I’m a scientist… get me out of here!

Hear from Dr Sanjib Bhakta about taking part in a new initiative to engage young people in science, and to give them a taste of the day-to-day life of a scientist.san1Dr Sanjib Bhakta from Birkbeck’s Department of Biological Sciences recently took part in ‘I’m a Scientist’, an initiative designed to engage young people in science and the realities of the lives of scientists.

Students from schools across the country were able to log on and ask questions on any particular areas of the scientists’ research (or life) that they were curious about, then vote for their favourite scientists to win a £500 prize.

Dr Bhakta was one of the winners, and will be donating his prize money to a local school, and helping them to organise a workshop for World TB Day. We talked to him about the experience:

Why did you want to take part in this initiative?
I took part in this science outreach programme because I was keen to know how the young community generally perceive careers in science and the specific challenges of drug resistance. I personally envisage antibiotic resistance beyond a current global health emergency, having serious impact upon our future generations due to the limited resources and unwise exploitation of the current pool of drugs.

Why is it important to engage young people in science?
It is extremely crucial for school children to engage and partake in scientific research to solve local or global real-life problems in long term. It is also important for scientists to step out of their lab and spread the word about how enjoyable, rewarding and exciting science is as a career.

What were the most interesting questions you were asked?
Over these two weeks, I thoroughly enjoyed interacting with the participating schools and sharing a typical day in my life. However, I must say it was much more easier to answer ‘what do you enjoy most in your job?’ than it was to answer ‘what was the worst moment you faced in the lab?’ or ‘why drugs are so addictive?’!

imascientistWhat would you like to say to the students who took part?
I would like to thank all the participating students, teachers and moderators for this opportunity to interact, and to share my personal and professional life, and our lab research with you! It has been such great fun.

After chatting with you all, I got some fresh ideas on how to deal with this emerging world health concern of drug resistance and also am reassured that when all your intensely inquisitive minds and extended hands are joined together, drug resistance (like many other health and well-being emergencies on earth) will be a trivial challenge for us to overcome. Please don’t let the bugs win and ruin anyone’s life, at our home, in our neighbourhood or anywhere in the world!

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A day in the life of… Dr James Hammond

As part of Science Week 2017, Dr James Hammond from the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Birkbeck gives an insight into a day in the life of a scientist.

I get up, usually rudely woken by my little boy and battle the northern line to Birkbeck. When I am in the field I get up early, normally just before sunrise so we can be on the road as soon as it is light. There is always a lot of ground to cover, so maximising daylight hours is key.

My research…focuses on using energy released by earthquakes as a probe to image inside the Earth. Much like a doctor uses x-ray energy to image inside your body, we can do a similar thing using sound waves that are released by earthquakes to understand what the Earth is made of.  I do this on a large scale, trying to image depths of hundreds of kilometres and understand what drives plate tectonics. I am particularly interested in volcanoes and how magma is generated, stored and transported before an eruption. Obviously volcanoes are not a big concern in the UK, so my research involves collaborating with people all over the world to understand what makes volcanoes work.

I teach… geophysics and scientific computing to geology and planetary science students in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences.

My typical day… involves heading in to work and a mixture of research, processing seismic data from beneath some of the areas I am working on (Ethiopia, Eritrea, North Korea, China, Chile), meeting with PhD students to discuss their research or with colleagues to discuss new proposals. If I am teaching I will spend time preparing for that. In the field, there is no such thing as a typical day. In Chile, we were accommodated by a cowboy in the mountains (including dinner at his house, with his horse joining us at the table), off-road driving for eight hours to deploy a station near an active volcano or white-water rafting to access a site for a seismometer deployment.

I became a scientist… mainly due to some inspirational teachers. At school my geography teacher, Ashley Hale instilled a fascination with the physical world. He was also an explorer, heading off to climb mountains in Africa, South America and Asia and updating us as he went. Some of that clearly rubbed off and I have been lucky enough to have a job where I can combine exploration of the world with an exploration of how it works. However, I have to admit that my PhD involved spending six weeks in the Seychelles. A life in science seemed a good idea after that.

