An open letter on EDI matters to the Secretary of State for the Department of Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT)

The letter below started out as a ‘closed’ communication sent to DSIT on 11th October but in the absence of any response, despite two reminders, and the revelation in the meantime that the Secretary of State herself sometimes has  occasion to write open letters, I have decided to publish it.

Although my letter precedes the furore ignited by Michelle Donelan’s missive to UKRI raising her concerns about tweets by members of Research England’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Advisory Group, it touches on a related issue: the use and interpretation of evidence in political discourse on matters that are central to research and higher education.

Donelan’s UKRI letter put a very particular spin on a small number of words in a few tweets and proceeded to call for the disbandment of an EDI committee that has yet to meet. It seems to me that greater diligence was needed to ascertain whether or not the individuals involved are actually biased in a way that would compromise their role as advisors on EDI before any challenge was made regarding their participation in the committee. It would also have been more rigorous of the Secretary of State to have provided a rationale for her call to disband the committee completely.

The issues involved here (attitudes to the Israeli-Hamas conflict) and in my letter (a request for clarification of claims made by Michelle Donelan with regard to questions of sex and gender) are complex and important. They deserve serious attention. That means that any and all discussions should pay particular attention to the totality of evidence, rather than being selective with the facts.

Of course, the difference between scholarly and political discourse is very often located in the way that facts are used. The best scholarship will embrace all relevant information, including that which might contradict an argument that is being advanced. By contrast, it is in the nature of the rough and tumble of politics for people to play a faster, looser game.

In reality, the differences are not always so marked. We all – scholars and politicians alike – cling to our predilections and worldviews. Our minds are not changed so easily. But none of us has a monopoly on the whole truth, which is why it is so important to try to be open-minded and curious about what people we disagree with are really thinking.

I still hope therefore to get an answer to my letter and a clearer insight into the mind of the Secretary of State. On the face of it, she and I see the facts differently and have different views on the importance of work to promote equality, diversity and inclusion within our universities and research institutions. But I am curious to know if there is scope to explore what commonalities there might be between our perspectives.

11 October 2023

Dear Secretary of State

I write in a personal capacity as a scientist who has spent their entire professional life working in academia and been closely involved in addressing a range of issues related to research culture. These include the impact of incentive structures, and efforts to create a more diverse, inclusive, and productive academy. As I’m sure you are aware, these are knotty subjects.

I was pleased to read of your commitment to facts and evidence in your speech to the Conservative Party Conference last week, but troubled by some of the vaguer claims made about the ‘slow creep of wokeism’. I realise party conferences are occasions for rallying the troops, but you touched on complex issues that require serious deliberation, not least because of the impact they can have on the people most affected by them.

Therefore, there are two points in your speech on which I would be grateful for a clarification of the facts.

First, you said that Scotland’s Chief Statistician had issued guidance to the effect that “data on sex can only be collected in exceptional circumstances”. I have had a look at the guidance document but did not get a sense that that was his intention. Please could you or someone in your team point me to the sections where your claim is substantiated?

Second, you said that scientists are being told “by university bureaucrats that they cannot ask legitimate research questions about biological sex”. Could you please list the instances where this has happened that you had in mind? If there are very many, perhaps just mention four or five that you consider the most disturbing. I’m bound to say I have not come across such direct interference in my own work in science or in the EDI space. I am fully aware that questions of sex and gender are discussed, often in an uninformed and ill-tempered manner in the media and social media, but in my experience universities grapple very carefully with these questions.

There is of course a rapidly evolving discourse around sex and gender, and one that is important for our society. That is why it is crucial for us to create space for constructive dialogue. Perhaps this is your aim with the investigation to be led by Prof Alice Sullivan? I hope that will provide an opportunity for an informed discussion that is broad enough to embrace not just academic and policy research, but the women and LGBT+ communities closest to these matters.

Yours faithfully,

Professor Stephen Curry


Posted in Equality Diversity & Inclusion, Science & Politics | Comments Off on An open letter on EDI matters to the Secretary of State for the Department of Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT)

Kenya: Where the Wild Things Are

Everyone we knew who had been on safari told us they’d had such an amazing experience that I was worried our expectations for our trip to Kenya were being set too high.

