If you “Google” two-year degrees in the UK you will see a cyclic pattern when the idea keeps being floated in the UK. The idea is driven by the cost of the degree and the fact Universities “sit” idle over the summer. The latter being a wide spread perception across the country, especially amongst those who have never attended University. Let me just flag some issues for consideration from a STEM perspective:
1. Education maturity: embedding knowledge is much about reflection than cramming facts. In fact, the developing of ideas and application of ideas come with time. Could this happen over two years? Absolutely, but this would disadvantage the weaker student, who would have no time to work on their knowledge holes and have removed the opportunities to reinforce the learning. The summer will no longer be there for that additional work and the preparation for resits. Knowledge in science builds on knowledge, those students who are not engaged in their first year very rarely recover. With 60% of students at Bath taking part in a year-long placement the model doesn’t fit. The maturity of the students coming back from their placement into their studies only strengthens the argument around the need to reflect and apply the knowledge. It is clear the development of that level of maturity is an important (often unmeasurable) aspect of a degree programme.
2. Research activity: it is true the most productive research time is often over the summer. Access to equipment is free of undergraduate use. Time free from tutorial, assessment as well as delivery allows new research ideas to be developed. Of course those issues could be addressed but at what cost? Further investment in parallel infrastructure dedicated to teaching only and the employment of teaching fellows. Both approaches are a step away from the research-led teaching the leading Universities aspire to. Is that a concern? It is access to the research stars and embedding learning in a research environment that leads to the critical thinking skills employers are looking for. Without those skills you’re imparting facts without the skill to interpret those facts. Not a way to upskill the UK workforce.
3. Summer vacation: allows the downtime to re-develop the curriculum and further enhance undergraduate laboratories. It is also a period that is/can be used to generate income to allow further investment in that infrastructure. It is certainly true the current fee structure doesn’t cover the true costs of a STEM degree. Removing this time free from teaching can only impinge on the teaching quality and equally important student experience - both important drivers for the Government.
4. Integrated masters: already the very brightest students who need to be stretched sign up to an integrated master programme over four years. A medical degree is already five years. It is clear for the brightest student a two-year degree is not an option they are considering. Whilst the brightest could cope with a two-year degree the development of the depth and application of their degree would be severely curtailed. The very best students would still benefit, but the levels of self-learning and critical thinking, which future employers are looking for, would still be in an embryonic form. We would be short changing the student and not maximising Government investment.
A two-year degree is great from a perspective of an accountant in Whitehall and those wishing to tick the box of the percentage having a University education. But as always the old adage “you get what you pay for” rings true. The question that should be asked is “are we delivering what UK employers want from STEM graduates?” With a two-year degree - probably not.
Of the 50 staff and 50 students taking part in the Bath Half Marathon on 12 March, as part of Team 50, 28 are from the Faculty of Science, with every department represented.
All runners have a fundraising target of £175 in support of RAGs Big Four chosen charities: Bath Rugby Foundation, CLIC Sargent, Trauma Recovery Centre, The Forever Friends Appeal. Donations will also be given to the charity Cry in the Dark nominated by VTeam and Zambia IDEALS, nominated by Team Bath.
To celebrate their achievement and to show them our support, please see below for links to their fundraising pages.
Best of luck runners!
Biology & Biochemistry
Pharmacy & Pharmacology
The US film “Hidden Figures” is due to have its release in the UK on Friday (17th Feb). There was a fascinating discussion on BBC R4 Front Row programme this week describing the true life events that inspired the film. For those not aware of the film it tells the story of three African-American women mathematicians working at NASA during the early years of the Space programme, one of whom (Katherine Jackson) did the calculations for the launch trajectory. The story tells of not only the battle for recognition of the women but also against a background of racial segregation (including at NASA). It’s a story that I was completely unaware of and is completely shocking to think this was only 50 years ago. Only recently did President Obama recognise Katherine Jackson by awarding her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. She also appeared in the BBC list of 100 Women in 2016. The story only serves to emphasise why it is important to promote science to all, independent of race and gender, and to ensure the opportunities to succeed are open to all.
