Category Archives: Thoughts

Buddhism and Meditation

As some of you are aware, I’ve been suffering with chronic pain for more than three years now.  It’s been an exhausting, distressing and confidence-shattering experience in many ways, and medical science still struggles to find solutions to this problem, so most days the best I can hope for is that things simply stay stable.  I have to accept that it’s quite possible I will never have a day in my life again where I feel totally healthy and pain-free.

In my own case, pain management experts within the NHS have been extolling the virtues of complementary therapies, most particularly mindfulness practices and meditation (with a side-order of yoga).  In the medical context, mindfulness and meditation have proven very successful in their own right, divorced from their original Buddhist context and presented in a Westernised, clinical framework.  Mindfulness has been shown to increase psychological well-being, reduce symptoms of stress, and crucially, reduce pain.

I have a long relationship with Buddhist thought and practice, having discovered both during a period of mental health difficulty as a teenager.  For a number of years after that I maintained an interest in Buddhist meditation and philosophy, practicing meditation regularly and reading thousands of pages of sutras, commentaries and guides to Buddhist thought.  Then, bizarrely, I moved to a country with a rich Buddhist tradition (Japan) and largely fell out of Buddhist practice.

Now that I’ve been reminded of the benefits of these practices I left behind, I’ve jumped back into mindfulness and meditation recently.  For me, while mindfulness has benefits even outside the Buddhist context, its benefits are much more far-reaching when that context is maintained.  Then mindfulness goes far beyond a calming influence, and becomes a means to re-orient your understanding of self, consciousness, and the nature of mental and physical suffering.  It’s also really interesting to read and nerd out on this stuff.

So, this is all a very long way of saying I’ve been reading a lot of Buddhist stuff again and doing daily meditation.  Along the way I’ve been speaking to some people about it, and realised there are some major misconceptions out there about the nature of Buddhism and meditation.  So partly for those who are interested, and partly to put down in words my own understanding and remind myself of areas that require further study, I’ve decided to put together a little guide to the basics of Buddhist thought and hopefully provide you all some interesting stuff to read along the way.

Before I start all that, if you’re interested in practicing mindfulness and meditation, I can highly recommend the book Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana.  In my opinion it’s the most readable, detailed, and well-organised guide to Buddhist mindfulness practice available.  If you read this book and follow the advice within it, you’ll have all the tools you need to start an effective and comprehensive mindfulness practice in your daily life.

Also, a disclaimer: all of this represents my own understanding of core Buddhist principles and practices.  Don’t take my word as being 100% accurate.  Some of it is heavily simplified, some of it will have my own misconceptions layered in there.  Take it as one guy’s summary and fill out the gaps with more authoritative sources!

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Common Questions about Buddhism and Meditation

Doesn’t Buddhism involve worshipping the Buddha?  I thought you were an atheist.

I am an atheist, and lucky for me, Buddhists do not believe in a creator god.  The Buddha is not a god, he was a human who spent years struggling to understand his place in the world, and eventually achieved enlightenment, and offered the knowledge he gained to the world.  He’s an object of respect and admiration, but not worship as some of us might offer to figures like Jesus Christ — and worship would be somewhat antithetical to the Buddha’s teachings, which encourage us to strive for enlightenment on our own terms, and only follow those teachings which match our own experiences and critical analysis.

Doesn’t Buddhism require belief in a soul, so that reincarnation can work?  Again that seems antithetical to your scientific mindset.

Not at all.  There are three core concepts, the three marks of existence, that define the Buddhist concept of the world: anicca (impermanence); dukkha (suffering); and anatta (not-self).  In short, everything in the universe is subject to decay and eventual destruction (impermanence), our existence is plagued with feelings of unsatisfactoriness and discontent (suffering), and our concept of a defined, eternal ‘self’ is an illusion (not-self).

To unpack the ‘not-self’ concept a bit, Buddhists believe that we are not defined, separate individuals with a unique essence, or soul.  I, for example, was once a baby — I was tiny, looked really different, had no beard, and my brain couldn’t even properly encode memories.  Yet I still say that baby is ‘me’, despite having a different physical and mental existence in every aspect.  I have an innate tendency to believe that this highly changeable and temporary existence is somehow united by some unique, ineffable essence that makes me, me.  For some of us that essence is an eternal, non-physical soul.

Buddhists deny this, and say that this concept of self is an illusion.  Our existence is actually an amalgam of the five skandhas, or five aggregates: form (matter), or rupa; sensations (feelings), or vidana; perceptions, or samjna; mental activity, or sankhara; and consciousness, or vijnana.  These five aggregates constitute our experience of physical and mental existence, and create the illusion of self to which we cling.  Part of the Buddhist path to liberation is to realise that our existence is a consequence of the constant interaction of these five changeable aggregates, and further, that these aggregates are without fundamental independent existence.

So, the idea of an eternal, unchangeable ‘soul’ is actually incompatible with Buddhist thought.  The sense of self we have is the direct result of constantly changing interactions with our surrounding reality.  There is no eternal soul, and further there is no separate ‘spirit realm’ in which it could exist.

It’s worth noting that the Buddhist concept of these aggregates is broken down even further into extensive detail, but I won’t go into this here.  It’s extremely interesting though so I may do that — again for self-study reasons as well — in a later post.

Wait, hang on a minute — how does that work, don’t Buddhists believe in reincarnation?  How can we reincarnate if we don’t have souls?

No, they don’t.  Buddhists believe in a cycle of life, death and rebirth, called samsara.  Rebirth is not the same thing as reincarnation.  Reincarnation is something we see in other religions, wherein our eternal soul transfers into a new body after death and experiences a continued existence in another physical form.

Buddhism, as explained above, doesn’t accept the idea of a soul.  Buddhists believe that when we die, we die — our experience ceases completely, nothing is transferred beyond death.  When I die, the being known as Eric ceases to exist, my consciousness and self-identity as Eric dissipates, and my body becomes worm food.

However, that’s not the end of the story.  This is where karma, or kamma to stick to the Pali versions of terms I’ve been using, comes into the frame.  Our actions in each existence cause positive or negative kamma, not as some sort of supernatural judge of good or ill will in our beliefs and actions, but as a physical cause-and-effect relationship — if I do a good/bad thing, good/bad results will inevitably develop later.

It is this kamma that continues beyond death.  The Buddhist belief, at its core, is that once we die, the consequence of our kamma is that another birth takes place, and our little bundle of karmic pluses and minuses determines what kind of birth that will be.  This cycle is inevitable, and eternal, unless we are able to break free of this cycle via liberating ourselves from clinging to this world and become enlightened.

This cycle can be hard to conceptualise, so it’s often described using an analogy.  Imagine my life as a burning candle, with the flame representing my consciousness.  Right as the candle is running out, I use that flame to light the next candle.  The next candle lights up right as the old one burns out.  So my consciousness directly causes another, subsequent consciousness to arise in the next life, but my original consciousness burns out — the new one is a different consciousness, existing in a different body (which may or may not be human).  Kamma is what lifts the old candle to the new and causes the new one to light up.

Now there’s obviously a hell of a lot more to kamma, death and rebirth, but that’s the gist of it.  Rebirth is probably the hardest thing for Western Buddhists to get to grips with, and many people (including myself) choose to conceptualise rebirth largely as a reframing of the physical facts of death — so upon death, the matter of my body will inevitably become part of the environment and provide materials and energy for future beings, so in that sense I am ‘reborn’ and contribute to the arising of some future sentient being(s), and this then keeps happening over and over.  That framing is totally fine for many people, and still works alongside the importance of Buddhist ethics, meditational practice and kamma, so the whole edifice hangs together well enough.

Some then later go on to accept the whole picture of life, death and rebirth; personally I’m more willing to buy that picture than anything hinging on eternal souls, infinite punishments in Hell after death for finite crimes in this world, or various other things.  Buddhist rebirth also still accepts death as a real cessation of existence; only kamma continues to the next life, not the same consciousness and there’s no essential essence that transfers over.  But still it’s a pretty major leap.  Most people I’ve encountered online or elsewhere who properly believe in rebirth as Westerners came to that conclusion after years of meditative contemplation, so who knows, I may also decide such a thing a decade from now.

As a point of clarification — yes, the Buddha does say upon reaching enlightenment that he can see all his previous lives.  However, this is not because of direct recollection of those experiences through an eternal soul or directly transferred consciousness, but because he at that point attained perfect understanding of kamma and thus his own karmic history.  So he was able to see all that as an unfolding of karmic cause and effect across unimaginable aeons of time.  That’s the idea as I understand it, anyway.

And for the hell of it, an additional answer to an unasked question — what do I mean by ‘aeons’?  Well, Buddhism talks about a truly immense units of time called a kalpa.  How long is a kalpa?  Imagine a huge cube of granite, measuring 16 miles on a side.  Now imagine every 100 years, a man comes along and gently brushes a silk handkerchief against that mountain of rock.  A kalpa is how long it would take for the mountain to be completely worn away by that bit of silk.  So when Buddhists talk about long cycles of death and rebirth, they’re talking about really really long cycles.

Okay fine, so reincarnation isn’t a thing, it’s rebirth.  How do you explain the Dalai Lama, isn’t he supposed to be a reincarnation?

Well, we’re getting to the limitations of my knowledge here, but technically the Dalai Lama is not a reincarnation but is an emanation, specifically the 14th emanation of Avalokitesvara (Chenrezig in Tibetan, Kannon in Japanese Buddhism), the boddhisattva of compassion.  There’s a lot to explain here, much of which I don’t fully understand, so I won’t attempt to do all that.  I’ll do a bit of explanation, but bear in mind some of the details may be oversimplified or a bit ‘off’.

The gist of it is that Avalokitesvara is an enlightened being that can ’emanate’ into different physical existences.  So each Dalai Lama is essentially a physical manifestation of an enlightened Buddha, who put a bit of themselves into the Dalai Lama to hang about on the Earth and teach us Buddhist things.  After a Dalai Lama dies, the next one appears somewhere else, again as a manifestation of the same enlightened being.