Elephants near and far walking in the Kenyan sunshine from right to left over beaten grassland

Elephants trekking across Amboseli National Park

I needn’t have been concerned. For six days we bounced and rattled in a Toyota Landcruiser driven by our knowledgeable and sharp-eyed guide, Senei, and each game drive seemed to be better than the last.

Black rhino in the Serengeti grassland with an Oxpecker hovering above

Black rhino in the grassland at the Masai Mara

I took hundreds of photographs. I had a harness that would allow me to carry two cameras, one on each side, so that I could quickly switch between their different lenses. I looked and felt a bit weird in this get-up but in the end was pleased with the flexibility it gave me.

Flamingoes at the edge of the water and in flight.

Flamingoes at Lake Nakuru

I won’t post all my picture here, though I am sorely tempted. The wonder of it all. We saw lions, elephants, giraffes, hippos, hyenas, vultures, wildebeast, water buffalo, antelope, a leopard, and a Saville cat, flamingoes, pelicans and a huge variety of other birds.

Close-up of the head of a hippopotamus in the water, resting on a friend and apparently smiling in his dreams

Happy hippo in Lake Naivasha

If I have any regrets it’s that we didn’t have more time to stand and stare. The experience of seeing so many wild animals in their native habitats made me realise how rare it is to see large, undomesticated animals in the UK. If you do, it is in ones or twos, usually darting across the road. I guess you can still see herds of wild deer in Scotland, but I never have.

Male lion with severe facial scarring looking directly at the camera.

A lion who’s been in the wars (Amboseli National Park)

The pictures here are just a taster. If you would like to see more, I have selected my top 78 and created an album on Flickr. If you are interested in seeing more than that, I have assembled a larger set that is essentially a photo-journal of our trip.

A black and orange bee hovering over the centre of a bright purple and yellow flower.

Busy bee


Posted in Photography | Comments Off on Kenya: Where the Wild Things Are

Why Succession failed me – just

Tom and Roman gaze out through the glass wall of a corporate office

Tom and Roman – trapped by farce?

I have been trying to put my finger on why I have found Succession — HBO’s must-see series about fictional US media mogul Logan Roy and his dysfunctional family — to be at once utterly compelling and annoyingly dissatisfying.

The show has an excellent pedigree. It was created by Jesse Armstrong (Peep Show, The Thick of It, Fresh Meat), and has a stellar cast featuring career-highlight performances by Brian Cox as the ferocious patriarch and Matthew Macfadyen, playing brilliantly against type as the hollow but calculating hanger-on Tom Wambsgans; these two shine just a little bit more brightly than the portrayals of the fractious Roy children by Alan Ruck (Con),  Jeremy Strong (Kendall), Sarah Snook (Shiv), and Kieran Culkin (Roman).

Succession is commonly mentioned in the same breath as other stand-out television series from the last two decades, such as The Sopranos, Mad Men, and The Wire, but I wouldn’t put it in the same category at those dramas. Technically, nor would the creators, since Succession is a comedy-drama, and one that that some perceptive critics have even compared to superior situation comedies, because of the recursive plotting, which loops from season to season around the children’s struggles to grab the reins of Waystar-Royco from their ailing father.

I think there’s something to that designation. But even though the series has some scenes that are blisteringly dramatic – not least from season 4, Logan’s sorrowful dismissal of his kids in the karaoke bar (“I love you, but you are not serious people.”), their hate-love inflected attempts to say a last farewell to him over the phone, and Shiv and Tom tearing truth and chunks out of each other on the balcony at the pre-election party – its comedic instincts pull the show more towards farce than a work that has something new to say about modern life.

This, ultimately, is the source of my dissatisfaction with Succession. Because so much of the plotting and characterisation is rooted in farce, they end up being flattened in a cartoonish way that you don’t find in more serious drama. There are moments of self-awareness for many of the characters but little in the way of any kind of growth. That would be OK – who says that people have to grow or learn lessons in fiction? – but the main dramatic weakness is that you almost never get to see any of the characters doing their jobs. They mostly sit around bickering, albeit in superbly caustic terms, but that wasn’t not enough for me. Logan’s charge of unseriousness therefore applies not just to the characters of his children but to the narrative, which lacks the procedural depth found in shows like The Sopranos or, my recent favourite, Better Call Saul. There’s no real sense that Kendall, Shiv, or Roman have the wherewithal to run the company. To my mind, nowhere near enough groundwork had been laid to make Tom’s transformation into the all-powerful CEO believable.

