Archive for December, 2010

In one (y)ear and out the other

December 31, 2010

Happy New Year!

And just to let you know: I shall refrain from posting an end of year round-up.

I will however, make some predictions for this time next year – in case I am doing a round-up post then.

–  We will all be a year older (On the other hand, considering the alternatives….)

–  I will still feel knackered

–  Mrs Dr Aust will still feel three times as knackered (or more)

–  The kids will still be engaged in their ongoing competition for attention / psychological guerilla war / life-or-death struggle for access to their mothers’ lap

–  Junior Aust will have lost interest in Harry Potter and will instead be telling me the plot of some other complicated book.

–  The house will still be a tip.

–  UK Universities willl still be under financial pressure

–  The NHS will still be the subject of endless daft reforms.

–  I will still be pondering whether it is time to jack in blogging.

–  Mrs Dr Aust will still be mystified as to why I bother blogging at all.

–  The Homeopaths will still be talking utter transcendental raving nonsense.

[a classic recent example is here, which I think should really have the same title as the present post, given the author’s utter imperviousness to reason and reality]

–  So will the rest of the Alternative Medicine Fraternity (be talking nonsense, that is).

–  They will still have the enthusiastic support of Prince Charles, and of various medical grandees who suffer from “knight starvation”, or who crave HRH’s patronage

–  They will still get lots of laughably credulous media coverage, especially in the People’s Medical Journal

Now, I would usually add to this list

“-  I will still be pondering my next series of lectures”

But given what is happening in the Universities, and what is likely to happen this coming year, I’m not at all so sure about that as I would have been even a year ago. One of my best friends and scientific colleagues, who does his own experiments and busily cranks out three papers a year, is taking voluntary early retirement next year.

He is 59.

Several other scientists I know in their mid to late 50s at other Universities have also bailed out. Most of them still had active research programmes and laboratories. One, I hear, has taken a part-time job as a lab technician. Another is teaching physiology in a medical school in Trinidad. Another is writing a book about fishing and working as a fishing guide.

Where that leaves those of us still aboard the Titanic, I mean “in the Universities”, is anyone’s guess.

I guess we will see.

Anyway, in the meantime, and ignoring the dark clouds on the horizon, I thought I should follow the always-excellent Dr Grumble and declare:

“The same procedure as EVERY year!”

Und ein fröhliches neues Jahr!


Concentration – it’s not what you think

December 9, 2010

In which we get a glimpse of the future. And it isn’t very comforting.

Those who have been reading here recently will remember that the last post began:

“In Universities up and down the UK, University managers are considering the implications of the Government’s funding cuts.”

And I also said:

“…most Universities are planning for significant real-terms cuts in the budget, whatever happens on Thursday.”

As the last post discussed, the axe has been seen as likeliest to fall in the arts, where the Govt proposes to cut away all tax-derived funding for teaching. But sciences will not be immune, either.

Universities Minister David Willetts (especially) and Business Secretary Vince Cable have been making a lot of noises about how the increase in direct fees (i.e. paid by the students) will make Universities take teaching more seriously, and “improve teaching’s status”.

I have to say that I have yet to meet a single person who actually works in a University who believes this.

I said as much, just the other day, in a comment on Dr Phil Yerboot’s blog:

“I know the ConDems have been saying that teaching in Univs will be “up-status-ed” by these moves, but it would be fair to say that no-one I know in a Univ who does a primarily teaching-focussed job (like me) thinks their status is actually going to rise, at least as measured by things like promotion and salary increments.

I suspect that it may develop that such things come to matter more for some courses in some institutions, but I can’t see medical schools being among them, for the simple reason that demand for places nationally is likely to always exceed supply. Thus even the medical schools that finish near the bottom in [the National Student Survey results] have no trouble filling the courses. So I wouldn’t see research losing its grip on academic career progression any time soon. Indeed, as the amount of research cash that there is to be given out decreases, the Univs will be getting more, not less, obsessed with grant-getting.”

The last sentence there is the key. One hears a lot of talk in research-intensive Universities these days about the need to “disinvest” in “less than excellent research”. Another word one hears a lot is “concentration” – which is a euphemism for what you do by “disinvesting”.

Now, over the 25 years I have worked in UK Universities it has always been true that the individuals most likely to be shed in University voluntary redundancy campaigns – and I’ve lived through at least a half dozen – are academics in the 50+ age range with primarily teaching “portfolios”. These people do not boost the research profile, goes the argument, and you can always get someone cheaper to teach the class – or you can not replace them at all, and simply make everyone who is left take on a bit more teaching.

