Category Archives: Rant

Holocaust Memorial Day 2017

It’s Holocaust Memorial Day in Britain, and I’m following my personal tradition of reading something about those terrible events on this day every year. This year I’m reading portions of the transcripts of the Nuremberg Trials, in which 21 Nazi war criminals were prosecuted for crimes against humanity. The dispassionate way in which some of these men report killing tens of thousands of people at a time turns my stomach.
 
Today during spare moments I have been reading the opening statement from the prosecution (21 November 1945), a passionate and compelling summary of the indictment which took up quite a few hours on the second day of the trial:
 
What makes this inquest significant is that these prisoners represent sinister influences that will lurk in the world long after their bodies have returned to dust. We will show them to be living symbols of racial hatreds, of terrorism and violence, and of the arrogance and cruelty of power. They are symbols of fierce nationalisms and of militarism, of intrigue and war-making which have embroiled Europe generation after generation, crushing its manhood, destroying its homes, and impoverishing its life. They have so identified themselves with the philosophies they conceived and with the forces they directed that any tenderness to them is a victory and an encouragement to all the evils which are attached to their names. Civilization can afford no compromise with the social forces which would gain renewed strength if we deal ambiguously or indecisively with the men in whom those forces now precariously survive.
 
Justice Jackson was right, of course, and their sinister influences do indeed still lurk in the world. I’ve been distraught today by the realisation that on a day when the UK is supposed to remember the brutal consequences of fascism, the Prime Minister is off in America begging favours from a white nationalist government.
 
The complete official trial proceedings (42 volumes) are available via the Library of Congress here. The opening statement above is in Volume 2
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NHS may charge migrants for GP services

There’s been coverage on the BBC today about a proposal to begin charging non-EU migrants for various NHS procedures.

Some of you who know me personally may remember when I ranted about the government’s decision to introduce charges for the NHS for migrants, and that this would be how the government introduces charges for NHS services across the board. That it would start with NHS fees with visa applications, then extend to GP and hospital charges for migrants, and then to the general citizenry. That the Tories couldn’t resist the opportunities presented by an NHS that suddenly and oh-so-conveniently has an infrastructure for charging for services.

Well, step 2 of that plan is already in evidence. If you didn’t believe me before, perhaps you should believe me now.

Oh, and Jeremy Hunt: I’ve been here for ten years, I’m not a ‘visitor’. I paid my own way as a PhD student and spent the years after that as a tax-payer, paying taxes for services I can’t even legally use as a migrant. I’ve even been doing research about health and social care provision in the UK.  So don’t you dare tell me I don’t ‘make a fair contribution to services’.

Do yourself a favour, people, and respond to the government consultation on Monday. Even if you don’t give a damn about people like me, us so-called non-EU ‘visitors’, and how this change would make my life in the UK unlivable and unaffordable, then at least look out for yourself by stopping this nonsense before the Tories extend it to everyone.

It’s time now to make a decision: is the NHS free at the point of delivery, or is it not?  If we want it to remain a free service, then we must stop this creeping commercialisation before there’s no turning back.

Let’s not forget too that the recent changes in April 2015 also included charges for 150% of the cost for non-emergency procedures for non-EEA visitors.  Perhaps a test run for introducing a profit motive within the NHS?

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Nagel, Enactivism, and Basic Minds

The other day I wrote about beard-spiders and what I thought of them.  Or at least, the things about beard-spiders that I made a mental note to think about at some future time.

Well, that time is now.  Ish.  Probably not, actually, but at least I’m going to write about basic minds, which I started thinking about because of the beard-spiders.

Let me say from the outset that I may very well misuse some terminology, so feel free to correct me in the comments below.  Anyway this really is just a bit of me trying to get a grip on some concepts in a sort of stream-of-consciousness way without drowning myself in jargon, so try not to get too worked up about it.

Nagel’s paper, as I mentioned the other day, has had a remarkable staying power.  In it he takes aim at reductionist theories of mind, which attempt to address the classic mind-body problem of consciousness: what is the relationship between consciousness and subjective experience, and our physical brain and body?  Reductionists want to solve this problem by reducing away the complicated bit of that equation — consciousness.

Nagel argues that no reductionist formulation can eliminate subjective experience — that if we consider some organism to have any level of conscious experience, then there must be “something it is like to be that organism”.  He proposes that attempts to eliminate subjective experience from the problem are doomed to failure:

“[Subjective experience] is not captured by any of the familiar, recently devised reductive analyses of the mental, for all of them are logically compatible with its absence. It is not analyzable in terms of any explanatory system of functional states, or intentional states, since these could be ascribed to robots or automata that behaved like people though they experienced nothing. It is not analyzable in terms of the causal role of experiences in relation to typical human behavior—for similar reasons. I do not deny that conscious mental states and events cause behavior, nor that they may be given functional characterizations. I deny only that this kind of thing exhausts their analysis.”  (p. 436)

The case of the bat appears shortly after this introduction.  If we presume that bats have some level of subjective experience, that there is something it is like to be bat, then we would imagine that their experience is something very different from our own.  Bats have different bodies, different senses, and live in entirely different environs than we humans do.  Even if we amuse ourselves by examining what our lives would be like if we did the things that bats do, it would still be impossible, in Nagel’s view, for us to “know what it is like for a bat to be a bat” — we would still only know what it would be like for a human to be a bat.

