Top of the Whats? Marketing UK Psychology Departments

Last week I spoke about the futility of thinking positions in league tables mean very much (apart from marketing). Strangely, some people haven’t been listening! VCs from around the country have been wheeled out to talk about their Gold TEFs, just as they were lauding their Athena Swan awards and all manner of REF permutations. But, of course, it doesn’t stop there. The CMA means that any claims made on webpages/brochures have to be accurate. This has led, unsurprisingly, to a proliferation of ingenious and selective statistics adorning departmental “about us” pages online.


Colonel Gaddafi – also a great lover of medals…


What doesn’t help is that there are multiple sources you can cite for your rankings, ratings and awards: with REF,  TEF, NSS and so on you can include the main component but you can also cite a rank in any one of the many individual elements. Then there are newspaper league tables: Guardian, Complete University Guide, Times, Sunday Times, QS… and, of course, you can cite any components you want of those and, for all of the above, historical data going back to the beginning of such things a decade or more ago. With such a range of statistics to select, it’s a wonder any department isn’t in the top 10 of at least something. It’s enough to make you call for a neat system of, say, three medals, to evaluate performance. Then again, maybe not! See, again, last week’s blog

So, with that in mind, I have been on a brief online tour of every psychology department in the UK’s webpages (that I could find, some don’t have one). A quick note on my general approach to this is at the bottom of the post… Scientific, it ain’t.

How then do UK Psychology departments strut their stuff online? There seems to be a trend. There are those “top” Russell Group institutions who really can’t be doing with statistics and merely give a handful of casual statements about being brilliant. Less is more and, anyway, maybe there’s something a touch vulgar about this whole marketing business. So Oxford throw in that they’re “1st in the REF” and Cambridge, modestly, that they are “3rd in the world (QS)”. UCL don’t even bother with stats and just say they’re “world leading”. But I reckon around 20 departments are claiming that. At King’s IoPPN we say we’re the world’s second largest and leading centre for research and education in mental health (after Harvard – trust me, it’s CMA compliant), peppered with the odd “world-renowned” and “world class”.

Other Russell Group departments are a bit more of a mixed bag in terms of self-publicity. Size matters for Cardiff too, “one of the largest and best departments in the UK” and then a challengeable claim that, Cardiff psychology “consistently obtain the highest scores possible for our research”. Possible for who? Cardiff? Harvard? Anyone? Bristol – pretty much rock bottom on scores for diversity and state school admissions – just have “an elite science faculty” (someone at Bristol hire a copy editor!)

Russell Group newcomers, York, adopt a curious strategy, describing themselves as “one of the world’s top psychology departments” and then linking through to the QS rankings which shows them unclassified in the #51-100 range. Hmmm, that’s a crowded summit! More obscure, still, St Andrews’ pages qualify assertions of being world class with a legally compliant statement that they have been in the “top category in every research assessment exercise”. That’s like saying Leicester City won every Premier League in 2016. Both St Andrews and York are somewhat cagey on REF2014 (I guess the penny dropped that it’s power tables that matter now)! Birmingham just say they’re, “Ranked among top 5 departments for research”; Exeter, rather modestly, announce that they’re, “top 100 worldwide for psychology” – clever reverse psychology, Exeter, but York got there first!

What of the others? Well, as you look around you see an increasing creativity in the appropriation of statistics. I’ve picked out a few that catch the eye: Nottingham Trent, say they (not, interestingly the students), are, “5th satisfied with quality of course, 6th satisfied with assessment and feedback (Guardian 2016)” and that their “research impact and output is the highest of any UK psychology department with an equivalent research environment.” Clever, you can’t challenge that without a close scan of scores in each of the REF categories and agreeing criteria for equivalence. Good job, NTU CMA manager. Stats geeks at Lincoln have been hard at work on the NSS spreadsheets to prise out extra value: “5th/114 in 2018 [Guardian] for per cent satisfied with feedback” and “11th average all questions”. Quite a few have been getting down and dirty with NSS stats on Excel from a couple of year’s back: “Psychology at Edge Hill University is ranked in the top 10 in the UK for both Assessment and Feedback and Personal Development, as well being ranked in the top 20 when averaging all other measures that assess the quality of Psychology Degrees in the UK (National Student Survey, 2016).”

