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Thoughts about the Scottish Referendum on breaking up the United Kingdom – parallels with Brexit

Prologue

I wrote this in Summer 2014 before the referendum on Scottish Independence that was held on 18th September that year.  While it refers to Scotland leaving the UK, many of the arguments are the same for why the UK should stay part of the EU.  I have not published it before, but given the parallels with Brexit I thought the time was right.

Background

I am British and have lived in Dundee, Scotland for the last 13 years.  Previously I worked in London, Oxford and Cambridge.  On the 18th September 2014 I will get to vote on whether Scotland should leave the United Kingdom (UK) and go it alone as an independent country.  Here are some of the reasons why I will be voting NO to breaking up the United Kingdom.

Philosophy

Philosophically I believe we should be drawing countries together, not splitting them up. There are enough problems generated in the world by nationalist groups or groups that only care about a subset of the population divided on historical or religious grounds. We need to learn to work together with people of all beliefs and origins. The UK has done this successfully for 300 years and is rich and successful because of it.  Why change now?

Being a Scientist

I am a research scientist and I moved with my young family to Dundee in 2001 because of the excellence in Life Sciences and Medical Research at the University of Dundee. As such, you could say I am a part of the “Brain Gain” that has made Life Sciences at Dundee the top Life Sciences research department in Scotland and one of the top 5 in Europe. I have seen the department I work in grow over the last 13 years to around 900 people with annual income last year of  £90 million.  This funding has nearly all come from UK Government and charity sources.  I have seen two fantastic new research buildings open in this time thanks to generous funding from charities and UK Government.  My own team moved into the latest building, the Centre for Translational and Interdisciplinary Research (CTIR) in July.  Establishing such a success story in science takes decades, but as I will show below, this is all under threat if Scotland votes YES to independence.   

Like all research, mine is international in scope and I rely on winning research grants from government agencies and charities in competition against scientists across the UK and Europe.   The research grants pay the salaries of the highly skilled staff in my research team and so support the shops, taxis, restaurants and other services in Dundee.

Science funding in the Life Sciences is dominated by UK-Government funding agencies and UK-based charities such as the Wellcome Trust.  However, there is no clear message about what would happen under independence.  The Wellcome Trust who fund 60% of my team’s work might impose the same model as they do in Ireland and only fund 50% of project costs, or they might choose to fund nothing in Scotland.  Unfortunately, these possibilities have not been considered by the Scottish Nationalists so there is huge uncertainty about what would happen to our funding.  Perhaps some deal would be worked out with the rest of the UK after independence, but this will take time.  Science moves very fast and we cannot afford to tread water and wait years for politicians to negotiate such a deal when we are in competition with scientists across the world.  In any case, science funding is likely to be low on the list of priorities for an independent Scotland.  Sorting out the currency, major industries, banking and pensions will likely absorb all the time first.    

Although my own job will probably be secure, my ability to do my job will be made very difficult by a YES vote.  My job is already more difficult because of the referendum.   Since the referendum was announced, I have had problems with recruiting the skilled people I need to do my research.  Previously, if I advertised a job I would have 60 or 70 applicants, many of whom would be from Cambridge, Oxford or London Universities or other top centres in England and around the world.  Now I see hardly any applicants from these institutions.  People tell me this is because of the uncertainty about what might happen after 18th September if there is a YES vote. 

Science does not stand still, it is international and we are losing out because of this uncertainty.  If there is a YES vote, not only will recruitment become even more difficult but worse, many of my highly skilled and successful colleagues say they will look to leave Scotland due to the huge uncertainties about science funding and the wider implications for their pensions and savings.   People with these high skills always have other options for jobs so this Brain Drain would seriously damage and possibly destroy the international reputation of the institute I work in that has been built up in Dundee over decades.

Where will the people come from?

The Brain Drain raises a further question. Where will the skilled people come from who will be needed to run an independent Scotland? How will an independent Scottish Government attract the very best and brightest people from the world to run the country and its major industries when there will be enormous economic uncertainty in a newly independent country?

Will Scotland be better off?

Nobody really knows whether Scotland would eventually be better off independent of the rest of the United Kingdom. However, what I can say with certainty is that, if independence is chosen by the residents of Scotland on 18th September, the transition will be very long, disruptive, and painful to many people. Think of any major change such as a marriage breakup or the breakup of a large company.   With divorce, the transition away from a partnership is very difficult for both partners.  Even if one partner is initially pleased with a new relationship, there is no guarantee that relationship will be as happy as the old one in a few years time.   Likewise, with a company breakup, it may make sense to shareholders or others that this is the best course, but many people lose out in the process.  A YES vote would tear apart a relationship that has lasted for 300 years and made the UK one of the most successful nations on earth.  What can we possibly gain from such a break up?

Uncertainties of transition to an independent Scotland.

(a) Even if one were to accept that Scotland could be better off as an independent country, the transition would take decades to complete and consume vast resources.  It is pure fantasy to suggest it can all be done in 18 months.    Just about everything would have to be negotiated, from currency, nationality, transport, BBC, etc etc etc etc.  In science funding if as the SNP would like, we keep a science funding area and keep the BBSRC, MRC etc with money provided by Scottish Govt to Westminster, then the level of this funding would have to be negotiated, probably every year.  At the moment, Scotland does better per-capita than the rest of the UK out of science funding, but this does not seem to be factored into any of the SNP budget plans.

