Search Results for: lessig

Retirement and the Curse of Lord Acton

by reestheskin on 10/12/2020

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According to a helpful app on my phone that I like to think acts as a brake on my sloth, I retired 313 days ago. One of the reasons I retired was so that I could get some serious work done; I increasingly felt that professional academic life was incompatible with the sort of academic life I signed up for. If you read my previous post, you will see this was not the only reason, but since I have always been more of an academic than clinician, my argument still stands.

Over twenty years ago, my friend and former colleague, Bruce Charlton, observed wryly that academics felt embarrassed — as though they had been caught taking a sly drag round the back of the respiratory ward — if they were surprised in their office and found only to be reading. No grant applications open; no Gantt charts being followed; no QA assessments being written. Whatever next.

I thought about retirement from two frames of reference. The first, was about finding reasons to leave. After all, until I was about 50, I never imagined that I would want to retire. I should therefore be thrilled that I need not be forced out at the old mandatory age of 65. The second, was about finding reasons to stay, or better still, ‘why keep going to work?’. Imagine you had a modest private income (aka a pension), what would belonging to an institution as a paid employee offer beyond that achievable as a private scholar or an emeritus professor? Forget sunk cost, why bother to move from my study?

Many answers straddle both frames of reference, and will be familiar to those within the universities as well as to others outwith them. Indeed, there is a whole new genre of blogging about the problems of academia, and employment prospects within it (see alt-acor quit-lit for examples). Sadly, many posts are from those who are desperate to the point of infatuation to enter the academy, but where the love is not reciprocated. There are plenty more fish in the sea, as my late mother always advised. But looking back, I cannot help but feel some sadness at the changing wheels of fortune for those who seek the cloister. I think it is an honourable profession.

Many, if not most, universities are very different places to work in from those of the 1980s when I started work within the quad. They are much larger, they are more corporatised and hierarchical and, in a really profound sense, they are no longer communities of scholars or places that cherish scholarly reason. I began to feel much more like an employee than I ever used to, and yes, that bloody term, line manager, got ever more common. I began to find it harder and harder to characterise universities as academic institutions, although from my limited knowledge, in the UK at least, Oxbridge still manage better than most 1. Yes, universities deliver teaching (just as Amazon or DHL deliver content), and yes, some great research is undertaken in universities (easy KPIs, there), but their modus operandi is not that of a corpus of scholars and students, but rather increasingly bends to the ethos of many modern corporations that self-evidently are failing society. Succinctly put, universities have lost their faith in the primacy of reason and truth, and failed to wrestle sufficiently with the constraints such a faith places on action — and on the bottom line.

Derek Bok, one of Harvard’s most successful recent Presidents, wrote words to the effect that universities appear to always choose institutional survival over morality. There is an externality to this, which society ends up paying. Wissenschaft als Beruf is no longer in the job descriptions or the mission statements2.

A few years back via a circuitous friendship I attended a graduation ceremony at what is widely considered as one of the UK’s finest city universities3. This friend’s son was graduating with a Masters. All the pomp was rolled out and I, and the others present, were given an example of hawking worthy of an East End barrow boy (‘world-beating’ blah blah…). Pure selling, with the market being overseas students: please spread the word. I felt ashamed for the Pro Vice Chancellor who knew much of what he said was untrue. There is an adage that being an intellectual presupposes a certain attitude to the idea of truth, rather than a contract of employment; that intellectuals should aspire to be protectors of integrity. It is not possible to choose one belief system one day, and act on another, the next.

The charge sheet is long. Universities have fed off cheap money — tax subsidised student loans — with promises about social mobility that their own academics have shown to be untrue. The Russell group, in particular, traducing what Humboldt said about the relation between teaching and research, have sought to diminish teaching in order to subsidise research, or, alternatively, claimed a phoney relation between the two. As for the “student experience”, as one seller of bespoke essays argued4, his business model depended on the fact that in many universities no member of staff could recognise the essay style of a particular student. Compare that with tuition in the sixth form. Universities have grown more and more impersonal, and yet claimed a model of enlightenment that depends on personal tuition. Humboldt did indeed say something about this:

“[the] goals of science and scholarship are worked towards most effectively through the synthesis of the teacher’s and the students’ dispositions”.

