Tag Archive: policy

Feb 24 2012

I am Dr Faustus

Ananyo Bhattacharya writes in the Guardian that “Scientists have sold their souls – and basic research – to business“. I wish, respectfully, to dispute this statement.

The article is built around the assertion that basic research in the UK has been corrupted by the idea that it must demonstrate a degree of usefulness, in particular to commercial interests.

Bhattacharya says:

“it is worth noting that the overwhelming majority of game-changing ideas and inventions have not come about as a result of scientists addressing the needs of business.

This is utter cobblers, have you heard of the Industrial Revolution? Do you know that that power is measured in Watts, after the steam engine designer James Watt or that the units of energy, Joules, are named for James Joule a brewer at the forefront of technological improvements for his brewery. What about the transistor, invented at Bell Labs? How about Lavoiser and the foundations of chemistry?  These people may well have appeared to do their research as what we would describe as a “hobby” but they were strongly motivated by the businesses in which they worked at a time when the corporate research laboratory simply didn’t exist nor did the university research department. Even the work that Isaac Newton did was very relevant to commercial interests in his time, the motions of the moon and planets which can be derived from his laws of gravitation were important to navigation, and therefore trade. His work on the telescope can be seen in a similar light. The weaker version of this argument is that single causes for scientific discoveries simply do not exist, they arise from a combination of factors including straightforward curiosity, commercial interests, dependent discoveries, national prestige amongst other things.

Science has also been part of the entertainment business, it still is. Robert Hooke was employed by the Royal Society to provide scientific demonstrations to its members, similarly Michael Faraday was employed at the Royal Institution and long before electricity was used to do anything useful it was a part of the repertoire of travelling lecturers.

In common with many scientists, much of my work in academia was funded at least in part by industry including Courtaulds, Nestle and Unilever for whom I now work. There’s only a subset of scientist who work in areas which attract no direct industrial funding.  Frankly, it is insulting for the rest of us to be told that our work is devalued because of those contacts we have had with industry. Industry is valuable to research because it asks interesting questions, and demands interesting things. How do I make a computer out of plastic? What must a drug that cures Alzheimer’s Disease do? What properties must my avalanche defence barrier have?

It is some form of arrogance to demand money from the public purse whilst simultaneously exclaiming that you can’t possibly describe how you will usefully spend that money; that the fruits of your labour are simply impossible to evaluate. Can you imagine a school or a hospital running this way, let alone a business?

The article also references the “unmeasureability” of basic research impacts, I think there is a degree of truth in this in particular the idea that an impact statement can be written for each and every grant and that the detail of that research proposal can be meaningfully given an “impact value”. However, this approach misses out the critical element of every research project: people.

Most of the people doing research in our university departments will leave them to do other work elsewhere. Trained people are the measurable impact of every research project; their training in basic research skills; their education in specific research skills around their core topic and only finally their knowledge in the very specific area they were taken on to research. As I mentioned earlier several companies spent moderate amounts of money on me through my academic research career what they got from that was not the publication output, I’m confident that my scientific impact in terms of citations will be largely forgotten in a few years time, the important thing was me!


Oct 16 2011

Science is Vital – careers edition

I thought I would provide some comments on the Science Is Vital report “Careering Out of Control: A crisis in the UK science profession?“.

The report focuses on the career structure for academics with particular reference to postdoctoral workers. Postdoctoral workers are usually funded out of grant applications made by principle investigators (PIs) who are typically university lecturers. The postdoc will have a 2-3 year contract which lasts the length of the project proposed in the grant application. Lecturers typically work in groups which will make some attempt to find another temporary position for a good postdoc, however this is a tricky process which requires grant applications to be won to order. Therefore the postdoctoral position is insecure and can go on for many years until the postdoc becomes too expensive to employ.

I write this as someone who did a PhD in Physical Chemistry at Durham University, a postdoc at the Cavendish Laboratory, followed by an assistant director of research position (like a research fellowship, with the ability to make grant applications) and finally, in academia, a lectureship at UMIST in the Department of Physics. Since 2004 I have worked as a scientist for a large home and personal care company in north west England – the opinions here are my own and do not represent the views of any of my employers, past or present. As such it is a different viewpoint from the core Science Is Vital team but it is personal and based on relatively brief experience of one type of non-university employer over a relatively short period of time.

First I’d like to highlight what I think is good about the report, and indeed the Science Is Vital campaign. The report highlights what is a long-standing and serious problem in the university sector, and it does so on the basis of substantial data set. It makes some proposals to address these shortcomings. More widely I believe that “Science Is Vital” to the UK as a nation, for both its economic and social well-being. I see a UK whose citizens and businesses know more of science and engage more with science as a more successful UK.