My greatest professional achievement to date… has to be leading one of the first ever collaborations between the West and North Korea. This collaboration is focussed on a large volcano (Mt. Paektu) on the border of China and North Korea. We recently published papers showing the first images of the Earth beneath the Korean side of the volcano and also estimated the amount of gases that may have been released (a lot) when it erupted in 946AD.  The work is ongoing despite all the recent political tension and shows that science has the ability to build collaborations during even the most strident political tensions.

My favourite part of the job… is the travel. As well as the Seychelles I have spent time in Mexico, Canada, Montserrat (a small island close to Antigua in the Caribbean), Japan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, China, North Korea and most recently Chile. The best bit is the chance to work with scientists from all these countries, learning about geology all over the world and learning their culture too. Also, volcanoes are in some of the most interesting and hard to get to parts of the world, so I get to satisfy the explorer part of me too.

After work… it is normally back to my family and a glass of wine or beer to relax.

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A day in the life of…Dr Emma Meaburn

As part of Science Week 2017, Dr Emma Meaburn from the Department of Psychological Sciences at Birkbeck gives an insight into a day in the life of a scientist. 

I get up at …  6am (or 6.30 am, if I am lucky), when I am woken by my children. The next two hours are a whirl of breakfast, loudness, finding lost shoes, cajoling, cuddles and probably some light bribery before I leave the house at 8.15am. I drop the youngest child off at nursery on my way to the train station, and typically arrive at Birkbeck by about 9.30am.

My research … looks at the genetic contributions to individual differences in psychological traits and disorders. We all differ, and I am interested in how these differences are influenced by differences in our DNA and how the information stored in our DNA is used.

I teach on … the BSc Psychology degree program, where I co-convene and co-teach a large first year ‘Research Methods’ module that provides psychology students with a basic grounding in the principles of experimental design and statistics. Undergraduate students can sometimes be surprised that research methods form a core element of the program, and we work hard to make it accessible and relevant to the students’ current knowledge and career aspirations. I also teach on the final year “Genetics and Psychology” optional module. This is always enjoyable as I get to talk about my own research findings and that of my colleagues, and expose the students to the newest methods and insights from the field of behavior genetics.

I am also responsible for … quite a few things!  Broadly, my job falls into three categories; research, teaching and service.  As part of my research activities I am responsible for running a lab and the admin that comes with it; writing ethics applications; PhD student supervision, training and mentorship; securing funding (writing and revising grant applications); dissemination of my research via conference attendance, giving invited talks, publishing my work in peer reviewed articles and public engagement activities. Behavior genetics is a fast-paced field, and I stay informed about new developments and methods as best I can by reading the literature, speaking to colleagues and collaborators, organizing and attending conferences and (occasionally) training workshops.

When I’m teaching, I will be lecturing (typically on two evenings per week); developing or updating content for modules (slides, worksheets and notes); marking assessed work; writing exam papers; writing model answers; supervising teaching assistants; answering student emails; writing letters of recommendation; designing lab experiments; acting as a personal tutor for undergraduates (roughly 10-15 students); attending exam board and module convener meetings; and being assessed on my teaching.

I also peer review grants and manuscripts; supervise undergraduate (about four per year) and graduate student research projects (about two per year); sit on the academic advisory board and postgraduate research committee, and I am a member of the management committee of the University of London Centre for Educational Neuroscience, which provides a unified research environment for translational neuroscience.

…or I do none of the above because nursery have called and my child has a temperature, and I have to go and collect him (three out of five days last week!)

My typical day … doesn’t really exist! One of the best aspects of academic life is that each day is different.

If I am teaching in the evening, typically I will meet with my PhD students (or project students) in the morning where we discuss the past week’s progress, go over new results and edits of conference abstracts and manuscript drafts. Then there is at least an hour of email and admin tasks such as paying invoices, tracking lost lab orders, or hurriedly writing a PhD application, before heading to the gym for an hour of ‘me’ time. I’ll then undo all my hard work by grabbing a hearty lunch from one of the many fantastic food places around Birkbeck, before attending a departmental seminar or journal club. That leaves me with a couple more hours to squeeze in research and research admin before preparing for the evening’s class. Once the class is over (at about 8.30pm), I head back to my office for 30 minutes of emails before catching the tube home. All being well, I’ll get home around 9.30/10pm, check on my (mostly) sleeping family, and do 30 minutes of life chores before collapsing into bed.