As the years have passed by, it has seemed to me that universities are playing intellectual whack-a-mole, rather than re-examining their foundational beliefs in the light of what they offer and what others may offer better. In the age of Trump and mini-Trump, more than ever, we need that which universities once nurtured and protected. It’s just that they don’t need to do everything, nor are they for everybody, nor are they suited to solving all of humankind’s problems. As had been said before, ask any bloody question and the universal answer is ‘education, education, education’. It isn’t.

That is a longer (and more cathartic) answer to my questions than I had intended. I have chosen not to describe the awful position that most UK universities have found themselves in at the hands of hostile politicians, nor the general cultural assault by the media and others on learning, rigour and nuance. The stench of money is the accelerant of what seeks to destroy our once-modern world. And for the record, I have never had any interest in, or facility for, management beyond that required to run a small research group, and teaching in my own discipline. I don’t doubt that if I had been in charge the situation would have been far worse.


Reading debt


Sydney Brenner, one of the handful of scientists who made the revolution in biology of the second half of the 20th century once said words to the effect that scientists no longer read papers they just Xerox them. The problem he was alluding to, was the ever-increasing size of the scientific literature. I was fairly disciplined in the age of photocopying but with the world of online PDFs I too began to sink. Year after year, this reading debt has increased, and not just with ‘papers’ but with monographs and books too. Many years ago, in parallel with what occupied much of my time — skin cancer biology and the genetics of pigmentation, and computerised skin cancer diagnostic systems — I had started to write about topics related to science and medicine that gradually bugged me more and more. It was an itch I felt compelled to scratch. I wrote a paper in the Lancet   on the nature of patents in clinical medicine and the effect intellectual property rights had on the patterns of clinical discovery; several papers on the nature of clinical discovery and the relations between biology and medicine in Science and elsewhere. I also wrote about why you cannot use “spreadsheets to measure suffering” and why there is no universal calculus of suffering or dis-ease for skin disease ( here and here ); and several papers on the misuse of statistics and evidence by the evidence-based-medicine cult (here and here). Finally, I ventured some thoughts on the industrialisation of medicine, and the relation between teaching and learning, industry, and clinical practice (here), as well as the nature of clinical medicine and clinical academia (here  and here ). I got invited to the NIH and to a couple of AAAS meetings to talk about some of these topics. But there was no interest on this side of the pond. It is fair to say that the world was not overwhelmed with my efforts.

At one level, most academic careers end in failure, or at last they should if we are doing things right. Some colleagues thought I was losing my marbles, some viewed me as a closet philosopher who was now out, and partying wildly, and some, I suspect, expressed pity for my state. Closer to home — with one notable exception — the work was treated with what I call the Petit-mal phenomenon — there is a brief pause or ‘silence’ in the conversation, before normal life returns after this ‘absence’, with no apparent memory of the offending event. After all, nobody would enter such papers for the RAE/REF — they weren’t science with data and results, and since of course they weren’t supported by external funding, they were considered worthless. Pace Brenner, in terms of research assessment you don’t really need to read papers, just look at the impact factor and the amount and source of funding: sexy, or not?5

You have to continually check-in with your own personal lodestar; dead-reckoning over the course of a career is not wise. I thought there was some merit in what I had written, but I didn’t think I had gone deep enough into the problems I kept seeing all around me (an occupational hazard of a skin biologist, you might say). Lack of time was one issue, another was that I had little experience of the sorts of research methods I needed. The two problems are not totally unrelated; the day-job kept getting in the way.



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On being a para-academic, and the tyranny of counting

by reestheskin on 04/12/2018

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From an article in the THE, talking about Katherine Randell.

Scholars who write children’s literature | Times Higher Education (THE)

Rundell, whose books have already won several prizes, is a fellow of All Souls College in Oxford and describes herself as a “para-academic”. She is not required to submit work to the research excellence framework but is researching a book about the poet John Donne as well as preparing an edition of his works.