(b) Disruption to recruitment etc.  We have already seen problems with recruitment due to the uncertainty introduced by the referendum.  People from the rest of the UK are applying to us in smaller numbers and if from outside Scotland, when invited to interview, always ask “what will happen if Scotland goes independent?”.  We have to put a positive spin on this, but no one knows the answer.  One colleague told me that a very talented Chinese student he offered a highly prestigious and fully-funded Ph.D. to turned it down because he had seen the news about “political unrest” in Scotland and did not want to risk coming to a country like that!

(c) By going independent, Scotland would be breaking new ground.  The UK would be the first prosperous nation to break up without violent conflict.   Every institution that we currently take for granted would have to have its terms renegotiated with what was left of the UK.  For those organisations that the YES campaign would like to keep sharing with the rest of the UK (e.g. science funding) the details of the funding model would have to be negotiated.  This will take years, not months to achieve and all for what?

We already have a devolved government

In Scotland we already have control over major parts of what matters to people. For healthcare, the NHS in Scotland is separate from the NHS in England and so less vulnerable to the creeping privatisation that the current conservative government is introducing in England.   The Scottish education and examination systems are also under control of the Scottish Parliament, so allowing for free tuition at university.  The legal system is independent and has allowed Scotland to lead on many issues.   

Currency?

The SNP want to keep the pound in a currency union. They want to keep other UK-based institutions such as the Research Councils that fund scientific research. There are probably other UK institutions they would like to keep.  In Scotland we already have control over health, schools, universities and law.  Under the SNP plans for independence we would also keep the same currency and other UK organisations so why introduce all the complications and expense of splitting up the UK?

EU Membership?

There is no clear message on whether an independent Scotland would be able to remain a member of the EU.  If Scotland does remain in the EU then there will be big implications for any company or public sector pension schemes that are UK wide.  Such cross-border schemes would have to be in credit.  Few if any are at the moment. What would that mean for all those with such pensions?

Citizenship?

If Scotland were to go independent, we would have the option of a Scottish Passport. However, it is not at all clear whether all current British Citizens living in Scotland would also still be eligible for a British Passport.  Would children born in Scotland after independence automatically have the right to British Citizenship?  Would those who only had Scottish Citizenship receive the support of British Embassies and Consuls overseas or have to rely on completely new Scottish Embassies that currently don’t exist and would have to be set up at huge expense?

Representation in Westminster

In the televised debate with Alistair Darling on 5th August, Alex Salmond (leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party) repeatedly said that for more than half his life, Scotland had not got the UK government it voted for.  One could make the same argument for many other parts of the UK, indeed most individuals, but they are not asking for independence!  In the 2010 elections even London elected more Labour MPs (38) than Conservative (28)! 

Who stands to gain most from a YES vote?

I think this is just the politicians who are clamouring for more power. All we hear from the SNP politicians is their thirst for power.  The significant powers they already have in the devolved government are not enough for them, they want more.   They are not really thinking about the consequences for the rest of the people in the country, just their own selfish gain, their moment of glory as they celebrate leading Scotland away from its partners in the UK.

Summary

There is no strong economic or social case for splitting up the successful UK.   A strong Scottish Government within the UK is the best option for Scotland. It gives the ability to make decisions locally while having the security of being part of one of the strongest economies in the world and avoids the huge risks and uncertainties of breaking up the UK.

Epilogue – written on 24th March 2019

Well, Scotland voted to stay part of the UK and people like me breathed a big sigh of relief and got on with life.  Unfortunately, the UK Government then took us into yet another referendum, this time  on membership of the European Union.  As we know, they did not get the result they expected, nor did they get the result that the majority in Scotland voted for or the majority in many other parts of the UK such as London.   This leads some in Scotland to argue more stridently for another independence referendum.  While I am very unhappy about the way we have been ‘led’ since 2010 by Westmister,  I stick by my view that whatever happens with Brexit, people in Scotland will still be better off over the coming years as part of the larger United Kingdom.

 

 

 

The Fragility of our Civilisation’s Knowledge…

In my more pessimistic moments, I consider it likely that, driven by climate change and the inevitable conflicts that will follow, our civilisation will collapse over the next 50-100 years.

The totality of human knowledge, history and civilisation used to be stored on a medium that had been shown to be stable over hundreds of years:  Paper.   Until just a few years ago, the core of human knowledge in science, the arts, social development and so on was replicated in libraries across the globe as well as in private collections.  Replication protected the backbone of our civilisation from localised disasters brought on by climate or war.  Today, the same knowledge and more is stored on electronic media that is vulnerable in ways that paper never was and is inaccessible to a human being without multiple layers of technology to read it.

Having worked with computers for over 30 years I am a bit obsessive about doing backups to multiple locations and media.  My work-related research data, writing, presentations etc are all on redundant disk arrays that are backed up nightly to tape in two geographically separate locations.  Personal stuff like my 80 or so thousand photos is stored locally and on at least one cloud provider.   I replicate my laptop to two bootable external drives in two locations.  Companies take securing their data against disaster very seriously since the data are central to the success of their businesses.   Data replication technologies are routinely used to secure against disasters in one location, so you might say all is well?  Unfortunately, it isn’t!