This is why each new Dalai Lama is tested to see if they recall certain objects, places and people from their last incarnation — the idea as I understand it from the Dalai Lama’s own statements is that as an emanation of a higher-level being, that higher-level mindstream (another complicated Tibetan Buddhist concept) retains knowledge of experiences from their last go-round.  So the Dalai Lama’s existence is still compatible with Buddhist concepts of rebirth and not-self — he is not literally the same soul reincarnating around the place, but a manifestation of a larger being that creates different individuals in each emanation.  That larger being retains knowledge of the karmic processes of cause and effect that link each emanation, allowing the Dalai Lamas to remember things from previous incarnations.

Does that really make sense?  For me it’s pretty hard to swallow, perhaps because I’m viewing it from outside its original Tibetan context, where incarnate Lamas (tulku) are a major thing and have been for centuries.  Personally, viewed either way it doesn’t affect my opinion of the Dalai Lama himself, who I’ve had the great fortune to see speak in person at length for several days back in 2004.  He’s quite clearly an exceptional human being, and when he speaks about compassion I very much trust what he has to say, whether he’s an emanation of Avalokitesvara or not; his behaviour, knowledge and practice speak for themselves, independent of any other considerations.

OK fine, so I get that there’s no God, no soul, no self, and suffering is everywhere and we’re constantly reborn into that suffering forever, but honestly that sounds awful.  If all that’s true, then what’s the point of anything?  If we’re all doomed to just suffer and die over and over again, why bother with any actions at all?

This is a very good question, and a really common one.  It’s very easy to misconstrue Buddhist thought as being fundamentally nihilist.  The self is not real, there is no God, death is for-real death for the most part, and suffering is all we get.

But the Buddha very explicitly, and repeatedly, denies this interpretation.  He frames this debate as the idea that reality is absolute and real against nihilism, in which nothing exists.  Buddha’s way is called the Middle Way because it embraces neither sensual indulgence nor strict asceticism, and likewise here it straddles two extremes.  While everything is always changing and dependent on external causes and conditions to exist at all, that does not mean nothing exists; instead, it means that things — including ourselves — do not have an inherent, independent existence.

Imagine, for example, the chair you’re sitting on right now.  That chair was not always a chair, but was once bits of wood, which were once part of a tree, which grew out of some seeds, and so on.  The Buddhist might say that the chair is thus not an absolute, independently existent thing, but is instead the result of various causes and conditions that lead to its current existence as a chair.  What we call a chair is a product of conceptual thought, not absolute reality, because actually chairs are all differing composites of various other things and the events that caused them to exist.

Crucially, however, that does not mean the chair or the bits of wood or whatever don’t exist at all; it just means that we should avoid clinging to the chair as an independently-existing thing and instead accept it as a fundamentally impermanent agglomeration that will eventually decay and cease to exist in its present form.  So, things still exist in Buddhist thought, but are empty — not of existence as a whole, but of independent, absolute existence.  In relative terms — everyday terms — that chair still exists, as do we, and the causes and consequences of our actions every day.

To take it even further, because we ourselves are not-selves and are composed of the five skandhas roaming about the place, we are also interdependent on everything around us.  So in that sense, not-self and emptiness concepts mean we are less separate from the world than we are in traditions that hold we have a non-physical, eternal soul.  My existence is dependent upon, and intermingled with, the causes and conditions that also make up everything else, so in that context it’s extremely important I be mindful of my actions as I am also not absolutely existent independently, but am part and parcel of the swirling mess that is samsara.

OK right — I kind of get it.  Or maybe not.  But if I take it as read that stuff still exists, and things I do actually matter, then what do I do to avoid suffering?  If suffering is inevitable, as it sounds like it is, then what can I possibly do to not be miserable?

Now we reach the core of Buddhist actions, rather than just philosophising.  In his very first discourse after reaching enlightenment, Buddha laid down the core of Buddhist practice: the Four Noble Truths, and the Noble Eightfold Path.  The Four Noble Truths are (roughly) as follows:

  1. The Truth of Suffering — there is suffering (dukkha)and it is everywhere.
  2. The Truth of the Origin of Suffering — suffering comes from attachment, or grasping/clinging to sense-pleasures, desire for existence, or desire for non-existence.
  3. The Truth of the Cessation of Suffering — suffering can cease when we give up these attachments.
  4. The Truth of the Way Leading to the Cessation of Suffering — the way to end suffering is to follow the Noble Eightfold Path.

So all is not lost — yes, suffering is everywhere, and now we know that fundamentally suffering arises due to our desire to cling to aspects of existence even when existence is ultimately impermanent and constantly changing.  But we can end our suffering through the Noble Eightfold Path, which the Buddha conveniently lays down shortly after this:

  1. Right View — basically, accepting the Four Noble Truths, and believing that there’s a way out of all this.
  2. Right Resolve — renouncing material attachments and devoting oneself to a more contemplative life.
  3. Right Speech — don’t lie, don’t speak ill of other people, and don’t say things that are not of benefit to others.
  4. Right Action — don’t kill people, no stealing, no sexual misconduct.
  5. Right Livelihood — make your living without harming other sentient beings or doing other bad things.
  6. Right Effort — exert your will to avoid unwholesome states of mind that spawn ill will, desires for sense-pleasures, etc.
  7. Right Mindfulness — cultivate awareness of existence as being impermanent, full of suffering, and devoid of self (anicca, dukkha, anatta).
  8. Right Concentration — develop a ‘one-pointedness of mind’, or the centring of consciousness on a single object, without loss of focus.

So the way to end suffering is to lead an ethical life, refraining from absorbing ourselves in materialistic sense-pleasures and from causing harm to sentient beings, while also cultivating a concentrated, mindful consciousness.  In so doing we improve our kamma, reduce our attachment to the impermanent world around us, and develop experiential insight into the nature of mind and reality.  Eventually, if we do well enough, we can break the endless cycle of samsara and enter nirvana (nibbana), and we no longer suffer and instead experience unimaginable bliss.

I feel it’s important to note again here that in the context of the Buddha’s original sutras — called the Pali Canon and the core texts of Theravada Buddhism — the Buddha can’t help you with all this, as he’s not an interfering Christ figure or God.  Praying to him won’t do anything.  Ultimately the responsibility for your enlightenment — or lack thereof — rests with yourself and your own practices.  There are no supernatural authorities to reward or punish you; instead you simply reap the results of your good or bad actions through kamma.

This is not necessarily the case in Mahayana or Vajrayana Buddhism, where Buddhas and Boddhisattvas are seen as enlightened beings that do in fact try to help the rest of us mooks achieve enlightenment.  But even in the most ritual-laden Tibetan practices, still these ‘deities’ are seen as ultimately symbolic of qualities we wish to cultivate in ourselves, rather than as real gods/goddesses or beings that can intercede directly in our affairs.

Wow, finally — that Right Mindfulness/Right Concentration stuff sounds like meditation to me, at last!  You started all this off with that and haven’t given me any details at all yet.  So get to it.

Sorry about that.  I like talking about Buddhist philosophy so I got a bit caught up.

Right, so from the start here I should say I’m again focusing on the Pali Canon and the original sutras from the Buddha.  So essentially I’m talking about meditation as practiced in Theravada Buddhism, which are practices also core to every Buddhist tradition.  There’s tons of other types of meditation in Mahayana and Vajrayana (Tibetan) Buddhism, but they differ widely and would make this post even more ridiculously long than it already is.

Right Mindfulness in the context of the Noble Eightfold Path can be cultivated via what we now call insight meditation (vipassana).  Insight meditation is about developing awareness in ourselves of the three marks of existence: impermanence, suffering, and non-self.  The way this is done is deceptively simple, and it all starts with watching the breath.

This means that we sit in a comfortable, stable posture, and simply observe our breathing as it rises and falls.  Other thoughts will rise constantly, but rather than attend to them or explore them, we simply note their arrival and return to watching our breathing.  Physical pains may develop as we sit as well, and we do much the same: note the sensation, observe it as it rises and falls, don’t become involved, and allow it to pass.  As we do this over weeks, months and years, eventually we find it easier to redirect our attention away from the various thoughts and sensations that come and go, and we begin to understand that all mental phenomena — and indeed all phenomena — are like this.  Things come, and they go, and if we gently allow that to happen and return to focusing on the breath, we likewise train our minds to stop attending so much to impermanent, momentary thoughts and sensations.  In this way we develop mindfulness — a clear awareness of impermanence (anicca), direct experience of the way our mind clings and thus suffers (dukkha), and knowledge of not-self as we see our mind as it really is, composed of a mess of thoughts and sensations with no permanency or independent existence (anatta).

Now, having success with vipassana also requires that we develop concentration, or the ability to focus on a single object within our minds.  This is the other main type of Buddhist meditation, called samatha (sometimes translated as ‘calm abiding’).  In samatha, conveniently, we also can use the breath as an object of focus, but instead of trying to develop insight into the arising and passing away of phenomena and observing this process, we focus on developing single-pointed concentration on the breath.  If other thoughts arise, we note them, immediately drop them, and return to the breath.  Over time, we can maintain this focus longer and longer, and enter states of deepening concentration known as the four jhanas.  I won’t go into these much but will just quote the Buddha here:

[i] Here, the monk, detached from sense-desires, detached from unwholesome states, enters and remains in the first jhana, in which there is applied and sustained thinking, together with joy and pleasure born of detachment;
[ii] And through the subsiding of applied and sustained thinking, with the gaining of inner stillness and oneness of mind, he enters and remains in the second jhana, which is without applied and sustained thinking, and in which there are joy and pleasure born of concentration;
[iii] And through the fading of joy, he remains equanimous, mindful and aware, and he experiences in his body the pleasure of which the Noble Ones say: “equanimous, mindful and dwelling in pleasure”, and thus he enters and remains in the third jhana;
[iv] And through the giving up of pleasure and pain, and through the previous disappearance of happiness and sadness, he enters and remains in the fourth jhana, which is without pleasure and pain, and in which there is pure equanimity and mindfulness.