Another strategy is to limit the scope of your competitor group: Abertay Dundee are “… the highest rated modern University in Scotland for psychology research in the UK Research Excellence Framework 2014″. Reading psychology, intriguingly, is quiet about psychology but, “Top 10 in Aural and Oral Sciences 2017″ [CUG]. Or you can take a different tack – invent a competitor group? Loughborough‘s psychologists are, apparently, members of the “golden six of elite universities”. Who are the other five? This feels like an affluent yet shadowy cartel – I want in! For me, Essex win marks for mixing fact and whimsy, declaring themselves to be, not only a “leading centre for research and education in psychology” but also an “intellectual playground” (yeah, I’ve been at some conferences like that and believe me, I was happy to get back to lessons!)


Of the around 100 (very ballpark) psychology departments going I have counted at least 30 claiming to be “Top 10″. And no end of others claiming to be world leading. Do they believe any of it? Do they care? You know, I think some staff probably do get kudos from it. And what’s wrong with feeling good about yourself or making yourself feel a bit better? Nothing. But don’t swallow the massaged statistics hook, line and sinker. What matters is the science and the quality of the teaching, and that you’re happy and productive in your work.

Perhaps most inventive are those that play with dates. You also wonder when some departments last updated their webpages!  The University of Buckingham has a no-holes-barred approach to marketing – don’t react to the stats, make them work for you! If you land on their webpages you are greeted with: “Welcome to the Psychology Department at the University of Buckingham, the number one university for student satisfaction in the UK (National Student Survey 2006-2015).” That, I think, is averaging across that period but who can tell how they arrived at that ranking? Still, it’s all downhill from there, folks… whenever that was.

 * Departmental webpages were accessed between 28 and 29 June 2017. usually the “about us” to get a picture beyond the applications base, or prospectus parts of webpages.Very much not a scientific approach guided by ease of googling (which I suppose is a proxy for something).

Congregation of the Pillar Saints

To know the Lord, climb mountains (Mark 3:13)

God bless Tiny Tim (and his fatal ukelele); God bless Joanna Lumley (even if she is one of the national treasures whose political views you suspect you’d rather not know); God bless post-post-truth, the Office for National Statistics; God bless the CMA; and most of all, God bless us all!

There is a monk in Georgia who has lived on top of a mountain for 20 years to get closer to God. According to The Teleraph, “Maxime Qavtaradze is following in the ancient traditions of the Stylites, or Pillar Saints: men of the Byzantine world who believed residing up pillars would remove them from temptation and provide ample opportunity for prayer and contemplation.” Max (let’s call him Max) is not up there for a great selfie or better phone signal. He believes that by raising himself away from humanity he can become a more godly person.


Literally, God only knows if this will work: from my perspective Max seems to be taking one heck of a gamble on whether there actually are any pearly gates. But at least he’s gone one better than the latter day Pillar Saints who, frankly, seem to have opted for the homespun DIY solution to get closer to God. Anyhow, why a pillar? If you really want to remove yourself from temptation, lock yourself in a potting shed or fritter your time away aimlessly googling about things like Georgian monks with the family protection filter on. Ermmm… either way, a pillar is never going to trump a mountain in terms of altitude… you don’t need to be Buzz Aldrin to see that! (And now I come to think of it, Yuri Gugarin allegedly said of his trip to space that he, “looked and looked but couldn’t see God.”)

I don’t have time to worry about Maxime too much and, although I admire his devotion, I have my own problems. So, on to more philosophical matters… is there virtue in being at the top? No, not virtue, although people often erroneously conflate excellence with virtue (as psychology has very ably demonstrated, almost since its inception: it’s a kind of halo effect although I subscribe more ardently to the horns effect in making character judgments). There is perhaps virtue in trying to be the best you can be, but nothing inherently virtuous in distinguishing yourself from the hoi polloi. Quite to the contrary, there is considerably more virtue, in my book at least, in helping others. You can probably point things out to people from your lofty position, but it’s a challenge to dress a wound or break up a fight if you’re stuck on top of a pillar.


UK HE is awash with metrics and tables now: TEF, REF, Athena Swan. And it’s crowded at the top! By my reckoning (see below for more next week) we have around 20-30 “top 10″ psychology departments in this country. It’s getting crowded up there… sorry, up here!!! But there is nothing saintly about the rush to get to the top. Oh no. The desire to acquire top rankings is motivated by decidedly impious matters, although to judge by some of the proclamations emerging from publication of the TEF you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Maybe some academics believe all these ranks mean something real? They don’t: they’re marketing tools.

Heaven forbid, universities have started to dabble in the sort of selective presentation of statistics, spin and downright misrepresentation that has given politics an even worse name recently than it had before. As long as we recognise it’s a game all well and good. When we recognise it’s a game we can identify why it’s a stupid game and fight back, protest or disengage (as some have done) from it. I bet LSE are mulling over whether to withdraw from the next TEF… the rebels! But when the pursuit of a gong becomes your goal you lose sight of why you are doing it in the first place.