The report proposes  a couple of mechanisms for easing the way for postdoctoral workers around creating more permanent posts and opening up grant applications. Although neither of these are unreasonable ideas there are downsides with both. Recruiting and managing permanent staff requires a different approach to making short-term appointments: if you get it wrong you are lumbered with someone and when you take them on you have to be prepared to keep them for the duration. This means that in an organisation with limited income (i.e. any organisation) you will regularly undergo recruitment freezes and you will only recruit if you believe the person you are interviewing is absolutely the right person, if they aren’t you don’t recruit. “Permanence” does help provide a career structure but it isn’t everything, people expect to progress in their careers (typically with a focus on cash) but a company will be looking to get more for more pay – more responsibility for line management, more responsibility for budget and so forth.

As an aside, the academic sector seems to support two populations in position longevity: 2-3 years and life. As a guide I believe my career with my current employer has a half-life of 5 years.

As for the second mechanism: the grant application system is already creaking at the seams with abysmal success rates and controversial measures which block people who have had multiple applications fail from re-applying for a period, so opening it up to a further cohort of potential applicants without increasing the size of the pot would be troublesome.

For me the central problem in the university system is that the numbers of lecturers (teachers), principle investigators, PhD students, postdoctoral workers and available grant funding in the university system are implicitly coupled but I’ve never seen any indication that impacts of changes across these areas are planned i.e. if you decide to increase undergraduate numbers then there is a knock-on effect on applications to funding bodies because you employ more lecturers/principle investigators who will apply for grants. The removal of the distinction between polytechnic and university was another great shift which opened up grants to a wider audience but without necessarily increasing the size of the grant funding pot. I think it’s fair to say that beyond the level of PhD an overwhelming majority of people in the system are looking for a permanent position in the university sector, and there simply aren’t the places to support this.

Perhaps the great unrecognised area is that the key impact of research in the university sector is not the science done but the people that do the science. Scientific papers in the open literature are useful but from a commercial point of view they are less valuable then, for example, a patent or a person who can create proprietary knowledge for a company. PhD students are explicitly being trained to be scientists, they pay fees for that training – the fact they end up producing useful scientific results is in some senses a side-effect. Postdoctoral workers, on the other hand, are being paid to carry out research – they become more valuable as employees by doing this particularly if along with new scientific skills they pick up other skills such as planning a programme of work, organising experiments with intricate dependencies, mentoring and managing other people,  communicating results, writing, procuring equipment and so forth.

As I said at the beginning: I believe in “Science Is Vital” – it is a worthwhile cause that I am pleased to seeing being pushed forward. I want this program to succeed and I’d like to support it from my viewpoint outside the university sector.

Jun 06 2011

The New College of the Humanities

AC Grayling is fronting the formation of a new private institution, The New College of the Humanities (NCH) providing degree level education, based in London and charging £18k per year. The degrees will be awarded by the University of London, under an existing scheme, the University of London International Programmes, the NCH simply being a new supplier.

The New College of Humanities is heading for the prestige market with its headline fees of £18k per year, a list of celebrity professors, a Bloomsbury location and a staff to student ratio of 1:10. It’s clear from the supporting material that the celebrity professors will not be providing all of the teaching. The novelty here is that the NCH will be a private institution. The University of Buckingham has been plugging away quietly for the last 30 years or so as the UK’s only private university, it is now getting increasing company. Buckingham has achieved very good student approval ratings, and has been innovative in the way it delivers degrees, managing to offer degree courses at around £18k, so it’s going for a different unique selling point.

Returning to the NCH: as usual for stories involving universities in the UK, a comparison to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge must be made by commentators in the press (here and here, for example). These should be ignored as fatuous and ill-conceived – there’s much more to universities in the UK than Oxford and Cambridge.