Buddhism being Buddhism, of course, this is far from the end of the story.  There are four more jhanas beyond those, and the whole system is described differently in some Mahayana traditions and in Tibetan literature, so there’s tons more to discover on both main varieties of meditation.

Now these two meditation methods may seem rather closely related, or even hard to distinguish, and you’d be quite right — in fact in the early Buddhist canon the two seem to be intimately connected.  There’s a lot to talk about on this topic, which I won’t bore you with but instead will direct you to this free book on the close relationship between samatha and vipassanaA Swift Pair of Messengers.  Note however that this book assumes significant familiarity with meditational practices and Buddhist terminology, so it’s not recommended for beginners.

If you want to start practicing vipassana, again I’d direct you to Mindfulness in Plain English which is entirely about this kind of mindfulness meditation and is extremely clear and good.  Helpfully, the same author wrote a follow-up about samatha and the jhanas called Beyond Mindfulness in Plain English, which is equally excellent.

Right, so there are two main kinds of meditation, closely related but with different ultimate goals.  But aren’t they both, ultimately, about withdrawing from the world?  In meditation are we not just hiding from reality?

No, completely the opposite.  Mindfulness and meditation are about creating awareness of the world, how it functions and how our minds perceive it and relate to it.  In deep states of meditation, one understands how our normal states of mind are constantly polluted with unwanted thoughts, desires, and constant noise.  Buddhists call this the ‘monkey mind’ — the tendency of our minds to leap heedlessly from thought to thought, like monkeys cavorting in the jungle canopy.  We never settle, never allow ourselves to perceive anything in and of itself, but instead coat everything with conceptual thought and wallow in endless diversions.

When you start meditating, it won’t be long before you see this ‘monkey mind’ in action and realise that you are completely insane in a way you’ve never noticed before.  Focusing on the breath sounds simple, and turns out to be almost impossible.  Our brains leap from tree to tree, never allowing us a moment’s peace.  You might snap back to the breath and realise you’ve been stuck in a sexual fantasy for the last five minutes without even remembering how you got there.  Or you may try to count your breaths and never get past three as the distractions come so thick and so fast.  You may even discover — this is my problem — that you can have two or three independent, completely fleshed-out trains of thought going simultaneously, and it all seems like an unstoppable cacophony.

But it’s important to be gentle with yourself, and simply allow these things to pass away, and say to yourself ‘OK I was distracted, that’s fine — now back to the breath’.  The simple act of redirecting your attention back to the meditation object is mindfulness!  You are being aware of your mind’s constant straying, and consciously moving back to moment-to-moment experience.  Keep doing that, keep redirecting yourself, and eventually that redirection will become easier and easier to achieve.  Each time you do it, you’re retraining your mind and developing a new habit: instead of getting lost in conceptual thought, retreating from the world and the realities of mind and life, you will redirect yourself back to experience.  Eventually, meditation will allow you to carry over this training into your everyday life, and your awareness of every moment of existence is enhanced.

So, ultimately meditation is not about retreating from reality.  Meditation is about being present in reality in a way we normally never are.  We train ourselves to experience moment-to-moment existence as it really is, observe the comings and goings of our thoughts and the world around us, and become more aware of our reality than before.

OK that sounds a bit more positive.  But what about compassion and loving-kindness and all the stuff the Dalai Lama talks about?  This all seems really inwardly-focused.

Well, I wouldn’t necessarily agree with that — cultivating insight in one’s own mind naturally helps us to perceive the impermanence and suffering present in the world for everyone else, too.  As we become aware of our own crazy ‘monkey minds’ we understand how everyone suffers the same thing, and over time that helps us build compassion.

But yes, there are meditation methods specifically oriented around metta, or loving-kindness.  This is a Buddhist vision of compassion in which we experience pure, unconditional kindness toward all sentient beings; it’s often described as similar to the love a mother feels for her child.  In developing metta within ourselves, we attempt to give that same love to any and all sentient beings on Earth, whether they are friends, enemies, business competitors, or whatever.  Tibetan Buddhists like to say that, in all the hugely long kalpas of the universe’s history, all beings have at some point been our mother, so we should treat them with the same unconditional love and respect we do for our current mothers.

I’m truly becoming a broken record at this point, but our good friend Bhante Gunaratana wrote another helpful book on metta meditation, which again I highly recommend: Loving-Kindness in Plain English: The Practice of Metta.  Again this is well worth picking up if you want a readable, approachable introduction to metta.

In essence, this kind of practice revolves around entering a calm, meditative state, and then beginning to imagine you are offering pure love and compassion to others, but always starting with yourself.  This can take different forms depending on the practitioner; you may mentally recite a series of well-wishing phrases to yourself, then to a close friend, then your whole family, then your enemies, then to the entire world, for example.  Or it may involve visualisations, like fondly remembering a moment of pure compassion and then imagining that radiating outward from your body to encompass the entire planet.  However you do it, the idea is to bring that genuine feeling of compassion into your mind, then imagine giving that out to the world.  Over time, this practice trains your mind to offer compassion as your default response to other people.

One kind of metta meditation I particularly like is tonglen, which is a Tibetan practice.  Tonglen, like many Tibetan practices, centres on visualisations which is a method that I find easier to focus on.  Again there are many variations, but a common method of tonglen is to imagine your own suffering as piping hot black smoke emanating your body and mind.  As you breathe in a deep breath, that black smoke enters your body and is transformed into cool, clear vapour.  Do this a few times, then imagine a wider group of people, like friends or family, and again take all their suffering into your lungs, and breathe out only cool, clear vapour.  Then you can expand further and encompass the suffering of all sentient beings.  In this way, tonglen is meant to help us face suffering in ourselves and others, and be willing to take it into ourselves and offer something positive in return.  Tibetans particularly endorse this practice for helping us deal with ill health, or even terminal illness in ourselves or others.  In a way it helps us ‘toughen up’ and develop the mental strength to absorb bad things selflessly and compassionately.  If our dearest friend is dying, we might do tonglen while imagining their terrible situation, in order to build our strength so we can face it with them.

Metta is a very positive meditation experience for most people, and in my experience can help us be more compassionate toward ourselves as well as others.  Some might find it easier to get started with than vipassana or samatha, as well, since it has a more emotional, everyday focus.

OK great, thanks for that.  That’s quite enough for now.  Why did you write so much of this, anyway?

I felt maybe someone might find it interesting, I guess, but mainly it’s for me.  Buddhism is complex and studying it alone is difficult, so I felt the urge to get these core ideas down somewhere for my future reference.  As time passes and I get some more structured Buddhist experience and tuition, I’ll come back to this and adjust anything that doesn’t convey things well or introduces oversimplifications or mistakes.  Eventually I’ll probably write further posts in the future exploring some more detailed aspects of Buddhist thought.

In any case, I hope someone found this interesting, and perhaps even might be inspired to try some mindfulness/meditation practice.  As I said, even divorced from the Buddhist context these practices are often very helpful for people.  And if you try them and do find Buddhist philosophy intriguing, I hope this gives you a good idea of the basics.

So let’s say I read this and I do find it interesting, where do I go from here?

As I mentioned above I’ve focused on core ideas from the Pali Canon, the Buddha’s original teachings and the core texts of the Theravada Buddhist tradition.  This text alone is rather huge — you can find authoritative, complete translations by Bhikku Bodhi in hardcover in five exceedingly large volumes (one of them exceeds 2000 pages!).  There’s a ton to study there for a start.  If you want a great introduction to the Pali sutras with insightful commentary and a reasonable page count, pick up In the Buddha’s Words, also by Bhikku Bodhi.  If you decide to get deep into sutra study, you can follow Bhikku Bodhi’s extremely thorough lectures on all the Middle-Length Discourses here.

Update 29/12/17: For a bit more challenging reading on Theravada, check out this thorough translation of the Visuddimagga, The Path of Purification, in PDF format (853 pages!).  This is an extremely in-depth meditation manual and explanation of the Abhidhamma, often referred to as the core of ‘Buddhist Psychology’.  Highly recommended for philosophers, but it helps to have read the Pali Canon first.  If you’re feeling brave, throw in the Vimuttimagga, another manual on the Abhidhamma, available as a 433-page PDF and in numerous other formats.  Finally, if you’re feeling experienced enough in vipassana to tackle an 800+ page manual on the subject that digs deeply into the Pali Canon and related commentaries, you can try A Manual on Insight Meditation.

Beyond Theravada, there’s the Mahayana tradition, the ‘Greater Vehicle’, which embraces later teachings that focus much more on the ideal of the boddhisattva, or someone who reaches enlightenment but delays entering nirvana to help other sentient beings end their suffering.  Famous sutras to read in this tradition include the Heart Sutra, the Diamond Sutra and the Lotus Sutra.  The Lotus Sutra in particular presents a pretty major reconceptualisation of the Buddha(s), and is rather huge to boot, so should keep you busy for awhile, particularly if you dig into the nearly endless commentaries.  If you want to be a completist you can read English versions of the eighty-five volumes (!) of the Taisho Tripitaka.  For more approachable summaries of what Mahayana is about, Thich Nhat Hanh offers a well-written but still dense summary of his view on the tradition in his book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching.  The Dalai Lama’s books also cover some key concepts of the Mahayana tradition, particularly loving-kindness/metta.

Zen Buddhism is a Mahayana tradition, and probably one of Japan’s most famous exports.  It’s also the most popular form of Buddhism in the West.  Zen is known for its intense focus on zazen (sitting meditation), some rather crazy Zen masters, and mind-twisting koans that challenge the eager student’s perceptions of dharma.  If you want to read a classic of Zen thought, check out Dogen’s Shobogenzo, which is huge and dense but considered a masterpiece and the central text for Soto Zen.  For a more accessible intro to Zen, The Three Pillars of Zen is probably the best and most thorough.