Realising that Succession is more farcical, than dramatic makes this omission more forgivable but I still can’t really understand it, given the enormous amounts of talent involved in creating the show. But what do I know – a mere armchair critic? Maybe an injection of reality would have nixed the comedy? I’ve got my suspicions.

Whatever. Succession remains an outstanding achievement – horrifically compulsive viewing. And who would have guessed that Roman would ultimately emerge as the most relatable human of the bickering Roys?

For better and more in-depth critiques, see these pieces by Hannah Mackay (BFI) and Isabel Berwick (FT).

Posted in TV review | Comments Off on Why Succession failed me – just

A day in Auschwitz

Entrance to Auschwitz I with the 'Arbeit Mach Frei' iron gate

Entrance to Auschwitz I

Last week I visited Auschwitz. I find myself hesitating to write or say anything because I can’t find the words to convey the horror of the place and, in any case, so much has already been written and said far more powerfully by the Jewish survivors of the evil that was the Holocaust.

The trip was organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust as part of their Lessons from Auschwitz project, which aims to raise awareness of antisemitism among school and university students and teachers. It was preceded by a workshop that included an eyewitness account of the savagery of the Nazi death camps by Holocaust survivor Renee Salt. I was already familiar with the accounts written by Primo Levi and Viktor Frankl, but these could not compare to hearing the testimony first hand.

Renee’s horrific story made the trip to Auschwitz all the more human because the camps themselves lie empty, bearing only silent witness to the unspeakable events that took place there.

Crutches and artificial limbs taken from disabled people who were sent to the gas chamber on arrival

Crutches and artificial limbs taken from disabled people who were sent to the gas chamber on arrival

I learned that Auschwitz is composed of three separate camps, two of which we visited. Much of Auschwitz I, a converted army barracks which has the infamous ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ gate, is now a museum containing many artefacts and records of the people who perished there: shoes, luggage, pots and pans, crutches, hair (taken for the German textile industry), and photographs. It also, chillingly, retains an intact gas chamber and crematorium.

A 'Halt!' sign with skull and crossbones stand in front of barbed wire fences and a high concrete wall.

No way out

Empty canisters of Zyklon B

Empty canisters of Zyklon B

Gas chamber

Gas chamber

Crematorium oven - with trolleys for loading corpses

Crematorium oven – with trolleys for loading corpses

Sign saying "Danger! High voltage will cause death" in front of fences and barrack buildings

“Danger! High voltage will cause death.”

Barbed wire - close-up

Barbed wire


Auschitz II, or Auschwitz-Birkenau, was purpose built for murder and the sheer scale of the place is hard to comprehend. Row upon row of huts almost as far as the eye can see and, at the rear, the remains of the four gas chambers and crematoria, which were ineptly dynamited at the end of the war as the Nazis sought in vain to destroy the evidence of their crimes. The photographs I took struggle to convey the size of the camp, or the grimness of the visit.

Entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau

Entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau

Guard towers at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Guard towers at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Prisoner huts at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Prisoner huts at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Bunk beds inside a hut at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Bunk beds inside a hut at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Remains of huts at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Remains of huts at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Modified cattle truck

Modified cattle truck

Remains of the crematorium

Remains of the crematorium

Finally, because the photographs bear only insipid witness, perhaps the wordless video below will give a better sense of what it was like to be there. It was impossible to absorb the full extent of the horror but will be impossible to forget.



Posted in History of Science | 1 Comment

The separation of life and death

Dad on the beach - Sept 2014

Who is that stranger in my father’s bed?
Those sunken eyes
The concave cheeks
Salted with stubble
The thinned grey hair
Plastered to a narrow skull.
I have lost the man I loved.

In truth it had been a long journey
To this resting place.
A slow stepping backwards
As memory stuttered and stalled
And confusion dampened
The flares of anger
That made strangers of us both.

You used to fill a room with smiles
(Or suck the air out of it).
How did we become so
Before the question is fully formed
The answer blurts out:
This is not death
It is life.


(My father died in February and I am still coming to terms with the loss. I don’t know what to make of it. Ours was at times an uneasy relationship; we were close and not close. I don’t want to dishonour his memory, but neither do I want to gloss over. I suspect I am not yet ready to look at it – or my own feelings – too closely.)