So no, there’s no inherent virtue in performing well in the TEF, the REF or even (dare I say) in Athena Swan. They are crude mechanical levers for generating change, that’s all. And when someone is pressing a lever, the immediate question should be “change to what?” Those universities, those departments that crack open the champagne on a Gold Award, a notch up in the newspaper league tables or a decent REF outcome are not better because of it… they are celebrating a less hostile marketing situation and the opportunity to fill their webpages with images of metalwork which is perhaps preferable to trying to fill them with any serious content!

Coming soon… “Top of the Whats?” or, How many Psychology Departments claim to be “Top 10″, “World leading”? I’ve been googling…

Narrowlands #1

If you linked in to this blog to find information about the loud band from Sydney called Narrow Lands – “gentle people who like violent music” – I am sorry, but there’s a chance you might be disappointed. This blog is about the importance and ethereal quality of interdisciplinary research. That you landed here is a weakness in the google algorithm. But stay! I am always keen to expand my dwindling fan base, so if you really are simultaneously as gentle and violent as you say you are, keep reading… maybe we can make interesting music together.


Keep reading, because those who have been here before know that my go-to rhetorical device is to set up a straw man juxtaposition, then tear it down and preach peace and love to all. You, Narrow Landers, are not my straw men and women. If my eyebrow muscles appear to twitch that’s merely the close proximity of the words “gentle” and “violent” in a sentence; it’s the pedant in me and that pedant is in permanent combat with a curious soul who wants to understand and experience new things… It’s ying and yang, chalk and cheese, Mary Berry and Gordon Ramsey.

Hang around, though, because wouldn’t a Mary Berry-Gordon Ramsey mash up be a thing of potential beauty? For me it might pack more surprises and more of a punch than a mundane pairing of similar phenotypes: Robson and Jerome didn’t surprise us and they may have sold records but I’d argue they created anything novel (they literally only did covers); they are not Serge Gainsborough and Jane Burkin. Admittedly Bing Crosby and David Bowie’s Little Drummer Boy was an off-the-wall matching and not an unqualified success. That’s the thing with interdiscpilinarity: it’s rather hit or miss. But when it hits, it hits far harder than any safer, run-of-the-mill, predictable offering.


And so back to the real Narrow Lands, the gentle but loud band from Sydney whose eclectic discography includes numbers like Whores Rule, Gifted Children and December Clone. The album was recorded “over one weekend in a shed, on a farm near Barry [the town], NSW”. Some reviews, (which would make the promotions paperwork I’ve been reading recently much more interesting if the assessors adopted the same approach): “Brutal octavers”; “An album with a lot of layers to explore. Currently hogging my turntable”; “as brutal and catchy as your favourite wart!”; and, “Sludge… so much sludge”. You can judge for yourself if you click on the album cover above (this one, I promise, doesn’t lead to an advert for a pregnancy test!) And you too may discover that, although you are a gentle person, you too like violent music… Sadly, I didn’t!


Patrick Leman is returning to earth next week… and may even be writing “Narrowlands #2″… which will be a much more acerbic, but much less obscure, look at the state of modern research in psychology and a call for interdsciplinarity. This was just the whimsical warm up!

Double Whammy

Below… the article from The Psychologist of their interview with me on Brexit and science funding…

(There’s a link here for the online version)

Brexit is coming, and with it comes much uncertainty in countless areas of life. There are particular fears for science funding in the aftermath of the exit, with many institutions relying on large EU grants and international collaboration. Psychology may be one of the more vulnerable subject areas.

Between 2007 and 2013 the UK received €8.8 billion from the EU, and contributed €5.4 billion, for research, development and innovation, making it one of the largest recipients of research funding in the union. While the government has announced that EU-funded Horizon 2020 projects that were applied for before the referendum would be underwritten, and budgeted an extra £4.7 billion for science, research and development over four years, many at higher education institutes are concerned for their future.

The uncertainty doesn’t just lie in funding: indeed the House of Commons Education Committee in its recent report on Brexit and higher education said the uncertainty surrounding EU staff and students, regarding issues such as residence and tuition fees, needed to be reduced immediately. Similarly, many have been advocating to remove overseas students from net migration targets to ensure our universities will continue to attract EU students and those outside the continent.

We spoke to Patrick Leman, interim Executive Dean at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience (IoPPN – King’s College London) about the future, the state of science, and how we can make the public at large believe in the importance of research.