Update 29/12/17:  Shasta Abbey Buddhist Monastery offers free PDFs of a number of books on Soto Zen practice here.  The page is helpfully laid out and suggests which books are best for beginners and for advanced practitioners.  The beginner books I’ve had a look at thus far (Zen is Eternal Life, Roar of the Tigress I, Serene Reflection Meditation) all seem to offer extensive introductions to both Soto Zen beliefs and practices, so do take advantage of these if you want a free intro to Zen thought.

After Mahayana comes Vajrayana, Tibet’s unique mixture of Mahayana Buddhism and yoga tantra.  Tantra came to Tibet back in the 8th century or so and melded with Mahayana practices and native Tibetan Bon shamanistic practices to produce a ritual-heavy esoteric tradition, characterised by heavy use of mantras, tons of ritual objects, and lengthy, complex tantric practices featuring detailed visualisations.  Vajrayana can be tough to get a grip on as it’s an esoteric tradition, meaning practitioners aren’t really supposed to talk about the tantric practices with non-practitioners, and you won’t normally be taught any of them unless you’ve received an initiation from a lama.  In order to be initiated you may be asked to complete the ngondro preliminary practices, which consist of things like 100,000 prostrations, 100,000 mantra repetitions, and 100,000 of other stuff besides, although from what I understand you can sometimes start with tantra immediately once you start doing ngondro.

However, you can get a great historical summary of Tibetan Buddhism and a detailed survey of practices in the four major Tibetan traditions in Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism by John Powers.  Tibetan Buddhism is also gaining lots of Western adherents these days, largely thanks to the global adoration for the Dalai Lama, so various cities around the US and Europe actually have proper Tibetan monasteries now.  Like any Buddhist group they’ll be more than happy to have you join in, so if you read Powers’ book and find it interesting, look up your local Tibetan group, ring them up and ask to join a meditation or puja.  Some Tibetan sects also offer teachings online, or even tantric initiations/empowerments via webcam.

That basic idea works for any tradition, really — if you like what you read and want to try meditation under proper instruction and with encouragement from a group, find one in your area and give them a ring.  Just be careful to mind how you go, as some unscrupulous types do take advantage of new maybe-Buddhists seeking answers and try to suck them into some cultish stuff (looking at you, New Kadampa Tradition and Diamond Way Buddhism — don’t join these folks).  Remember that Buddhist Dharma teachings should be offered free or at cost, and Buddhists aren’t really into converting people and should welcome you to just sit and meditate in peace, whether you’re interested in Buddhist practices or not.  Retreats might cost more money, generally to cover accommodation and food, and the attendance of the teacher who may be travelling quite some distance.

A few things to remember, if you do go to a group — if you borrow or are given any Buddhist literature while you’re there, don’t leave it on the floor, step over it, or put things on top of it, this is disrespectful.  Put it on a table or shelf with nothing resting on top of it.  In Tibetan practices, don’t point your feet towards the altar or the lama either — be mindful of this if you need to shift positions while meditating, for example.  And of course, try not to disturb anyone who’s meditating, and please turn off your phone!

If you ultimately decide you want to be a Buddhist and do something ‘proper’ to mark that commitment, you can do what’s called ‘taking refuge’.  In doing this you pledge yourself to take refuge in the Three Jewels — the Buddha, the dharma (the Buddha’s teachings), and the sangha (the monastic community).  Most traditions will have some kind of ceremony for this.  This means you decide to trust that you can reach enlightenment as the Buddha did; that you understand the Four Noble Truths and will follow the Noble Eightfold Path; and that you will trust in those already following that path.  As usual, if you do this and then don’t practice or fall out of Buddhism, there aren’t any supernatural judgments awaiting you — it’s up to you to make good on that promise, or not.

It’s worth noting that major Buddhist figures like Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama have stressed that it’s not really important to ‘convert’ to Buddhism.  You’re a Buddhist once you start following Buddhist practices and teachings, you don’t have to prove that to anyone, since no god or gods are watching or judging you anyway.  You can even be a Buddhist while following other religions, though bear in mind some fundamental Buddhist concepts are quite at odds with certain religions (might be hard to still be a Christian if you don’t believe in a creator God or an eternal soul, for example).

Anyway, that’s more than enough for now.  If any of you decide to try meditation, good luck, and if any of the Buddhist philosophy stuff appeals to you, I hope you find some of these links and books interesting.

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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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Science about Science: Does Promoting More Postdocs Help?

Just a brief one today — I’ve been playing with parameter settings on the funding/careers model, particularly the impact of postdoc promotions.  In the base scenario, postdocs (referred to as PDRs here: Post-Doctoral Researchers) have about a 15% chance of getting promoted to a permanent position.  Here’s a sample run at the base settings (which includes the mentoring bonus added last time):

r_mean_pdr2

I’ve finally worked out how to fix the legends on these graphs!  Now let’s compare to a scenario in which 50% of postdocs get promoted:

r_mean_pdr2

 

Note that the mean productivity of grant-holders (the green line) is overall a bit higher than in the 15% case.  The productivity of promoted postdocs (the orange line) also tracks higher over time than in the 15% scenario.

Now let’s try 100% promotion chance:

r_mean_pdr2

Here the productivity of grant-holders and promoted PDRs is higher than in either the 50% case or the 15% case.

So does this mean that promoting more postdocs is our ticket to a more productive research community?  Well, in this virtual academia it seems to help — but still we’re seeing a lower level of productivity than in the postdoc-free scenario.  Not to mention that there’s still quite a bit of statistical work here to be done to determine how significant these effects are — but it’s an interesting result from today’s work and one I hope to address in the paper, assuming that the analysis bears it out.

 

 

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York Workshop on Inequality

Yesterday I attended an event titled Have We Become Acclimatised to Greater Inequality?, an all-day workshop at the National Science Learning Centre at the University of York (programme).  The previous event in this same series focused primarily on health inequality — this event extended the scope of the discussion to take a look at inequality more generally, including economic and social inequality.

Policy Ignorance and the Low-Pay, No-Pay Cycle

The first session in the morning was split into two workshops — I attended the workshop run by Robert MacDonald, a fellow Teesside University academic.  Robert’s work focuses on youth unemployment and social exclusion in the Tees Valley area of the UK, an area frequently ranked amongst the most deprived in Britain.  As Robert pointed out, however, as recently as the 1970s the Tees Valley was one of the most economically vibrant parts of the country.  So what happened to cause this drastic decline in the area’s fortunes?

The government would have you believe that the deprivation and unemployment in the region is a consequence of a ‘culture of worklessness’ — a pathological lack of ambition, a disdain for hard work derived from families that supposedly lead a life of leisure, sitting around the house while claiming government benefits and refusing to work on gaining new skills to increase their employability.  Iain Duncan Smith, David Cameron, and others have made this argument, setting up an alleged conflict between ‘shirkers’ and ‘strivers’ — those who want ‘to get on’, versus those who prefer a life on benefits.

This is the government orthodoxy regarding unemployment, and has led to a policy programme which focuses on ‘up-skilling’ the workforce, increasing benefit conditionality (making it harder to claim benefits), and increasing the number of highly-skilled jobs while reducing the lower-skilled, lower-paid jobs.  Robert confidently called this ‘Voodoo Sociology’, and set out to explain why such a programme ignores the real reasons behind the deprivation and unemployment evident in areas like the Tees Valley.

Youth in the Tees Valley — Underambitious or Underemployed?

Robert and his colleagues have followed youth in the Tees Valley in a series of studies since 1998, called the Teesside Studies of Youth Transitions and Social Exclusion.  These studies found that, in contrast to the rhetoric of central government, the youth in the area have a constant engagement with the labour market — there is no such thing as a ‘culture of worklessness’.  Long-term, post-school transitions for Tees Valley youth are characterised by short-term, insecure jobs that are non-progressive — they don’t lead to further opportunities, promotion, etc.

So we do not see the kind of idle underclass proposed by the government, but instead a constant ‘churning’ of young people through the lowest end of the labour market.  Young people are continuously attempting to enter the labour market, only to be dumped after a few weeks or months and forced to claim Job-Seeker’s Allowance once again.  The DWP’s own studies confirm that of the 340,000 young people aged 22-24 who claimed JSA in 2010-11, 73% had claimed JSA at least once before.  Robert referred to this precarious labour market position as economic marginality — young people in the Tees Valley are perpetually stuck on the fringes of the labour market, with no clear path to regular employment or job security.

The Perils of Voodoo Sociology

Having set out these points, Robert returned to the government’s ‘Voodoo Sociology’.  The government policy goals around vastly increasing the supply of skilled workers, fuelled by a significant expansion of the higher education sector, has been done largely in isolation: there has been no corresponding increase in demand from employers for highly-skilled workers.  The trend we see of late is an increase in ‘lousy jobs’ — low-paid, low- or no-skilled, and insecure — and ‘lovely jobs’ — very highly-paid, highly skilled, and secure.  The middle ground has been ‘hollowed out’, leaving a significant percentage of university graduates with nowhere to go.  In areas like the Tees Valley this endemic underemployment is a serious issue, leaving some 34% of graduates in non-graduate-level jobs, even 5+ years after graduation.  Plus, thanks to recent government policy, these same graduates will soon be saddled with enormous educational debt as well.

Robert also spoke briefly about Prof Ken Roberts — a well-known academic in this area and author of several books on the topic, such as Youth in Transition: Eastern Europe and the West.  His work has confirmed across 25 countries that youth suffer no shortage of ambition, even in the most deprived areas.  In fact, youth repeatedly and doggedly attempt to engage in productive work, but the severe shortage of secure, progressive jobs for young people makes this a struggle.  Youth are seeking out the opportunities that are available to them — but the structure of these opportunities themselves are not conducive to getting young people out of poverty.

The Government’s Approach

Given all of this hard data, what response have we seen from the government?  Well, aside from a partial U-turn on tax credit cuts, an anaemic Living Wage policy, and some lip-service given to ‘making work pay’, not an awful lot.  We don’t see any concerted effort toward reducing the number of bad jobs out there, or restructuring the poor opportunities available to younger people.  Nor have we seen any support forthcoming for short-term underemployed people, or recurrently underemployed/unemployed youth.

