Wednesday, 18 June 2014

The University as big business:

The case of King's College London



King's College London is in the news for all the wrong reasons. In a document full of weasel words ('restructuring', 'consultation exercise'), staff in the schools of medicine and biomedical sciences, and the Institute of Psychiatry were informed last month that 120 of them were at risk of redundancy. The document was supposed to be confidential but was leaked to David Colquhoun who has posted a link to it on his blog.  This isn't the first time KCL has been in the news for its 'robust' management style. A mere four years ago, a similar though smaller purge was carried out at the Institute of Psychiatry, together with a major divestment in Humanities at KCL.

Any tale of redundancies on such a scale is a human tragedy, whether it be in a car factory or a University. But the two cases are not entirely parallel. For a car factory, the goal of the business is to make a profit. A sensible employer will try to maintain a cheerful and committed workforce, but ultimately they may be sacrificed if it proves possible to cut costs by, for instance, getting machines to do jobs that were previously done by people. The fact that a University is adopting that approach – sacking its academic staff to improve its bottom line – is an intellectual as well as a human tragedy. It shows how far we have moved towards the identification of universities with businesses.

Traditionally, a university was regarded as an institution whose primary function was the furtherance of learning and knowledge. Money was needed to maintain the infrastructure and pay the staff, but the money was a means to an end, not an end in itself. However, it seems that this quaint notion is now rejected in favour of a model of a university whose success is measured in terms of its income, not in terms of its intellectual capital.

The opening paragraph of the 'consultation document' is particularly telling: "King’s has built a reputation for excellence and has established itself as a world class university. Our success has been built on growing research volumes in key areas, improving research quality, developing our resources and offering quality teaching to attract the best students in an increasingly competitive environment." Note there is no mention of the academic staff of the institution. They are needed, of course, to "grow research volumes" (ugh!), just as factory workers are needed to manufacture cars. But they aren't apparently seen as a key feature of a successful academic institution. Note too the emphasis is on increasing the amount of research rather than research quality.

The most chilling feature of the document is the list of criteria that will be used to determine which staff are 'at risk'.  You are safe if you play a key role in teaching, or if you have grant income that exceeds a specified amount, dependent on your level of seniority.
What's wrong with this? Well, here are four points just for starters:

1. KCL management justifies its actions as key for "maintaining and improving our position as one of the world’s leading institutions". Sorry, I just don't get it. You don't improve your position by shedding staff, creating a culture of fear, and deterring research superstars from applying for positions in your institution in future.

2. The 'restructuring' treats individual scientists as islands. The Institute of Psychiatry has over the years built up a rich research community, where there are opportunities for people to bounce ideas off each other and bring complementary skills to tackling difficult problems. Making individuals redundant won't just remove an expense from the KCL balance sheet – it will also affect the colleagues of those who are sacked. 

3. As I've argued previously, the use of research income as a proxy measure of research excellence distorts and damages science. It provides incentives for researchers to get grants for the sake of it – the more numerous and more expensive the better. We end up with a situation where there is terrific waste because everyone has a massive backlog of unpublished work.
4. I suspect that part of the motivation behind the "restructuring" is in the hope that new buildings and infrastructure might reverse the poor showing of KCL in recent league tables of student satisfaction. If so, the move has backfired spectacularly. The student body at KCL has started a petition against the sackings, which has drawn attention to the issue worldwide.I urge readers to sign it.

Management at KCL just doesn't seem to get a very basic fact about running a university: Its academic staff are vital for the university's goal of achieving academic excellence. They need to be fostered, not bullied. One feels that if KCL were falling behind in a boat race, they'd respond by throwing out some of the rowers.

Monday, 9 June 2014

How wishful thinking is damaging PETA's cause

I was appalled a couple of weeks ago to see this advert by PETA - People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Readers of this blog will be aware that spurious claims of links with autism is one subject that gets me extremely cross - parents have quite enough to contend with, without the host of irresponsible people who come up with a new autism cause every day.

Needless to say, there is no scientific evidence for a link between milk consumption and autism, and so I wondered why on earth PETA should be promoting such an idea.

I didn't know much about them until this advert cropped up. I first came across PETA when I was in Australia and they had a campaign protesting about "sheep ships" - live export of animals to the Middle East. I was impressed at the way they highlighted the treatment of the animals, who were taken on a long sea voyage in vile conditions just so that they could be slaughtered in a particular way on arrival.

Now that I've read more background, I realise that the autism advert is, alas, a classic case of the "wishful thinking" fallacy, which tends to crop up in debate when there are complex ethical issues involved. Human rights and animal rights often come into conflict, and many of us find it difficult to steer a course between the competing demands. For instance, should I eat meat? I like the taste and it's a good source of protein and iron, but does that justify farming and killing animals? Should we experiment on animals? It may lead to important breakthroughs for conditions such as Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease, but large numbers of animals will be subjected to unpleasant procedures as a result. Many people when confronted with such choices will give priority to the needs of humans, while at the same time trying to ensure the treatment of animals is as humane as possible.

PETA campaigners, however, take an absolute stance, arguing that "animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, use for entertainment or abuse in any way." Their agenda, then, is not to improve conditions for animals used by humans, but to prevent such use altogether.

This poses a problem. Most people aren't going to be persuaded to become vegan on ethical grounds. It seems that PETA therefore decided we need to be presented with other motivations, namely the idea that milk is bad for you. It would be convenient for PETA if this were true, because it would mean that sensible people would stop drinking milk, regardless of their attitude to animals. In this regard, it's wishful thinking. The claim was challenged last week by Sense About Science, whose conversation with a representative from PETA is described here. Rather than accepting that the evidence for an autism link was not supported by science, Ben Williamson of PETA responded with further outlandish claims, maintaining that consumption of milk contributes to “asthma, constipation, recurrent ear infections, iron deficiency, anaemia and even some cancers”.

