‘Education, Education, Education’

‘Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.’

Benjamin Franklin.


I am in Paris. I love Paris. It reeks of the arrogance and certainty still of the ‘City of Light’ title, and the popular French imagination that the events of 1789 were the crown that sat atop the Enlightenment and set the stage for the scientific revolutions of the 19th century, and the dominance of the world by this cold and dark continent: a dominance at first political, but most meaningfully and enduringly in terms of scientific ideas about the workings of nature. Of course, one or two Americans would have something to say about that, but I rather enjoy this impression of Paris precisely because its arrogance is (slightly) misplaced.

Scientific dominance has always gone, and always will go, hand in hand with education. You cannot have one without the other. This I think is true at all levels, from the first 7 year-olds rolling balls down ramps in primary schools, to the latest research findings rolling out of the world’s leading universities. There is no shortcut. This though, is not something that is always agreed upon: we are living in a time of comprehensive educational change at all scales ranging from Michael Gove’s ‘free schools’ to the Beijing Genomics Institute’s stance that PhDs no longer hold value: better to have armies of graduates staring at computer screens (and to be fair, writing useful software) trying to decipher the genome of some obscure parasite of the Panda, than have people dreaming up and testing hypotheses and writing theses. That however, is another blog. I want to return to Mr Gove.

Though I hate to say it, I am a broad supporter of his fundamental premise: that educational standards in the UK have dropped, and that school-leaving qualifications are not now the level that they have previously been, or fit for their primary purpose: distinguishing between students. Anyone who argues otherwise I think has the not inconsiderable task of explaining why entry standards for the best universities are ever on the rise, to the extent that we have introduced the grade ‘A*’ – I can think of no more damning indictment. While I have been teaching undergraduates for 5 years or so, and therefore am in no position to comment on a long-term trend, I suspect that it is not correlated with an increase in the academic quality of 1st year undergraduates.

It is incredibly unpopular likewise to admit to being fundamentally of similar instinct to Mr Gove when it comes to the form that education should take. Nevertheless, I am, at least in inclination (I suspect we would both call ourselves traditionalists). I was once told by somebody who I consider to have been amongst the brightest people I have ever come across that no-one has improved upon the best way to teach anything in 2500 years: by young people sitting around discussing ideas in the presence of an intelligent teacher in very small groups. The idea that telling 35 students (or indeed 95 – ‘scientific’ educational approaches ironically seem to have invaded even university science education) what their learning outcomes are is going to make the remotest difference to their future performance as adults in writing things worth reading or doing things worth reading about is ridiculous. So are the vast majority of the ‘scientific, evidence-based’ educational reforms that accompanied the rise of the flawed genius who originally coined the title of this blog*. As such, it is here that I (thankfully) depart from our eponymous Secretary of State.

The way to improve state secondary education is not to diversify the kinds of institution through which the state delivers education. It is precisely the opposite. Having free schools, academies, comprehensives, grammar schools, and private schools available to every parent is not the key to educating the future writers and doers of our country; the key is to teach them with intelligent people in small groups. That is it. The Secretary of State for Education does not need to argue that the education system requires reform to make it into more of a marketplace. He does not need to obtain votes of no confidence from teaching unions (with nakedly obvious relish in enhancing his own standing within his party in anticipation of a future battle for the leadership with a charismatic Mayor) by telling teachers that their pay needs to be ‘performance-related’. He simply needs to do two things: fight the chancellor for more money at budget time, and spend that money on decreasing class sizes. That is (predominantly) it.

As I said, I share many instincts with Mr Gove, not least his admiration for the way that education is structured within private schools. While the state system was busy systematically making state schools compete with one another in league tables and ironically removing the notion of such competition from a generation (my generation) of British youngsters by inflating their grades, removing competitive sport and finally literally selling them a plethora of poor higher education qualifications**, private schools were doing what they had done for generations: educating students in very traditional subjects, in very small groups, and developing their intellect to the point where they would contribute extensively to the future of the country (by serving as cabinet ministers, perhaps?).

Private schools do a lot of things incredibly well. They encourage a range of educational opportunities by hugely promoting theatre, music and sport, and any other extra-curricular activity it is possible to think of. (Indeed, I am not sure extra-curricular has much meaning in the private schools that I have come across). They encourage a culture of work by demanding of students an awful lot of sheer commitment, effort and quality. This is not confined simply to intellectual effort (indeed, in my limited experience – I am state educated – intellectual effort is not prominently required), but rather those qualities of personality that are independent of intellectual ability and present in good people, people who go on to write and do.