Clearly, the many advances that have occurred in the modern world are absolutely dependent on computer technologies.  With each passing decade, the possibilities for creativity and for understanding expand thanks to the increasing sophistication of computers and associated devices.  My entire career has been built around such developments!  Now the research outputs we produce are mostly stored and made available only through electronic media on the web.

Unfortunately, our reliance on computer technology makes the archive of human knowledge and expertise acutely vulnerable to disaster.  Yes, data are replicated around the globe, but how well this is done is patchy and often unknown to the end user of a service or repository.  For example, I have no idea how robust the infrastructure is that this blog is written on! 

Even if we accept that all the data services we rely on are robust and replicated across the world, civilisation’s knowledge is highly vulnerable to major events that might impact the network of computer systems.  Networked systems are built on a pyramid of technology from the electricity generation and cooling to the data centre, the hardware, firmware and software running on individual computer nodes and storage devices, to the high-level applications that users interact with.  Central to keeping the pyramid working is the human expertise and ingenuity that builds and maintains the systems at all levels.  This expertise is in itself dependent upon those same systems – after all, when was the last time you consulted a paper manual?

While once, a human being could leaf through boxes of dusty records or books to seek out knowledge from past generations, a future archaeologist aiming to learn of our civilisation’s treasures would be left with decaying ranks of hard disks.  Even if functional and an access device could be made, those ranks of disks would be impossible to decode without knowledge of the underlying architecture and encryption methods.   In the unlikely event that an entire data centre was powered up, the lack of knowledge about how to log into the system would defy access.

Civilisations rise and fall.  If our global civilisation does go the way of so many from the past then little will be left for those that follow us to rebuild from.

 

Save Civilisation – the planet will be fine

Here’s a cheery little post for a Sunday evening!

We often hear people talking about what we can do to “save the planet”. Really though, what is meant is “Save Civilisation”.  If the nations of the Earth continue in the way they are currently, then we will see a collapse in the incredible civilisation that has built up over the last few hundred years.   To the planet, the period of industrialisation, fossil-fuel burning and waste will be just a blip on a billion-year history.  The planet has coped before with catastrophes and will cope with what humankind has done to it.  Life will go on, but human civilisation as we know it won’t survive.

We know that human action has led to climate change. We know what we have to do to counter this and how urgently, but nothing is happening fast enough.  The nations of the world bicker about internal politics like Brexit in the UK and the Wall in the USA and worry about “threats” from each other for dominance in the markets but ignore the impending disaster brought on by our actions.

It is wonderful then to see children across the world reacting to this threat and showing they have a voice through marches and school strikes.   Like many others, they realise that if urgent action is not taken to tackle climate change then it is their generation that will live through the depravations brought on by the neglect of the current rulers.

As ecological change hits, then whole populations will become unsustainable where they are.  It will be harder to provide water and food for millions of people and we will see migration on a huge scale.  This will lead to humanitarian crises and conflict over resources and lands where water and good crop growing conditions still exist.   In the worst case this will lead to all-out war, with increasing desperation leading to the use of nuclear weapons by smaller nations threatened by those such as the USA with massive armies.

This won’t just be a crisis for developing nations.  Rich countries will need to cope with hugely increased demands from migrants, but within rich countries like the USA there will be critical resource issues in areas affected by drought and the loss of biodiversity.  This will lead to massive migration and starvation within the country as regions become unsustainable for crop growing and human existence. 

Rich countries around the world are currently reacting to perceived threats from increasing immigration, but these are nothing compared to what will come with ecological changes that will happen over the next 50 years.  In my lifetime, I am sad to say, I will witness the breakdown of the great global civilisation that has built up over the last few hundred years as increasingly desperate groups look to preserve and protect what they have, rather than work cooperatively to find the best solutions for the majority of the world.

The sad fact is that we are already seeing this inward-looking protectionism in Europe and the USA.  Couple this with a “head in the sand” attitude to the unequivocal scientific data about climate change that has been building for decades and we are doomed.

It is very sad to think that this apocalyptic future is all avoidable, but we seem powerless to act fast enough to have any real effect.  I’m sure that ancient civilisations had the same problems, vested interests in locations and ways of life blinded those in power to the impending disasters of drought or sea level rise. Civilisations fall, it seems likely ours will too,  but the planet will be fine.

 

 

 

 

Welcome to the new home for my blog

This is a copy of the posts that are on wordpress.com.  All new posts will be here on geoffbarton.org from now on!  The old site won’t be updated any more…

Publishing Research… Part 2

Sales and Marketing in Research: About being a “Booth Babe”, Performing Arts and Science

I wrote Part 1 over a year ago!  It highlighted one example, where in my (completely unbiased 🙂 ) view, four editors got it wrong.  Of course, this is not unique in science, or indeed to science.   J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books and one of the top 10 selling authors of all time, was rejected multiple times by publishers who could not see the appeal of her stories.  She has also famously shared rejection letters for her first book written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith.  History is littered with people making decisions which in the light of history seem like obvious oversights.

Back in March 2016 I spent three days with Dr Suzanne Duce, promoting our free research software Jalview (www.jalview.org) and some of our other resources such as JPred (www.compbio.dundee.ac.uk/jpred) at the Microbiology Society Annual Conference in Liverpool.  You can see a cute (?) timelapse of the stand here.