I became a scientist… because I had always loved science and by my late teens I had developed a keen interest in what was then known as the “Nature Versus Nurture’ debate. I think this interest was sparked by my own experiences and reflections as a fostered child (I was separated from my biological parents at six months of age), and when I finally studied genetics as an undergraduate student in human biology at King’s College London, my mind was made up – I was going to be a geneticist!

My greatest professional achievement… has been establishing myself as a research active academic and developing my own research program, in a field where academic positions at renowned institutions like Birkbeck are few and far between and competition is fierce. I get to work in a research field that is dynamic, challenging and interesting, and in a supportive, autonomous and friendly environment.

 

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A day in the life of…. Dr Anthony Roberts

As part of Science Week 2017, Dr Anthony Roberts from the Department of Biological Sciences at Birkbeck gives an insight into a day in the life of a scientist. 

I get up… bright and early with our son. He’s two, and has yet to learn the art of the lie in. Depending on whether I am doing the nursery drop-off, and on the temperament of the Victoria Line, I usually arrive at Birkbeck between 8.00 and 9.00am. The first thing I do is switch on the lights in the laboratory, and think about what experiments the day will hold.

My research investigates… walking proteins. These molecules have legs one hundred million time smaller than ours, and walk along filaments inside the individual cells that make up our body. It has emerged that they are important for human health: their dysfunction is associated with a number of currently untreatable diseases, such as neurodegeneration. The ability of these proteins to walk correctly is vital, because they transport key materials in the cell to the right place at the right time. We want to know how this works at the molecular level.

I teach… mainly to students doing research projects in the laboratory. This is exciting, because it is teaching while attempting to discover something new at the same time. I also lecture to MRes and PhD students on the main techniques we use in our research, particularly microscopes that enable one to view individual molecules.

My typical day… has no predictable pattern, and this variety is one of my favourite parts of my job. Some days will be spent mostly in the laboratory, for example purifying the proteins that we study. This work has a pace not dissimilar to cooking, with multiple stages and incubations – although alas less delicious smells! Others will be on the microscopes, or analysing data. As the lab grows, I spend less time doing experiments myself, and more time talking to others about their data, and preparing grants, research papers, and seminars. The data we obtain from our research is very visual: thinking about ways to extract and present the important insights is a nice balance to these literary tasks.

I became a scientist… in a somewhat roundabout way. As a child, I wanted to be an artist. This interest in the visual remains a strong part of who I am. Later, I became curious about biology, and enjoyed the hard answers that maths and chemistry could provide. I did an undergraduate course in Biochemistry, really engaging with it as it transitioned from memorising facts to solving problems. In hindsight, it makes sense that I gravitated to what I work on now, as it combines all of these elements, but a number of fortuitous events made it happen. Chief among them were training with terrific mentors during my PhD and postdoctoral studies: Stan Burgess, Peter Knight and Samara Reck-Peterson.

My greatest professional achievement to date has been… obtaining the Sir Henry Dale Fellowship from the Wellcome Trust and Royal Society, which enabled me to start the laboratory at Birkbeck. The scale and flexibility of its support are a great help towards realising research ideas.

After work… it is nice to do something completely different. We like finding new places to eat and drink around where we live in east London, cooking, music, art and design, and relaxing.

My favourite part of my job is… the first glimpse of a new discovery, to be shared with lab members, students, and other scientists.

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Do we still need public research funding?