This inability to access the experiences of the bat leaves us with a conundrum, if we are to develop a physicalist conception of mind that includes subjective experience.  Nagel argues that experience is something fundamentally irreducible — that unlike other phenomena we might describe with physical theories, subjective experience is impossible to describe in a way which would be comprehensible to another species.  There’s no way to replace the subjective with the objective when it comes to experience.

That’s the core of it, in my view.  I was going to continue here and summarise some more, and then delve into Daniel Dennett’s reply, but that’s pretty irrelevant to this post.  Also I’m lazy.

What interests me still about this paper, despite its age, is that I enjoy its ability to provoke debate and thought despite what is, at its core, a quite simple argument using a very accessible premise.  To me it’s powerful philosophical writing — the author presents his views openly and with clarity, and the topic is explained through a relatable example which gradually builds upon itself until you reach a conclusion.  Whether that conclusion is agreeable or not is up to the reader, but I feel most would agree that at least the journey to reach it was interesting and enjoyable.

So what I hope to do, inspired by Nagel’s example, is to try to understand my own objections to the current way of thinking in cognitive science and philosophy of mind by using a simple example that I can actually grasp.  In cognitive science and philosophy today we see a lot of excitement around enactivism, the view that cognition is not a process undergone by a mind being given a world and imposing concepts and schemas on it, but that it arises from the active engagement of an organism with the world around it.  Organisms engage with the world through sensorimotor interactions with their environment, the world affords us the ability to engage in certain actions — and all this allows us to enact the world and thus experience it.

I’ll be the first to admit that there’s an appealing sense of action (enaction) to this view.  We’re not mere computational machines performing operations on sensory data we’re given by the world — we’re organisms interacting, discovering our environments, moving amongst not a static and lifeless external world, but actually a rich tapestry of information and experience that informs every second of our being.  Sounds great, doesn’t it?

Yet there’s something fundamental in this picture that leaves me wanting.  I’m not sure what it is exactly, but the predominant feeling I get is one of anticlimax.  I guess I remain skeptical that enactivism actually moves us any closer to an understanding of mind and experience, and I feel it simply kicks the mind-body problem can down the lane rather than actually chuck it in the recycle bin.  Or possibly more accurately, rejects the mind-body problem entirely and attempts to replace it with a body-body problem.  I’ve heard various arguments about this from trusted friends on various occasions, but my skepticism remains hard to dislodge.

There’s a few reasons that this might be — I often have trouble unpacking enactivist definitions of behaviour and cognition, for example.  I also have certain objections to the ever-intensifying antirepresentationalist stance which in my view dismisses quite legitimate objections raised even by enactivism-friendly philosophers (Andy Clarke being one example).  But both of these points have been addressed a great deal by others with much greater philosophical acumen than myself, so I’ve been looking for something to talk about that would capture more of my own experiences and interests, and not just be a second-rate Ned Block (among others).

A few years ago I posted briefly about a book that was coming out called Radicalizing Enactivism: Basic Minds Without Content.  When a book releases with a provocative title like that it’s no surprise that tons of interested parties wanted to review it.  The authors come under fire in some of these accounts for their dismissal of the idea that basic minds are capable of sense-making, as this would presume that basic minds are capable of interpretation.  Or something, I’m still reading this stuff.

Some would prefer going all the way down the rabbit hole, and deciding that basic minds can participate in sense-making and that “the problem of mind is that of the problem of life” (Alva Noë, Out of Our Heads, 2009, p. 41).  I’m not sure how to think about this just yet, and I’m hoping some people will direct me toward some interesting debates on this front.*  Others would shy away from that point, leaving the sense-making and content and intentionality to adult human minds.

Either way, I’m filled with questions.  How do we characterise basic minds?  What do enactivists and representationalists make of them, and having had time to work out some examples, what do I think of them?

As far as I can make out, basic minds are an important concept when speaking about enactivism, at least in the Radical Embodied Cognition sort of way espoused by Daniel Hutto and others.  Hutto’s project seems all about characterising cognition as being entirely free of content, or as he puts it, ‘[rejecting] the thesis that Cognition Involves Content, in its unrestricted form’.  My initial reaction to this was immediate and forceful — of course cognition can have content, you weirdo! — but as with everything it depends on how you define content, and cognition for that matter.  In order to understand this project, I also need to understand basic minds and their place in the argument.

That being the case there’s a lot of work to be done on my part to understand exactly what’s being talked about here, and hence my recent nostalgic revisiting of Nagel.  At this point I feel if I’m going to develop an understanding of these concepts I need to follow Nagel and grab a substantive example and follow it through until something illuminates my thoughts more clearly.  More than anything I want to discover the root of my objections and find out whether they hold any water.  It’s quite possible that they don’t, but I feel either way that it’s a process worth going through for my own edification.