This was a bit of experiment to see if we could reach new audiences for our tools. The Wellcome Trust (wellcome.ac.uk) and BBSRC (www.bbsrc.ac.uk ) both fund our projects and gave us some money to do this sort of thing in our last grant renewal.  Did it work?  Well, yes!  We met a lot of people who were not using our tools but probably should be at least trying them, we reconnected with some users of the tools and introduced them to some new features, and we set up some new collaborations.   Was it worth me spending three days on a stand? Maybe yes.  It was a good experience and I just transplanted my office there for the duration so could get on with other stuff too!  Maybe no, but more of that later.

One of my former group members who has been in the USA for a lot of years called what I did in Liverpool as being a “Booth Babe”.  This conjures up all kinds of horrible stereotypical and sexist images, but made me think more broadly about what we do in science and how much what we do centres around Sales and Marketing.

Publishing Research and the Importance of Marketing

In the world of musical performance, competition is intense, so success is a combination of:

  1. Talent
  2. Marketing (getting noticed and continuing to get noticed)
  3. Timeliness (having the right sound or stage presence)
  4. Perseverance (coping with failure and not giving up)
  5. Being attractive, unusual and/or flamboyant

All can  help in promoting your “brand”.  There are very many people with the talent to be a top performer, but few gain international success and acclaim.   The most successful usually combine 1-5 in varying degrees.

I don’t think the situation is any different in science.  We scientists would like to think it is all about the purity of the research, but that is only part of what makes up a successful career.  If we take 1-5 above and map them onto a science career:

Talent.

Well, you need to be able to “do” science.  What that means is field dependent, but you identify problems interesting to study, design experiments, methods or observation strategies, carry them out, interpret the results, put them in context and so on.

Marketing

It doesn’t matter how smart your research is, if you don’t tell anyone about it, it is invisible to the world.  A bit like a musician playing awesome guitar riffs in their bedroom but never performing them to anyone else.  In science, you need writing and other communication skills.   The biggest way you “sell” science is through the peer-reviewed literature, so publishing your excellent research in journals is key to success.  However, where should you publish?

There is a massive preoccupation with publishing “well”. Publishing the results of your research in “high profile” journals.  Why is this?  On the face of it, it should not matter where you publish if the research is sound, but it certainly does make a difference.  In my view, it is all about marketing.

If you publish in a little-known journal then it may take months or years before anyone notices, even if that research is paradigm shifting.  At best, the people who should read your research won’t notice it, at worst they will just dismiss it because (a) they have never heard of you and/or (b) think it is not even worth reading due to where it was published.  If the journal is behind a paywall, then the chances of your work being noticed are even more remote.  If it is open access then at least it is visible to all, but (a) and (b) will likely play a part in it getting ignored.

It is a sad fact that if you publish in “high profile” journals like Nature or Science, then your work will be noticed, even if it is not the best in the field.  Most scientists look at these journals, journalists look at these journals, your work will reach a wide audience.  You will be more likely to get invitations to speak at conferences, your CV is more likely to get noticed when you apply for jobs and so your career is more likely to take off.  Sigh…

Timeliness

It doesn’t matter how exciting you think your research is, if you are just doing some incremental additions to a well understood problem, then even if it is really important, it won’t get a lot of attention.  If your work is a long way ahead of its time, then the risk is no one else will understand why it matters!  If you are really on top of your work then you will be ahead of the world, that is the point of research, but unfortunately, you will always be the world expert on what you do so explaining the magnitude and importance of your discovery or technical innovation to others can be hard.   This is where your marketing and political skills come in.   Sadly, however much you try to explain something to your senior or more established colleagues they may still not “get it”!

Perseverence

You need a lot of this to be successful in science.   Ideas don’t always pan out, experiments fail relentlessly, bugs creep into code only to reveal themselves late in the publication process (OK, that wasn’t a big bug, but…), good papers don’t get sent to review ( 😉 ), grants get turned down… You have to be able to cope with this all and have confidence in what you are doing to keep trying!

Being Attractive and/or Flamboyant

I’d really hope that how you look is not important to scientific success. However, if you can communicate well and get along with other people then you will be more likely to build up your network of scientific colleagues.  The thing is to be confident about what you have done and what you know about and not be afraid to defend your point of view.  If you are a naturally gregarious person and have a flamboyant style, it probably helps get attention of peers and beyond.  Of course, having a great delivery style has to be backed up by solid science…

The changing face of publication

When I started my scientific career in the 1980s, the only methods to advertise research were through journal publications and presentations or discussions at other institutions and conferences.  These remain major and important ways to advertise and disseminate research.   Preprint servers such as arXiv and bioRxiv make getting your original research seen early, much easier.

In the early 1990s http came along and so we could advertise and promote research through a web site.  Here is a copy of mine from 1996, though it looked much the same in 1993/4 when we first created it.

Today, there are many ways to disseminate research and draw attention to your work.  This blog is one, some entries focus on specific research we have done, others like this are more general.

One has to be careful reading blogs, including this one!  Some scientists use their blog as a platform to attack other scientists since this is difficult to do in a conventional peer-reviewed publication.   I don’t think this is the most productive way to settle differences of opinion.   Of course, being controversial in a blog, draws attention to yourself, but personally, I would rather not write something that deeply upset another person, however strongly I felt about the topic.  If anyone reads my blog or anything else I have written and are upset, then please let me know, so I can learn why.