Instead we have institutions like the Work Programme from the DWP, which with a success rate of 8% is actually worse than doing nothing at all (more than 8% of people find jobs by themselves, without taking assistance from the Work Programme).  Apprenticeship schemes only accept one of every 28 applicants, making them a very unlikely means of finding a new trade. Here in the Tees Valley, a new project costing £30 million (funded by the EU, as are many things around here — take note, UKIP) is aiming to address ‘social exclusion’ by making young people ‘more work ready’ and ‘raising their aspirations’.   So we see the exact same rhetoric — young people are to blame, their aspirations are too low, too many of them are long-term ‘NEET’ (not in employment, education or training).  When we look at the figures, less than 50 people in the entire region could be classed as actually long-term NEET — the overwhelming majority are constantly attempting to engage with a labour market that seemingly wants nothing to do with them.

So, having established that government policy on this issue is getting things disastrously wrong, and that young people are not in fact to blame for their own misfortune, why does the government persist in this approach?  Robert suggests that this ideology of the ‘undeserving unemployed’ provides an easy platform for the government to justify cuts to the welfare budget and sweeping austerity programmes.  Rolling out welfare-to-work programmes like the Work Programme is much easier than actually restructuring the labour market to create proper opportunities for youth — and large companies love these programmes, as they often end up getting free short-term labour out of it with no particular commitment to taking anyone on.  With that in mind Robert left us with a question at the end of his slides: as a society we speak often about young people’s aspirations and their supposed lack of same, but what about our aspirations?  Do we aspire to create a society in which our youth can find productive, secure employment, and if so, why aren’t we properly doing anything about it?

Summing Up

I very much enjoyed Robert’s presentation.  I found it revealing and very important — I just wish central government would give this kind of work the attention and respect it deserves.  I hope that I might be able to contribute to this kind of work sometime in the future, perhaps by developing simulations as testing grounds for testing the effects of relevant labour market reforms.

I was hoping to summarise the whole day in this post, but this has gone on long enough already — I’ll save the rest for another post.  I’ll spoil it for you now though and say I did enjoy the rest of the day as well.

Although, if I may offer some feedback for the organisers: as someone with a physical health problem which prohibits me from standing for long periods without extreme discomfort, please don’t hold lunch/networking sessions without any seating.  While everyone else was networking and chatting amiably, I ended up sitting in another room by myself, and that wasn’t overly pleasant.

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More Science about Science

After a good few hours working on the simulation yesterday — and by ‘a few’ I mean ’15 hours’ — I have things working in a more stable configuration now.  The original simulation I’m working from was structured around a stable population, but in this simulation I’m using a dynamic population — a very dynamic one, in fact, as postdocs shuffle in and out constantly.

This has meant that I’ve been working a lot on re-writing some of the code to facilitate the addition of postdocs to the virtual research community.  Yesterday I ended up learning some new skills when I found that I needed lists of agents that retained the order of the elements within, so that was an interesting opportunity to learn more about ordered dictionaries in Python.  Presumably I might be able to make use of those in future models too, so that’s very helpful.

So, at the moment we have a nicely dynamic population of simulated academic agents in which postdocs enter the population every semester as grants are disbursed to tenured academics.  Tenured academics spend their time doing research and applying for research grants; they learn from experience and change their time allocation strategies regularly to try to maximise their success in these arenas.  The simulation starts with 100 tenured academics, and after 50 years in a typical run we end up with about ~1200 academics in total, with about a third to a half of those being postdocs, depending on the parameter settings.

These results are based on a generous virtual society though, at least compared to reality: 25% of postdocs get promoted to tenured posts at the end of their contracts; research funding is available to about 30% of academics even as the population grows massively over the years; and tenured academics holding grants get a 50% boost to their research output.  Initially I had included a ‘management penalty’ to research quality for grant-holders, to account for the time spent line-managing postdocs and administering projects rather than actually doing research, but in this generous situation I left that penalty out completely.

So, in this relatively happy situation compared to the real world, do we see any productivity gain from the mass introduction of non-tenured, research-only staff?

Well… no, not quite:

r_mean_pdr

As you can see above, once postdocs are introduced we see a relatively precipitous drop in research productivity.  Grant-holders in particular suffer a great deal on this front, despite having that 50% research output bonus.  Tenured academics not holding grants (in purple) and failed grant applicants (yellow) also dip significantly, but then rebound slightly as they adjust their time allocation strategies between grant-writing and pure research.  Postdocs enter at a lower point and then settle at a middling level of productivity, necessitated by the lowered research productivity they experience at the beginning/end of their contracts.  Their output tends to be more ‘spikey’ in general, as they shuffle in and out of the population very frequently.  Toward the end of the simulation everyone begins to converge between the 0.3 – 0.5 range or so — and in this run we can see the postdocs just overtaking the grant-holders in productivity.

Another interesting aspect here is that in a no-postdoc situation there’s a reasonable positive correlation between research quality and grant disbursement — better researchers tend to get the money, in other words.  When postdocs are introduced that breaks down completely, and there’s little to no correlation between the two; in fact on more than a few runs I’ve seen slight *negative* correlations, this in spite of the fact that in the simulation research quality is used in the ranking of applications.

So — at this stage it seems like introducing a highly volatile, insecure population of researchers into the mix creates a large amount of uncertainty, reduces overall research output, and in general disrupts things significantly.  Even in a ‘generous’ research environment we see these problems clearly.

What about in a more challenging funding environment?  Let’s imagine we’re working in biology or something, one of those fields were grant applications only succeed 10-15% of the time, and money is scarce so permanent positions are even more difficult for postdocs to achieve:

r_mean_pdr

The population is much smaller, sustaining 605 academics in this particular run and just 96 postdocs — but the research output stats look extremely similar.  Grant-holders suffer a huge drop in overall productivity, punctuated by periods of high output when they’re holding that grant, and dipping again when they dump research time into grant-writing to try to get the next one.  Failed applicants and non-grant-holders still hover around the bottom edges, de-emphasizing research as they’re trying desperately to get research money through writing bids.  Postdocs, meanwhile, wobble around the 0.4 mark most of the time, never quite in post long enough to settle in  — and given that they’re not able to apply for grants, they never can benefit from that 50% bonus to output like the senior academics can.

Again these are early results and a very cursory analysis, but it seems like what’s happening here is pretty stable even with fairly significant changes to parameter settings (I’ve done many more runs on my own to check this).  This suggests that in order to escape these problems, future versions of the simulation will need to look at more drastic changes to the research career/funding structures in order to try to address these problems.

Next time, I’ll be adding some more analytical tools to the simulation, and developing some experiments to test alternative funding disbursement methods and career structures.  As ever please do get in touch with me if you have ideas or suggestions — I’m very keen to have more people to speak to about this kind of work!

 

 

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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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Modelling Research Careers: early thoughts

As some of you know already, because I keep going on about it, or worse, trying to drag you into it, I’m hoping to kick off a major project on simulating the research career structure and its effect on scientific productivity.  Having done my time as a postdoc, like many of us, I’m pretty convinced that the current pyramid-scheme structure of academia is not only sub-optimal, but fundamentally damaging, particularly toward academics from marginalised groups.

My first attempt at building an early-stage model of research careers is taking inspiration from Geard and Noble’s paper on Modelling Academic Research Funding as a Resource Allocation Problem.  In this paper the authors construct an agent-based model in which simulated academics attempt to obtain grant funding — frequently a prerequisite for any kind of decent job security these days — by devoting a certain portion of their time to writing proposals for competitive funding bids.  Agents have an underlying research productivity level which influences the perceived quality of their proposal when it comes under review.  At the review stage, top-ranked proposals are funded, and funding is then given to agents (which manifests as an increase in their research productivity).  Agents produce research outputs according to their productivity, whether or not they are holding a grant, and how much research time they have available (given that some period of time must be spent writing grant proposals).

In the end the paper demonstrates that the current system of grant funding is inefficient — huge amounts of time are spent on obtaining grants, which takes away from research productivity, and since most grant proposals are unsuccessful we end up with a lot of time wasted.

What I’m proposing at this stage is to modify this framework to include agents who are on fixed-term research contracts.  Now, presenting a simplified version of the post-doc experience would require a few changes:

  • Agents should be on fixed-term contracts — in the UK about 2/3 of all research-active academics are on FTCs, so the model should reflect this
  • Many postdocs are given much more time to devote to research in general, being largely free of time-consuming teaching or administrative duties
  • Postdocs need to spend significant time during the end of their contracts looking for a new job
  • New postdocs may lose some productive time due to needing to acclimatize to their new working environment
  • Postdocs are often tied to specific projects, and their contracts live and die as the project does

At the moment I’m envisioning a version of the model where we add significant new elements to try and work postdocs into this:

  • FTCs can vary in length from 2 to 10 semesters — as do projects
  • FTC agents don’t contribute to grant proposals, nor do they submit proposals for review (in reality some do contribute, but at least here in the UK postdocs are not considered proper academics by the Research Councils and thus cannot apply)
  • When the postdoc first starts work, 30% of their time is spent adjusting to the new environment, getting to know people and the work that needs doing
  • When the postdoc’s contract is due to end, again they lose 30% of their time due to job-hunting, interviews, and general stressing out
  • When grants are disbursed, the top 10 funded projects are allocated a postdoc with a contract length matching the grant length
  • Postdocs add their research productivity to the academic holding the grant
  • When a postdoc’s contract ends, at the end of the current semester they’re given a 10% chance of being made permanent — allowing them to then conduct their own research programmes, apply for grants and get their own postdocs
  • Postdocs who don’t get made permanent can transfer to another project if one gets funded and needs a postdoc.  If that doesn’t work they drop out of the research population

At the end of a run — say, 100 semesters like in the original model — I’d be looking at overall research productivity, research productivity in postdocs vs permanent faculty, the career history of the postdocs, and the distribution of grant income across the population.