As part of this little project I’m building up quite a reading list of books and articles — some of these will be re-acquisitions, like Mind in Life and a few related tomes which have unaccountably vanished from my possession somehow.  In particular I’m interested in Lawrence Shapiro’s Embodied Cognition which apparently spends some time focusing on Randall Beer’s work, and if there’s one thing I’m always happy to do it’s to read about Randy’s papers on minimally cognitive agents.  Other suggestions on minimal cognition and enactivism, basic minds, etc. are more than welcome.

It’ll probably be a little while before my next post, so I’ll leave you with some interesting critiques of enactivism from people who actually know what they’re talking about:

Mineki Oguchi: http://utcp.c.u-tokyo.ac.jp/events/pdf/001_Oguchi_Mineki_3rd_BESETO.pdf

Jesse Prinz (1): www.theassc.org/files/assc/2627.pdf

Jesse Prinz (2): http://subcortex.com/IsConsciousnessEmbodiedPrinz.pdf

EDIT: Another good one from Xabier Barandiaran: https://xabierbarandiaran.files.wordpress.com/2009/07/barandiaran_-_2014_-_enactivism_without_autonomy_-_aisb50-s25-barandiaran-extabs.pdf

*Shout-out here to Tom Froese who pointed me to this quote and related points through one of his papers which I can’t find just now.  You write a lot of papers Tom.

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On spiders and beards

I’ve decided to start using this blog more often for what people often use blogs for — writing down thoughts and ideas, and seeing what comes of them.  I’m going to start by discussing why spiders might like to live in my beard.

Let me explain.  One time I was sat in a pub with a girl.  I was musing on something or other, doing my best to keep up my end of the conversation.  Suddenly the girl started laughing.  What started as a titter became more uproarious, and in response my self-conscious anxiety grew and grew.  What was she laughing at?  Was something wrong with what I was saying?  Did she suddenly realise I look faintly ridiculous, like a short and awkward version of Jesus?  Was she having some sort of boredom-induced brain attack?

Turns out there was a spider in my beard.  She reached over, coaxed it onto her finger, and gently flicked it over onto an empty part of the table.

At this point, several thoughts went through my head:

  1. Why did the spider decide to abseil all the way down from the ceiling into my majestic facial hair?  Did the spider really decide to do this, or was it a consequence of some external factors?  Did my majestic facial hair present an appealing nesting opportunity?  Just what is it like to be a beard-seeking spider?  Are all spiders innately beard-seeking, given the right conditions, or was this a particularly intrepid arachnid?
  2. This girl just touched that spider with her bare hand.  At best I’d use my bare hand only to slap it away from my face while squealing pathetically, despite it being a rather small and wispy spider, all things considered.  What is it about these eight-legged beasts that sends me — and, thankfully, lots of other neurotics — into a frenzy of terror and despair?  What does it say about me that I can face many challenges in life, and yet the mere presence of a tiny arachnid on my face makes me want to cry and scream and leap from the nearest window?  Come to that, what does it say about this girl who not only can tolerate their general ickiness, but actually finds them amusing?
  3. Spiders have eight eyes, but none of them actually see particularly well, at least in the way we’d define it.  They sense motion, light and dark, and that’s about it.  If I were a spider, what would be my experience of a beard?  What would I see, with my vastly different perceptual abilities and eight horrible eyeballs?

Since that fateful day I’ve discovered that my head seems to have a remarkable ability to attract spiders.  Time and time again I’ve been sat somewhere only to find a spider suddenly abseiling down from the brim of my hat in front of my face.  They do so casually, as if they’ve got all the time in the world and they’re not the least bit threatened by the massive hairy mug mere inches away.  ‘Oh, hi!’ they seem to say.  ‘What’s happening?  I’m just hanging out — get it?’

‘Yeeearrgghhh’  I invariably respond, slapping them away from my face in a blind panic.  I’m really not very sociable on these occasions, to my eternal regret, but they keep trying nonetheless.

I was thinking about these spider encounters today, and I wondered idly if, somehow, the spiders got wind of my experience in the pub and the thoughts that followed, and every so often they send an envoy down from my hat to check in and see what I’ve decided about those thoughts.  Maybe they want to have a proper inter-species discussion on their experience of spiderdom, and to share with me their well-developed philosophical traditions.  Perhaps, I thought, I’m slapping them away not out of fear — or at least, not just fear — but out of shame for my lack of action on those thoughts.

I’m sorry, spiders — I promise I’ll get back to work on these questions.  I’m not sure what form these explorations could take — a few years ago I’d envisioned something like Thomas Nagel’s famous article “What is it like to be a bat?”, a 1974 critique of reductionist theories of mind.  I doubt that “What is it like to be a beard-spider?” would be anywhere near as influential as that article, but you never know I suppose.

Regardless, I owe it to myself, and to the spiders, to think more about these questions.  Maybe then they’ll stop dangling off my hats and giving me expectant looks.