I return to something Larry Lessig said:

I would push hard to resist the tyranny of counting. There is no necessary connection between ease of counting and the production of education. [as in ‘likes’ etc after leaving lecture hall etc]. And so it will be easy for the institution to say this is what we should be doing but we need to resist that to the extent that that kind of counting isn’t actually contributing to education. The best example of this, I am sure many of you know are familiar with this, is the tyranny of counting in the British educational system for academics, where everything is a function of how many pages you produce that get published by journals. So your whole scholarship is around this metric which is about counting something which is relatively easy to count. All of us have the sense that this cant be right. That can’t be the way to think about what is contributing to good scholarship.

Well, much — but not all — of UK Higher Ed is little concerned with scholarship.

The Long Now

by reestheskin on 21/11/2018

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John Kennedy told the story of Marshal Hubert Lyautey (1854–1934), a French army general and colonial administrator in Morocco. Lyautey asked his gardener to plant a certain tree. The gardener objected that the tree would grow slowly and wouldn’t reach maturity for a century. “In that case,” the marshal replied, “there is no time to lose. Plant it this afternoon.”

From Larry Lessig in America, Compromised.

Rankings matter! But what matters in rankings?

by reestheskin on 18/10/2016

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Apart from money, that is.

HigherEd is awash with rankings. Governments like them, and so do publishers. Just look at the THE, with its myriad of bullshit scores. The allure of bogus numbers, over judgment. A feel-good frenzy of metrics. When rankings of US colleges first came in, the assessors used to actually live on campus for a while, go to lectures, and talk to students. There was an attempt at face validity. Not any more. All you need is GIGO data, and you can sell it, or use it to buy power and kickbacks like the politicians. There was even a time when the notion of common sense mattered, but then came the RAE/REF. Then the TEF. Larry Lessig’s comment is worth repeating, again.

The best example of this, I am sure many of you know are familiar with this, is the tyranny of counting in the British educational system for academics, where everything is a function of how many pages you produce that get published by journals. So your whole scholarship is around this metric which is about counting something which is relatively easy to count. All of us have the sense that this can’t be right. That can’t be the way to think about what is contributing to good scholarship.

Anyway, at the back of last week’s Economist I came across a single page advert in the ‘Courses’ section, about IMD (shown below).


I suspect I would have passed over it, except that I used to meet up from time to time with a Professor of finance who lived in Edinburgh and worked at IMD. We had many conversations about teaching, and what impressed me was the focus on ‘education and teaching’ and thinking hard how to do it better. There is a lot about MBA programs that I do not understand, and a fair bit I am suspicious of, but I have little doubt they offer something medicine could learn from.

It piqued my interest enough to follow it up, so here is some more text from the IMD page.

At the end of September, we were informed that IMD would be included in the 2016 MBA ranking, despite the Economist’s initial agreement. This is surprising as we had not supplied any information and our participants and alumni had not been surveyed for this ranking. This contradicts the paper’s statistical method, which requires a minimum 25% survey response rate to be ranked.

Needless to say, IMD has serious reservations regarding the Economist’s methodology and its outcomes. In 2015, relative to the previous year’s ranking, LBS & IESE fell 9 ranks, IMD fell 11, and ESMT fell 23. Meanwhile, IE, Warwick and Macquire all jumped up 19 scores. As a result, Queensland, Warwick, Henley were ranked better than Cornell, London Business School, Carnegie Mellon and IMD!

They then go on to argue that the Economist ranking is scale dependent, and will discriminate against small schools (and, as we know small universities like Cal Tech are terrible…).They finish off with:

Again, IMD was not surveyed for the 2016 ranking and did not actively participate. Given this, we do not know which data the Economist will use to establish our position. What we do know is that the Economist ranking has just lost its last bit of credibility. Unfortunately, there is little IMD can do to stop the Economist from proceeding.

Says it all. Wake up. At least the Economist accepted the money (for the advert).

Interview with Louise Richardson

by reestheskin on 17/01/2016

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Interview with Louise Richardson, in the Guardian. She says some interesting things.

“I think the vice-chancellor or president of any university learns very quickly that if you say ‘March!’ people ask ‘Why?’ and I think that’s part of why it makes them wonderful places to be, full of dynamic, critical people,” 

Richardson, who is Irish, took her first degree at Trinity in Dublin, but has spent most of her career in the US in first rate institutions, institutions which function very differently from most UK research intensive universities. Her quote does not reflect the direction of travel for most UK universities, and it will be interesting to examine how such factors will act over time as a magnet for the best staff. Reminds me of Larry Lessig’s comments:

The best example of this, I am sure many of you know are familiar with this, is the tyranny of counting in the British educational system for academics, where everything is a function of how many pages you produce that get published by journals. So your whole scholarship is around this metric which is about counting something which is relatively easy to count. All of us have the sense that this can’t be right. That can’t be the way to think about what is contributing to good scholarship.