The same wishful thinking style of argument is used by those who want to ban all animal experimentation and who consequently argue that all such work is pointless, has never achieved anything, and is only done to promote the careers of those doing the experiments. A moment's thought reveals the fallacy of this viewpoint: it would have to mean that all of those doing animal experiments are either so stupid they can't see the pointlessness of their work, or are sadists who enjoy being unpleasant to animals. Neither proposition is credible. But if it were true, the argument would be easy to win.

The wishful thinkers try to bypass ethically difficult decisions by arguing that there are good practical reasons for adopting their preferred solution. We should become vegan to avoid autism, they say. We should stop animal experimentation because it achieves nothing, they say. Would that life were so simple.

Not only is it logically indefensible to take this line, it is actually counterproductive. PETA's response to Sense About Science confirms that this is an organisation that cannot be trusted to get things right. They will say whatever is convenient to promote their views and will distort the evidence if it helps. Their latest campaign has destroyed any credibility they might have had with the scientifically literate public.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Should Rennard be reinstated?

Things could not be much worse for Liberal Democrat party. After catastrophic results at both council and European elections a couple of weeks ago, there have been questions raised about Nick Clegg's leadership, and resignation of senior LibDem Matthew Oakeshott. Now it's being suggested that Chris Rennard, former Chief Executive who was suspended from the party in January after allegations of sexual harassment were made against him, should be reinstated.

A few days ago, Rennard issued an apology to the women who had complained about him, something he'd been asked to do before his suspension. His supporters, who include powerful people such as Alex Carlile and David Steel, argue that the party needs him: he has undoubted skills that have come from experience of managing the party over many years. In particular, Carlile is quoted as saying that Rennard had now done ‘everything asked of him’, and:
Lord Rennard has been harassed by this inquiry for a year and a half nearly…He [Rennard] may have misjudged situations and been less aware of the personal space of his interlocutors and has misjudged the effect of what he perceived as friendliness would have on them. That’s exactly what he apologised for
I was particularly intrigued by comments from Shirley Williams, who said on Radio 4 that the case had been 'blown up'. She told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "He was a very decent and loyal member of the party as the chief executive, he did huge amounts for the party," adding: "If I may say so, there are some comparisons which suggest there are real, serious sexual harassments and so forth, and I don't think he's one of the most serious cases."

Meanwhile, Rennard is threatening legal action against the Lib Dems if he is expelled from the party.

So it seems that the case in favour of Rennard's reinstatement is that:
  • He is a superb politician of value to his party
  • He didn't do anything wrong - or at least not intentionally
  • Insofar as other people think he did something wrong, he's said he's sorry that they are upset
  • He could cause a lot of trouble for the party if they don't let him back in
  • He has suffered enough
I'm amazed that powerful supporters of Rennard seem to think that this makes a credible case for Rennard's reinstatement.

Of course politicians aren't perfect. They are human beings like the rest of us, doing a difficult job. I don't like deceit but I reckon, for instance, that infidelity is so common a human failing that it would be ridiculous to sack a politician over an affair. Furthermore, I don't assume that a man who makes sexual advances to a woman is a sexist beast: if no man ever did that, then the human race would die out. And let's not pretend that such advances are always shunned by women.

But context is everything. Flirting was invented as a means of establishing whether your advances are indeed welcome. If a man isn't receiving clear signals of interest from a woman he should keep well away. To impose yourself on another person who is giving you no encouragement whatsoever is a violation of personal space. It's hard to believe that Rennard can't read the signals - rather, it seems he chose to ignore them.

I disagree with Shirley Williams that this is not serious. I'm sure Shirley will have had her fair share of hands on knees or pats on the bottom over the years, and either ignored them or given a withering put-down. Some of the women who complained about Rennard have been interviewed on TV and, as you would expect for women who have made a mark in politics, they are articulate and gutsy and look well able to stand up for themselves. Nevertheless, it's clear that they were upset and disturbed by Rennard's behaviour - my impression was that it was partly because it was so surprising - a sudden grope out of left field, so to speak, without any warning.

Then there's the question of power. This piece by Polly Toynbee argues it better than I could, emphasising that  more powerful you get, the less likely you are to be challenged in anything you do.  Since complaints about Rennard date back at least to 2007, it's clear that this is a pattern. I find myself wondering whether the incidents that we're aware of are just the tip of the iceberg, and whether other women were also affected but too afraid to speak out.

Perhaps the strongest argument against Rennard, though, is not his wandering hands, but the way he responded as events unfolded. First with denial ("I didn't do anything wrong"), then with threats ("I'll take you to court") and finally with a plea for our sympathy ("the events of the last fourteen months have been a most unhappy experience for him, his family and friends"). The apology was supposed to "draw a line" under this issue, but it does just the opposite. If there's one thing his apology makes clear, it's that he just doesn't get it - and nor, it seems, do his supporters. His words (with my emphasis) speak for themselves:
He does recognise as suggested in the full report, that he may well have encroached upon “personal space”. In relation to this, Alistair Webster suggested in his report that Lord Rennard “may well wish to consider an apology”. He would therefore like to apologise sincerely for any such intrusion and assure them that this would have been inadvertent. He hereby expresses his regret for any harm or embarrassment caused to them or anything which made them feel uncomfortable.
Here's what a proper apology might have looked like:
I accept that I encroached upon personal space of the women, and in so doing caused them harm and embarrassment. I sincerely regret doing so and undertake not to make unwanted physical advances to women in future.
Alas, we're not going to see that, because Rennard doesn't think it's true. And as long as that remains the case, then he, and his supporters, are a massive liability to the party.