I’ve been rather bemused by the reaction to NCH on twitter by the people I follow, they generally have the character of “How dare a private university be created”. This is bizarre to me, the thesis that some big names should endow an institution with prestige is wobbly, however opposing the idea that people should be free to decide how to spend their money on how they attain their degree seems to me rather illiberal. To cover some of the points thrown around:

  1. It’s not a research university. Much is made of the research / teaching link, in my experience Russell Group universities recruit lecturers on the basis of research potential (or achievement) rather than any teaching ability or teaching qualification. Having done both I can’t help thinking that if I’d spent more time learning and doing teaching I’d be better at teaching.
  2. It’ll be like Jamie’s University, a reference to Jamie’s School where celebrities were sent to teach some of our more difficult pupils with hilarious consequences. In a way we already operate this system when we recruit our top-flight researchers to teach.
  3. The professoriate are not ethnically or gender diverse. Well neither are our current institutions!
  4. It teaches to the University of London syllabus, which is unsurprising since that who’s awarding the degree!
  5. It’s narrowly parasitic, in the sense that it is taking advantage of the University of London’s “public” facilities for free. This is contradicted by statements by both the University of London and the NCH, it will pay for facilities it uses.
  6. It’s broadly parasitic. This seems to be based on the idea that people trained with public money should only serve public institutions. Not sure where this puts people trained abroad, coming to the UK, or even worse those trained here and emigrating or myself – trained by public funds and working in a private company. It does sound like indentured slavery to me. I don’t buy the idea that the UK is short of people capable of teaching at degree level.
  7. They professoriate are doing it for money. Take a look at professorial salaries in the current institutions – £80k a year is not at all bad, they’re already doing it for money.
  8. It only teaches humanities, no science. My experience is that outside the Oxbridge college system the intermingling of disciplines in universities is poor, particularly across the great divide.
  9. A GP in the neighbourhood offers complementary medicine.
  10. It’s straightforward evil because private money is involved.

There is still a “to do” list for NCH:

  • they need to finalise their relationship with University of London;
  • they need to fill a large part of the teaching roster;
  • they need to demonstrate the £18k per year price point will attract sufficient students to be economically viable;

I also see it having little wider significance to the teaching of humanities in the UK.

I must admit I quite like the idea of teaching degree level science to students at a 1:10 staff to student ratio without having to worry about all that grant application stuff – when do we get the New College of Science?

In summary, the NCH is a novel proposition based on a premise whose value is to be established – it’s ultimately about how other people wish to spend their money and, in the absence of any obvious harm to others, they should be left to get on with it. We should be welcoming new ideas in providing degree level education: like this initiative, the Open University and the University of Buckingham, not trying to put them down at birth.

Some background on Cambridge Colleges, teaching and tuition fees by me.

Dec 01 2010

Tuition Fees

Since I am repeatedly in the position of discussing tuition fees on twitter, I thought it helpful to put down my thoughts in one place without the 140 character constraint.

I’m in favour of supporting universities, and students, via general taxation because the benefits of university education are public: they benefit all of us. I, along with many others, benefited directly from a free university education 20 years ago. I, along with other people and companies, currently benefit from university trained lawyers, nurses, doctors, engineers and so forth, regardless of my own education. I believe that the higher education system should be reformed to separate teaching and research, and also that we should consider all post-18 training in the context of any reforms to university education i.e. we should not distinguish between plumbers and physicists – they are equally valuable. As I watched water freely flowing from a burst pipe last winter, I strongly believed the former more valuable than the later.

The Liberal Democrats have been very tied up over tuition fees because they signed a pledge to vote against tuition fees, largely it has been asserted that the pledge on fees indicates that it takes priority over all other manifesto pledges. In retrospect it would have been wise not to make such a pledge which could so easily invite such a distinction. In their defence I think it illustrates that LibDem MPs did not anticipate fully finding themselves in Coalition government, unsurprising given the last 60 years of elections. Nick Clegg did attempt to persuade the party to scrap this pledge towards the end of 2009, which would have been a politically wise move. It’s worth noting that the LibDems could fulfil their pledge to the letter if they were in opposition, or in a looser electoral pact, in neither of these cases would they be able to influence the policy of the government so their opposition would be entirely decorative. No doubt many believe that LibDems should have given up Coalition government on this issue, that would have been stupid and pointless.

Politically I believe the appropriate response to not being able to fulfil the pledge is to say that the LibDems are sorry they did not receive a sufficient electoral mandate to enable them to fulfil this pledge and other manifesto pledges in coalition government. I note that more experienced government parties, such as Labour, have found it easy to brazenly ignore their pre-election pledges on tuition fees, twice, without little protest from the Labour dominated National Union of Students.

The discussion on tuition fees is made in a context where, in Liam Byrne’s words “there is no money”, all of the major Westminster parties proposed to address a large deficit mainly by making cuts to government spending, rather than raising taxation. In light of this, and the Browne report, making a bid for even flat central funding in the higher education sector was always going to be an uphill struggle.