What is new in the ConDem world is that relatively less profitable areas of research are set for the same treatment. That is, people with active labs, and probably PhD students, and possibly even grants, are going to be in the cross-hairs too.

The last time this was true was when I first came into academia; the Thatcher years of the 80s, much invoked lately by pundits seeking parallels with the current cuts.

When this kind of thing comes along, the individual character of institutions and their bosses comes to the fore. Some are more aggressive about “getting ahead of the game”, others less. Some simply opt for a voluntary redundancy scheme and hope enough people sign up to cut the wage bill by an acceptable degree. Others, especially now, will see it as a chance for “radical restructuring” – or,  in the new vocabulary, “concentration”.

Among all UK Universities, I would have said that Imperial College London  is the one that has historically thought and behaved the most like a business. Early import of management practises borrowed from business, takeovers, attempts at major mergers (like the aborted one with UCL) etc etc. You can also see it in their choice of VCs/Principals and where they come from – ex-business honchos (like Richard Sykes, ex Glaxo) rather than ex-academics.

When I offered the above opinion of Imperial on a medical blog recently, I was chided by blogger Sam, who I suspect has had children attending Imperial. You can read the full exchange there if you are interested. Sam stressed Imperial’s commitment to “enterprise and entrpreneurialism”, which I think is true. I pointed to its reputation among academics for being a pretty hard-nosed employer, and fonder than most UK Universities of restructings and redundancies.

And now today I understand that a whole subsection of plant scientists are Imperial are set for the chop. There is an article about this from the Imperial College students’ paper here, and a letter from an Emeritus Professor – I’m guessing the former head of the threatened grouping – can be found here.

You will perhaps note with interest what he says about teaching, and things other than research in general.

I wonder if Messrs Willetts and Cable are following?

And finally, I am feeling a bit like Cassandra. In one of my responses to Sam I wrote that:

“The answer may well be that Imperial is a very good place to be a high-flying academic, but not a very good one to be an average academic. But all Universities actually need (perhaps slightly better than) average academics too.”

And I also said something else:

“Of course, I suspect the Conservative Govt would likely regard [Imperial] as a model”

So perhaps David and Vince will be paying attention after all.

For I  fear that what is happening at Imperial is the shape of things to come elsewhere.

Universities need arts as well as science

December 6, 2010

In which Dr Aust notes that scientists, on the whole, do not think that Universities should only have science in them.

In Universities up and down the UK, University managers are considering the implications of the Government’s funding cuts.

All right all right… I KNOW we haven’t had the Parliamentary vote on raising tuition fees yet (coming this Thursday). And I also know that, in Dr Aust’s University and in many other comparable ones, the senior brains trust is perhaps hoping that they will get to charge the students a much-increased fee which will replace the lost direct funding. I know that.

But, as many people have already noted, the cuts in the direct funding are already written into the Treasury’s spreadsheets.

And most Universities are planning for significant real-terms cuts in the budget, whatever happens on Thursday.

Anyway… where was I?

Oh yes.

In Universities up and down the UK, University managers are considering the implications of the Government’s funding cuts.

In particular, the near-total cut of direct teaching funding for arts and many languages has people predicting that Universities will cut whole departments. The Arts Faculties are definitely nervous –and who can blame them.

Let me give you an example: I heard of one University where the science faculty declined to even circulate an announcement about the “Science is Vital “ campaign – the reason widely believed to be that the bosses didn’t want to send the University’s Arts Faculty a signal that scientists thought only science was important. Not that scientists DO think that – they don’t, on the whole – but the arts and humanities people are generally thought to be so twitchy that a “wrong signal” might spread mass panic. The “goodbye arts” idea is certainly widely prevalent among academics gossiping in places like the Times Higher Education comments threads.

Interestingly, the same pressures seem to be abroad in that bastion of the free market in University education, the USA. Conservative governments in the UK have never made any secret of their admiration for the US free market model in all things, and that definitely includes higher education. The fact that some US Universities are shutting arts programmes is thus hardly likely to bolster the confidence of arts academics in the UK.

However, there is at least one eloquent defence of arts programmes doing the rounds, spread from email inbox to twitter to email these last few weeks.

What is interesting about this one is that it comes from a scientist – the eminent enzymologist Greg Petsko, who works at Brandeis University in Massachusetts.