The University formally launched its offices in London on Friday (3rd February). It creates a clear and firm footprint in the capital. The primary aim was focussed on the Institute of Policy Research, so it could be nearer to the heart of Government. That is no bad thing for science as well - even in the days of post-truth politics. Many academics at the universities in London do not fully appreciate the major advantage they have just through geography. The access they have, not only to Government, but to commerce and industry is second to none. The centralised nature of England makes this advantage inevitable. Even with the Government’s devolution and regional agenda, further emphasised in the Industrial Strategy Green paper, it will still be some time before the world leading Universities outside of London will be able to compete on a level playing field. The hope is the presence in London will allow us the same sort of access enjoyed by others but it should also create opportunities for further collaboration and close links with those research institutes in London as well as industry.
So as the Nurse review recommendations are implemented and the outcomes of the autumn statements from Chancellors’ past and present come to fruition, the research funding scenario is evolving. Throw in to that mix what will happen with the UK’s participation in H2020 programme post Brexit means it certainly is interesting times.
Global Challenges Fund
The Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) is a £1.5 billion fund announced by the UK Government to support cutting-edge research that addresses the challenges faced by developing countries. Nearly all the uplift to the Science budget (2016-2020) is associated with the GCRF and the (related) Newton Fund. Whilst opening up great opportunities to ensuring leading edge UK research is making real impact in emerging nations, there are also pitfalls to avoid. Clearly researchers need to get their heads around the UN sustainable development goals (SDG) as well the UK aid strategy to ensure their bright ideas don’t fall foul of not providing the support to the communities and countries that the GCRF is meant to benefit. It also throws up challenges to those not accustomed to working in this environment. Of course many of the countries receiving official development assistance (ODA) are in parts of the world that carry large risk, both personally and institutionally. Often there will be a need to establish new research collaborations and understand cultural differences and checks to not fall foul of UK law. For those brave enough to dip their toe in the water (one of the UN’s SDG!) the rewards could be large, not only financially but also in changing the lives of millions of people for the better. There are great opportunities for researchers here.
Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund
In the 2016 autumn statement the Chancellor announced £4.7 billion (by 2020-21) to spend on enhancing the UK’s position in science & innovation on the global stage. This is the biggest uplift in R&D investment since 1979. It is anticipated there will be two avenues for this funding. One probably through Innovate UK and UK RI and the other through the industrial strategy challenge fund (ISCF). The ISCF is rumoured to be modelled on the US DARPA system meaning it will fund ground breaking challenge-based research. The funding challenge is that the research funding will be focussed at both the commercial and University sector. It will become paramount that we forge even closer links with our current industrial partners and develop new ones. DARPA was initiated in the late 1950’s in the US as a response to the launch of Sputnik and funded the technology that gave rise to the internet. It perhaps is only a matter of time before the phrase “white heat of technology” re-enters the political lexicon. The recent green paper is already signposting the “winners” the Government are hoping for: smart/clean energy technologies; robotics & AI; space technologies; healthcare & medicine; material & manufacturing; biotech (with an explicit mention of synthetic bio quantum techs) and transformative digital technologies. It was interesting to note in the same Green paper the Government acknowledging the need to reach out beyond the “golden triangle.”
Photography PA Archive (Guardian 19th Sept 2013)
Harold Wilson and “white heat of technology” speech.
H2020 and the future of EU research funding
Given the overall uplift in the R&D budget is this a precursor of loss of access to the EU H2020 programme though not according to the recent speech from the Prime Minister? Nations outside of the EU, such as Switzerland and Israel, pay to have access to the H2020 research programme. As Switzerland found to their cost, in their own referendum around immigration, the EU is insistent on the freedom of movement. Following the Swiss electorate decision, the Swiss only had “partial” association between September 2014 and the end of December 2016, until a compromise was put in place. The UK has been very successful in securing EU research funds, with a net flow of research funding to the UK.
With the Brexit result and the aftermath plus the election of Trump there is much comment about the death of the expert. The context of this is usually around economists or political scientists. But how immune are scientists? A recent IPSOS opinion poll still had us in the top 5 most trusted professions (sandwiched between Judges in 3rd and Hairdressers at 5th) with 79% trusting us to tell the truth. There is concern though, particular in the US, that public trust in science is diminishing. Why could that be? Climate change is the most obvious example to look at. This is an area where scientists are strongly associated with policy making, with not a clear demarcation between science and political decisions, which is a danger. But is it more than that, is it easier to publish papers if aligned with the consensus than against? That might be an outrageous thing to say but it has been said before. The physicist Lee Smolin in his 2006 book "The Trouble of Physics" was critical of the herd mentality (my paraphrasing) of the Physics community towards String Theory so he gave the sub-title of his book "The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of Science and What Comes Next." The Nobel Prize winner Randy Schekman has attacked the policy and operation of high impact journals such as Science and Nature in this context. It may be worth noting that Science was found to have the 2nd highest article retraction rate of those studied.