I would like to be more optimistic or confident on this point, but people considering an academic career in the UK need to understand that corporatism has come at the expense of any community of scholars — and that many of these scholars have students’ interests at heart more than their corporate bosses. I hope we see some genuine competition between institutions in this respect. (Some similar words come from the Nobel Laureate, Brian Schmidt, who has taken over at the ANU, in Canberra). One of the biggest losers in this creeping pseudo-corporatism, have been undergraduate students.

Richardson, also makes some points about how — in comparison with Harvard at least — little attention it paid to selecting students via the the Ucas system.

“Harvard has a very sophisticated admissions process for identifying talent. Under the Ucas system students write 500 words describing themselves. In the American system they write essay after essay about themselves, and there are whole ranges of things they can submit. The process is very different. “I accept all the advantages of the Ucas system, the ease of going through it, reducing the real disincentives in applying to a university that requires half a dozen essays and so on. But we don’t get enough information to make the kind of sophisticated decisions one would like.

I have little first hand experience of medical student selection, but I wonder if there are parallels with the dismal methods used in postgraduate medicine, whereby any sense of judgment is drowned by pseudoscience HR considerations; and a lack of insight, because all information is being compressed to comply with tick boxes. For medical school, we need to think ‘ecology’ and take risks: we are not producing widgets. If you are serious about broadening access — in a meaningful way — you will need to invest more.

And, not surprisingly:

And, strangely, the fact there are no fees in Scotland has not meant that there’s a higher proportion of deprived kids attending university than in England,” she says.

There is a phrase (or a mixture of phrases) that I think Jacob Browowski used. Twentieth century physics was one of the crowning cultural achievements of humanity and much of it was made by the sons of illiterate cobblers. Great strides in the ascent of man are often made by ‘outliers’, and such people do not tend to cluster in any particular social strata. If universities exist to nurture talent rather than act as a system to rank people or as certification factories, they have to find it as well.

2016, looking backwards.

by reestheskin on 03/01/2016

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‘Every age thinks it’s the modern age, but this one really is.’ [Tom Stoppard]

The saying goes that you can tell something about a person by the company he keeps. If books are your company, then what you read may say something about what makes you tick (although the history of the 20th century provides plenty of examples of the love of high culture by many barbarians and butchers — medical humanists, please note). So, if I look back over the year, what sort of company have I been keeping?

Well, start with the Glenn Greenwald book about Ed Snowden and move onto Laura Poitras’s brilliant film, ‘Citizenfour’. Then look at why governments like surveillance, and why surveillance likes information monopolies, with a book I have been putting off reading for many years, Tim Wu’s magisterial treatise on the history of communication technology, The Master Switch. The latter not only serves as a primer on the relation between the control of communication, the state and the communication corporations, but opened by eyes to the way Bell (Labs/ AT&T) blocked human progress: the Kronos effect, whereby advance is retarded because it threatens those who have had a hand in creating it. If you think the internet really is different, read on and worry. Along the way, for those interested like me in tech and learning, remember:

The invention of film, wrote D. W. Griffith in the 1920s, meant that “children in the public schools will be taught practically everything by moving pictures. Certainly they will never be obliged to read history again.” In 1970, a Sloan Foundation report compared the advent of cable television to that of movable type: “the revolution now in sight may be nothing less … it may conceivably be more.”

I have read lots on education. Alison Wolf (Does Education matter?) demolishes lazy thinking relating education to innovation and wealth creation. I wish the GMC would read a little more on this theme. Rich DeMillo’s most recent book (Revolution in Higher Education) was not such an eye-opener for me as his earlier book, Abelard to Apple, but that is probably because I came to it later. For all the naysayers re MOOCs and tech, HigherEd is in a problem because it no longer represents good value for many of those who have been encouraged to go, and because its business model is falling apart. It does some things well — even very well — in comparison with many organisations, but ‘basic’ higher education — is not one of them. The finances all round are not going to get any better, and as even I got into academic print, many university VCs have a lot in common with the much derided CEOs of record companies when Napster and Steven Jobs and iTunes changed things a little. On this theme, Michael Crow’s ‘Designing the New American University’ is up there, too.