The IoPPN is Europe’s largest research centre for mental health research. Professor Leman, who said there is still uncertainty over funding post-Brexit, said: ‘It seems increasingly likely, if we get a hard Brexit, that we won’t remain automatically connected to the raft of EU funding streams that the UK has benefited from. Then, of course, the funding for science inevitably becomes more a matter of parochial UK concerns, which arguably offers less protection to innovation and independence than it had as part of a larger EU budget with 27 nations lobbying for a broader range of scientific and social agendas.’

Around £36 million of the IoPPN’s research funding came from the EU over the past five years, which is close to 10 per cent of its overall research income in the same period. However, some other institutions receive as much as 91 per cent of research income from EU funding schemes. So while the IoPPN is less dependent on EU funding than others, thanks partly to large-scale funding from UK bodies such as the Medical Research Council, NIHR and UKRI, Leman said there was ‘a general sadness’ due to possible implications for the international diversity of UK science, the sharing of expertise, and our reputation overseas.

Leman said any loss in funding means that impactful and important research doesn’t happen. He said: ‘The percentage figure for IoPPN rather understates the loss to the country because that’s science that’s being done on things like psychosis, depression and dementia. You can do a lot with £36 million of research to solve problems in those areas, and it is the medium- and long-term societal benefit of that research that’s vulnerable after Brexit. Those institutions which have been heavily dependent on EU funding, and that includes many psychology departments, may struggle.’

Psychology received almost 26 per cent of its research income from competitive EU grants between 2006 and 2015. Leman explained that the proportion of EU grants going towards the cognitive- and social-science-focused studies in psychology was much higher in the UK compared with the other big European research nations, France and Germany. ‘British institutions have done particularly well in terms of gaining EU funding for the social sciences and humanities. The knock-on effect we may see depends on what flavour of government we get and what they will prioritise. The mood music so far, as I read it, is they will prioritise health, physical and life sciences, because those are the areas where, arguably, they believe research can make greatest impact. Whether a future government reproduces that proportionately high-level investment in UK social sciences and humanities is questionable.’

The US faces its own science crisis, with Trump proposing cuts to a number of institutes and agencies. Leman said that there was a ‘double whammy’ of concern for academics and scientists in the UK and USA: ‘Like any business you want stability in funding in order to plan and develop, and at present we have uncertainty. But there’s also the undermining of the very basis and legitimacy of a lot of scientific thought. It’s difficult to know how to take on, as an individual, a political context that appears to be moving towards devaluation of the importance of science. This is not a matter of the science community engaging with itself, “virtue signalling” on the benefits of science to like-minded followers on Twitter, but about getting the message across to society through properly impactful research, and communicating and disseminating the importance of science.’

By demonstrating the usefulness of our research, and understanding governments, Leman said we can have impact: ‘Governments want to solve important problems, and all areas of psychology can do so much for that. But we need to convince governments, as well as the people voting for them, that science is important and that psychology, as a science, is important too.’


For some reason, I really don’t understand why, I have gotten myself onto an email list from the Cabinet Office’s “Emergency Planning College”. I am not complaining, it’s a useful heads up for plans on safety at festivals and sporting venues and major accident hazard COMAH sites in my area, even if Position Paper 6 and Occasional Paper 19 turned out to be a little dry… A quick summary: it’s all about resilience and I hope I’m not giving too much away by saying that the thrust of the advice here is, “Don’t panic (unless you need to) because other people will”.


That opening paragraph alone is probably enough to get me removed from the list and, when I think about it, I am probably on it because of something to do with my current job. In which case: (a) I needn’t have bothered with the stuff about sporting venues and (b) everyone in Denmark Hill can rest assured that I am bookish and sad enough to have read all of the messages and have been rendered so terrified by the threat of a failure in Business Continuity that I have become entirely risk averse. Anyway, King’s were kind enough to give me a very realistic crash course in crisis management by simulating one just as I took up my role as Executive Dean. My own family have been helping in that area too. So we’re covered for most things apart from alien first contact and a volcano. And I am sure those emails are due over the summer.

Katastrophenschutz (literally, “Catastrophe Protection”) is something we’ll need to learn more about in the next few years. At some stage, surely, the incessant stream of virtue signalling that swarms across my social media feeds will have to stop. Please?

Then what? Well, at some stage the liberal left will develop a coherent narrative that appeals to a broad coalition of voters. Surely they must or what’s the alternative? A true horror show, a return to the spectre of an isolated Little Britain where we’re haunted by the returning ghosts of Mary Whitehouse, Enid Blyton’s casual racism, and conductor Jack from “On The Buses“.


My son has been bed bound for some time, and he’s resorted to any TV channel he can find to relieve the boredom. One day he chanced upon an episode of “On The Buses”. Genuinely, he thought it was hopelessly unfunny and some sort of nightmare from another dimension. It was or rather is… but my advice to all of us is that, “you’d best start believing in ghost stories… you’re in one.”