Posted in Philosophy | 3 Comments

What’s the easiest way to become a less lazy photographer?

I’m thinking of becoming a less lazy photographer. Can you help?

Reflections of Brussel's Grand Place in the window of a baroque building

Brussels window.

Long-time readers of this blog will know that I enjoy a bit of photography from time to time, since I have an annual tradition of posting my favourite photographs at the end of each year. Photography is something I’ve enjoyed since childhood. I was probably only seven or eight when I got my first camera. As a teenager I set up camp on weekends in my dentist father’s darkroom to make my own black-and-white prints. I was happy to make the switch to digital, and happier still as the iPhone camera developed into a credible substitute for a compact digital camera, though I enjoy the versatility that comes with a camera that has interchangeable lens. Long a fan of Canon digital SLRs, I made the switch a few years ago to the smaller, lighter and mirrorless Olympus OMD E-M5 MkIII. Recently, I’ve rather greedily treated myself to a high-quality compact camera, the Ricoh GR IIIx, convincing myself it would be a great travel supplement to my iPhone and that I wanted to develop my street photography.

But even with all that gear, I’m a lazy photographer. All my photos are taken as jpegs and imported straight into Apple Photos, which comes free on every Mac. There they can be lightly edited, sorted and archived. I pay for iCloud storage so that I have access to all my photos on my computer, iPad and iPhone.

I like to think that I have a good eye for colour and composition, and a reasonable understanding of how to play with or control light and shade; so I confine myself to fairly minimal editing in Photos – straightening a wonky horizon, cropping, tweaking the highlights, shadows and saturation, and maybe adding a bit of sharpening. And then I’m done.

Lately, I’ve been wondering about doing more. I know that if I were to shoot in RAW, I would have a lot more control over the edit. I would have even more control if I invested in a better editing programme, such as Adobe’s Lightroom. But so far I’ve been put off by the hassle and perhaps kidding myself that my composition doesn’t need the extra help.

A blogpost by David Bradley, who is a very fine photographer, particularly of wildlife, revealed to me just how much improvement can be gained from using good digital tools. The post explains his workflow for getting a sharp shot of a bird in flight, which involves shooting in RAW, and processing the image in DxO’s PureRaw2 programme to remove noise, before importing into Lightroom for further sharpening and adjustments to the exposure. He also recommends using Topaz’s Sharpen AI tool in some cases, which can deal with motion and other forms of blurring. The result is impressive.

I think I’m nearly ready to jump, not least because Mrs C and I will be going on safari in Kenya in the summer and, while I’m not expecting to return with pictures that would be worthy of National Geographic, I would like to feel that I had done my best with the opportunity. First, though, I would like to hear more about other people’s workflows. There are so many tools out there that it can be a bit bewildering and, as I think I’ve mentioned already, I’m a lazy photographer.

Posted in Photography | 2 Comments

Books of 2022

Another year, another tweet thread of the books I read these past twelvemonth. Click on the images to access higher resolution versions which are just about legible, or better still, read the thread on Twitter.


In 2022 I managed just 20 titles, five of them novels and seven by women. Of the novels I read – all by women, it turns out – the most captivating were Foster and Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan, though Persuasion and Hamnet were both immensely enjoyable.

My favourite non-fiction book of the year has to be Ignatieff’s biography of Isaiah Berlin, which provides not just an entertaining account of his life but a hugely insightful introduction into his liberal philosophy. I continued my explorations of liberalism with A Thousand Small Sanities, Adam Gopnik’s lively account – written for his daughter – of why liberalism is hated by the left and the right. (If you have an appetite for yet more on liberalism, I would still heartily recommend Ian Dunt’s How to be a Liberal, which I read last year).


A very close second to my favourite non-fiction title has to be Fintan O’Toole’s personal and sharply observed history of Ireland since the 1950s: We Don’t Know Ourselves. O’Toole is a just few years older than me, and while I grew up north of the border, I have enough connections through aunts, uncles and cousins in the South for there to be many resonances with my own history in Ireland. But many revelations too – I never realised Charlie Haughey was such a crook!