Universities, as well as financial problems, have existential problems. They have become lazy corporations, that have left ‘Donnish Dominion’ behind, and replaced it with a facade of consumerism, whilst pretending that they can still be guardians of integrity (and are worth our support for that reason, alone). Well, this is what was called Kissingeritis, or in anther context, the criticism Robert Oppenheimer received: you can be at the centre of power and ‘influential’, or you can speak the truth, but you can seldom do both within the same time frame. As yet, I haven’t had a chance to dip into my copy of ‘Reshaping the University: the rise of the regulated market in higher education’ by David Palfreyman and Ted Tapper. Lots of our UK universities think they are BMWs or Jaguars, imagining themselves close to Ivy League institutions, but the finances say otherwise, as does any scrutiny of how they have taken to looking after their academic staff or their students. Not Fiat 500s, but with effort and reform, they could be useful Golfs, but leave the rest for the glossy prospectuses.

I have been reading about medicine too, but my take on this is that there is even less serious work out there about medicine and medical education, than about our universities. De Selby got it right: ‘serious work takes over from relevance’ and besides everybody is now just too busy for serious work, let alone relevance. Indeed, the anodyne phrase that seems to end every media story about medical research, ‘more research is needed’ [subtext, please give generously], really has no place in medical education. I for one, would wish people would stop publishing papers, and instead join the dots about what we already know. It is as though we collect yet more and more studies linking smoking with poor health outcomes with smaller and smaller odds ratios, all published in journals that nobody reads, and then continue to dole out the Capstan full strength (untipped, of course) to our students. In any case, as in many walks of life, change in this area is unlikely to come from the academy, but from outside. Follow the money. Many years ago, Sydney Brenner, one of the handful of scientists who made the revolution that is modern genetics, wrote an article in Science. The series theme was the influence of Science on Society, but Brenner, true to form, looked at things differently, writing instead about the (largely pernicious) effects of society on science. Universities take note: our laboratories are not as fecund as Sydney Brenner’s.

If one thing surprises me about what I read and what I want to read — because I think it important — it is the irrelevance of much of the scientific establishment to some of out problems, a statement that I speak with some shame. Kenneth Galbraith commented (from memory) that ‘the denigration of value judgement is one of the way the scientific establishment maintains its irrelevance’. I loved the phrase when I read it but couldn’t quite ‘get it’. I do now. Tim Wu’s account of the communication industry makes no sense without the successive waves of technical advance that underpin that change. On the other hand, we learn that the way society and corporations chose to behave limited advance, and closed off ways to maximise human potential. The institutions we create, or allow to exist, all seem to me more critical than ever — for good or bad. The lesson for anybody brought up of natural science, that somehow it is all like the hero in Arrowsmith, that somehow magical discoveries by disinterested scientists will solve all our problems, is magical itself. Magical, as in mythical, or just plain untrue. Look at Jack Scannell’s work on drug pricing for a start, on why institutions as well as molecules are important.

Which sort of brings me to something else that I think important, and that is Larry Lessig’s work on institutional corruption which I have only just come across, despite having read some of his books:

“Institutional corruption is manifest when there is a systemic and strategic influence which is legal, or even currently ethical, that undermines the institution’s effectiveness by diverting it from its purpose or weakening its ability to achieve its purpose, including, to the extent relevant to its purpose, weakening either the public’s trust in that institution or the institution’s inherent trustworthiness.”

He explains:

The field of “institutional corruption” was launched to help ethics grow up.

To help ethics grow up‘. I wish I had said that. GMC please note.

In the final chapter of the ‘Ascent of Man’, titled ‘The long childhood’ Jacob Bronowski after 400 pages on science and the culture of science, returns to a theme he has written about elsewhere, namely the relation between integrity, science and society. Bronowski was an optimist, and yet here he is wondering if Shakespeare and Newton will become historical fossils, in the way that Homer and Euclid are now. I feel less certain in 2016, than I did at the beginning of 2015. Hopeful, but less optimistic.