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Nobel Laureate Dr Hideki Shirakawa on the challenges facing researchers today

Recently the Asahi Shimbun, a major newspaper in Japan, published a fascinating interview with Dr Hideki Shirakawa, Nobel laureate in chemistry who won the prize in 2000 for his work with polyacetylene.  The interview covers a lot of ground, but what struck me in particular are his comments about the current research environment in Japan and his concerns about how the changing landscape of academia is affecting our search for new scientific knowledge.

The interview is not available in English, so I’m quoting here from a translation provided by my wife with a bit of editing from myself.

Dr Shirakawa’s concerns come to light early in the interview.  After a bit of discussion and congratulations regarding the three Japanese scientists who are being awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics this year, he answers some questions about the status of science in Japan:

Do you think Japan became a science superpower?

“I don’t want to use the word ‘science superpower’. I would rather say ‘a country that places a high value on science’. In that sense, Japan still has a long way to go. The research results won the Nobel Prize after 20 or 30 years of hard work. This did not happen because the current research environment is good nor because the national universities were incorporated. I doubt if the number of Japanese Nobel winners will be increasing at a high pace. I think we shouldn’t be optimistic.”

What do you mean?

“I’m afraid both the Japanese government and society are pushing too hard for the production of quick results in science and technology. It is true that the government research budget has increased, but those who received larger research funds are those who have very clear objectives. If you look at the basic research which sustains this work with clear objectives, you will see that the national universities which used to be a primary location for basic research no longer provide environments where researchers can do their work freely. That is my concern.”

“Before the national universities were incorporated, the main research fund was a non-competitive fund called the ‘Integration School Fund’ which was assigned based on the number of teachers at a university, and we could do basic research with this fund. This fund was not enough, so we also got a competitive fund called ‘Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research (Kakenhi)’. But nowadays, a significant portion of research funding has become competitive funding.”

The total amount of your research funding was about 200 million yen before you retired?

“Yes. That’s the total amount I used for 34 years until I retired from the University of Tsukuba. It is very small, compared with my current research project where I can use a several billion yen in 5 years. Out of that total there was only about 60 million yen which I could use freely, but I could use this to research on the theme I like and spend time on it as much as I like. That was important. The same with the these three winners [of the Nobel Prize in Physics], there was a research atmosphere where people were willing to tackle difficult themes which would not produce results immediately.”

The importance of basic research has been recognised though.

“I’m not certain either the government who allocates research funds nor the society who expects the results truly understands this importance. Lots of people show interest in a research project like the space probe ‘Hayabusa’ which captures rock samples from an asteroid. But there are many basic research projects which don’t attract such attention. They are often very inefficient. But if people start saying ‘OK, let’s not do it’, then the progress of science and technology will stop. We must accept the fact that it is very inefficient – I want society to have that deep insight.”

Dr Shirakawa points out that both he and the recent Nobel winners in Physics were able to enjoy a research environment which fostered exploration and experimentation and a focus on basic research.  Without this academic freedom, they would not have been able to explore these ‘inefficient’ insights which eventually led to revolutionary ideas.  The recent incorporation of Japanese national universities and the increasing focus on competitive funding has led to a narrowing of research goals and a focus on productivity rather than discovery.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Dr Shirakawa goes on to describe how his ability to explore new topics as a young researcher fostered his later discoveries:

When you were doing the research on plastics for which you won the Nobel Prize, did you imagine that it would be used so widely, such as in our mobile phones and LCD screens?

“I didn’t. I was interested in why electricity did not flow through the polymer, and was interested in why it might flow. When I was going to change my theme as I finished a certain amount of my project, I happened to meet Dr. MacDiarmid from the United States and he showed interest in my research and invited me to America. Thanks to this, my research developed very rapidly and led to the Prize. When I look back, my lab at the university was not my first choice — I ended up there because I lost the rock-paper-scissors game. I also liked assembling radios, so I went to the Faculty of Electronic Engineering, and I also liked growing plants so I went to the Faculty of Agriculture. I was interested in anything, and experienced many things. All those things led to my later achievement.”

So, your path to discovery was not a single straight road without a branch?

“No, but then I had freedom. I worry about the situation today’s young researchers are stuck in. At universities fixed-term positions limited to three or five years are increasing. It takes one year to launch a lab, another year to organise the experimental data and write a paper. You can hardly finish one paper. It’s not fair to be evaluated by that. It’s impossible to focus on research, and people will only choose themes on which they can write a paper in a short period of time. I’m afraid it prevents creative research.”

Dr Shirakawa credits his early explorations with his later successes, and I think it’s safe to say this is not an unusual sentiment.  Over the years we’ve seen many prominent scientists describe their circuitous paths to innovation.  Fostering intellectual curiosity and allowing for the free association and connection of seemingly disparate ideas often seems to be a key ingredient in producing new concepts and ideas..

Yet at the moment young researchers are most often placed into short-term positions with very defined goals.  We face tremendous pressure to produce outputs on one particular project immediately upon arrival, and attempts to explore related or potentially related ideas are actively discouraged.  Research is viewed now as a production line in which we think on specified topics during specified hours and are expected to produce innovations deserving of published scientific papers on a regular basis.  Personally I agree with Dr Shirakawa that much of the blame for this shift in our environment comes down to the increasing importance of competitive funding.