Twitter (in my case: @gjbarton and @bartongrp) is great for advertising new work, new job opportunities etc., but relies on building up a follower network.   I’m not sure how effective it has been in finding people for me, it is hard to judge, but I know some who have found jobs through twitter ads and exchanges.   Direct messaging on twitter is also invaluable as a communication method with fellow scientists.

Facebook can be useful too, we use this to promote Jalview, though since I manage the page, I have to remember to update it!  Facebook is an easy platform to use to advertise basic news etc.   Of course, there are many other platforms that you can publish on:  LinkedIn, ResearchGate, etc., etc., …  it is just a question of spending the time keeping them up to date.

Social media, blogs etc  may or may not help improve your scientific profile though, which is still built primarily on high-quality research written up clearly in the scientific literature!   With the scientific literature, there are now many experiments with different publishing models – open peer review, peer review after publication etc., but change is difficult and slow when the majority of science is still published by conventional journals.

As with musicians, scientists must balance advertising and promotion of what you have already done, with doing the next new thing.   I am demonstrating by writing this blog rather than my next grant application that it can be easy to get distracted from the “doing new science” thing…

Finally, was the booth at Liverpool worthwhile?

As I said above, overall yes, some new contacts were made that have led on to new collaborations and also opportunities to teach about Jalview at other institutes.  The caveat is that we reached around 200 people at that meeting.  In contrast, Dr Suzanne Duce who manned the stand with me, has prepared >20 instructional videos about Jalview as well as other videos about what we do (even some of me giving some lectures…   https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLpU3VZmUmrT0r4M-ixmuzEpboy5Wfxkws).  These videos have reached 10s of thousands of people world-wide.   A conclusion would be that if time is limited, then making videos and using social media/web promotion has to be more efficient and effective than talking to people individually. However, one cannot beat face-to-face meetings for explaining complex concepts.  Face-to-face gives the opportunity for questions and discussion, particularly in a small group and so while reaching a smaller audience, it provides a richer way to communicate.  Overall, we have to do a bit of everything and adapt as new technologies and opportunities present themselves

Thoughts on age in science…

I saw a twitter discussion last year from a young Professor in the USA who was saying something along the lines of “why do people not realise I am a Professor?”  I think she was about 30 years old.   She commented that she was tired of hearing people, mostly men, say to her, “You don’t look like a Professor” or you “Look too young to be a Professor”.   This was a thread about discrimination in the University workplace against non-white middle-aged males.   Reading about her concerns reminded me of my own experiences as a young group leader.

When I was 17 I really did not know what to do.  I was privileged to have the opportunity to go to University, but did not know what subject, or even what University was all about since no one in my family had ever had that experience.   In the end, I went to study mechanical engineering, after a year switched to biochemistry and then finally began to enjoy myself when I started a Ph.D. in computational biology.  Thanks to excellent mentoring and a fair bit of luck, 5 years later at the very young age of 28 I was awarded a Fellowship that allowed me to start my own independent research.  A year later, I was sole supervisor to a bright new Ph.D. student…  Oh, I also taught undergraduate students a bit too.

So, I was very young to be a group leader.   This was unusual then and still is today, but I was certainly not unique in gaining independence at a young age.    One consequence though, was that until I was about 36 or so, I was frequently mistaken for a Ph.D. student or post-doc.  I lost count of the number of times people asked me “Who do you work with?” or “Whose group are you in?” and I had to explain patiently that I had my own group.   This was particularly true when I travelled to give talks outside the UK where it was even more unusual for someone of 30 to be running a group.  I remember visiting the NIH at Bethesda when I was about 31 and having a 1:1 discussion with a postdoc.  I mentioned that my Ph.D. student was working on something – he looked at me amazed and said: “You have a Ph.D. student???!”.  On that same trip, I had various senior staff saying: “So, you are here looking for a postdoc position then?”.   On another similar occasion, I was visiting a University in Australia.  I’d given a talk and afterwards was doing the rounds of scientists, people thought I would be interesting to meet or vice versa.   When I met one person he said something along the lines of: “Sigh… you are another one looking for a job here then?”.  I got the impression he thought I was the latest in a long line of job hunters he had been asked to talk to.

At the University I worked in at the time, I was made a member of Congregation, which is the governing body of the University.  Not such a big deal, this group had all the academic staff in it but I had had to be nominated since my salary was externally funded.  I recall getting a letter about new ID cards being issued and being instructed to go to a particular office to get it done.  I turned up at this office in an ancient building and told the lady at the desk why I was there.  She rather brusquely told me I was in the wrong place and should go to the Student help centre!  I was a bit put out by this, but showed her the letter I had that explained I should go to this office!  She glanced at it and said: “Oh!  You are a member of Congregation, so sorry Sir…”   I think that is the one and only time I have had someone in the UK call me “Sir”.

So, it was a pretty common experience for me to be mistaken as a student or postdoc even after several years as an independent scientist, what would be called a “Professor” in some countries.  I don’t recall being offended by it, though the guy in Australia did irk me a little with his attitude, he softened once I explained I had a job and was just interested in his research.    I don’t think I was discriminated against on age.  I did see other kinds of discrimination based on where I went to school, but by and large I worked in those early years in an institution that judged people by what they could do rather than what they looked like or how they behaved.