Petsko’s article is entitled “A Faustian Bargain”. In it he eviscerates, in a piece of sustained and forensic mockery, the President of the State University of New York at Albany (SUNY Albany), who announced the closure of several art programmes and departments. Petsko makes many telling points, among them that a broad education, including the arts, is actually useful to scientists. He also manages to skewer the tendency of all too many University leaderships to manage by fait accompli. Here is a sample:

“You did call a [University] “town meeting”, but it was to discuss your plan [for Department closures], not let the university craft its own. And you called that meeting for Friday afternoon on October 1st, when few of your students or faculty would be around to attend…

It seems to me that the way you went about [this] couldn’t have been more likely to alienate just about everybody on campus. In your position, I would have done everything possible to avoid that. I wouldn’t want to end up in the 9th Bolgia (ditch of stone) of the 8th Circle of the Inferno, where the great 14th century Italian poet Dante Alighieri put the sowers of discord. There, as they struggle in that pit for all eternity, a demon continually hacks their limbs apart, just as in life they divided others.

The Inferno is the first book of Dante’s Divine Comedy, one of the great works of the human imagination. There’s so much to learn from it about human weakness and folly. The faculty in your Italian department would be delighted to introduce you to its many wonders – if only you had an Italian department, which now, of course, you don’t.”

Petsko repeatedly uses the final motif –

“- if only you had an XYZ department, which now, of course, you don’t.”

– to skewer the Albany President mercilessly. He then goes on, near the end of the piece, to say the following – which should ring a loud bell with anyone who has been following the proposed changes to teaching funding in the UK Universities:

“As for the argument that the humanities don’t pay their own way, well, I guess that’s true, but it seems to me that there’s a fallacy in assuming that a university should be run like a business. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be managed prudently, but the notion that every part of it needs to be self-supporting is simply at variance with what a university is all about. You seem to value entrepreneurial programs and practical subjects that might generate intellectual property more than you do ‘old-fashioned’ courses of study. But universities aren’t just about discovering and capitalizing on new knowledge; they are also about preserving knowledge from being lost over time, and that requires a financial investment. There is good reason for it: what seems to be archaic today can become vital in the future.”

Petsko then gives two examples, one from science and one from arts and humanities. They are virology, which was in decline in the 1970s until HIV suddenly threw the shortage of virologists into sharp relief and gave the subject a new urgency; and middle eastern languages and culture, which were sparsely taught until the events of September 11th 2001 and their aftermath.

He continues:

“I know one of your arguments is that not every place should try to do everything. Let other institutions have great programs in classics or theater arts, you say; we will focus on preparing students for jobs in the real world. Well, I hope I’ve just shown you that the real world is pretty fickle about what it wants. The best way for people to be prepared for the inevitable shock of change is to be as broadly educated as possible, because today’s backwater is often tomorrow’s hot field. And interdisciplinary research, which is all the rage these days, is only possible if people aren’t too narrowly trained. If none of that convinces you, then I’m willing to let you turn your institution into a place that focuses on the practical, but only if you stop calling it a university and yourself the President of one. You see, the word ‘university’ derives from the Latin ‘universitas’, meaning ‘the whole’. You can’t be a university without having a thriving humanities program. You will need to call SUNY Albany a trade school, or perhaps a vocational college, but not a university. Not anymore.”


Are liberal arts degrees a solution to the UK funding problem?

Petsko makes various references to the liberal arts educational model – common in US undergraduate degrees – where students take a broad spectrum of courses. This is something my friend Prof David Colquhoun has been writing about recently as a possible part solution here in the UK.

In Petsko’s view, these set-ups provide a way that more “profit-making” subjects (or, in the UK context, ones the Govt is still going to provide some teaching funding for) could subsidise subjects which make less money. For instance, if students taking science as their “major” subject were also required to take courses like composition, and/or rhetoric, then you could have people in, for instance, Classics departments whose teaching duties might primarily be teaching rhetoric to non-classics students. There is even a sort of parallel here with “service” teaching in science departments. This is a system, common historically in UK Universities with medical schools, where some people in the science departments mainly teach subjects like physiology or pharmacology to medical and other health science students.

As the cuts have loomed larger, there have been many eloquent defences of both the intrinsic value of the arts, and also of the economic usefulness of subjects other than hard sciences. For instance, Kieron Flanagan recently pointed me to this defence of humanities and social sciences. And there is Stefan Collini’s truly magisterial deconstruction of the Browne Review, on which the Govt’s proposed changes are based, in the London Review of Books here.