What I’d expect to see is an elite set of agents who started collecting post-docs early, then snowballed their way into a series of successful grants and even more postdocs, while the rest of the population flounders, and is at a serious disadvantage compared to faculty members on the exploiting-the-postdocs train.  As for the postdocs, only a tiny number would be made permanent and thus benefit from their efforts, while a large number would end up on multiple FTCs or dropping out of the population altogether.  All of this would be broadly reflective of reality.  If that were to happen then perhaps this model could provide a good platform for investigating alternative methods of organising research careers, and for examining how different funding disbursement methods affect the fate of postdocs.

What I’m hoping to get out of this in the main is a model which demonstrates the interplay between precarious employment in academia and our current competitive methods of disbursing funding.  Modelling research as a resource allocation problem fits this well, I think, because postdocs are placed under particular pressure to find their next posts in a limited time while being expected to produce substantial research output.

Now as I write this I’m very aware there’s a lot of things at play here and this model is already in danger of being over-complicated.  Even still there’s a number of other factors I’d like to try to address at some later stage, most particularly the impact of stress on research output (from failing to get a grant, worrying about job security, etc.) but let’s just see if this works at all first!

But first: please do chime in if you can and let me know what you think, where I’ve gone wrong, etc.

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Rethinking UK Research Funding, Part II: The Vengeance

Time for another long blog post summarising yesterday’s Rethinking UK Research Funding conference.  After the first session we had another set of speakers covering a range of topics, including a representative from UCU and our perennial nemesis, UCEA (Universities and Colleges Employers Association).  As you might expect there were some interesting divergent viewpoints.

Dr Ruth Gilligan — Athena SWAN Manager, Equality Challenge Unit

Ruth began her talk by talking us through the basics of the Athena SWAN charter, which is about creating a commitment to gender equality across higher education institutions.  She laid out some core principles for institutions to follow:

  • Recognise the talents of all
  • Advance gender equality
  • Recognise disciplinary differences
  • Tackle the gender pay gap
  • Remove obstacles to sustainable careers
  • Address short-term contract issues
  • Tackle discrimination against trans-gender people
  • Demonstrate commitment at senior levels in the institution
  • Make necessary structural and cultural changes
  • Consider intersectionality

Institutions are expected to collect data on all these elements and critically analyse the results.  They should work to identify reasons why certain groups may be excluded or underrepresented in the institution, develop action plans to address these reasons, and show progress over time.

Of particular interest here is the requirement to address short-term contracts.  I have seen evidence in the past that short-term contracts affect female academics more severely than males, and so when addressing gender equality concerns short-term contracts become a crucial ingredient.  Funding organisations have a crucial role to play here — the focus on predominantly short-term funding initiatives pushes the number of short-term contract staff higher and higher, so moving away from this short-termism at the funding council level could have a strong impact.

Ruth also showed some current figures, which showed the number of institutions and departments which have been awarded Athena SWAN Bronze, Silver, or Gold awards.  Quite a few institutions and departments have Bronze awards, far fewer have Silver, and only seven departments in the whole of the UK have reached Gold level — and no institutions at all.  So there’s still quite a lot of work to be done here.

I couldn’t help but think during this talk that later in the session we would have a representative from UCEA.  This is an organisation that has decided to try to force academics to accept a 1% pay rise yet again, on the back of a threat to refuse to work with us on addressing the significant gender pay gap in the sector unless we accept the offer without protest.

Given that UCEA represents all the employers, then if they refuse to work with us on the pay gap, the employers would all be dismissing a core principle of the charter as Ruth had outlined.  So surely, if that were to happen, the awards granted across the sector to date should be removed, and any funding linked to those awards rescinded?

Iain Cameron — Head of Research Careers and Diversity, Research Councils UK

Iain started off with a chart listing ‘pros and cons’ for short-term funding programmes.  I could summarise by saying the ‘pros’ column consisted of points that benefit employers and the research councils — ‘agility’ in the sense of being able to respond to research demands, flexibility for the employers, etc.  The ‘cons’ raised points that we’re all quite familiar with by now — career uncertainty, lack of career development and training time, research time lost to job searches for short-term researchers, and the general unreliability of redeployment arrangements in universities.

Iain acknowledged that the sector is packed to the gills with short-term workers with uncertain futures (21,000 PhDs granted each year, 45,000 post-docs around at any given time).  He laid out the RCUK vision for post-docs which he feels would improve their lot:

  • An overarching aim to support excellent researchers
  • Career support from beginning to end of a contract
  • Mentoring from senior colleagues
  • Networks to enable sharing of experiences
  • Broadening the definition of ECRs to ensure this assistance is widely available
  • Encouraging development of independence in research
  • Pushing institutions to treat post-docs as ‘proper employees’

Note that none of these points really involves RCUK changing anything about their funding structures or tying their funding to progress on short-term contracts from institutions or similar.  In my view these actions are far from sufficient and do not demonstrate a real commitment to addressing the problem.

He moved on then to a discussion of the post-doc academic fellowships available at some universities, in this case Leeds and Birmingham.  These fellowships are generally for five years and include substantial mentoring and career support as well as protected research time.  He called them ‘tenure-track equivalent’, which is of course not true, as tenure is a real thing with a legal framework behind it which does not exist in the UK at all (thanks, Thatcher).  Personally I’d be more excited about these fellowships if they were commonplace, rather than being offered at only two of the many dozens of HE institutions in the country.

After this Iain discussed the PhD situation for a little while, noting that PhDs are being granted to many more people now than even a few years ago, and that there is concern about where these people can make use of these skills when academic jobs are so incredibly scarce and competitive.  He pointed out some figures from businesses, who seem moderately enthused about hiring PhD grads, who they say provide innovative perspectives and valuable skills.  I don’t doubt that this is true, but unfortunately the great majority of PhD students take on the challenge because they want an academic job, not so they can become a juicier prospect in the business world.

In general my personal reaction — as you’ve probably gathered — is that this presentation seemed to acknowledge the problems presented by short-term funding regimes and their effect on the research career structure, but offered very little in the way of solutions on the RCUK side of things.

Michael MacNeil, National Head of Bargaining and Negotiations, University and College Union

Next up is Michael MacNeil, long-time high-level UCU official and a nice chap who I’ve spoken to a number of times about fixed-term contracts in UK academia, so I was pleased to see him focusing on that topic during this talk.  He set out to discuss the HE sector record in supporting sustainable research careers (spoiler alert: it’s not good), and to lay out the case for moving away from fixed-term contracts in universities and for institutions to take responsibility for their researchers.

He noted that higher education is the third worst sector in the UK for insecure employment, coming in just below the hospitality industry and retail.  Two-thirds of the sector’s entire research base is employed on fixed-term contracts, and out of those 57% are for two years or less, and 29% are for one year or less.  While the Fixed-Term Contract Regulations 2002 do provide some protection for fixed-term workers, in practice they’ve made very little difference, as it remains straightforward for employers to deny permanency to fixed-term employees (I can vouch for this fact personally).

Michael then outlined why this issue matters, and why it creates enormous waste and inefficiency in the sector:

  • The human cost in stress and ill health, which also affects productivity
  • Unfairness, particularly towards women and minorities who are disproportionately affected by these trends
  • Great deal of time wasted as fixed-term researchers need to spend time searching for jobs or begging for a contract extension
  • Time and funds wasted on providing training for a constant influx of new researchers rather than retaining talented people within the institution

He also described a few possible actions that could be taken by funding councils and employers to reduce the wastage here:

  • RCUK could fund longer grants to reduce short-termist thinking
  • Tie the disbursement of funds to institutions providing ‘bridging funds’ to carry researchers between projects
  • Institutions themselves can move to open-ended contracts
  • Redeployment procedures exist at many institutions but are notoriously ineffective — fix them!

He noted as well, as Elizabeth Bohm said in the previous session, that the sector as a whole needs to stop pointing fingers and work together in concert to address the impact of short-termism on research and researchers.  He asked for employers to:

  • Work with UCU to push for stable funding and thus stable employment
  • Abandon their efforts to undermine the employment rights of fixed-term researchers
  • Negotiate policies that mitigate insecurity and promote continuity of employment
  • Stop passing the buck — all parts of the sector need to take responsibility

The second point above relates to when UCU discovered that UCEA reached out to government in secret to push for the removal of bargaining rights for workers reaching the end of a fixed-term contract, effectively making it far easier to make fixed-term researchers redundant.  They did this without discussing the issue with UCU, and at the same time as they were receiving Freedom of Information requests from UCU asking for details on their fixed-term workforce.

Personally speaking, the ‘stop passing the buck’ comment applies to our own community as much as it does to RCUK or UCEA.  While I was heavily involved in my union branch, I saw time and time again how academics in positions of power felt perfectly capable of denying help to young researchers on fixed-term contracts who were doing good work and were asking for some security.  That indicates to me that we are also quite happy to pass the buck.  That needs to stop if we are to have our sector regain its health.

Michael alluded to this at the end of his talk, when he discussed the gap in opinion and action between senior, established academics and younger academics seeking to build a career.  Established academics often don’t really see the fixed-term contract issue as relevant to themselves, even despite the obvious impact of lost research time and productivity due to this nonsensical structure.  As Michael said we need to band together as a community and understand that this issue affects the health of our entire sector and our research productivity, and that by addressing it we all benefit.

Laurence Hopkins — Head of Research, Universities and Colleges Employers Association

Laurence’s talk got off to an auspicious start when the chair of the session introduced him as a ‘colleague’, prompting laughter from the room.  “‘Colleague’ might be a bit of a stretch!’ remarked someone in front of me, causing more chuckles.  People simmered down after a moment, leaving Laurence to get started.  He opened by saying ‘I’m from UCEA… I’d explain more about what we do, but you might start booing me’.

Laurence started by discussing the massive increase in research-only staff compared to research/teaching staff (lecturers and above).  Since 2006 there has been a 14% increase in the number of research-only staff.  Out of these researchers some 19% take home a salary above £42k, compared to research/teaching staff where 80% take home more than £42k.