Several of my non-fiction choices I read for instruction and of these by far the most helpful were Ian Leslie’s Conflicted, a thoroughly researched examination of how to resolve arguments, and John Amaechi’s book on leadership (The Promises of Giants), a work so packed with useful insights I was left wishing it could be taken in pill form.


Posted in Book Review, Science | 2 Comments

Photos of 2022

Another year, another two thousand or more photographs, some of which I thought were quite good. There’s a little taster below but if you want to see the full set of 55 pictures that were my favourites from this year, you need to click through to my album on Flickr.

Robin on a branch in silhouette.

Silhouetted Robin.

The Louvre in Paris reflected in the now iconic glass pyramid.

Louvre Reflections.

Black satellite dishes protruding from a multicoloured row of terraced houses.

Colourful Communication

A small balcony in Barcelona with room for just a single red armchair.

Barcelona Balcony

Circle of leaves glowing in the sunlight

The Circle of Light.

Round aluminium tables and blue chairs on a wet pavement strewn with fallen leaves.

No Cafe Society in Autumn.


Posted in Photography, Science & Art, Travel | 4 Comments

Intelligent life: Isaiah Berlin

Thanks to the paucity of my education and cultural life I have come late to Isaiah Berlin, the noted philosopher and historian of ideas whose thinking provided such a guiding light to the 20th Century. But I’m definitely a fan now.

Isaiah Berlin - Archive on Four

I’d heard the name, of course, but would have been hard-pressed to tell you why he was well-known. I started tracking him down after reading a piece in the New Yorker about philosopher Elizabeth Anderson, whose ideas challenged Berlin’s assertion of the inevitable clash between freedom and equality. I liked Anderson’s notions of “relational, or democratic, equality: meeting as equals, regardless of where you were coming from or going to” and assumed that Berlin had somehow got it wrong.

But I should have looked before I leaped to that conclusion. When I did finally get around to probing Berlin’s thinking, through reading Michael Ignatieff’s fine biography, I found much more depth and nuance and humanity than I had supposed from that single observation in the New Yorker article.

I marked many passages as I read Ignatieff’s book but one of the few that I selected as especially resonant, highlighted in pink rather than yellow, could stand as my personal credo.

Screenshot of the Berlin biography extract. The text reads "In these wars, he belonged on the liberal left, but he warned his own side that their goals were in conflict. For every supposed gain in social justice there might be a corresponding loss of freedom. This conflict between ends was bound to defy smooth managerial solutions. The best that could be hoped for was some ‘logically untidy, flexible and even ambiguous compromise’. What the age calls for, Isaiah concluded, ‘is not (as we are often told) more faith, or stronger leadership, or more scientific organisation. Rather it is the opposite – less Messianic ardour, more enlightened scepticism, more toleration of idiosyncrasies.’ Fighting injustice was essential, but men ‘do not live only by fighting evils’. They live by choosing their own goals – a vast variety of them, seldom predictable, at times incompatible’. It was individual freedom, to choose well or ill, which had to be defended, not some ultimate vision of the human good. Since no disposition was faultless, no disposition was final. His motto in politics, he concluded, was: surtout pas trop de zèle."

Highlighted extract from Berlin’s biography. Full quote in the Alt text.

It rang such a sonorous bell I think because I have such a logically untidy mind and aspire, however falteringly, to an empathetic approach in debate and decision-making. “Empathy was, for Berlin,” Ignatieff writes, “the core liberal aptitude – the capacity to be open, receptive, unafraid in the face of opinions, temperaments, passions alien to one’s own.” Well, quite.

It’s an outlook I’ve tried to bring to discussions of open access and research assessment, but also, perhaps more critically, to work to address some of the challenges around equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) at my university and within higher education. EDI is steeped in conflicting values and perspectives; arguments in good faith struggle to be seen as such, since who you are – your history, your lived experience – weighs heavily within what you have to say.

The idea that the best that can be hoped for is some “logically untidy, flexible and ambiguous compromise” rings true for my experience of conversations about the gravity and impact of historical racism, for example, or the rights of cis and trans women, or where lines are to be drawn around free speech.