I know as a white male, I have not had to deal with the biases (unconscious or otherwise) that other genders or races have to deal with in many institutions.    Despite this, I have noticed a difference in attitude to me and what I say as I have got older, especially  now I am a grey, bald, Professor (in the British sense) and so fit the appearance stereotype.

Publishing Research… Part 1

In 2015, for the first time in my 30-year scientific career, I had a paper rejected by four journals without even being sent to review.  Of course, I am used to journals reviewing then deciding it is not for them – that does happen, but not to even send to experts?!  I was very surprised by this, particularly since I had been speaking about the work described in the paper for almost two years at UK and international meetings and the talks had always drawn a large and interested audience.  The paper being thrown out by editors without consulting experts in the field was the second in our series about a 48-replicate RNA-seq experiment which I have described earlier in this blog and was the result of a collaboration with fantastic experimentalists (Mark Blaxter at Edinburgh, and Tom Owen-Hughes and Gordon Simpson at Dundee).  Thankfully, the fifth journal, RNA, sent it to review, and it was published on 16th May 2016.  (Schurch, et al, 2016, RNA).

It was great to get the paper published in a good journal and especially nice to see that it stayed at No. 1 or No. 2 in the top accessed papers on the RNA website for six months (Figure 1 shows a snapshot – I did check this every week!).

screen-shot-2016-06-16-at-12-46-27

This week (1st March 2017), I was doing some citation analysis and noticed to my surprise and pleasure that the RNA paper was rated by ISI Web of Science as “Hot” (Figure 2, while Google Scholar says it has 28 citations – I like Google Scholar!! ).

screen-shot-2017-02-26-at-16-43-04

This means it is in the top 0.1% cited papers in the field of biochemistry or molecular biology for the last two years!  In fact, there are currently only 28 “Hot” papers in this field from the whole UK.  The work also generated the most interest on social media of any of the papers I have had a significant role in, with a current Altmetric score of 177 (Figure 3).

screen-shot-2017-03-05-at-17-29-51

So, by any measure, this is a paper that was timely and continues to have impact!

The question then is: “Why did four journals consider it too boring to review?”.

I am not sure why eLife, Genome Biology, Genome Research and NAR would not review it, but will speculate a bit.  I won’t quote the editor’s form rejections, but they all had a similar flavour that we have seen on other occasions: “Not of general interest.”, “Too technical.”  “Appropriate for a more specialised journal…”  To be fair to eLife, the original title and abstract for the paper were perhaps less “biologist friendly” than they could have been, but we fixed that before Genome Biology, Genome Research and NAR.  To be fair to NAR, the editor was interested but did not think the paper fitted any of their categories of paper.

None of the editors said this explicitly but I did wonder if: “Not of general interest” was code for “not in human…”.   Perhaps they thought our findings might not be relevant to a Eukaryote with a complex transcriptome?  We also worried a bit about this, but our recent paper in Arabidopsis (Froussios et al, 2017; OK, not human, but certainly a  Eukaryote with a complex transcriptome!) shows essentially the same result, albeit on fewer replicates.   Another factor may have been due to us publishing the manuscript on the arXiv preprint server at the point of submission in 2015.  Although all the journals say that they are happy with preprint submission, I wonder how happy some editors are with this?  Of course, it may just be that they say this to everyone and so only respond to the authors who complain the loudest?  I hope that is not the case.

Although it was annoying and time consuming at the time to have the paper rejected four times without review, I’m obviously very happy that the big, cross-institutional team that did this work was right about its importance!  Lots of people from diverse fields have made positive comments to members of the team about how useful the paper is in their experimental design decisions.  It is certainly good to feel that some of your work is appreciated!

I do wonder though if always aiming to publish in “good” journals is the right thing to do?  Surely, it is more important that our work is visible and can be used by other scientists as early as possible?  I will explore this some more in Part 2 of this blog, later…

How many biological replicates are needed in an RNA-seq experiment and which differential expression tool should you use?

On 28th March, the main paper in our study of a 48 replicate RNA-seq experiment designed to evaluate RNA-seq Differential Gene Expression (DGE) methods was published on line by the journal RNA   (Schurch et al, 2016, RNA).    I’ve discussed this experiment in more detail in previous posts (48 Replicate RNA-seq experiment and 48 Rep RNA-Seq experiment: Part II )  so please see them for background information.  Those who have been following the story on twitter since then will know that we made a mistake in a couple of the figure panels in that paper and this affected the conclusions about the False Discovery Rate (FDR) of one of the 11 methods we examined (DESeq2).  Thanks to great help from Mike Love (the developer of DESeq2) and the fact we had made all the code and data available, we together identified the problem and have now corrected both the figures and the text in the manuscript to reflect the correct results.  We caught this error early enough so that the online (and print !) versions of the manuscript will be corrected.  Unfortunately, the revised version won’t be on-line until 16th May so I’m putting the two most important revised figures here to avoid confusion about the performance of DESeq2 which we now find is at least as good as DESeq and the other methods that performed well in our test.