This article was written by Dr Federica Rossi from Birkbeck’s Department of Management and Professor Aldo Geuna from the University of Torino

r-and-dThe last few decades have witnessed the increasing privatisation of the public sphere – even in the realms of education and research, which, until recently, almost exclusively pertained to the public sector. Evidence from Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries shows that the slow but steady increase in private sector Research & Development (R&D) expenditure as share of GDP has been accompanied by a parallel drop in public R&D expenditure since the 1980s. A mere handful of economies buck the trend, such as that of South Korea. This has recently been referred to by Birkbeck’s Professor Daniele Archibugi and Dr Andrea Filippetti in their new paper as the “retreat of public research”. In the most advanced economies this retreat might seem, at face value, to support the claim that public intervention in research is unnecessary, if not completely counterproductive to sustain technological progress.

Most economists agree that public research funding is crucial for economic growth…

The mainstream view that public funding of basic research is necessary for technological progress to occur, relies on two, intertwined arguments that were first put forward in the 1940s and 1950s, and have been reiterated in various forms ever since. The first is the argument, which is embraced by scientists but originated in management schools, that innovation is a linear process whereby basic research discoveries pave the way for subsequent applied research and technological development. The second is the argument put forward by economists that basic research is characterised by large externalities and extreme uncertainty in the timing and nature of its outcomes, which make the computation of returns extremely difficult and discourages private companies from investing. Basic research outcomes tend to be very abstract and codifiable; this vulnerability to copying further discourages private investment in their production.

Together, these arguments suggest that, in order to sustain a rate of technological progress that is sufficient to drive continuous growth, the economy needs to produce a continuous amount of basic research outcomes, which would not occur in the absence of public funding.

…but some think that public research funding is unnecessary…

Those calling for a reduction in government funding of science have, in turn, put forth several arguments to oppose the mainstream view. The first is that the linear model of innovation is not only too simplistic, but wrongly organised: throughout history, technological developments have more often than not originated from efforts to solve practical problems without prior scientific basis. Rather than underpinning technological development, basic research has a habit of following promising technological developments. As Matt Ridley interprets in a recent article on the Wall Street Journal: “The steam engine owed almost nothing to the science of thermodynamics, but the science of thermodynamics owed almost everything to the steam engine.” The second is that basic research effectively crowds out private funding. In the absence of public funding, private companies would still invest in basic research to further consolidate their knowledge of how previously invented technologies actually work, which assists further innovation, and would want to do so in-house, rather than free ride on competitors’ basic research outcomes, to generate tacit knowledge which would give them a competitive advantage over rivals. Indeed, free from the crowding-out effect of public funding, private companies might have invested in basic research, which may have yielded more productive outcomes than the basic research funded by government.

…The middle ground: public research funding for the knowledge economy

As  is the case for most complex social phenomena, the nature of technological progress is probably best understood by combining different theoretical perspectives. Suggesting that all technological developments would have occurred in the absence of prior scientific knowledge is just as simplistic as the opposing argument – that basic research is always the first step of a linear innovation process. While the rich history of technology can be mined for examples of each of these extremes, most innovations tell a complex story of coevolution between basic research and technological development, where both private and public research funding play a role. For example, Dosi and Nelson (2010) have suggested that, while the development of the steam engine in the early 18th century preceded scientific developments in thermodynamics and the theory of heat, this technology was indeed built on the foundations of earlier scientific developments (the understanding of the properties of atmospheric pressure investigated by Torricelli, Boyle and Hooke in the 17th and 18th century). This coevolution between science and technology would explain why the steam engine was not invented in China, where all its components (pistons, cylinders, etc,) were known and employed.

Basic science and technological development coevolve, and the problem begins to look like the chicken and egg situation. Nonetheless, there are several compelling reasons for continued public funding of basic research. On the one hand, private companies in the main cannot commit to continued funding of a research programme in the long or even medium term; not only because they tend to respond to short term investor concerns, but also because their very survival is not guaranteed. Even if some companies committed to keep their lines of inquiry open in the absence of early promising research outcomes (something which few companies appear willing to do) there is no guarantee that that programme would not be destroyed by business failure – an increasingly frequent and rapid occurrence even in larger corporations. Public funding provides a buffer to research exploration, which opens up to society a range of research avenues that simply would not occur in its absence, and whose results may be reaped many decades later, benefitting the economy in unexpected ways. Sometimes, basic research is so distant in time and origins from the innovations it contributes to, that such contribution goes unnoticed; current developments in text mining and even speech recognition technology owe a huge debt to many decades of obscure publicly funded research carried out in linguistics departments but this contribution is hardly something that springs to mind when thinking of Siri or Alexa bots. On the other hand, as Archibugi and Filippetti point out, private companies and governments have different incentives in the dissemination of research outcomes: private companies as a rule will give away as little as possible or will only give away knowledge under certain conditions, which again limits the range of research avenues that can be explored starting from existing research.