So what can scientists do to reverse the decline? The newish editor in chief of Science, Jeremy Berg, put forward a couple of suggestions: transparency on where your firm conclusions end and not to over hype early results. Closely connected to that first point, we have a duty not to present things as black and white and to be confident in our own uncertainty. A good example of that was the "discovery" of superluminal neutrinos at the CERN-Gran Sasso experiment. The results were presented to the community (with a fair amount of pizzazz) but with caveats open to critical scrutiny by the scientific community resulting in the retraction of the results. This was science in the open challenging itself and was the better for that. Of course, it easy to say we should avoid being black and white and couch our ideas and results in terms of probability. Non of these are attractive to the main stream press who want miracle break throughs and debunking of theories from great scientist from yesteryears. The Daily Mail's health coverage is usually very good (not in a positive way) for the latest scare, wonder drug and food or drink fad.
The only thing we can do is continue to be true to ourselves and our science, be critical of our own work (as well as others), be grounded around our findings and be honest when we approach the policy impact of our research.
One of the advantages of being an academic is that there are very clear career structures that allow promotion as your teaching and research profile grows and you take on more responsibilities. The process can be daunting experience (as well as often being opaque) opening yourself up to peer review. Just to add to the confusion each Higher Education Institution in the UK has its own process and criteria and nowadays different job role names (associate professor versus senior lecturer versus reader.) And, of course, that is before you step outside of the UK. (No one outside the UK system knows what a reader is. And I’m not sure those in the UK system know either as every institution has a slightly nuanced interpretation of the position. So I’m not going to have a crack at explaining.) Balancing teaching excellence along with a successful research track record (both publishing and securing grant income) is a tough ask. Add into this the need to demonstrate leadership/management skills to ensure that things the University needs to do get done and the whole thing gets even trickier. So I would like to take this opportunity to celebrate the recent successes in the Faculty that have navigated this minefield effectively in the last round of promotions:
Senior Lecturer: Susanne Gebhard (Biology & Biochemistry), Andrew Johnson (Chemistry), Christof Lutteroth (Computer Science), Andy Thompson (Pharmacy & Pharmacology), Peter Mosley (Physics), Kei Takashina (Physics)
Reader: Tim Rogers (Mathematical Sciences), Ian Eggleston (Pharmacy & Pharmacology)
Professor: Sofia Pascu (Chemistry), Gavin Shaddick (Mathematical Sciences)
Many congratulations & well-deserved!
We are all aware of the challenges for research funding that have been thrown up by the EU referendum result and the uncertainty it has raised around EU nationals working here in the University and the rest of UK HE sector. Whilst not wanting to play down the forthcoming challenges there was a thought-provoking and challenging article in The Guardian just before Christmas by Graeme Reid
Prof. Reid highlighted the House of Lords Science & Technology Select Committee report “A Time for Boldness: EU membership and UK science after the referendum” that makes several recommendations not only to Government but to scientists themselves. Nor did the report pull its punches when criticising the Government, particularly on the impact of ministerial statements on immigration on the HE sector, or calling for the Government to invest further in Science and the importance that the voice of Science is heard in the brexit negotiations. It identified the need to continue to attract talented postgraduate students to the UK, ensure the very best early career researchers are nurtured, whether those researchers are from the UK or elsewhere, in order that we continue to maintain our global leadership. It emphasised the need to expand the opportunities for international research collaborations, whilst maintaining the domestic research agenda, and attracting the very best talent to the UK through new initiatives. One of the most exciting gambits suggested was for the UK to host a major new research facility.
Given the tenor of the report, there is every reason why the scientific community should react positively. It would serve us well to remain on the side lines carping and moaning about the outcome in June. Science is such an international endeavour that we all have a role to ensure the vision articulated by the Select Committee comes to fruition. Already in Europe, the UK benefits from large scale investment outside of the EU, such as CERN, ILL (in Grenoble), the European Space Agency and the future European Spallation Source (in Sweden.) We need to continue to build and strengthen our collaborations with European partners. Leading European universities, such as KU Leuven, are already indicating they are keen to establish new “associations” after brexit.
Whilst the future is far from clear nor is it the doom and despair that is being reported. By their very nature scientists are an inventive lot and what those prospects will be are what we make of them, with the sort of support and initiatives promoted by the Select Committee.