Revised Figure 2:  Schurch et al, 2016, RNAfigure_02_compare_tools_combined_DEseq2_DEGSeq_corrected

Revised Figure 4: Schurch et al, 2016, RNA

figure_04_null_all_DEseq2_DEGSeq_corrected

In case you were wondering, the mistake was caused by a combination of “features” in two packages we used, SQLite and perl PDL.  DESeq2 by default pre-filters the data before calling differential expression.  As a result it outputs floating point numbers and “NA”s.  NA has a special meaning in the language R. We stored the output in an SQLite database which happily puts NAs and numbers in the same field. We then read the SQLite database with a perl program and the PDL library in order to make the plots.  This silently converted NAs to zeros which is not what you want to happen!  The effect was to call some genes as highly significant when in fact they were not called this way by DESeq2.  This bug also influenced the results for DEGseq but did not affect our overall conclusions about that method.  The bug has been fixed in the version of the code now on GitHub (https://github.com/bartongroup).

Although the team and I are embarrassed that we made a mistake when we had tried very hard to do this big study as carefully as possible, we’ve found the last few weeks a very positive experience!  Mistakes often happen in complex research but they can go unnoticed for a long time.   Here, the turn-round time was a few days on social media and a little over a month in the conventional literature.  I think this illustrates how early and open access to manuscripts, code and data can help identify problems quickly and lead to better (or at least more reliable) science!

I’ll write in a separate post about the publication process and add my views on how I think it could be improved, but for now I just want to thank everyone involved in fixing this problem.   Firstly, Mike Love who has been very professional throughout.  He emailed as soon as he spotted the anomaly and then worked with us over a few days to identify whether it was real or an error.  Thanks Mike!  Secondly, the staff at the journal RNA, in particular the production editor Marie Cotter who responded very quickly and helpfully when we told her we needed to change something in the manuscript.  Finally, the entire team in Dundee who worked on this project to find the bug and revise the m/s in good time.  Special thanks to Nick Schurch who somehow managed to juggle his small children and other family commitments to make it all happen quickly!

Gender, “The Voice” and Athena SWAN in 2016

Over the last few years I have had the privilege of being a member of my department’s Athena SWAN committee.  Before going on the committee I thought I was aware of gender equality issues in the workplace but the discussions we have around the committee table have opened my eyes to the problems and what we can all do as individuals to make a difference.

The consequence of having my eyes opened leads me to notice situations and behaviour outside work that I probably would not have done before.

So, what am I leading up to?  I don’t usually watch talent shows, but I am a big fan of the singing talent show “The Voice” which is shown at the moment on Saturday evening on BBC1.  Why?  Well, in general the contestants are all phenomenally good at what they do.  Also, I like the format of the show where the four high profile “coaches” listen to performances in special rotating chairs with their backs to the singer and only turn their chairs around if they like what they hear.  If more than one coach turns, then the contestant can choose which coach’s team they would prefer to join.   So, the principle is that the contestants, at least in the first round, are only chosen on what they sound like, not their appearance.

Last week was the second round of the show where pairs of contestants “battle” by singing duets and after the song, only one in each pair is selected to stay.  By this stage in the competition “stage presence” starts to make a difference since the coaches can see the contestants.  During the show last week, I was struck by differences in the way the male and female coaches and the show hosts spoke about the various contestant pairs.  In particular, one pair was two young men who did a fantastic performance of their song.  In the first round the female coach had been very vocal about how attractive she found them both.  When the female host came on stage after the performance, she remarked on how “nice (hot)” it was to be on the stage at the moment (with these two attractive men), and later asked the coaches “…can you feel the level of testosterone…”.  After the female coach had commented on the winner’s looks again, the host commented “…just so you all know, even his hair smells nice…”.

I wondered how long the male host on the show would have kept his job if he had made similar comments about female contestants?  Or indeed, how long a male coach would last on the show if he made such strong innuendo-led comments as the female coach did.  It seemed to me that there was quite a gender bias in what was acceptable behaviour on prime-time UK TV.

A possibly extreme way to look at it is The Voice is a kind of job interview.  Here were two guys in a stressful interview being sniffed by one of the company staff who made a point of showing she was aroused by them, while the interviewer made comments about their sexual attractiveness.  I wonder how comfortable the two guys were about all this – they seemed OK, but what else could they do in a competition situation?  The assumption is that men will always like and be flattered by the attention of women, but this is clearly just as wrong an assumption as if the genders were reversed.

I might not have bothered to write this blog if it had not been for something else that happened this week.  I visited an office about a work thing and while I was in the all-female office, I noticed a postcard sized photo of a naked man by one of the desks.  It was a very tasteful picture of a classically beautiful body from behind of a man with a sandy bottom.  It was a nice photo, but when I saw it I said something about it because I was surprised to see it at all in the workplace. The folk in the office were a bit embarrassed by the photo, but it turned out to “…belong to someone else who used to be here…” and “…we should really take that down…”.  This reminded me of my reaction to the Voice the previous week so I mentioned this to them.  We all agreed that currently what was acceptable for a female to say or do to a male in public was quite different to what was acceptable the other way around.  One comment from the females was: “…well, when a woman does it, it is just a bit of fun…”  I wonder where I have heard that before?!