Choice comes with costs

by reestheskin on 10/12/2015

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Awhile back I was chatting to a student. We had met say half a dozen times over a few years, and we gossiped widely. He was now returning back overseas, setting out on a surgical career after deciding that the UK postgraduate system wasn’t as good as he could get elsewhere. As we parted, he thanked me for the various conversations, muttering that it was good to hear how things had been in the past. I might have taken it as putdown — like when my children were younger and any conversation about ‘olden days’, meaning anything from the past thousand years was viewed as something I had firsthand experience of. The more interesting points are: not all change is good (here is an amateur geneticist speaking), and knowledge of how things once worked is not irrelevant to any future; and second, that often in medicine our thoughts about undergraduate medicine are deeply influenced by our own experience. The problem for me is that this experience was close to 35-40 years ago.

Listening to students is hard. I don’t mean passive listening, but when you try and interrogate students about how they see things, trying to momentarily forget how you see things. And of course, why they see things in a particular way. Listening this way is an act of imagination, which is why it is tough, but worth doing.
One conversation I filed away was about one facet of lectures (and I am not going to digress into the ‘what is the value of lectures’ as I think it is a misinformed trope). A group of students were saying how tedious they found many of them, but when I said ‘why go’ (because I ‘never’ did) they pointed out the main purpose of lectures was to provide information on what might come up in the exam. They pointed out some potent examples of where trivial information was presented in a lecture, and that same factoid came up in an exam (and some of the stories they recall are disturbing: what chromosome is this gene on, for example). So, this got me thinking about how students work out what it is they are expected to know. And my conclusions are that it is at least worth considering that things are worse than they were once for me.

First, we need to set aside learning outcomes. Conceptually they make lots of sense, but as implemented operationally in medicine they are often dreadful (I have written before on this topic, so will not repeat myself). They are a giant pretense of apparent order.

Why do I think things may be harder than they were for me? Well, if you decrease the frequency of lectures, and lectures — however bad and inefficient for this purpose — serve as the index of what has to be learned, you are left with a problem. Then think about books. I do not have empirical data, but it seems to me there are more and more books on any  in undergraduate medicine, and if you compare different books the differences for a learner are not trivial. In any case, many books for dermatology that are said to be for students are aimed at multiple markets. It makes no sense to ‘learn the book’.

Then there is the web. So much there, so much good stuff, but lots of inaccuracy, and again not matching of content to learner’s stage. How do you treat recommendation about what is good, and the ‘search cost’ in finding that which is good, and the power of modern social media and communications to magnify and echo both what is good, and what is bad? You have to think about recommendation errors, errors in fact, and matching of content to your course. The latter point, matching to a course, is something we do not talk much about. You only have to visit two medical schools 50 miles apart and look at how curriculum time is allocated, to seriously question whether student’s can reasonably learn the same things. (Or perhaps consider the possibility that the real metacurriculum is the one the medical school publishes). Finally, the web is wonderfully anarchic, but format and approach to several different domains might benefit from some similarities in pedagogical approach — perhaps. And meaningful curation is not much in evidence.

And what about the teachers? Well, this is an easy one. There are more staff, more students, more compartments (as in specialties), and staff time is ever more fragmented. There may have never been much coherence to a medical school syllabus beyond thinking it was what you had yourself received 20-40 years earlier, but for many who teach medical students, the ‘course’ is an alien place situated somewhere between the GMC, the medical school, the NHS, and what interests — or bugs —the teacher. Education and scale are not easy bedfellows, even if all the people doing the teaching were professional educators.

In many things to do with teaching, to borrow some words from Larry Lessig (and Cass Sunstein), I am a libertarian paternalist. My take on this is that the oft quoted complaint about students — ‘they want us to tell them the exam questions!’— may reflect a genuine sense that students really know less about what they are supposed to know that I did all those years ago when the choices were not so legion.

Humanity, is not as it seems either.

by reestheskin on 30/11/2015

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Trained as a physicist, I quickly learned that the world is not as it seems. Space and time not only stretch like elastic, but can also morph one into another, and matter and energy can appear out of nothing, like rabbits from a magician’s hat. But the great shock to me in recent years is not simply that the physical world is an illusion, but that so too is the human world, as portrayed by our mainstream media and politicians.

