Twitter, Conservative MP John Redwood dismissed the radio programme’s analysis as yet another sortie for Project Fear and demanded the chance to make “the case for all the wins once we leave.” But when challenged to do so on the social media site, he fell silent. Likewise, in his most recent statement, the UK’s chief negotiator, David Frost, makes no mention of the wins that are in the offing. He says the UK is committed to “seeking a relationship which ensures we regain sovereign control of our own laws, borders, and waters”, but does not discuss the complexities of the issues at stake or the compromises that are an inevitable part of any deal. Like Redwood’s tweet, his argument is aimed only his supporter base.

Since then, of course, things have only gotten worse. The introduction to Parliament this week of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill is, according to legal experts and even one government minister, a calculated breach of international law. While the move prompted the principled resignation of the UK’s top legal civil servant, vociferous objections from MPs and Lords on all sides of the House, and expressions of deep concern in the capitals of Britain’s allies at the government’s bad faith, ministers toured radio and TV studios offering a range of explanations that were consistent only in their obtuseness and their opacity. We were told this was just tidying up loose ends; we were told this was to protect the Good Friday Agreement; we were told this was to protect the integrity of the UK. The prime minister now tells us that the deal he sold to the electorate last December as ‘oven-ready’ to the electorate in December 2019 and for which he demanded and won parliament’s expedited approval in January 2020 ‘never made sense’.

The thing that has never made sense in all of this – from the moment he declared his support for Brexit – is Boris Johnson’s strategy. This strategy may, by a long and unpredictable road, have won him the premiership. But as the Bullingdon PM leads the country to rogue nation status, the sense of crisis – exacerbated by his government’s ineptitude and dissembling during the Covid-19 pandemic – has only deepened. If there is a strategy here, it seems only to be driven by the desire of his chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, to re-engineer the machinery of government, whatever the cost to our democratic values. Cummings has imported to government the Leave campaign’s spectacular disregard for the truth and the law. His efforts are writ large and small – in the attempt to disable parliament in last Autumns’ unlawful prorogation, in the culling of critical thinkers among Conservative MPs, and in his arrogant indifference for public safety during lockdown.

Each time it happens, public trust is eroded. Johnson and Cummings are not without their supporters, but their course is a deeply divisive one. I honestly can’t tell if there is a higher aim here. I used to be able to see it, even in politicians with whom I profoundly disagreed. But Brexit has shunted the country onto a different track. There is no attempt to win over the country, to win the argument, to create a realistic vision of hope for the future. Far too many of our politicians, inspired by the short-term successes of populists like Johnson-Cummings and Nigel Farage, are unwilling to talk straight to the British people. Worse, as we have seen with Redwood and his fellow travellers, all attempts to deal with the harsh realities of the world are met with yet more fanciful claims of the bounties that lie beyond Brexit.

Such claims still meet with a willing audience in some quarters, particularly among people who have long felt socially and economically disenfranchised in Britain. The machinations of the global economy and the growing power of large corporations have robbed many of the dignity of work. Unemployment may have been at an all-time low prior to the arrival of Covid-19, but too many jobs these days deny workers the chance to earn a fair wage, sufficient to support their families, for their efforts. The palpable frustration at being reduced to the life of a drone in towns that have been emptied of their industries and businesses made the EU, metropolitain elites and migrants easy targets during the referendum, a ploy that has continued at least as far as last December’s election. It is stoked by elements in the press and social media that pay far more attention to incendiary headlines than to reasoned argument.

A social distanced choir sings Rule Britannia at the BBC Proms 2020

Brexit Britain: nostalgia for a world that no longer could or should exist

How much longer can it continue? As some point the winners have to deliver, but there seems little prospect of that. The Covid-19 pandemic has made the task much more challenging economically. But the government’s serial mis-handling of the crisis – the delayed lockdown, the chaotic communications, the disregard for care home residents in the Spring, the failure to have a workable test and trace system in place for the return to schools and universities – and in particular its refusal to own its mistakes speaks to a profound indifference towards the people over which it wields its power.

And this morning we hear that Johnson will seek to opt out of major parts of European human rights laws. The disenfranchised workers of Britain can expect to be further disempowered in Brexit Britain.