From here he started talking about the situation in some other countries.  UCEA apparently undertook some work with trade unions and employers associations in HE elsewhere to compare how badly researchers are faring worldwide.  As it happens the situation in Italy looked particularly bad — researchers average 6.2 fixed-term contracts before moving on or getting a permanent job, and 10% of researchers have between 13 and 30 contracts (!).  In a survey 63% of researchers in Italy said they ‘can’t imagine their professional future’.  Salaries are also significantly lower in Italy than in the UK, similar to other continental European nations.

While it was certainly striking to see those figures, I couldn’t help but think Laurence was doing his best to distract us from exactly how poor the UK figures are.  It may be true that other places have it even worse, but that doesn’t make what we’re doing excusable.  Similarly, he noted that Finland seemed to be the one place that has avoided an explosive growth in fixed-term researchers — they’ve kept a more balanced division in HE between researchers and permanent staff.  Of course he neglected to mention that Finland has worked to introduce tenure-track pathways which carry researchers smoothly into permanent posts, which is something UCEA could do, but clearly they have no interest in taking that step.

Now we diverged slightly into a discussion around the overproduction of PhD graduates, a topic which had popped up briefly in some earlier talks.  He noted that the current oversupply is not sustainable — we’ve had a 46% increase in doctoral grads since 2006, and the majority of these grads want an academic career.  Unfortunately, as we all know, academic careers are incredibly difficult to come by — the last figures I saw showed that only 12% of PhD grads get a post-doc, and out of those less than 10% are able to obtain a permanent academic job.  Meanwhile, despite Iain’s positive words about PhD graduates’ suitability for the business world, there are very few PhD-level researchers in business in the UK, and the numbers have actually dropped recently from 2.9% to 2.6% of PhD graduates.

As the talk meandered back toward researchers, Laurence shared the recommendations made by the UCEA report:

  • Review contractual arrangements for researchers
  • Manage researcher expectations
  • Ensure balance between research duties and teaching/admin duties
  • Improve status of research staff within institutions
  • Establish platforms for dialogue about research careers

Again these recommendations are profoundly disappointing.  None of these require any substantive action from UCEA itself — they’re just ‘reviewing’ or ‘improving’, no new solutions are being presented, no changes to the current arrangements are suggested.  I also suspect that ‘managing researcher expectations’ basically boils down to warning researchers ‘Hey, you know the conditions of your job will be terrible, right?  Better prepare yourself for that!’  Again one can’t look at these recommendations and believe that UCEA has any interest in actually addressing short-term contracts beyond a few token gestures.

Finally, Laurence finished up by asking whether our sector wants research-only careers that are distinct from academic careers.  Given that this would officially split fixed-term researchers into an exploited underclass with no hope of real advancement or prestige, I’d like to offer a resounding ‘NO’ in response to that question.

Panel Discussion

As the morning drew to a close our speakers gathered at the front again for questions.  One that caught my attention was a gentleman in front of me who asked Ruth what sort of ‘teeth’ are embedded in the Athena SWAN awards — in other words, what actually happens when an institution violates the principles they’re supposed to uphold?  Ruth said that so far no institutions or departments have had their awards rescinded, and that institutions are asked to send progress reports and analyses and demonstrate how they’re moving forward on gender equality and related issues.

Having seen what I’ve seen while working for the union, I suspect that said institutions and departments have got their spin doctors working overtime here.  I’ve seen more than my share of actions which should surely result in the loss of an Athena SWAN award, if departments truly are supposed to act on short-term contracts and so forth.  I wonder if there should be a campaign within the union to begin reporting these incidents directly to the Equality Challenge Unit?  Perhaps that would lead to a greater actual adherence to the principles laid out in the charter if there was an actual threat of awards being rescinded due to exploitative behaviour from departments and institutions.

There was also some discussion about why post-docs are not treated like academics when it comes to grant applications (a question posed by Dr Adam Glen again, who came wearing a home-made T-shirt saying ‘Why can’t a post-doc be a PI?’ on the front and ‘Post-docs are academics!’ on the back).  There was general agreement in the audience that there’s no reason why post-docs shouldn’t be allowed to submit grant applications.  Concerns were also raised that this strange restriction persists because the research councils are so dedicated to the idea of disbursing money almost exclusively to large, established groups who are seen as ‘safe bets’, and that keeping post-docs out of the running fits this agenda.  Adam suggested that small grants which have been cut in recent years should be re-established, as they allow post-docs to develop an independent research programme and become experienced academics.

Another member of the audience proposed that the Research Council could make progress on the fight against fixed-term research contracts by actually employing the researchers themselves on open-ended contracts as a sort of talent pool.  Projects that were funded would then be given researchers from the pool with the requisite domain knowledge, who would then return to the pool at the end of the project and await their next assignment.  This idea came up a few times during the day, and while it does have some attractive elements, I do wonder whether it just serve to divide permanent academics and post-docs even further.  I’d much rather see a system put in place which facilitates a transition from post-doc to established academic, and that allows researchers to remain as part of an institution independent of grant funding.  The system he was proposing would allow institutions to freely exploit researchers while taking no responsibility whatsoever, which is not a power I’d particularly like to give UCEA at this time.

Thoughts

In general the day provoked some vigorous discussion, and I enjoyed hearing what people had to say on these issues.  Most of all I was pleased to see how much people were engaging with the issues facing post-docs and fixed-term researchers in general, which is a topic I was focusing on in my previous work for the union.

However, the responses from some of the speakers were sadly rather predictable.  RCUK and UCEA both seemed to pay mere lip-service to the problems raised at the conference, offering nothing more than discussion forums and mentoring arrangements rather than actual significant, structural change.

I guess these talks reinforced the scale of these problems, and how they seem to be getting worse rather than better.  As several speakers said during the day, the research community as a whole needs to start taking responsibility if we are to make any progress, rather than passing the buck and pretending we’re all powerless to stop any of this.  Funding councils are in a position of great power, where they can demand change of institutions who seek to receive funding; UCEA could stop undermining researcher’s employment rights and engage with UCU in tackling short-term contracts and gender inequalities; and academics ourselves could stand up for each other and stop just putting our heads down and pretending the post-docs are doing just fine and they should really stop whining.

Put like this it all sounds pretty dire, but in fact I felt the day provides a bit of hope.  At least we had people representing all these parts of the research community in one room talking about these issues and challenging one another to develop new ideas.  That’s a start, and something worth building on.

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Rethinking UK Research Funding: Report, Part I

Yesterday I attend the Rethinking UK Research Funding conference at the University of Manchester.  We had quite a full day with plenty of interesting talks and discussion.  Since I’m starting some substantive work on this question now I kept some detailed notes during the course of the day, and I’m posting my thoughts here in case anyone finds it interesting.

I’m going to start by summarising the contents of the talks in the morning sessions.

Prof Adisa Adapagic, University of Manchester

Adisa opened the day with a look at how short-term funding affects research outcomes and integrity.  On a broader level, we know that the short-term nature of research finding has a number of effects on our research efforts:

  • Proposal preparation becomes a major time sink
  • Finding good researchers to join your projects can be difficult
  • The short timelines mean you may have a steep learning curve to climb in a short period
  • Publication pressure becomes even higher due to the time constraints
  • Reproducibility and reliability can suffer
  • Staff turnover increases
  • No continuity/job security for researchers

Reproducibility can suffer due to gaps in the data, or incomplete data, which can be difficult to deal with during a short project.  The quantity and reliability of your data may also be in question, but again that can be time-consuming to address.  These difficulties can then cause further problems during publication efforts, as the headlong rush to print can lead groups to take shortcuts.  Then we can end up with poorly-presented results based on incomplete data, and abstracts that oversell the paper’s contribution in order to make the project look good.

In order to improve these issues, Adisa proposed a few ideas:

  • Standardisation of data between disciplines
  • Use more open databases — stop clinging to your data!
  • Develop quality control methods

On the funding side, she argues that changes must be made to reduce these pressures that can lead to breaches of ethics.  Research funding is said to be ‘impact-driven’, but funding is short-term and impact is long-term (10+ years).  This leads to ethics pressures:

  • Chasing money means changing research direction — even into areas we don’t know that well
  • Publication pressures, particularly for young researchers
  • Publications suffer as we seek quantity over quality
  • Frequent self-plagiarism to produce papers faster
  • Reproducibility suffers due to poor quality/presentation of results

So what can we do to improve this situation?  Adisa offered a few suggestions on a general level:

  • Change from ‘short-termism’ to ‘long-termism’ — offer funding for longer-term projects
  • Change funding models completely to alleviate the pressure to get big grants all the time
  • Consider quality and integrity in assessing results
  • Develop ways to self-regulate our ethics
  • Push journals to get involved — their practices can exacerbate these problems

Peter Simpson — Director, N8 Research Partnership

Next up was Peter Simpson from the N8 Research Partnership, which focuses on fostering collaboration between academia and industry.  As a result his presentation focused more on funding considerations for interdisciplinary collaborations with businesses, which is not something I worry about too much but could certainly be relevant for other colleagues.

Peter summarised some of the challenges inherent to academia-industry collaboration:

  • Long-term partnerships are critical
  • First projects are often difficult, so long-term work allows better ideas to develop and flourish
  • Each side has different levels of urgency — businesses often seek quicker results
  • Openness and trust have to grow over time
  • Short-term funding can make these challenges more acute

The N8 Research Partnership itself seeks to promote research partnerships in the North of England.  The motivation here is to develop northern universities into ‘anchor institutions’ for regional economies.  In a post-industrial landscape where the former manufacturing powerhouses of the North are looking to rebuild their economies around research and innovation, the N8 sees itself as a key facilitator in building collaborations that can move this process forward.