However, let’s stick to science and University science teaching – on the basis that one should concentrate on talking about things one knows something about. The central point that I would make, along with Petsko, is that studying science – or, at least, studying for a modern science BSc degree – does not teach you everything that scientists need to know. You might, indeed, get some of the other stuff from things like the arts. Or from literature. Or from reading newspapers. Or from writing, and communicating, about science to non-scientists

And again; as a scientist, I find the argument that a scientific training and education is useful entirely, or even primarily, because it is “vocational” quite flawed. It is a commonplace among me and my scientific colleagues that the primary value of our degree is NOT entirely, or even particularly “vocational”, i.e. in training more scientists. The value lies in training critical thinkers who also happen to be scientists. But training critical thinkers is something that all academic disciplines hopefully do – indeed, I would see it as a key purpose of all Higher Education. I am quite certain the arts and humanities pride themselves on instilling critical thinking, as well as producing “lifelong learners”, and all the other buzzwords.

Finally, there is the question on how the culture of Universities will change, if the arts are hit hard. This was, of course, where we started with Prof Petsko’s satirical tour-de-force. But I will leave the last word to an eminent British scientist and Professor I know, writing in the pages of the Times Higher Education a few months back. His short letter does not have Petsko’s rhetoric, or sustained scorn and humour, but it serves equally to make the point that scientists do not generally think that Universities should only do science:

“…..As with every time new [higher education] “world rankings” are published, I find myself scratching my head.

Am I missing something? Card-carrying professional scientist that I am, it still completely eludes me how institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or the California Institute of Technology (or even our own Imperial College London [1]), which, as far as I know, have absolutely no arts faculties of any size, shape or form, can possibly be considered superior “universities” to the likes of Oxford, Cambridge, the University of California, Berkeley or Yale.

Did someone change what a “university” is while I wasn’t looking?”

To which the answer seems to be:

“No, but the UK coalition government seem to be inclined to give it a try.”

I do hope, myself, that they don’t succeed.


[1] Before Alice Bell tells me off, we should say that Imperial Colege haz duz: see here.

Note: You can find a list of all Petsko’s columns, written for the journal Genome Biology, here – and a link to download a kind of eBook compendium of them (if you are an iPhone/iPod type) is here.

Fox…Chicken Coop.. Contd

December 4, 2010

In which Dr Aust  is still convinced that you couldn’t make it up.  Though there is disagreement as to whether satire is dead, is alive but in intensive care, or has left the building.

Well… it has been a bit silent on the blog here recently, mainly because I have been feeling, as I said to some of my online friends somewhere: “writer’s blocked, sunlight-deprived and winter-torpid”.

So winter-torpid, indeed, that I have been shamefully slow responding to comments on the last post.

[Incidentally, the last blogpost was, I discovered to my surprise, the 100th one since Dr Aust’s Spleen opened for business. True].

One commenter I finally got around to replying to this week was “David Cruise (no relation, honest)”, who was commenting on my incredulity at the idea that the Govt was proposing inviting the fast food giants to be part of the strategy-setting group for tackling obesity.  (And, indeed, the booze conglomerates to be part of the similar set-up for tackling heavy drinking, though I didn’t put that in the original post).

David posted:

“I’m not sure what the ruckus about this story really is about. If it were a campaign of road safety nobody would bat an eyelid if Volvo, Mercedes, Nissan etc. were participating.”

My reply to this is here, should you be interested. But David’s comment did make me have a think about whether I was getting over-exercised about this.

On the whole, though, I don’t think so.

Partly this is because other people in a position to speak with some authority about it seemed, and seem to be saying the same.

For instance, here is a quote about Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, leading liver specialist and until recently president of the Royal College of Physicians, taken from the Guardian:

“[Sir Ian] said he was very concerned by the emphasis on voluntary partnerships with industry. A member of the alcohol responsibility deal network, Gilmore said he had decided to co-operate, but he doubted whether there could be

“a meaningful convergence between the interests of industry and public health since the priority of the drinks industry was to make money for shareholders while public health demanded a cut in consumption”.  …”  (italics added)


A White Paper…  White as in “fresh look”? Or as in “bogroll”?

One notable development, since the original Guardian article I was writing about was published, is that we now have an actual White Paper on Public Health, released at the start of this week, setting out the Government’s ideas.

So has this allayed the fears of people like Sir Ian? And undercut the cynicism of people like me?

I have to say that seems doubtful.

The headline messages of the White Paper (or perhaps the ones the Govt has been keenest to promote) are that public health and health promotion budgets and responsibility will be devolved down to local authorities. and that the money will be ringfenced.