What the knowledge economy needs is a functioning ecosystem where both public and private research contribute to the creation of new knowledge, its dissemination and commercial exploitation, and create the conditions for further knowledge production. The better interconnected the two spheres, the better the system can promote an efficient division of labour between privately funded and publicly funded research, and the better it can discourage the duplication of research effort. Moreover, the better it can ensure that knowledge can be freely disseminated as much as possible without hurting commercial interests. The economic impact of the “retreat of public research” might not be negative if it has been accompanied by the growth of a more interconnected research system in which public research has become a more efficient complement to private research. However, this is a rather unexplored hypothesis at the macro level – and even if this were the case, it would still not imply that the latter can replace the former. Public research continues to play a vital role in the knowledge economy.

Professor Aldo Geuna and Dr Federica Rossi are the authors of The University and the Economy Pathways to Growth and Economic Development Cheltenham: Edward Elgar (2015). Now available in paperback.

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TEF, REF, QR, deregulation: thoughts on Jo Johnson’s HE talk

This post was contributed by Dr Martin Eve, senior lecturer in Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities. It was originally posted on Dr Eve’s personal blog on Wed 9 September. It was then reblogged by Times Higher Education.

Jo_Johnson_at_British_Museum

Universities minister, Jo Johnson

I feel fairly drained today reading the speech given by the minister for Higher Education, Jo Johnson.

The inferences I make about the speech are that:

  1. There’s a massive coming wave of shake-ups to HE finance, both research and teaching, implemented through a Teaching Excellence Framework
  2. Critiques of the REF have backfired as they are used in a deft rhetorical move to cut state funding for research through QR

This is all just my reading of the speech. It doesn’t represent my employer’s views and it is speculative.

On TEF

Even while decrying REF as “bureaucratic and burdensome to academics”, Jo Johnson wants a TEF. There’s so much talk of “deregulation” in the speech, even while the crux of it is to introduce a massive top-down regulatory mechanism. The core of TEF is financial, though, regardless of what Johnson says about “teaching quality”. It is to be incentivized by allowing institutions to raise their tuition fees:

there will be financial incentives behind the TEF, with those offering high quality teaching able to increase fees with inflation

Another way of putting this is from the flip side: there will be real-term cuts to the funding of institutions that do not fare well under this system. Since assessment will presumably be relative from a single budgetary pot, this is a zero-sum game in which some universities are to be slowly de-funded.

There’s also the problem of private providers for the government. These were fairly disastrous before. TEF gives a way to control this expansion, though. It seems that the government wants to decouple fee increases from social mobility while at the same time controlling the expansion of private provision according to teaching metrics. The end point looks likely to be to cut all public support for teaching outside the fee loan system and to squeeze the loan system to drive up competition (while getting rid of social mobility regulators like OFFA). Lots of universities won’t survive that kind of move, but will be replaced by new teaching providers.

On REF and Research Councils

The current modelled spending cuts in BIS are unlikely to leave research funding untouched. The Minister for HE used a deft rhetorical elision to couple academics’ critiques of the REF with removal of state funding for teaching and research:

“To deliver our ambitions, we also plan to reform the higher education and research system architecture. […] Our regulatory regime is still based upon a system where government directly funds institutions rather than reflecting the fact that students are the purchasers. […] It is also clear to me that there are many in the sector demanding a process for assessing the quality of scholarly output that is less bureaucratic and burdensome to academics.”