Scientists, like anyone else, are good adapters, and so we have coped with the pressures induced by these changes by finding ways to ‘salami-slice’ our ideas into ever-smaller bits, presenting more and more papers centred around tiny, iterative steps rather than fully-fledged chunks of work.  I recall reading recently that the United Kingdom alone produced something like 195,000 journal articles in 2012 alone.  Out of those, how many are actually worth reading?  Out of that subset, how many actually change our way of thinking about a certain idea?

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that most scientists, when pressed, would agree that the quantity of published papers is not particularly correlated to the strength of a given researcher’s body of work.  We know about salami-slicing, after all; we all have to do it to survive any of a number of performance metrics applied to us ensure that we’re doing enough busywork to justify our continued receipt of a salary.  We know about the dodgy journals, the importance of knowing the right people, the many and varied flaws in our systems of peer review.  We’ve all had that one paper that got rejected because one of those reviewers just doesn’t like our methodology, and no amount of revision will convince them otherwise.

And yet each year we seem to be under more pressure, and these problems continue to fester.  Fewer and fewer of us are able to enjoy, as Dr Shirakawa did, some time to explore widely and allow basic research to flourish.  We’re rapidly approaching an era when the majority of academics will have come up through the current environment.

I worry that, unless we think deeply about how we fund research and how we employ researchers, we will lose what we few opportunities we have left to pursue basic research.  We will lose more creative minds to industry, when we should be fostering their growth in an environment dedicated to open learning and discovery rather than profit.

I’m encouraged that we have more and more scientists openly discussing these problems now — at least the conversation is happening.  But we have to ensure that it doesn’t remain only a conversation, and we must be as inclusive as possible in these efforts, because as we can see from Dr Shirakawa’s words, this is a global problem.

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Science and the press: Who’s to blame?

There’s an interesting article in the New Yorker today about Neuroscience called ‘Neuroscience Fiction’, which comments about the recent fashion for neuro-everything: neuroeconomics, neuroethics, etc. etc.  Perhaps, finally, we’re beginning to reach the end of this trend?  The article implies that we are, which is good news — yet this doesn’t erase the fact that the past two decades of this indicate science is becoming increasingly dominated by what sells rather than by what is useful.

That article links to another by Alissa Quart which has an interesting quote on this:

“A team of British scientists recently analyzed nearly 3,000 neuroscientific articles published in the British press between 2000 and 2010 and found that the media regularly distorts and embellishes the findings of scientific studies. Writing in the journal Neuron, the researchers concluded that “logically irrelevant neuroscience information imbues an argument with authoritative, scientific credibility.” Another way of saying this is that bogus science gives vague, undisciplined thinking the look of seriousness and truth.

The problem isn’t solely that self-appointed scientists often jump to faulty conclusions about neuroscience. It’s also that they are part of a larger cultural tendency, in which neuroscientific explanations eclipse historical, political, economic, literary and journalistic interpretations of experience. A number of the neuro doubters are also humanities scholars who question the way that neuroscience has seeped into their disciplines, creating phenomena like neuro law, which, in part, uses the evidence of damaged brains as the basis for legal defense of people accused of heinous crimes, or neuroaesthetics, a trendy blend of art history and neuroscience.”

In science we’re very quick to blame the science journalists for willfully distorting research to make headlines.  Yet as Alissa points out, the researchers themselves are the ones pushing a fair bit of this nonsense — and they don’t necessarily speak up when their findings hit the headlines, distorted or not.  We’re in an environment where competition for funding is paramount, where permanent jobs are scarcer than ever, and where the pressure to find a unique niche is extremely high as a result — so creating that niche sometimes becomes more critical than performing good research.  We sometimes end up trying to squeeze together whatever ideas we can find into a lump just big enough to produce another published paper, then see how far we can milk it.

Speaking personally I know that I roll my eyes whenever I see one of the endless procession of papers in my field that applies autopoiesis to everything in the world ever.  I believe it’s part of the same process, on the whole, and it’s something we need to find a way to curtail.

With that in mind, where do our responsibilities lie here?  Do we call out our colleagues when they do dumb stuff, or do we direct our ire at nonsense only when it hits the popular press?  Do we try to keep our own community in line, and in doing so risk alienation (a true disaster for those of us low on the career ladder desperate for networking opportunities)?

It’s a difficult question.  After all, many of our colleagues do dumb stuff because they believe that dumb stuff, and so taking them to task over it is very unlikely to be productive.  I know I’ve certainly decided that someone is a jerk when they criticised me for reasons I believed to be ill-founded.  In the end, my paper stayed how it was, and the only thing that changed was that I resolved never to endorse or otherwise encourage the work of that individual.

Of course, my paper may very well have been dumb and I just simply don’t see it, but even if that is the case at this point the vast majority of scientific papers are dumb and/or uninteresting — so where do we draw the line?  How do we pick the particularly egregiously dumb stuff out of the endless piles that science produces these days?  Isn’t a certain amount of dumbness a necessary precursor to doing something of greater interest, a byproduct of early explorations?