Berlin’s thinking is founded on a deep belief in pluralism and that values are  rooted in history and culture. For him variety really was the spice of life, and of liberalism in particular. But this also means that conflict is inevitable. The challenge is to find a way to deal with a conflict for which there is not likely to be a solution to satisfy everyone. The best we can hope for is for all sides in any debate to engage honestly, to recognise with Berlin that perspective matters (without somehow following the more simplistic ruts of identity politics), and to be able to live with ‘solutions’ that we may not like. For those of us in the majority in our diversifying society, that may sometimes call for the generosity to cede power.

For more on Berlin, I can recommend the recent Archive on 4 radio documentary which explores his life as one of the last great public intellectuals and makes good use of recordings of his uniquely plummy gabble. I particularly liked his description of the qualifications for membership of the intelligentsia: “…belief in reason, belief in progress, hatred of all forms of irrational conduct, together with a profound moral concern for society.” 


Posted in Philosophy, Science, Science culture | Comments Off on Intelligent life: Isaiah Berlin

Part-time talking – open science, research assessment and gender equality

Things have come to a pretty pass when the UK can turn out Prime Ministers more frequently that I post to my blog. It might be taken as a sign of the times if the times weren’t so damned confusing.

The dance of light at Barcelona airport

Black and white shot of people reflecting off the gleaming surfaces inside Barcelona airport

Whatever. The itch to keep writing is still there, even if it remains distracted by the demands of work. But those are lessening because I have shed my teaching responsibilities for the year and moved to a part-time contract working four days a week. I am lucky to be able to do so.

I suspect it may be one of the best decisions I’ve made in a very long time. I’m only three weeks into the new regime but am already feeling the benefit of having a long weekend every weekend. Work – including some of my extra-curricular commitments (such as DORA and my involvement in revisiting the Metric Tide) – might still intrude on the weekend, but so far only rarely on Fridays and it now feels more like a conscious, controlled choice. Let’s see if I can stick to the programme.

Anyway, to business. This week I have given three talks on three different but interlinked areas that have consumed my attention over the past decade or more. We are in the midst of open access week and on Monday I was able to participate online in a panel organised by Aberdeen University to discuss the latest moves towards open science. I confess I have not kept as well abreast of developments as I used to – I have still to catch up with all the hoo-haa over eLife’s recent shift in publication practice (though it strikes me immediately as a bold and worthy experiment) – but I have a strong sense that the centre of gravity is shifting in this debate: openness is clearly the way to go, even if the pathway is tangled by the commercial interests of some publishers and unresolved issues of research assessment in the academic community.

Research assessment, or more particularly the reform of research assessment, was the subject of an invitation-only roundtable run by Science Business on Tuesday morning. I think this was in Brussels but I’m not sure; I was an online participant. I’m not at liberty to divulge details but was struck by the divergence of opinion and the imprecision of language. Some talked about the need for ‘objective’ metrics or for ‘concrete’ metrics systems without pausing to analyse how such objectivity or concreteness is achieved in a system that depends critically on individual judgement and social interaction (I have finally got around to reading Ziman’s Real Science). Those of use who wish to see quantitative data about research contributions tensioned and contextualised by qualitative analyses need to make a stronger case.

And finally today I was at the Building Bridges 2022 conference organised by the Academia Europaea, at a session on diversity and inclusion run by the Young Academy of Europe. This was bracketed by intriguing sessions on science policy and on innovation, both social and technological. I hope I gave a good account of the work that we are doing at Imperial to advance EDI (very much unfinished) and was glad to find myself in alignment with my co-panellist, Yvonne Galligan (Professor of Comparative Politics a the Technological University of Dublin), a real expert in this area.

Our discussion was a bit rushed and abbreviated because the previous session on science policy had overrun, but once again I noticed a problematic imprecision in the use of language. Throughout the session, chaired by Robert-Jan Smits (an erstwhile director-general of research and innovation at the European Commission), the need to protect and valorise ‘excellence’ was emphasised. No one is against excellence, right? But during the discussion no one stopped to define what it means. At one point it was implicitly taken to mean performance in the Nature Index, which is a very narrow and contested measure of research output. I’m increasingly of the view that the term needs to be retired, not least because the scholarly critique of excellence has laid bare its weaknesses, deformities and gender biases. What a pity that the scholarly system, with its fixation on metricised performance, has yet to properly absorb this critique.