These critiques, of course, were of REF as a reductive quantifying procedure. They were not meant to justify the removal of QR, just the removal of the process by which it was assigned. Be careful what you wish for. REF was the way that QR was saved. Regardless of whether you like REF or not (I hate the procedure, but want universities to continue to receive state funding for research), QR gives institutions the freedom to allow their researchers and teachers to fulfil both roles. It is naive to think that this government would continue to fund universities in this way without a procedure like REF. So, I don’t like REF, but I accept it as the pragmatic/political compromise negotiated with a centre-right government to continue funding. This is my view of a messy political compromise, not my pure ideal.

The problem is that there are now several different ideologies competing here and the government must weigh its alleigance to each before deciding what route to pursue to achieve its aims. While Johnson says that he is “committed to the maintenance of dual funding support”, i.e. Research Councils and QR, something has to give. So, the ideologies competing are:

  1. An ideology of cost-effectiveness
  2. An ideology of deregulation
  3. An ideology of strategy

REF/QR is cost-effective compared to the Research Councils:

The REF assessed the outputs and impact of HEI research supported by many types of funders. In the context of £27bn total research income from public sources in the UK over a six-year period, the £246M total cost for REF 2014 is less than 1%. In the context of dual support, the total cost amounts to roughly 2.4% of the £10.2 billion in research funds expected to be distributed by the UK’s funding bodies in the six years, 2015-16 to 2020-21. This compares with an estimate of the annual cost to the UK HE community for peer review of grant applications of around £196M or around 6% of the funds distributed by the Research Councils.

So there’s a drive to maintain REF and QR for cost effectiveness.

But REF/QR has been massively slammed by academics as “bureaucratic and burdensome”, so it doesn’t fit the ideology of deregulation (however contradictory). Furthermore, REF/QR can’t be directed, as can Research Council funding; institutions can spend it on whatever research projects they like.

So the government has to work out what it really wants. If there is to be state funding for research, does it value a cost-effective route (REF.); a de-regulated route (maybe Research Councils? Or just cut REF but keep QR? Yeah, right.); or a route that it can control (Research Councils)?

Finally, the Research Council rejection rate is massive. Only a small number of applications go through. If we’re all forced to apply for funding via this route because there is no QR, then this will get even worse. Research funding will only be available at a very small number of places as concentration rises. This protects the golden triangle while exposing everyone else.

In conclusion

Johnson said, in his speech, that he has “no target for the ‘right’ size of the higher education system”. However, we can infer from this that he does not believe the size to be “right” at the moment because of all the changes he wants to make. Indeed, he said that we need changes to ensure “that more [people going to university] does not mean worse [quality of education]”, which presumably is what he thinks happens at the moment. I speculate, from reading this talk:

  • that the government continues its policy of protecting prestigious institutions while sharpening severe financial competition among all others.
  • that TEF is a financial move, not a teaching quality move, even if you think that teaching should be better rewarded in the academy.
  • that real-term de-funding of existing institutions through TEF will be the way in which the expansion of private providers is regulated.
  • that as long as the student loan system stands, the government can have it both ways: it can claim that it does not fund universities and that this is private income, even while having a regulatory say over them because taxpayers “underwrite” the RAB charge.
  • that REF/QR and the Research Councils are up for debate but the government is to use academics’ calls for its abolition as a justification to cut QR.
  • that there are several competing motivations for the government’s actions in the research funding space that it must weigh.
  • that the stability of operation for many institutions is to be upset.
  • that the talk of de-regulation here is only possible by the introduction of massive new regulatory bodies.
Dr Martin Eve

Dr Martin Eve

None of this is new, of course. I haven’t here, also, gone into liberal humanist defences of the university, of which we will surely see many in the light of this talk. I find myself supportive of the goal to get a more diverse student body – I can’t argue with that, just the methods by which it might be achieved. For instance, while there are talks of supporting those who don’t go through a “traditional route” to HE, the government’s recent policies on funding led to a period of severe financial difficulties for institutions like Birkbeck that cater exclusively for those non-traditional students. So, again, the rhetoric is confused.

But now we have it from the Minister and I suspect we will see action on the ground very soon.

Find out more

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