So this brings me back to Athena SWAN and workplace equality.   The Athena SWAN application process is all about showing how, as an organisation you have recognised gender issues and put procedures in place as a result that help equality.   So for example, last year we shifted the time of all our major seminars to earlier in the day (from 16:00) so they and the after-seminar receptions could be attended by people with carer responsibilities.  For individuals, one message is that you should think about what you say or do to judge whether it might make someone else uncomfortable.  This is probably good advice for life generally, but especially in the workplace.   While some things like the blatant innuendos on the Voice last week might be obvious to avoid, others may be subtle.  Some phrase, expression or behaviour you have had since childhood could be perfectly acceptable to one person but deeply offensive to another.  Likewise, relaxed conversation and humour amongst friends after work might be completely inappropriate around a committee table or other workplace situation.    It is up to us, if we are offended by something, to say so straight away.  Often, when pointed out, the perpetrator will be horrified to discover what they thought was quite innocent behaviour was not seen that way.  Other times of course, people will be baffled as to why you are upset.  Whether people are baffled or understanding of a behaviour depends on what is acceptable in wider society and thankfully that is changing continuously for the better.

 

On the subject of minorities…

A fun lecture…

A few months ago I spent an enjoyable hour or so listening to one of my fellow Professors in Life Sciences giving a seminar in our Athena SWAN programme.  It set me thinking about broader issues of inequality in research, so I thought I would write something about this before I forgot!   I’ll get to the computational biology bit at the end…

Athena SWAN for those who don’t know is run by the UK Government and originally had a charter that says:

Recognising commitment to advancing women’s careers in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM) employment in higher education and research.

In 2015, it was merged with other equality schemes across the Arts and Social Sciences.  You can read more about Athena SWAN on the Equality Challenge Unit’s website (www.ecu.ac.uk), but the principle is that Universities and University Departments can apply for Bronze, Silver or Gold status in Athena SWAN.  The process of meeting the demands of these different levels requires a lot of inward looking by institutions about how inequality is handled in the institution and what is being done to help address it.   This in my view is a very good thing – being on the Athena SWAN committee for our department has certainly helped raise my own awareness of the issues.

Leaky pipeline and the Petrie Multiplier

As our speaker reminded us in her talk, the big problem in STEMM subjects across UK higher education is that there is a “leaky pipeline” where the proportion of women at each level of seniority drops.  The department I work in is fairly typical of life sciences departments in that there are more female undergraduate students than male (about 60% female) this drops to 55% at Ph.D. student level, then down to 45% at postdoc.  However, by the time you get to Principal Investigator (Independent Research Fellow, Lecturer, Senior Lecturer, Reader, Professor) women are down to about 20%.   Clearly, this kind of gender inequality is true across the whole of our society in many professions and there are multiple reasons for it that I won’t discuss here.

The talk was very entertaining.  It took us from her early life through various high and low points in life and career.  I wasn’t surprised to learn that she had been the victim of sexism at times, what horrified me more was that even today, she experienced this in various ways from peers in science.    She had discovered the best way to deal with it if you did not have a good “come back comment at the time” was not to agonise or get angry, but just to accept that some people are just jerks (my word not hers) and move on.  I don’t know if this is the best strategy or not, but our speaker then introduced us to the “Petrie Multiplier” which is described in detail in Ian Gent’s excellent blog post and how this had made her realise that a large part of what she experienced was dominated by the effect of being in a minority rather than any particular personal targeting.

 

 

Although focused on gender inequality, the principle of the multiplier is general.    It says if you have a crowd of people made up of two groups where one group is in the majority, say 5 to 1, and a fixed percentage of each group (say 10%) discriminate against members of the other group, then if you are in the smaller group, the likelihood that you will be the victim of discrimination is proportional to the square of the ratio between the groups.   Thus, in the case of a 5 to 1 ratio like this, if you are in the smaller group, you are 25 times more likely to be discriminated against than someone in the majority group.

I chose 5:1 as the ratio since that is the ratio of male to female PIs at my institution, but clearly, minority groups exist everywhere. Although it is a very simple model, the Petrie Multiplier helps to explain (but not justify) why it is exceptionally hard for any minority to get their voice heard.  Even a small amount of bias from members of the majority leads to a big perceived effect on the minority.

Computational Biology…

Minorities occur in science all the time!  Scientists all know how hard it can be to get new ideas or ways of working accepted against accepted dogma.  This was (and possibly still is) true of the field of computational biology/bioinformatics.  In the 1980s and 90s, people who thought of new ways to analyse data, spent their time analysing existing datasets rather than generating new ones or who developed novel computational methods, were in a tiny minority of biologists.  There was scepticism and lack of understanding from the majority of biologists whose careers had grown up without the need for deep knowledge of computing.  As a consequence, getting funding to do computational research in biology was difficult.

So, are things better now for Computational Biology? There is certainly broad understanding of the need for computational skills in interpreting data.   However, the majority of biological scientists are still experimentalists whose research focuses on specific biological questions.  As a consequence, funding programmes are nearly always linked to the creation of new data sets rather than reflection on how to make new use of data that is already there or to enhance methodology.

This bias can make it difficult for scientists trying to start their independent career who are driven by methods development rather than the desire to probe a specific biological question.  However, I am optimistic that as the ratio of scientists with expertise and understanding of computing increases in our community, it will become easier for the next generation of innovative method developers to forge their careers in this exciting era for our science.

 

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