At this point most newspaper columnists throw up their hands and sign off with some pithy remark about the ominous state of the nation. I’m tempted to do the same but what I really want is to find a way to a politics that can pull us out of our downward spiral. My difficulty is knowing which way to turn. Who among us is willing to stake out a position of radical integrity? Who among us is prepared to shoulder the grunt work of making the argument beyond the echo chamber of their own political base, of undertaking the hard work of understanding and explaining the problems that Britain faces and what we need to do together to solve them, even when – as is inevitable – we disagree. We each need to play our part, even it is amounts only to letting go of some of our certainties and trying to understand a different point of view.

It has been a desperate and depressing few weeks. We have yet to find an antidote to the poison of Brexit and with each day that passes it becomes clearer that Johnson has no interest in finding one. He is on course for disaster because he is incapable of dealing truthfully with people. When he is gone, we will need political leaders who are willing to talk straight and deal with complexity, who have a visceral understanding of the need to bring people together, and who will make an honest effort to reach those with whom they don’t agree. That is the only way we can rebuild the ruins of our politics.


Posted in Communication, International, Science & Politics | 3 Comments

In our elements

LakeDistrict - 12

I have been coming to the Lake District on and off for much of my life. It is my favourite corner of England. I first came in 1981 when I was seventeen, as one of half a dozen venture scouts from Ballymena on a summer youth hosteling trip.

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Then, in the early nineties, we would make annual trips to gather here with my wife’s siblings and their families, overseen with smiles and cooking by my tireless mother-in-law. At first our children were too small to go on the walks with their elder cousins – my wife is the youngest of seven – but later we graduated to the rambles in sunshine and rain up and down the tors and dales south-west of Ullswater. Those trips petered out about ten years ago. Grannie and Grandad grew tired, and the cousins grew up and struck out on their own. But now we are back again, just our family, and it is such a pleasure to rediscover the remoteness of this place.

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We have returned to our favourite haunt and rented a small house just below tiny Patterdale. Straddling a kink in the road that squeezes the traffic into single file, the village has a hotel, a pub, a small grocery shop that sells sweets, waterproofs and basic foodstuffs, and a phone box.

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Our rental house faces east. The windows look out across a green field, over a drystone wall to the slopes beneath Rake Crag, which changes from moment to moment as the Earth turns, as the sun peeks out from behind the clouds, or as the clouds descend to draw wispy veils over the Crag. Here time is paid out by Nature’s elements, not by any ticking clock.

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I had forgotten how much the elements take hold when you are in the Lakes: the ever changing light; the enveloping silence, broken only by gusts of wind, slooshing streams, or the shucking noise as with each step you pull your boot free from the clutch of the boggy ground; the rough touch of the rock when scrambling with hands and feet up steeper slopes. As I stood close to the edge of the hillside on our way up Round How, wisps of cloud drifted up and over me, fogging the view of the valley below and smothering us all in its cold, grey embrace.

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If you set off in the right direction, the villages and most other signs of human habitation are soon lost from sight. The cares of work fall away. Next to the colours and undulations of the landscape, the gushing streams, the varying sky, the working of your muscles, they become unimportant.

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They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but is there anyone who could look upon this sweep of hills and say it is not beautiful? Here Nature is absolute, in beauty and in power. The splendour we could see in every direction. We felt her power when our map mis-reading took us up the side of a ridge where the ground was suddenly more in front of us than beneath; after a grasping, limb-tensing crawl, we crested the top and collapsed breathless and frightened onto the grass. We gave thanks for the gentler traipse down the other side to the glittering tarn.

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Elsewhere, the rough-hewn paths were scattered with stones washed down the valley by last winter’s rains – Nature’s admonishment that the Earth will shape itself, whatever humankind’s temporary pretence at control. The thought when it comes – you have to focus hard on where you put your feet – is sobering, but also somehow lightens the mind weighed down by life’s busy-ness. Here, now, in this moment with the people who matter most to me, I’m fine with it.

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Comet NEOWISE – catch it if you can

Comet NEOWISE has come but not yet gone. If there is no cloud cover for the next night or two, you might be able to catch its wispy presence low in the north-west before it fades from view.