My feeling is that science is now reaching a critical decision point in this respect.  Last year the UK alone published 124,000 journal articles.  Out of those, I expect we could skip at least 99% of these without losing much — very few papers have truly ground-breaking results to report.  At some stage we have to find a way to reduce this pressure to publish anything and everything at all costs, or we will simply drown in the resulting mess — and all the while, unscrupulous types will craft some of that mess into misleading headlines to make a buck or to build a reputation.

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Persistence and Uncertainty in the Academic Career

Good article for those of us who are substantially irked by the short-sighted use of fixed-term contracts in academia:

http://arxiv.org/abs/1204.0752  (PDF download link on the right-hand side)

The important bit of the abstract:

“We introduce a model of proportional growth which reproduces these two observations, and additionally accounts for the significantly right-skewed distributions of career longevity and achievement in science. Using this theoretical model, we show that short-term contracts can amplify the effects of competition and uncertainty making careers more vulnerable to early termination, not necessarily due to lack of individual talent and persistence, but because of random negative production shocks. We show that fluctuations in scientific production are quantitatively related to a scientist’s collaboration radius and team efficiency.”

And the discussion gives a nice summary:

“One serious drawback of short-term contracts are the tedious employment searches, which displace career momentum by taking focus energy away from the laboratory, diminishing the quality of administrative performance within the institution, and limiting the individual’s time to serve the community through external outreach [3, 6]. These momentum displacements can directly transform into negative productivity shocks to scientific output. As a result, there may be increased pressure for individuals in short-term contracts to produce quantity over quality, which encourages the presentation of incomplete analysis and diminishes the incentives to perform sound science. These changing features may precipitate in a ‘tragedy of the scientific commons’….

However, this model also shows that the onset of a fluctuation-dominant (volatile) labor market can also be amplified when the labor market is governed by short-term contracts  reinforced by a short-term appraisal system. In such a system, career sustainability relies on continued recent short-term production, which can encourage rapid publication of low-quality science. In professions where there is a high level of competition for employment, bottlenecks form whereby most careers stagnate and fail to rise above an initial achievement barrier. Instead, these careers stagnate, and in a profession that shows no mercy for production lulls, these careers undergo a ‘sudden death’ because they were ‘frozen out’ by a labor market that did not provide insurance against endogenous fluctuations. Such a system is an employment ‘death trap’ whereby most careers stagnate and ‘flat-line’ at zero production. However, at the same time, a small fraction of the population overcomes the initial selection barrier and are championed as the ‘big winners’, possibly only due to random
chance.”

This makes for compelling reading, especially given that the usual justification for the use of fixed-term contracts seems to be the alleged benefits of the inevitable competition for posts — which our overlords would have us believe allows the cream to rise to the top.  What we see here is that, in contrast to the management view, short-term contracts amplify the effects of problems in research production, and those who rise to the top may have done so purely by being lucky rather than particularly skilled.  Meanwhile, the system creates a massive wastage of talent by cutting short potentially promising careers, given that research productivity can be stunted by problems in research teams (which continue to grow larger and more complex over time) or unfortunate bad luck in experiment outcomes or similar, and not necessarily by a lack of effort or skill.

Meanwhile, the focus on short-term contracts with short-term appraisals leads to an intense pressure to publish sub-par science more frequently, rather than well-considered, long-term research with more potential impact.  The loss of productivity due to worries over job insecurity and time-consuming, highly-competitive job application procedures is also not to be underestimated.

When I started my first postdoc I was advised to start looking for my next job when I still had a year left on my contract.  I did so and found, as most others do, that finding an appropriate academic position is very difficult due to the extreme specialisation of every post — if you’re unlucky and there’s not much in your area kicking off when you happen to be looking, you might end up struggling for work through no fault of your own.  Not to mention that it wasn’t uncommon for me to have to send 50+ pages of material to each potential job, causing me to waste rather a lot of time that I could’ve been using for my research.  In the end, getting your next post seems to rely much more on luck, timing, and networking than anything else.

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Can we make academia better?

In recent days I’ve been pleased to have been involved — somewhat tangentially — in some grass-roots efforts to build a new type of academic research environment.  More than anything I’ve been happy to find that even more colleagues than I anticipated are upset about the current direction of academic institutions.

I feel quite strongly that at the present moment, we academics are complicit in a system which actively works against the values we claim to cherish.  We work for institutions that entrench class divisions, that produce education as a factory line intended to manufacture compliant drones for industry, that view themselves as focused more on contribution to the global economic order than as centres for learning and discovery.  We apply for grants designed to push research in whatever direction happens to be fashionable, that employ new researchers on fixed-term contracts with no job security, that demand that research be monetised, commercialised, and productive of ‘economic impact’.  We do these things while fully cognizant of their negative impact on academic inquiry and on higher education as a whole, and yet by and large we do nothing at all to put a stop to this nonsense.