Time for some Katastrophenschutz. But perhaps, this time, without risk aversion…

Tactical Hoping

It would be a fool who would deny the political logic of Teresa May calling a snap election for June. That logic is, has, and always will be about Tory party and individuals’ self-interest: politics for the Tories is about getting into power and of course they will do so again, and with an increased majority, because while we all gnash our teeth at the inaccuracy of recent opinion polls in truth not one in recent decades has been more that 6% away from the final result on polling day. Recent polling errors have been largely attributable to regional variations (Trump, Cameron’s 2015 victory), the inability to assess novel issues and tap into how these connect with key demographics (the Brexit referendum), the last vestiges of conscience and social desirability in “shy” Tory and UKIP voters (Major, 1992), and of course the peculiarities of the first-past-the post system.

So the Tories will win, with an increased majority, and lots of awful things will follow from that for the NHS, schools, universities (there are already mutterings about cutting research budgets), the care system, people with disabilities and those deemed to be aliens! But that doesn’t mean there is no point in voting. There is every point in voting. But let’s not delude ourselves that tactical voting will make much sense. Because, in the end, a great deal of tactical voting is a mass exercise in game theory; for every Labour supporter shifting their vote to the Lib Dems (even if “we are all sinners”), there could be a floating Lib Dem/Tory thinking they might try and offset that with a vote for Teresa May. You don’t know. You can’t guess or play the system so easily, and the reality is that those who think you can are lacking a fundamental awareness that others’ perspectives are often different from our own or hold a belief that somehow they are much cleverer than others and can outwit them.


You’ll notice here I am writing this from a particular political perspective. I am tribal Labour, although deeply depressed at the current state of my party and the left across the Western world generally, and those are my underlying values. The left, here and elsewhere, lacks a persuasive narrative – it needs to find one soon before the far right start to fill in the gaps. That lack of narrative means this election is all about the Tory party and how to handle opposition to that. this explains the preponderance of “how to vote” guides to “get the Tories out”. No one wants that more than me. But I do also know that there needs to be a positive and coherent message for change to win. I can’t see one yet – maybe one will emerge.

For tactical voting to work you need the alliance to be open, out there and on the table. That could make sense in genuine marginals. So a grand coalition – Lib Dems standing down in Tory/Labour marginals, Labour doing the same in Lib Dem/Tory marginals, and everyone just giving Caroline Lucas a pass in Brighton – could work! But no party would do that – that is an electoral suicide note! So unless you are convinced of your mind-reading powers, don’t really care, or fancy taking a pretty weighty gamble, the inescapable logic is to vote for the party you want to see win.

There’s more mileage in getting the large number of non-voters, or not registered voters to sign up and vote. This in particular applied to younger or new voters. The numbers here could shift results, but note a couple of caveats. First, the June date will likely be outside of term time for many university students, so while a handful of university town constituencies might achieve critical mass if university students turn out and vote en bloc for Labour (or the Greens – cannot imagine why a single student would vote Lib Dem after what happened last time, that really would be a case of turkeys voting for Christmas). These mostly middle class students will likely return home to vote in Tory stronghold constituencies and again, their influence will be scuppered by the first-past-the-post system. Second, it’s missing the fundamental issue of disengagement in politics among a significant chunk of the youth.

Of course, younger voters should be encouraged to register. Everyone should. There was a significant push for this in the run up to the Brexit vote but, largely, it failed to get sufficient numbers to register. As we know that was a key factor in the eventual, disastrous outcome. My social media feeds have been awash this week with messages to get young people to register. Great, but too little and way too late: the problem is that the chunk of younger voters who are failing to register are doing so because they are disengaged. And, more to the point sisters and brothers, they are not following you on twitter. They are on instagram and Snapchat.


Engineering change in voting patterns and demographics is complex and sending out reactionary messaging in the echo chamber is not a substitute for hard work and purposeful, long term activity to address fundamental issues in the political and social system. Virtue signalling is at best useless and at worse damaging narcissism which does everything for the individual making the post and nothing to solve the problem.

Just vote Labour. And to finish, here’s a recent article on the maths of tactical voting, if you remain unconvinced…

Wake Up! It’s the Cornish Owlman

Oneirology: the scientific study of dreams.  At the very least, it is a word that can get you out of a tricky vowel situation in Scrabble… It is an -ology that has also a somewhat tarnished reputation, rightly so, in the history of scientific psychology. This blog is about dreams – not the Captain Sensible or Daniel Levinson kind – but the ones we have (or quite often don’t have) when we’re asleep.