Don’t feel bad if you haven’t heard of comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE), to give this heavenly traveller its full name. It was only discovered on March 27 this year. There is no previous record of NEOWISE in human history because the last time it was in this neck of the solar system was about 7000 years ago. That’s how long you’re going to have to wait for it to come back it if you miss a sighting in the next couple of days.

Comet-Neowise - 5

If like me you inhabit a light-drenched metropolis, you’re unlikely to have dark enough night skies to see NEOWISE with the naked eye. But with a bit of practice, you should be able to see its faint upward smear with a half-decent pair of binoculars. 

The trick is to look  the to the north-west to find the Plough (also known as the Big Dipper)  and scan downward. My old Science is Vital pal, Andrew Steele has made a nice little video to help you find it.

This is what I had to do last night. I got my first glimpse at about 11 pm through the trees that block out most of the north-westerly view from my back garden. To get a photograph I took my binoculars, camera and tripod out onto the street. There I had a clearer view, but struggled to find an observation spot away from the street lights that didn’t make me look like I was poking my long lens into people’s bedrooms.

It took quite a bit of hunting to find the comet with the camera. I used a brute-force method, switching back and forth with the binoculars and taking snaps get the comet in the frame. If I were more familiar with the capabilities of my camera (Olympus OMD EM-5 MkIII, with a 75-300 mm zoom lens), this wouldn’t have taken so long.

Comet-Neowise glowing in the night sky, just above a rooftop Just above the chimney and to the right

Having found the comet, I could zoom in and experiment with shutter speeds to try for a decent shot. Unfortunately I am an amateur’s amateur and don’t have the gear needed to compensate for the rotation of the Earth. It turns faster than you might think, so even a 15 second exposure means that the comet and nearby stars show as short trails.

Comet Neowise - 15 second exposure Comet NEOWISE – 15 second exposure

By cutting back to 4 seconds, I could get sharper shots. You lose a bit of definition of NEOWISE’s wispy tail. But glowing green core still shines.

Comet NEOWISE - 4 second exposure Comet NEOWISE – 4 second exposure

I’ll be the first to admit that these pictures are not the greatest. Andrew got a much better image last night by stacking multiple photograph to get clearer shot. Professional photographer, Will Gater, did even better. But this was my encounter with NEOWISE, my moment of intersection with a fellow traveller. I wonder what it will find when next it swings by the neighbourhood?


Posted in Astronomy | 2 Comments

Augmented reality: me and my hearing aids

Reality augmentation: a pair of hearing aids

My new best buds…

When I started out on this blog back in ’08 I made a passing observation about my age, having noticed I was increasingly lifting my glasses to read the date on my watch. Not long afterwards I upgraded to varifocals. Now I have another upgrade to report: I have acquired hearing aids.

It was not an easy transition. On the face of it, why wouldn’t getting a pair of hearing aids be just like getting glasses? You can even get them from opticians these days. But it’s a much bigger deal and it’s taken me at least two years to get over my… embarrassment.

I’ve endured tinnitus in my right ear for four or five years now and I had a clear diagnosis of hearing loss in late 2018, but couldn’t bring myself to give hearing aids a try. However, I’ve grown tired of manoeuvring myself into position in meetings, turning my better left ear towards conversants and, as often as not, cupping it to hear questions from students. And my family have been losing patience with me for not noticing that they’ve spoken, or wanting to turn up the TV or turn on the subtitles. It was time to listen to what they – and my ears – were telling me.

When I finally went back to Specsavers a couple of weeks ago, the audiologist told me that I was ahead of the pack. Maybe he was just being nice, but apparently most men wait about 10 years before asking for help. How typical of us.

Lockdown probably made the decision easier because I’m working from home and less likely to be out and about. Most of my interactions with colleagues and friends are straight to camera so my ears are less in view. Even if I do turn my head, social distancing from the barber over the last few months means that the little pods tucked behind my ears are largely hidden from view.

Side view of Stephen's head - with hearing aid bud just visible

Over ear

I’m still adjusting to a brighter world of sound. I am hearing more and finding it easier to keep up with conversation. My voice sounds stranger to me, somehow sharper and more metallic, and my footfall on our creaking kitchen floor cracks my head like never before. I’m told my brain will accommodate my augmented reality and to help with that the hearing aids are slowly increasing the gain over the first three weeks. Given that my disability is age-related, it is some comfort to know that my body still has some capacity to respond to the world.