I remain in academia at this point purely because of a perhaps naive belief that science has the potential to contribute ideas that challenge our society and cause it to grow and change in exciting ways.  But as time goes on, the characteristics of the academic world which previously allowed it to excel in long-term, innovative thinking are being eroded away.  Science now functions in bite-sized chunks, projects of five years or less further subdivided into work packages, six-month publication plans and an implicit acceptance that despite all evidence to the contrary, endless tedious incremental advances in our particular sub-fields will eventually lead to the profound innovations in thought that we seek.

I submit that the current broken structures of academia succeed only in the sense of further perpetuating that same structure.  The grant funding infrastructure allows people who are able to apply for grants (i.e., not fixed-term contract academics or us unfortunate foreign postdocs) to continue to acquire money to do some research that is currently fashionable, and in the process delegate all the actual work to the academic underclass of PhDs and postdocs.  It allows the University system to continue to employ 74% of its workers on fixed-term contracts with no security, and in the process destroy work-life balance for those workers, entrench an enormous and shameful gender divide in academia (which persists — 81% of the professors at Southampton are male), and turn a growing number of potentially creative, innovative people into research production engines who are optimised to generate those incremental advances that satisfy whoever provided the grant money that we are being sufficiently clever.

Of course, the current structure is also very good at producing papers, which have become the most desired ‘output’ of academic research.  And yet, in an environment where we already know that some 70% of scientists regularly cite papers that they have never read, and where workloads are so ridiculously high that any hope of catching up on that reading is pure fantasy, how exactly do we benefit from this overproduction of papers?  Apparently, the UK alone produced 124,000 journal papers last year — not counting innumerable conference papers, abstracts, and working papers.  If we ask ourselves honestly, how many of these are actually worth reading?  How many make an advance interesting enough to merit regular citation and discussion?  1%?  Less?

Meanwhile, as we overproduce papers we continue to overproduce PhD students.  We bring in sharp young minds with the promise of either taking this experience into valuable positions in industry (no longer particularly true), or secure academic positions (definitely not true).  We bring them in to do our work for us, to produce nice papers for journals and conferences, and to bring forward those interesting ideas that we no longer have the time and inclination to produce ourselves.  We do all this without providing a sensible infrastructure for career development or advice, and despite a nagging feeling that this probably isn’t very nice, we continue to do so in order to please our superiors and those who hold the purse-strings.

This is not to say that doing a PhD doesn’t have its own intrinsic value; my PhD was a very valuable experience, and I believe it made me a better and more rigorous thinker.  But in a world where youth unemployment sits at 25% or higher across most of Europe, where less than one half of one percent of PhD recipients will get permanent academic jobs, this is no longer sufficient.  We have a duty of care to these students, and we fail at that duty in many instances.

I believe that at this point we need to take stock of where we are, to acknowledge and accept that we need to change the status quo significantly, and that set about doing that collectively.  I have no illusions that this will happen easily.

But I do feel that there are a few small things that almost all of us can do to start pushing back against the institutional strictures that keep us in this state of affairs.  If, in parallel to these small changes, a few of us set out to experiment with new ways of doing things — as in the case of the Open Systems Institute linked above — then perhaps we can start to make progress.

So I propose that we add a few things to our task lists:

1) Take care of your students.  When new PhD students arrive, take them aside and ensure that they know precisely what they are getting into.  Remind them of the difficulties of the academic life, and that it is A) not fun at all if they wish to have any sort of life or job security, and B) extremely unlikely that they will be part of the 0.5% that become professors, no matter how clever they feel they may be.

2) Only apply for grants that will contribute positively to the academic environment.  Ensure that all publications produced are to be open-access, and that all short-term funding for researchers allows for them to seek promotion, career development, and teaching opportunities.  Apply for grants that make sense for your goals, not just ones that pay out big or make your department look fashionable.

3) Join your union.  The Universities are not your friends, nor are the UK Research Councils.  If something goes wrong, the University will not take care of you.  They will laugh at you if you try to take them on in an employment tribunal without trade union assistance.  UCU is a coalition consisting of your friends and colleagues, and we fight for you every day of the week; but if you don’t join us, we can’t help you when things get rough.  At the same time, we constantly fight for better working conditions, for putting an end to fixed-term contracts, for better deals for students both undergraduate and postgraduate.  If we work together we can make progress bit by bit and improve our working environment.

4) Make all your publications open access.  Use your institutional paper repositories, post pre-prints on your blog or your personal website.  Post papers on Academia.edu, ResearchGate, and wherever else you can.  Sign up to boycott Elsevier at thecostofknowledge.com, and keep a watchful eye on for-profit academic publishers in general.

5) Engage with your colleagues.  Don’t allow yourself to be ranked and rated as a self-contained entity, separate from your peers.  Talk to them, work with them — rebuild the collegial ideal that the current ‘audit culture’ of academia (and the increasingly common performance-related pay scheme) is attempting to destroy.