What am I not going to talk about? Well, I am not going to discuss psychological and neuroscientific study into the benefits of sleep: take home message – in fact, the only message – “You need sleep”. It’s not exactly rocket science, and you can almost hear cognitive psychology scraping the bottom of the barrel: this is an area of research so uniquely dull that it induces in those reading about it precisely the state of consciousness that it seeks to understand. Policy implications? Applications? We’ll get back to you on that…


Cognitive psychology is in danger of going the same way as behaviourism. There’s been cosying up with basic neuroscience but we all know who wears the trousers in that relationship! Not all, but much current cognitive psychology is so  deeply in the hock of an ideological/ methodological dogma, fixated on statistical replication that, ultimately, it risks losing sight of its purpose. When push comes to shove, all psychology is about people, and when it ceases to be aware of that it loses its usefulness. And people have dreams, and they usually want to know what their dreams mean, even if they don’t really mean anything. So let’s start with the briefest history of dream analysis.

Of course, dream interpretation goes back to ancient times when Jason Donovan and Philip Schofield sorted out an Egyptian famine for Elvis (if you don’t get that reference, don’t even try…). But in modern psychology, it all starts with Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams. Then there was Jung and his symbols. Basically, in any dream: flying = sex; driving = sex; long, cylindrical objects = sex; round objects = sex; sex = something to do with your relationship with your mum… You get the picture.

We all dream, sometimes several times a night. We don’t always remember them. As you probably already know dreams are a feature of REM (or NREM) sleep and there’s a whole bundle of facts about that here. Fun dream facts: (1) the average person spends about six years in a lifetime dreaming, (2) most dreams last between 5 and 20 minutes, (3) dolphins don’t dream as much as humans and the most prolific dreamers are armadillos and opossums, (4) in most of our dreams, we are not aware we are dreaming, however in lucid dreams you are aware. (5) An oneironaut is someone who dreams lucidly. Now that is fun!

There are lots and lots of theories about why we dream. Most modern and scientifically sound ones emphasise the need for mental down time, emotion resolution, or view dreams as epiphenomena, accidental consequences of brain activity while the conscious control part is “switched off” during sleep. Imaging studies have helped to understand some of the mechanisms at play during dreaming but there are fundamental difficulties with research into dreaming: sleep “labs” are rather artificial environments and, in the end, much of this internal experience is dependent on self-report and, in turn, on memory. In that respect it has been argued that remembering or re-telling the dream is part of a process of conscious analysis which is useful in itself, if not dependent on the dream.

What about nightmares? There are the “wake up in a cold sweat remembering you forgot to answer yesterday’s email” ones – I have had a few of those and they can also occur during waking hours! Or the slightly more obscure and vivid ones, when you’re asleep? I mean the ones where you are in mortal peril or truly creepy ones featuring things like The Cornish Owlman. Yikes! Never mind that the Cornish Owlman who “terrorised the village of Mawnan” in the late 1970s and early 1980s, emitting, a “loud, owl-like sound” turned out just to be an owl. It’s still proper scary.

Tom_Paine's_nightly_pest Owlman

Dreams, nightmares… there is no doubt, as I said before, that we need sleep. Myself, I don’t think interpreting a dream has ever really helped me and there is scant evidence that it has for anyone else (beyond, again, self-report which is vulnerable to the memory issues I mentioned before). To quote Dumbledore, “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live”! But there is fun in interpreting your dreams. And people have dreams and often they want to know what they mean. So perhaps that is the purpose of dreams after all: to give us something unfathomable and intangible to remember, or try to remember, to remind us all that life and us can be a very uncertain, weird and sometimes scary affair.

Pure Romance

Online staff profile pages; now there’s a thing. These are the company webpages where pictures, role descriptions and other information about an organisation’s staff are listed for public view. At the corporate level these pages will tell you interesting things like that Jennie from finance has had 14 years’ experience “looking after our accounts” (14 famished, desolate years, Jennie?) or that Nigel is currently “responsible for all aspects of human resources in our Derby office (including Barrow on Trent)”. What you cannot tell from the profile pictures is if Jenny and Nigel really hate one another, or whether both have been steadily climbing the corporate ladder while fostering a mutually undeclared love that will explode into romance at the team building away day at Kedleston Hall. I have fun imagining such things…

In academia, the platforms for these profiles are increasingly becoming dominated by a few big players. At the institutions I have been involved with in my career that platform has been Pure. Pure is an Elsevier product, part of its “Research Intelligence Solutions”. There’s a thriving user community with two day conferences in places like Baltimore, Berlin and, er… Blackburn, for networking and sharing best practice (…yeah, I bet that’s what they get up to). The Elsevier website boasts that, “there are over 200 Pure implementations… [and] more than 160,000 researcher profiles”. There’s also, “A complete CRIS for managing REF submissions”. This is a fast-moving industry so you don’t have to put up with just the torso any more, you get all of CRIS these days.