I estimated previously that tuition fees could be replaced by an increase of 2p on basic rate tax, or 8p on higher rate tax and the Greens have proposed 4p on corporation tax to fund higher education. Those are tax increases of 10%, 20% and 15% respectively.  Clearly combinations of these three elements would also work. However, it must be recognised that higher education will always be in competition with other claims on the public purse. If you had £7bn to spend would higher education be your first priority? Or would it be schools, benefits, hospitals or tax cuts?

The scheme proposed by the Coalition does shift paying for university education further from general taxation. However, I believe Vince Cable has done a fair job of adding LibDemery to the Browne report, commissioned by Labour. In particular covering part-time education, capping tuition fees, and attempting to make repayment progressive. The principle difference to a pure graduate tax is that a tuition fee is stated, if not paid up front. A large number of people seem keen to imply that tuition fees will be payable up front, which they are not, and simultaneously claim that poorer students will be put off applying – perhaps because they have been repeatedly told fees will be payable up front.

As for what LibDem MPs should do when presented with the relevant parliamentary bill. It’s quite clear that backbench LibDem MPs should abstain, those that vote against are free to do so but should suffer the consequences in terms of party discipline. Government ministers are in a less clear position, the Coalition agreement does allow for them to abstain, however particularly in Vince Cable’s case, where he was heavily involved in developing the proposed legislation and feels happy with the results, it seems to me he must vote in favour – anything else just looks strange. There is a logic for all Liberal Democrat government ministers voting for the tuition fee proposals, this would be the case in a simple, one-party majority government.

In a coalition government, the policy of the component parties is not the same thing as the policy of the government. I tentatively believe the LibDems should retain an ambition to fund higher education from general taxation, I struggle to see how this policy will be implemented in the next 10 years but I do not feel this should rule out LibDems holding it as a policy. I believe, in future, the LibDems should avoid, like the plague, making pledges in the form that they made on tuition fees. They should also apply a disclaimer to their manifesto that they will negotiate to implement what they can from the manifesto but only in majority government will they pledge to deliver all policies.

Oct 01 2010

Regulation and reward

This post is stimulated by an exchange on twitter as to why we are bothered about bankers being paid stacks, whilst seemingly less worried about football players and entertainers being paid similar amounts. This post fails to address that specific question.

Banks are rich because they handle money and take a little charge at each transaction, also they rent out money which attracts few overheads. Footballers and entertainers are rich because wealthy organisations realise that to sell a football team or a film requires a star. Doctors and lawyers are rich because they have rare skills that people are willing to pay well for, the costs of poor legal advice or poor medical advice are loss of wealth or life, respectively, and their lack becomes rapidly obvious.

Pay does not measure a person’s value. Pay measures how much money an employer believes an employee is worth to them, if the employer is also the employee this judgement may be flawed. In some cases this is easy to determine, in other cases it is not. If I look at the company I work in, higher salary goes with greater responsibility for people and greater budgets. In the case of patent attorneys, who are relatively well paid, then it goes with a marketable skill. Scientists doing science are paid acceptably, the company is clear that they are not paid more because there are not local jobs for scientists which pay better.

We’ve recently gone through repeated rounds of “How much are  you paid compared to the Prime Minister”, exclusively directed at other public sector workers. This is ridiculous. It’s usually inaccurate as well: the typical figure quoted for the Prime Ministers salary is £142,500; however he will also receive an MP’s salary of £65,738. In addition to this he has use of an apartment in central London at Number 10 and a country house, Chequers. As Tony Blair has demonstrated, the Prime Minister can also expect substantial financial rewards on leaving the position, through speaking fees, directorships and so forth that are based largely on their position of former prime minister (see here and here). The Prime Minister is also entitled to receive half of his salary as pension after he has left office, although Gordon Brown waived this payment.

People make the money they can under the situations they find themselves. I’m sure we’ll all argue that that’s not we’d do personally but let’s assume that we’re all special. Do you own up if you’re under-charged or you receive more change than you deserve or if the electrician offers you a lower price for cash? Viewed in this light the MP’s expenses scandal is nothing unexceptional. Looking at what they were up to I can easily imagine that we’d find exactly the same distribution of abuses if the expenses scheme where I work were regulated in the same way. A whole bunch of people would claim to the limit in an entirely “legal” way; a few would claim less through incompetence in milking the system and a few would act in ways that were basically fraudulent.

What’s the message of this post?

In terms of regulation: don’t rely on the goodwill of man to obtain a favourable societal outcome. Although that might work for some chunk of the population it won’t for a substantial fraction and so the scheme will fail.

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