This is from a review by Marcus Chown of ‘The Joy of Tax‘ by Richard Murphy. I haven’t read the book, but readers of this blog might note that I too am ‘new’ to much of this. John Naughton, Larry Lessig and James Boyle educated me that much of the un-natural world was not as self-evident as I had once imagined. This is the real danger of STEM.

Pharma, eroom and more or less money

by reestheskin on 23/10/2015

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There is a J Kenneth Galbraith quote, something along the lines of, ‘ the denigration of value judgment is one of the ways the scientific establishment maintains its irrelevance’. It is not the only way. I guess many natural scientists (at least me, anyway) tend to focus on the natural world and forget or neglect the role of institutions in human fate, except to wonder if only there was more money, my grant might have got funded. At a superficial level I sort of knew this, but like a lot of things, you only really get it, when you get it ‘again’. It was James Boyle‘s book (Shamans, Software, and Spleens: Law and the Construction of the Information Society) which opened by eyes up to the bizarreness and inconsistency of much copyright and IP law, alongside Larry Lessig’s work on cognate matters. So, institutions do matter. In dermatology, we have learned the hard way that many if not most companies, and major funders, are simply not interested in the fate of what happens to many of our patients. We think their suffering worthy of resource, but of course we are partisan. And of course, they don’t have Alzheimers, although, I am old enough to remember when nobody (well, almost nobody) wanted to study this disease, nor stroke (not a topic for anybody who wanted grant funding). Remember when neurologists didn’t consider patients with strokes worthy of their clinical skills? This is all by way of introduction to more work from Jack Scannell. Jack is the inventor of eroom’s law (Moore’s law backwards), which is a particularly unfavourable comparison between pharma and tech companies. I have just seen an article of his in Forbes, about drug costs, drug development and what, at one level, seems insanity. But it is not insanity, it is the play of the institutions we build. The thought experiment is simple: you burn the midnight oil in your lab, you find the cure, but nobody wants to buy your idea nor sell it as a product. Or worse: nobody can afford it. 

The Forbes article is also available here (The University of Edinburgh Innogen site).

[ I have just noticed  my last two posts have the word ‘money’ in the title.]

Worth a glance #23: Money, money and more money

by reestheskin on 28/09/2015

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“Most universities misjudge their own brands, mistaking a longtime monopoly on access to top students for value.”

Assessing the quality of UK medical schools: what is the validity of student satisfaction ratings as an outcome measure? I have not read the paper, but you can guess the answer. This is all rather sad, and dangerous. I would just link back to some words from Harvard’s Larry Lessig I quoted earlier: 

The best example of this, I am sure many of you know are familiar with this, is the tyranny of counting in the British educational system for academics, where everything is a function of how many pages you produce that get published by journals. So your whole scholarship is around this metric which is about counting something which is relatively easy to count. All of us have the sense that this can’t be right. That can’t be the way to think about what is contributing to good scholarship.

 Well if you can wreck real research, you can certainly wreck good teaching. 

And if you think I am complacent about the value proposition we offer to students, Rich DeMillo’s long awaited new book its out: ‘Revolution in Higher Education: How a Small Band of Innovators Will Make College Accessible and Affordable’. I have only just started reading it. There is bags to whinge about, but unlike what AJP Taylor said of some academics, ‘He is 90% right, and 100% wrong’, DeMillo is wrong about the little things, and right about the big things that matter. Some quotes:

American Élites had little incentive to change, and change without the active involvement of the top of the academic pyramid was impossible. But then the outsider theory started to crumble. Influential insiders began to say in public what critics had been reporting all along: unequal access was a threat to higher education. Stanford’s president John Hennessy said that the cost of maintaining a large faculty was not sustainable and predicted that in the future, there would be fewer professors but they would be using new technologies to teach more students. He then took a minisabbatical—a rarity for university presidents—to acquire a deep understanding of educational technology.