Pure is in essence a repository for research accomplishments like publications, grants and typically includes a brief bio. Some advice on the bio – keep it short and write in the first person. Writing in the third person makes you sound like a footballer struggling in a post match interview, “Joey Barton’s not bigger than Burnley” (says Joey Barton, accurately). Institutions can tailor the format of the webpage – the King’s one is especially ugly – and things like publications and grant lists are populated from central databases, but within that academics can choose what goes up and write a lot of the textual content. So if, for example, you are choosing to list all your conference presentations and keynotes (and I reckon I have over 300 of those) you’re asking your reader to do a lot of scrolling.

Pure does some entertaining things. For instance the “graph of relations” is fun, if ultimately a little incestuous. It’s rather like the “Who’s had Who?” associations graphic feature in the student magazine I edited while I was an undergraduate at Oxford. (That feature was, on reflection, misjudged, and an invasion of privacy as well as factually incorrect for at least one of my “associations”… I wish to apologise publicly now for that. But in my defence it wasn’t me who produced it and, at the time, I had only marginally more editorial experience than George Osbourne.)

Leman Pureelsevier-integration-with-orcid-a-van-servellen-14-638

Then we have the photo. Ah… the photo. How do we wish our physical form to be projected to the world and to our colleagues? Clever (yes, certainly), good-looking (yes, probably), staring thoughtfully into the middle distance (maybe), sitting in an armchair, holding a cocktail glass and grinning like an imbecile (no)? Pure, in some respects, is akin to an academic online dating site, albeit one where the image projected is even more subtly prone to exaggeration and embellishment than regular dating sites.

With online dating sites (I imagine, I’d never do it) one would like to think people are at least hoping for a longish term, meaningful relationship. For that to happen with Pure you’ll need to move beyond the photo and look at the serious credentials like H-index and grant income. Do you really want to contemplate the prospect of an interdisciplinary collaboration with someone who lists contributing to a drive-time phone-in on Four Counties Radio as the highlight of their “activities”? Actually, maybe, yes, if they’re fun and interesting… that’s the problem with online profiles – you’re only really getting the image people feel they ought to project and in reality humans are far, far more complex and interesting than that. Or maybe I am finally the wrong side of a generational shift in research and relationships? Who knows? Who cares?

Lastly, there’s the facility to add a CV in Pure. Few take this up and it’s obvious why not: it’s a clear signal you are on the market and either pretty desperate or not getting the attention you feel you deserve from your current beau (employer). Posting your full CV on Pure is a little like turning up at a dinner party and making a show of throwing your car keys into a bowl in the middle of the table, in full view of your partner, before anyone’s had the chance to start gushing over the amuse-bouche. It is over-disclosing, more than a little vulgar, and seems certain to attract the wrong sort of attention. Better, I think, to leave the CV on the shelf rather than ending up on it yourself.

Oops there goes another rubber tree plant!

Hope, that’s the last thing I need right now. While my life increasingly resembles a mash-up of the plots of any number of soap operas – East Enders, Holby City, The Next Step – there would be some solace in knowing that we all, inevitably, go a bit Phil Mitchell in the end. (Or maybe the full Danny Dyer? Speaking of Danny Dyer, here is a video of Danny Dyer’s reflective haikus: trust me, it’s worth 90 seconds of your life.)


It’s hope of escape from oblivion that is making my football team’s – Leyton Orient – current travails compelling to follow but also, in turns, excruciating. The O’s, London’s second oldest club, are currently second to bottom of the entire English football league. And there are several reasons for this. First, for many years, we unsuccessfully deployed the surprise tactic of playing a long ball game with a 5’2″ centre forward. Opposing teams found this surprising but, ultimately, eminently assailable. Second, there has been managerial turnover that would make even Sports Direct seem like an employer invested in its workforce; nine managers in the last two seasons. And third, the club now faces a winding up petition from HMRC. The person perceived to be most responsible for this financial position is the club’s owner Francesco Becchetti, an Italian who had made his fortune in the Albanian waste management and recycling industry. Don’t roll your eyes, Albanians need their waste managed and recycled too, you know.