As it stands now, we have a long road ahead if we wish to make things better.  Students in the UK will soon be burdened with immense debt if they have the audacity to want to educate themselves.  Universities are increasingly moving towards a private-sector mentality focused on productivity at all cost, with no regard for the negative effects of this push on work-life balance, equality and innovation.  Unless we work together, unless we start rebelling in whatever small ways we can and work together in the background on the larger issues, these things will only get worse.

(And yes, before anyone asks, I’m trying to put my money where my mouth is here — I’m President of my UCU branch, every publication I have is available online for free somewhere, and I work in collaboration across disciplinary boundaries.  I’m unable to help in treating students better or applying for better grants, of course, since I’m a postdoc and thus unable to participate in these parts of the system anyway.)

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Kill the REF

I found an interesting critique of the Research Excellence Framework by Bill Cooke, which argues that the REF should be killed on the basis of the intrusive prying into personal circumstances that is apparently required to reduce REF outputs for ‘complex circumstances’.

Personally I feel this is just one of many reasons to kill the REF.  The REF seems to me to be a draconian, costly, fundamentally damaging exercise, one that in the end will only succeed in consolidating even more money in universities which already dominate the research landscape.  I fail to see how this is beneficial for UK higher education, when surely the universities on the lower end of the scale could use a leg up in their efforts to become competitive?  Why do we need a mechanism to create even more of a gap between the top and bottom of the league tables?

Meanwhile, this senseless race for money and prestige creates an immense human cost, causing increased stress, workload pressures, and workplace bullying and harassment.  The REF also exacerbates the growing gap between permanent faculty and fixed-term postdocs, as fixed-term academics are completely ignored by REF.  It’s clearly too late now to stop this REF, but I do sincerely hope we can make this the final one.  This whole poorly-conceived exercise does nothing but cause significant damage to the academic community and should be stopped.

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Higher education as a consumer good

I wrote this rant some time ago, when I felt the need to write something about the current state of UK higher education.  I don’t believe I ever put it elsewhere, so I’ll put it here.

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While the current financial crisis looms large, the immediate consequences seem devastating enough: high unemployment; the European debt crisis; collapsing banks and governments.  Yet off in the distance, something insidious lurks: a disastrous and irrevocable change in how we view the most essential elements of our society.

We have all seen and heard by now of the student loan problem that continues to worsen in America.  As it stands now, American higher education has to face the more than $1 trillion in unpaid student loan debt that has accumulated, a staggering figure that begs the question: what happens if it never gets paid?  How, in fact, do we expect new graduates to pay, when youth unemployment continues to skyrocket and increasing numbers of new degree-holders are forced to move back home to save money?

Underlying this, however, is a deeper assumption about the value and the place of education in society.  Education is not a birthright, not something to which anyone of sufficient cleverness is entitled; education is instead a bonus, an indulgence which requires significant financial resources.  

Until very recently, this was not the way higher education was provided in Britain.  University-level education was for many years provided for free, and students were given a small stipend on which to live.  Education was viewed as an investment, the cost society should pay to produce a vital and vigorous younger generation prepared for the challenges ahead.

In the last decade, this noble ideal has eroded away.  Starting with Tony Blair’s controversial introduction of tuition fees, and now culminating in David Cameron’s tripling of those fees, students are now consumers, taking on enormous debt on the promise of receiving a marketable education.  

At the same time, further changes to higher education will alter the criteria used to approve degree-granting institutions, allowing private education providers — the very same currently plaguing America, preying on the disenfranchised and the vulnerable to get student loan money flowing in — to gain a foothold in these isles.  Meanwhile, academic staff are losing their pension benefits, watching their pay stagnate, and seeing their most valued colleagues and assistants culled, all in the name of preserving the bottom line.

All of this is worrying, but more worrying perhaps is our complacency.  We academics sit and watch, wringing our hands fitfully; at best we attempt to fight back in our usual manner: lengthy, wordy diatribes written to an audience of our peers.

But this educational crisis demands more of us than that.  For once we have to crawl out from our laboratories, our studios and studies and basements full of computers, and emerge blinking into the sunlight.  We need to stamp our feet, make some noise, and stop the further degradation of higher education into yet another venue for consumerist greed and bitter, needless competition.

Otherwise we will be left with a system built entirely on the back of student debt, providing our expertise and knowledge for the benefit of an elite who do not care about education or research or discovery.  They will shed no tears for the unprofitable arts department that is cut (or the social work department, in the case of my university).  They will think nothing of cutting unpopular subjects that do not attract sufficient students with their juicy loan checks.  They, like the bankers and the politicians, will bow before the gods of the market in supplication — caring nothing for the students who pay their salaries, and the lecturers, professors and researchers that bring in grants, publish respected papers, and attract well-moneyed students, all while working for peanuts with no retirement plan to speak of.

I moved to Britain some years ago to get my PhD, feeling a certain excitement to be entering a society where education was actually viewed as a public good.  Now, less than a decade later, British higher education stands in the balance.  I like to think that most Britons feel a justifiable pride in the educational achievements of their forebears, and yet here we are in the midst of a government that sees fit to ensure that this venerable education system will be changed forever — and for the worse.  Now, do we sit calmly and suffer in silence — or will we stand up?

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