Posted in Science | Comments Off on Part-time talking – open science, research assessment and gender equality

Passing the Baton

“The Queen is dead; long live the King!” is such a cliché of stories and films that it was surprising to hear it for real. Not that we did actually hear it for real. The secrecy surrounding the Queen’s final hours means we cannot be sure what was said at the moment of her passing or even if the new King had arrived in time. But the transition was immediate and although the country is now seeing out a long period of mourning, the idea of ‘Prince’ Charles has clearly also died a death.

Queen Elizabeth II lying in state

Various members of the public have expressed their shock and sadness at the death of Queen Elizabeth II by saying they thought she would be there forever. She was certainly there for a very long time – a life that lasted ninety-six years and a reign of just over seventy. So, while it was clearly irrational to imagine that the Queen would be immortal, you can understand the feeling. Even for those of us who take little interest in the monarchy, there is a clear sense of a historical shift – a tear in the fabric of our times.

That will fade. The press of events, of day-to-day concerns will sweep the intensity of this present moment into the jostle of memories that each of us carries around. Vivid at first, and likely to be long-lasting for many, these recollections will recede into the background. Life goes on – until it doesn’t. The baton has passed from Queen to King, from mother to son. In turn, eventually, he will pass it on to his own son.

So it is for the rest of us. Our batons may not sparkle like the royal sceptre, but which of us does not hope to leave some kind of legacy for those who come after? I am thinking not just of the money, property, experiences, wisdom, values and love that parents might impart to their children, but the marks we all make on the world that impact the lives of others, whether through work or charity or friendship.

As someone who is closer to the end of his career than the beginning, I find myself wondering more and more about these marks. The more fanciful hopes of youth have submitted with a wry smile to the accumulated accidents that make up a life – a very good life for the most part. But as children grow up and parents decline and die, the sense of an ending comes into sharper focus. An intake of breath – where did the time go? No matter, really. You always knew in your head it would pass, even if you chose not to believe it for the first few decades. 

Perhaps that is wisdom, to realise finally that you can only hold the baton for a short time? The world will still be here, much as we found it, after we’ve gone. Which is not to say that we should not strive to make it a better place; only that to do so, we might focus more on making every day count, even if only in a small way. We are not likely ever to reach the future that we dream of but it is enough to carry the baton for a while and pass it on to others who might, in turn, ensure that it gets to the hoped-for destination. 


Posted in Scientific Life | Comments Off on Passing the Baton

A Declaration on Bicycle Assessment – the Decision

Reader, I bought a Brompton.

Folded Brompton

After all my research – and a considerable amount of humming and haa-ing – I finally took Henry’s advice and went to my local bike shop to test-ride a couple of different eBike models. The cheaper one on offer there didn’t work out – easy enough to ride and a motor with plenty of power, but nothing like the compactness of the folded Brompton. In the end, I decided that was going to be the most critical factor since I need to take the bike on a train to get to work.

At just over £3,000 for the six-speed Electric C-line Explore model the Brompton was one on the most expensive options, but the cost is mitigated since I can buy the eBike through the Cycle-to-Work scheme. This allows me to pay in 12 instalments that are deducted from my monthly salary before tax. Since I am in the higher tax bracket, that knocks about a grand off the purchase price. Not bad – my thanks to the government.

I took delivery yesterday and did my first commute to work today. It was… good. I reckon it will get better the more I get used to the journey.

The motor has three settings which balance power and range. I reckon I will stick to No. 2 for most use but on the return home this evening, with its long, slow climb, I switched to No. 3. The motor kicks in as soon as you start pedalling and made the ride quick and easy. Quicker than the bus, and not too sweaty.

I had a little trouble with the bright sunlight which made seeing the road tricky at times. London may be a great city, but its roads are pitted and uneven. On the way up to Hyde Park Corner from Victoria, I narrowly avoided a pot-hole that would have swallowed the front wheel of the Brompton and sent me flying.

Otherwise, the main thing I need to work on is my folding technique. I missed trains by seconds going to work and going home because I haven’t yet mastered the twists and turns of the mechanism that reduces the bike to a neat little package. When I got off at Victoria Station this morning, I discovered that I’d somehow managed to catch the hook that locks the front wheel to the frame around the chain. All of the other passengers trooped past me as I struggled to unfold my contraption. I tried not to catch anyone’s eye.

Tomorrow, I go again.

Posted in Scientific Life, Travel | 1 Comment