The nerd in me is enjoying the Bluetooth capabilities of my new best buds. I can now accept a call on my iPhone by tapping on a button just behind my ear. Music from my phone is also routed directly to my ear drums – no headphones required. These little techno-joys help to offset some of the discomfiture of my confrontation with infirmity, even if I’m still not sure about my calendar pinging right inside my head to remind be of an upcoming Zoom call. Which I guess is a reminder that all of our realities have been ‘augmented’ these days.


Posted in Communication, Technology | 16 Comments

UK R&D Roadmap 2020: big picture poses big questions

The latest in a long line of R&D strategy documents from the UK government reveals some promising evolution in its strategic thinking. But while it touches on a wide range of complex and interacting challenges, the precise direction of travel is still unclear


It’s easy to be cynical – and hard to see past the immediate threats posed by the government’s mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic – but anyone interested in the UK research base and how it might be made to work better should have a look at the new UK R&D Roadmap, which was published on 1st July. You can get a quick overview from the three-page executive summary (p5-7 in the PDF version), but it is worth delving deeper. For those without a couple of hours to read the whole thing, let me try to pull out a few key points. I will leave discussion of the plans for the commercial innovation ecosystem to wiser heads and focus on those aspects that struck me, a university-based academic.

First off, there is much that is good in the roadmap. Right up top (p5, p11) there is a clear recognition that the UK research needs to be a “mix of curiosity and application” and that this will resonate with the deepest motivations of most researchers both to explore the world around them and to solve its most pressing problems. It’s less clear exactly how that mix will be sustained, particularly since much of the Roadmap is devoted to describing how UK research will be harnessed to economic and strategic priorities. However, the prominence given to the idea of balancing discovery and exploitation is grounds for some optimism.

Second, to commitment to researcher mobility is loud and clear (p22). A new Office for Talent will facilitate international mobility. And the recently announced Global Talent visa is already buttressed by the restoration and enhancement of rights to work in the UK for overseas graduates and postgraduates. Further reform of talent visas are promised, though the details remain vague. Of course to a large degree these measures merely counteract the loss of freedom of movement within the EU triggered by the government’s Brexit policy and reverse decisions made by previous Conservative governments, but it is at least heartening that the dead hand of Theresa May has finally been lifted from UK research policy.

Third, the roadmap discusses the creation of a new R&D People and Culture strategy (p19) which will foreground better support for early career researchers and technicians, and address long-term structural inequalities by aiming to attract more diverse pools of talent – in part by ensuring that research leaders are equipped with the skills to manage people properly. These are aspirations that have been floated in earlier documents (such as the UKRI’s 2018 Strategic Prospectus) and many questions remain as to the extent of commitment and the plan for implementation, but it is nevertheless encouraging to see people-focused concerns becoming embedded in discussions about research policy. In this latest roadmap there is acknowledgement that some of the positive researcher behaviours observed in response to the Covid-19 crisis, such as “collaboration, knowledge-sharing and support for colleagues feeling the impact” now need to be properly recognised and rewarded if they are to become systemic.


Fourth and finally, following an impulse that has perhaps also been reinforced by Covid-19, the Roadmap espouses a national commitment to open scholarship (p51). This includes mandated open publication, strong incentives for data and code sharing, and – though the language here is vaguer – support for new infrastructure to help make this happen. The devil will certainly be in the detail, but as a public statement this is already some distance from the equivocations of the Finch report and its aftermath.

So far so good. And yet many questions remain. Part of the purpose of documents of this sort is to be aspirational, but sooner or later reality must be faced. In places the roadmap is surprisingly honest in its appraisal of the UK’s problems and challenges, but as I read through the questions just kept piling up.


Some of them are posed by the Roadmap itself – this is a discursive document that aims to start a conversation. But coming from a party that has been in power for a decade during which the R&D agenda has only gained in importance, we might have hoped the government could have dug a little deeper prior to publication. Perhaps that reflects inexperience within the current administration?