Less prominently featured were that overall there would be less money for public health, the  “responsibility deal partnerships” (as before), and the clear steer that legislation (for instance, to curb sales of cheap booze) would be a last resort – or “vanishingly unlikely under this government”, if you prefer.

The Guardian:

“The Royal College of Physicians, which has always provided strong leadership on public health, said it welcomed a ringfenced budget and the attempt “to bring to the field a much-needed strategic focus and coherence”. But, said its president, Sir Richard Thompson, “the RCP is disappointed by the lack of detail, especially around how to deal with the threats posed by alcohol misuse, obesity and smoking. We wait keenly to see if the promised subsequent strategies will fill in the gaps”.

Which, translated, means, I think: “we are deeply unconvinced, to put it mildly”.

The Guardian goes on:

“[Thompson] warned that it took six years for the last government to realise that voluntary agreements with industry would not necessarily deliver on public health.

“On a whole raft of issues it has been clearly demonstrated that a laissez-faire attitude does not work, either in terms of promoting responsible behaviour among the manufacturers and retailers of potentially harmful products, or in creating an environment that would allow individuals to make healthier choices,” he said.

An example of the latter would be, perhaps, the “Traffic Light” food labelling scheme. This kind of “red light” system was supported by real studies, preferred by consumers in tests, and universally backed by the public health people, the charities that are concerned with the health consequences of things like obesity and diabetes, and the UK Food Standards Agency. However, it was deeply unpopular with the food industry, and  was ultimately killed off by the European Union, an act widely understood to have come after determined lobbying from the industry.

In this context, and given the traditional closeness between big business and the Tory party, Gilmore’s and Thompson’s coded but fairly clear meanings do not inspire one with confidence.

A less carefully phrased take on the White Paper can be found in a recent blog by Andy Cowper, the shoot-from-the-lip editor of the online magazine Health Policy Insight.


Public health White Paper out ahead of schedule; not worth the abbreviated wait

This public health White Paper takes the piss more thoroughly than a phalanx of urinals.

Is there a contest in the DH [Department of Health] for silliest policy of the year?

Its foreword states, “Britain is now the most obese nation in Europe. We have among the worst rates of sexually transmitted infections recorded, a relatively large population of problem drug users and rising levels of harm from alcohol. Smoking alone claims over 80,000 lives every year. Experts estimate that tackling poor mental health could reduce our overall disease burden by nearly a quarter. Health inequalities between rich and poor have been getting progressively worse. We still live in a country where the wealthy can expect to live longer than the poor.

“The dilemma for government is this: it is simply not possible to promote healthier lifestyles through Whitehall diktat and nannying about the way people should live. Recent years have proved that one size-fits-all solutions are no good when public health challenges vary from one neighbourhood to the next. But we cannot sit back while, in spite of all this, so many people are suffering such severe lifestyle-driven ill health and such acute health inequalities.

“We need a new approach that empowers individuals to make healthy choices and gives communities the tools to address their own, particular needs. The plans set out in this White Paper put local communities at the heart of public health. We will end central control and give local government the freedom, responsibility and funding to innovate and develop their own ways of improving public health in their area. There will be real financial incentives to reward their progress on improving health and reducing health inequalities, and greater transparency so people can see the results they achieve.”

Umm. There is a problem with this, which is that other than the stats on ‘Our Unhealthier Nation’ (to coin a phrase), it’s talking, in civil-service-speak, round objects.

A few examples of the more egregious bits of crap:

“…it is simply not possible to promote healthier lifestyles through Whitehall diktat and nannying about the way people should live”. Blatant horseshit. Public health measures that made undeniable and significant impacts include: seatbelt laws, drink-driving laws, the smoking ban. Public health is not solely about using the tax system and legislation to ban things, but both are vital tools in the arsenal.

McDonalds, KFC and Pepsi (or whoever) are not going to do things that meaningfully threaten their core business: the vending of youth-branded convenience, high-energy or high-fat products. It is Pollyanna-ish optimism to think otherwise.”


More in the same vein here. It is a bracing read.

And, having read it, I don’t think satire is getting off the ventilator any time soon. Unless the lure of a Big Mac and large fries becomes too great.


PS  As I was (finally) getting this ready to post, I heard the re-run of The Now Show on Radio 4, and was interested to hear the team offering their own take on Health Minister Andrew Lansley’s public health ideas.  On the plus side, they have found something to satirise. On the minus side – at least for public health – they seem to see things rather the same way I do.   You can listen to the programme here (for the next 7 days; the relevant bit is at 13 min 40 sec in).