Universities are generally conceived as vertically integrated entities, but as soon as families realize that they do not have to pay for unadorned content, the natural question is: “Well, exactly what do I have to pay for?” This is the central concern in chapter 2. Affordable quality is a goal of the Revolution, but it is achieved through an unbundling of a university’s value proposition that allows students to pay only for the value they receive. This is an innocent-sounding although in fact dramatic shift in the landscape of higher education.

Most universities misjudge their own brands, mistaking a longtime monopoly on access to top students for value.

Universities ‘decline charity research grants due to fall in public funding’ Not certain about the examples, but you cannot solve the crisis in HigherEd unless you look hard at the money flows, and the various cross subsidies. In medicine — until I have seen hard data to the contrary — I will stick to my view that this is a bigger problem that for other parts of the university. As DeMillo points out (ibid): ‘In fact, the rates paid by research sponsors are kept artificially low by cross-platform subsidies. Who subsidizes low research prices?’ For the Ivy League, the subsidy is from endowments, for many of the rest, it is tuition fees.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.This free online encyclopedia has achieved what Wikipedia can only dream of. Not entirely fair, but Wikipedia just isn’t sufficient for all, all of the time. But imagine how much poorer the world would be without it. And yes, Stanford is giving us this encylopedia for nothing, but note the following:

“Our grant application days are over,” says Zalta. “We are practically self-sufficient as long as we don’t try to grow too much or too fast.”

Now this chimed with something I read in Nature about the re-financing of the Scripps Institute. The quote was: 

Looking forward, I think many scientists realize that NIH funding is a good thing if you have it, but it’s not sustainable,” says organic chemist Phil Baran, who was on the search committee that selected Kay and Schultz. “What is stable are endowments, which you build by having products that give you proceeds, and by philanthropy. You get philanthropy by doing the best science, so that’s why there is such frenzied competition for the brightest minds.”

Many years ago I gave one of the President Council’s Guest lectures at Cold Spring Harbour (I forge the exact title). The audience comprised people who earned more by the day than I did by the lifetime, but I remember how nobody considered funding a PhD here or a project here, instead it was taken as given, that meaningful funding had to be endowed, so as to ensure secure long term funding — funding to play with, in the best sense of the word. Subsistence societies do not produce great artefacts, or produce the sorts of culture that is science (or most types of non-dogmatic learning, for that matter). Money flows matter. And our traditional   funding streams are broken. And my Univeristy Chair is endowed, but I doubt the pot of money has not been used to cross-subsidise something else

The tyranny of counting in higher ed

by reestheskin on 13/08/2015

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Larry Lessig has some good things to say about the tyranny of counting and how tech can inhibit the sort of architecture we need for teaching (and research). He also highlights how bad some aspects of the UK higher education scene look to a sensible  outsider.  He starts by imagining how easy it might be to ask students to click on ‘likes’ as they leave a lecture theatre  and what this might lead to. [I have transcribed from the video so there may be some minor errors]

I would push hard to resist the tyranny of counting. There is no necessary connection between ease of counting and the production of education. [as in ‘likes’ etc after leaving lecture hall etc]….. And so it will be easy for the institution to say this is what we should be doing but we need to resist that to the extent that that kind of counting isn’t actually contributing to education. The best example of this, I am sure many of you know are familiar with this, is the tyranny of counting in the British educational system for academics, where everything is a function of how many pages you produce that get published by journals. So your whole scholarship is around this metric which is about counting something which is relatively easy to count. All of us have the sense that this can’t be right. That can’t be the way to think about what is contributing to good scholarship.

It isn’t just future tech that worries me. Years ago, in another place (of course) I remember asking whether any of the student evaluation questionnaires we were using had been validated, and if not, why should a bunch of academics pay too much attention to them. There followed what I have christened the ‘petit mal’ phenomenon: a moments collective silence, followed by a resumption of the normal committee business, as though no question had been asked. As the e-world has made collecting junk and sending spam easier, we can collect more and more junk enquiry, which somebody somewhere will feel compelled to act on. This is not just garbage in, garbage out (GIGO), its actually worse than that:  just as bad money drives out good money, the currency of our  senses is debased.

Innovation, inequality and how many bubbles are there on a bar of soap?

by reestheskin on 28/06/2015

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This is an impassioned speech by Larry Lessig linking net neutrality, innovation and creativity, and political inequality.

Seeing Through the Noise from lessig on Vimeo.