Thus on page 12 the Roadmap asks us to consider “how we can provide the most effective forms of funding and management for researchers and research organisations, incentivising work of the highest quality”; how we can “take bigger bets […] in genuinely transformational areas of science and research”; how to do “horizon scanning”; how to “remove barriers to interdisciplinary research”. None of these questions is new and all of them have complex and context-dependent answers.

Elsewhere, the sense of a government determined to put in place a viable career structure for early career researchers ebbs away. On page 20, after reassuring the reader that the government should not wait for perfect data before taking action, the roadmap states rather blandly that “we will […] identify action we can take to increase support for early career researchers…”. Fresh thinking on an old problem is promised, but you have to ask why it wasn’t brought to bear while the roadmap was being written.

The importance of place is mentioned frequently and rightly so. One of the most pertinent questions raised but not solved by Brexit is (p59) “How should we ensure that R&D plays its fullest role in levelling up all over the UK?” Here again, plans are unclear. The specific question on p35, “whether our existing, core funding schemes deliver sufficient economic benefit to places across the UK” has a ready but unuttered answer: no, they don’t. There follows some nebulous discussion about collaboration between stakeholders (the devolved administrations, business, academics, universities, charities and local leaders), but where are the plans to create new institutions, or to leverage the strengths of the existing asymmetrically distributed research base to foster growth in regions where it is most needed? Given the repeated assertions in the document about the need to work with the devolved administrations, one has to hope that the Johnson government’s interactions with them on R&D policy will be smoother than has been the case during the Covid-19 pandemic; there is a further and urgent question here of how the English regions will be given a voice in shaping the research base to their needs.

The other place mentioned, though somewhat less often, is Europe. While many warm words are expended on Britain’s international research vision and the desire to remain a close and friendly partner in EU R&D schemes, the plan in the event of a no-deal Brexit – a dangerous prospect that Prime Minister Johnson regards insouciantly – amounts only to meeting funding shortfall and putting in place “alternative schemes” (p7). The Roadmap might recognise the important role of international organisations in supporting multilateral research projects, but no mention is made of the loss of this vital facility as a result of the government’s enthusiasm for divorcing our European partners.

Universities, which in are more important parts of the UK R&D ecosystem than in many other European countries, get short shrift in the Roadmap. Reassurances about the value of discovery research notwithstanding, the renewed focus on strategic research raises questions about institutional autonomy. There is a nod to the problem caused by the fact that UKRI research grants do not pay the full cost of research, obliging many universities to subsidise research from overseas student tuition fees – a source of income that is now under severe threat. The Roadmap provides lukewarm reassurance (p57): “We will work with other funder to consider opportunities to fund a greater proportion of the full economic cost of research projects in universities.”

A line that might cheer up the universities, if they can bring themselves to believe it, appears further down on page 57: “we should aspire to run a [Research Excellence Framework] that is fair, unbureaucratic and rewards improvement.” That aspiration to reduce bureaucracy is a recurring theme of the Roadmap. But the problem is not defined in any detail; and nor are solutions laid out. Instead we are told (p36), “we will find new ways to track the development of R&D capacity across the UK […] but without adding to unnecessary bureaucracy; or elsewhere (p51) that “we will eradicate unnecessary bureaucracy – keeping in place only those check and approvals necessary to manage public money […] and take informed decisions”; or (also on p51) that “UKRI will reinvigorate participation in the peer review system through ensuring the system is easy to work with.” This is all very laudable, particularly when coupled with the Roadmap’s determination to embrace risk and to swallow the failures that will inevitably ensue, but is it not also horribly naïve? It smacks of the romantic notions of unleashing disruptive innovators and agile scientific geniuses that are to be found in Dominic Cummings’ musings on science and government. They would be a lot more persuasive if they had a some substance.

Which begs a final question: who wrote the Roadmap? It was not launched with a speech by Alok Sharma, the Secretary of State, or by Amanda Solloway, the Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, leaving questions as to their personal engagement. It’s hard to think of any of the recent science ministers – David Willets, Greg Clark, Jo Johnson, Sam Gyimah or Chris Skidmore – passing up an opportunity to sell their vision. For all its lack of detail, the Roadmap exhibits seriousness of intent; in many places it articulates a positive and outward-looking vision of the future of UK R&D that should be welcomed and engaged with. But if it doesn’t have a loud and visible champion in government, where is it headed?


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