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Albanian waste management… and LOFT (The Leyton Orient Fans Trust)

The hope in question came in the form of Orient’s 4-0 away win yesterday. Yes, 4-0 and away as well. And that comes on the back of a 3-2 away win, a couple of weeks ago, at “highflying” Plymouth. Highflying and Plymouth are words that are rarely seen together although I have nothing against Plymouth and, in fact, spent a very interesting evening at the Barbican there several years ago before just catching the overnight train back to London. I like overnight trains, there is something romantic about them.

Anyway, enough! Let’s get back from the (south) west to the Orient. A win was much needed and Orient seem to like going west because yesterday’s success was at Newport County. What takes the edge off that victory, however, is that Newport County is the only team below Orient in the football league and so, technically, the only team worse than them. The O’s still need to win at places like Hartlepool – 70% Brexit country, where they hung a monkey in the 19th century because they thought it was a French spy – if they have any hope of avoiding the ignominy of the Vanarama league next season. Here’s hoping that they do.

I have it on very good authority that with the arrival of Iain Duncan Smith in 2010 at the Department for Work & Pensions a message was hung in the entrance foyer reading, “Purpose is Better than Hope”. Doesn’t that just say it all about Tory attitudes (and Lib Dem, never forget that) on welfare reform… the pesky, work-shy proletariat?  My son, I am sure being ironic, has written this in large letters on the whiteboard in our kitchen. (Yes, we have a whiteboard in the kitchen. It’s a military operation in there). And of course he is being ironic and is correct that it is an hollow precept because purpose is utterly useless without hope, just as hope is utterly futile without purpose. Purpose without hope is, by definition, pointless. The two are intimately interdependent.

But at least with hope alone you have that; you can begin to think about starting; you can generate purpose. I am not sure whether East Ender’s Phil Mitchell has great purpose to his life – the scriptwriters have not been kind enough to bestow on actor Steve McFadden a character on the sweeping scale that, say, Ibsen or Dostoyevsky gave to their protagonists. If he does have purpose, from what I can remember (I don’t watch East Enders any more), it’s probably something to do with “fam-lee” or people not showing enough “respek”. Leyton Orient’s pressing purpose is to ensure survival by getting the round object into the netty thing where the other team’s goalie stands more often then it goes into the netty thing where their goalie is standing. Oh, and to find around £500k to repay tax to HMRC. But Phil, Orient, and all of us have hope. So, for an upbeat ending, click on the ant!



Storm force TEF

The UK Government’s HE and Research Bill made further progress this week, Jo Johnson outlining a range of amendments to research practices and structures (e.g.,  enshrining the Haldane Principle, although looking at the detail that doesn’t really add up to a tin of beans). There are also plans to strengthen coordination between the Office for Students and UKRI and protect institutional autonomy. All very good, all very “motherhood and apple pie”. What matters in legislation – and I appreciate the number of people who, like me, feel obliged and even slightly enjoy getting down and dirty with the details of Higher Education Bill, is vanishingly small – is not only what structures are put in place but how robust they are when you take into account people’s subsequent behaviour. I have to say I’m still not convinced that efforts to protect the dual funding route will survive for very long; the fine words on Haldane are almost directly at odds with all the other amendments which are focused on making sure research review remains objective. Dual funding won’t survive the demise of HEFCE for long.


On the education part, there was some tinkering about the details of the TEF… delays, pilots, and a possible change in the metallic ranking of institutions. Personally, I do think they should do away with a gold, silver and bronze rating system and go for something more interesting. How about ranking universities using the Beaufort Scale? It’s a 12 point scale so you can have finer distinctions and it adds a little colour. For instance, you could have a university rated one: light air, at sea, “ripples with the appearance of scales are formed, but without foam crests”. Poetic! I suspect the government would love its universities on Beaufort Scale one; the appearance of innovation, but causing no trouble. Institutions that overstepped the mark could be rated four; “dust and loose paper raised, small branches begin to move”… Sounds a bit like LSE?

At the other end you could have those universities scoring 11 or 12. At sea, greatly reduced visibility. On land, debris and unsecured objects are hurled about. Universities operating at hurricane force will surely incur the wrath of the Department for Education! Never mind that at storm force 10 there is, “considerable tumbling of waves with heavy impact”… Probably not the sort of impact we are wanting, thank you very much.

There is little doubt few in politics are minded to say that the TEF is a bad idea. Why would they? Telling students and their parents (voters) that there isn’t going to be an objective measure of quality assurance for how they spend their money doesn’t feel like a vote winner. And, as often happens in politics, the strange ways in which that system will measure teaching excellence are secondary concern. The list of Russell group institutions opting out of TEF could well start to snowball.

This week you lucky people have an HE Bill double-header… so see below (previous or right) for “The Culkin Degree“.