In doing so, however, some challenges come to the foreground:

  • Culture clashes between academia and business
  • Unrealistic expectations from the business side
  • Frequent personnel changes and project closures can slow progress
  • Transparency can be an issue for the academics (we don’t like dealing with corporate secrecy!)
  • Business sometimes view academia as a cheap source of research (but less so nowadays)

In order to alleviate these issues, Peter suggested that academics should reinforce their innovative contributions by not just ‘doing what we’re told’ but suggesting and championing new ideas for these projects.  He proposed that ‘long-term thinking on short-term projects’ can remind businesses that academics are in a unique position to understand the research landscape and look further ahead to issues that will be important to businesses years down the line.

In terms of funding concerns, Peter suggested a few ways that funders could support this kind of work:

  • Undertake regular collaboration ‘health checks’
  • Ensure the continuity of lab-based scientists and project leads
  • Support the involvement of researchers with broader skill sets
  • Incorporate industrial collaboration in early-career researcher (ECR) training
  • Facilitate face-to-face meetings with higher-ups for junior research staff

Elizabeth Bohm — Senior Policy Advisor, The Royal Society

Elizabeth spoke to us about the culture of research in the UK, which was the subject of a major report from the Nuffield Council on Bioethics.  The aim of this project was to develop a constructive debate on the culture of research in the UK.  The final report was based on numerous discussion events and surveys performed in various areas of the UK research community.

When UK scientists were asked what words define good research, these were the top 5:

  1. Rigorous
  2. Accurate
  3. Original
  4. Honest
  5. Transparent

However the report also revealed a great deal of trepidation amongst the UK research community.  A few worries in particular topped the list:

  • Excessive competition
  • Funding issues
  • Research assessment methods
  • Research integrity
  • Career progression
  • Workload

In general we feel that science is extremely competitive, and that this brings out some of the best in us and also a great deal of the worst.  Funding in particular is an issue for UK academics:

  • Current trends lead to loss of creativity and innovation
  • Funding is too short-term
  • Funders are often risk-averse
  • Funds are disproportionately awarded to already-established scientists
  • Transparency issues — why are some projects not funded?

Research assessment is also a major concern, with some 58% of UK scientists stating that either they or their colleagues have been under pressure to compromise their research ethics in order to publish or receive research funds.  Young scientists under the age of 35 in particular report very high pressure in this area.  Elizabeth suggested that research institutions should provide training in good research practice from the very start of our academic careers, since it seems that the pressures of trying to establish oneself in science while under pressure to achieve quickly can lead to temptations to break ethics.

Career issues are another major area of concern:

  • Women in particular find it difficult to advance their careers
  • Culture of short-term results and productivity creates high pressure
  • Lack of time to think and start innovative projects
  • Very high stress levels in general
  • 54% of respondents think promotion systems have a negative impact on science in the UK

These results suggest that broader assessment criteria for promotion, mentoring practices within institutions, and developing good gender equality standards and guidance are critical to pushing back against these trends.

In general these core issues were reported by a very broad range of respondents, and there appears to be widespread agreement that these problems negatively impact UK science.  The report concludes that competition in science is a double-edged sword — it can push researchers to pursue loftier goals, but it also creates a great deal of stress, negative working environments, and a disproportionate focus on short-term results and quick publication.

Elizabeth points out that many of the stakeholders in UK research expressed a belief that these problems are out of their control — academics blame funders or managers, funders blame government, institutions blame academics, etc.  Thus in order to find a way forward, the entire community needs to engage in productive discussion about these problems and develop solutions that we can all get behind.

Andrew Miller — Former MP for Ellesmore Port and Chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee

Andrew gave an interesting talk which was quite different in tone from the previous speakers.  As a former MP he spoke in the style of a politician — discussing some of the intricacies of government, relating stories and experiences while he was in government, and leaving aside the PowerPoint slides and bulleted lists.  As a consequence of this my notes here are rather less detailed, so I’ll just outline some generalities here.

Andrew seemed very aware about the issues posed by short-term funding pressures in science.  He argued that this focus on short-term results makes the research structure less robust overall — perhaps because this kind of funding environment leads to a focus on ‘safe’ research that relates to currently-fashionable problems, rather than leading the way on larger issues that await our society in the future.  He echoed previous speakers’ calls for reducing this time pressure, and expressed his belief that easing this pressure would make it easier for scientists to maintain their ethical frameworks rather than compromising themselves to obtain funding for their projects.

He spoke for some time as well about the need for researchers to engage more effectively with elected officials.  While the research councils are the people who actually disburse the funding, the structure of that system is imposed by central government — so when we have major concerns with how that structure operates, we need to lobby Parliament and government to raise our concerns.  In relation to this he discussed how the current government will be publishing a green paper soon on a proposed reorganisation of research funding in the UK.  Unfortunately this may mean some rather sweeping changes, including the consolidation of all the research councils into a single council, and of course the rumoured massive cuts in funding.  This would be a disaster, given that already the UK only spends 1.3% of its GDP on research — as compared to 7.8% in South Korea, 4.4% in Japan, etc.

I have to say I very much agree with Andrew’s statements on this front.  I’ve been very concerned that the only advocates we seem to have for universities and for research funding are our Vice-Chancellors and our research council leaders, neither of whom seem at all inclined to challenge the order of things in government.  Our union, UCU, works hard to lobby Parliament on these issues, but given the constant, sweeping, highly-damaging changes to UK higher education which the government imposes upon us all too frequently, it is difficult for the union to address research issues in sufficient depth.  With that in mind I feel we as academics need to organise some campaigns which express our discontent with the way things are going, and we must be prepared to stand up for ourselves if research funding is cut yet again.

Panel Discussion

At this point the speakers all gathered at the front of the room, where we had a brief panel discussion with questions from the audience.  Part of this was a discussion about publication norms, as a colleague in the audience (Dr Adam Glen, an outspoken advocate for post-docs) challenged Prof Adapagic on her status as an editor for two Elsevier journals — Elsevier being a highly-controversial academic publisher that charges exorbitant fees for journal subscriptions while posting absolutely enormous profit margins (by exploiting free academic labour that provides content and peer review).  She responded by expressing regret but saying that our research culture at the moment requires a certain amount of acceptance of these evil publishers so that we may advance our work.

I followed up by asking an admittedly aggressive question, pointing out that my two favourite journals at the moment (JASSS and Demographic Research) are both entirely open-access and charge no article publication fees.  I asked why we need for-profit publishers at all, when we live in the year 2015 in which server costs are minimal and basically anyone who wants to could start an open-access journal online and charge nothing for subscriptions or publication as long as they can stump up £10/month.  Prof Adapagic replied that she agreed with me entirely (!), but that she remained in a relationship with Elsevier despite being fully aware of how her work and expertise is being exploited because ‘we have to deal with this’ in our current research culture.  Elizabeth Bohm then jumped in to say that The Royal Society is hoping to improve things by experimenting with new modes of online publishing.  She said that for-profit publishers should remain in the sector because they have produced innovation in publication models in the past.

I strongly disagreed with this last point, because for-profit publishers have been completely behind the times in terms of open-access and Creative Commons publishing since their inception, and any ‘innovation’ they have produced was purely designed to allow them to continue to receive profits on the back of labour funded by the public purse while giving our community as few concessions as possible.  The chair of the session wanted to move on, however, so we left it there.

After this we had a tea break before the second session of talks, so I’m going to do the same now!  Tune in later for the second part of my excessively long summary of the conference.

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Terezin

Last night I stayed up very, very late re-reading Maus, an amazing comic book about the artist’s father, an Auschwitz survivor. It’s intensely personal, moving, and beautifully done.

It reminded me of when I went to Terezin (Theresienstadt), a concentration camp in the Czech Republic. Terezin was unique among the camps in that it served as a Nazi propaganda tool. The town consisted of two fortresses — one of them was a ghetto where they set up fake shops and cultural scenes to fool the Red Cross into thinking it wasn’t a concentration camp. The other, smaller fortress housed the cell blocks and crematorium. Terezin was also a major way-station to Auschwitz, and during the war tens of thousands of prisoners passed through there on their way to the gas chambers.

For most of the day as I looked around I was completely alone, there wasn’t a soul anywhere. I walked around and looked at the cells and the crematorium and the giant gate that read ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’. I felt incredibly strange the whole time — sick to my stomach, dizzy, my hands and arms pricked with cold sweat. I tried to remember to breathe slowly and smoothly so I could calm down.

As I entered the museum in the small fortress an older Orthodox Jewish gentleman appeared — it turned out there was a tour group in from Jerusalem. ‘They’re going to show us a special movie’, he said. ‘Why don’t you join us?’ The movie consisted of scenes from the propaganda movie the Nazis put together to pretend Terezin was a cultural haven for Jews. We saw people dancing, playing football, and children laughing in the streets. 15,000 children died in Terezin. Some of their drawings and belongings were displayed on the walls in the museum.

The movie’s original soundtrack was muted, and instead there was a measured male voice reading out some statistics of the people who passed through Terezin. ‘April 1943, train designation AB, 1000 passengers, 2 survivors. April 1943, train designation AC, 1000 passengers, no survivors’. On and on it went. In the row in front of me the tour group was praying quietly in Hebrew. For a moment I desperately wished I was a believer too, so that I could feel like someone was watching over me or helping me cope with this. As it was I just sat there alone and felt more nauseous.

The movie came to a close and I learned that the director the Nazis chose, a camp prisoner called Kurt Gerron, was sent to Auschwitz along with all of the cast immediately after filming was finished. He died in the gas chamber in October 1944.

I shuffled outside the theatre and was hoping to thank the gentleman who invited me in, but the whole tour group had vanished somewhere. I wondered for a second if I’d hallucinated the whole thing.

I wandered around some more after that. There was one pitch-black corridor leading to a crematorium that I couldn’t enter; as soon as I got a few feet inside I felt a crushing sense of claustrophobia and I ran out again. Eventually someone came past and told me they were closing the gates so I’d better leave.

I had to wait at the bus stop for 90 minutes in the large fortress. People still live there, and everyone I saw looked about as despondent as I felt. I didn’t start to feel well again until the bus took me back to Prague and I finally got back to the hostel.

I visited Terezin for about seven hours on that day in the summer of 2003, more than 12 years ago. My hands still get clammy when I think about it.

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