What they are not good at is fairness. We should not make our education system more like a market, because you shouldn’t be able to buy an education*** – it is too important for that; we should make it fairer. The single best way to do that is with intelligent teachers teaching small classes.

*One Anthony Blair, who incidentally was much better at speaking to teaching unions than Mr Gove.

** This point is very contentious. I shall not impart my own opinion on it any further in this piece, other than to mention in passing that in the year that I went through the UCAS system, one of my options was to apply to read David Beckham Studies at the University of Staffordshire.

***Actually, I am of the opinion that it is not possible to do that, but this may be a semantic argument and I shall leave it for another day.

The end of biology?

‘England is the only nation on earth that has managed to limit the power of kings by resisting them, and has finally established a wise system of government in which the ruler is all-powerful when it comes to doing good, and has his hands tied if he attempts to do evil.’ Voltaire, Lettres philosophiques (1734).


Recently, I read an editorial in a high profile journal from a high profile biochemist encouraging the scientific establishment to, amongst other things, ‘strike creative sparks among both individual investigators and self-assembled teams across the continuum, and incentivize support and participation from multiple stakeholders.’ This followed on from my recent introduction to all things Crick from Sir Paul Nurse, the Nobel Prize winner and inaugural director of the Francis Crick Institute for UK Bioscience Innovation and Incentivized Revenue Generation, or whatever it is called. For those who have been on Mars for the last couple of years, the Francis Crick Institute will replace the National Institute for Medical Research up at Mill Hill in north east London and is a collaboration between Imperial, UCL, KCL, CRUK, the Wellcome Trust and the MRC. It will be one of the largest and most prominent bioscience institutes in the world when it opens its doors near King’s Cross in 2015.

In his address, Sir Paul (who, lest it be forgotten, with his ‘President of the Royal Society’ hat on, has said some wonderful things about the need to keep basic science alive in the UK) talked of the need to identify ‘scientific athletes’. To this end the Crick will impose a career structure whereby PIs are hired for 6, possibly 12, years before being ‘supported’ to move on to a UK university appointment. For the cynical members of the audience (not just me), this meant that after, say, a very optimistic 4 years of a productive PhD plus 2 successive productive postdocs totalling 6 years, PIs are given 12 years at most before being ‘supported to move on’. A female colleague asked the excellent question of how this structure corresponds to lip service of supporting women in science, by implication those wanting a family. The honest answer came that scientists minded to would start a family once they have left the Crick ‘with support’! Just to re-emphasise the point: taking the very optimistic scenario above, this involves starting a family just when your contract expires, aged 43. Is it fair (or wise) to expect anyone interested in having a family, particularly a woman, to wait until 43? And in any case, do UK biology departments really face such an uncompetitive hiring market (!) that they need a steady supply of excellent but unemployed PIs aged at least 43 with no history of relying upon grant applications and no teaching experience?


But that’s not the main problem…

The language surrounding the Crick chimes perfectly with the recent trend away from emphasising basic research amongst research councils. To their credit, I have only ever heard MRC and BBSRC representatives publically state that they support the best science, irrespective of its field, likely outcome, or relation to strategic objectives. However, this meets with widespread scepticism in the scientific community in my experience, and quite correctly. If that were so, why do strategic objectives or impact statements exist at all? Such language also chimes perfectly with the move by the Wellcome Trust to decrease the breadth of its portfolio by concentrating funding in a smaller number of individuals (scientific athletes?) by getting rid of responsive mode project grants. At what point in history was science advanced by decreasing the breadth of people doing it? Indeed, to his credit Sir Paul Nurse in his Crick address did make the point that all things considered, small labs are more productive than large ones, not less – the target size for labs at the Crick will be 5.

Biology is forgetting itself. Fundamental insights cannot be dictated from above by working groups that develop strategy statements or policy documents. It is as simple as that. Physicists have asked governments to get together and put astonishingly vast amounts of money into building a very expensive tunnel containing a very large gun under the Alps, simply to further their goal of understanding the fundamental structure of nature. And they have succeeded. Why are we as biologists pandering to the need for ‘demonstrable impact in terms of revenue generation or societal benefit’ (I am not directly quoting BBSRC grant writing notes here, but I might as well be)? We all trot out the truism to one another that more eyes are better than fewer in science and that unexpected discoveries are often the most insightful. But that isn’t good enough. Yes Francis Crick (remember him?) and Jim Watson could not have written the impact statement for the structure of DNA. But the point is that they should never have had to*. We as biologists need to make this point to people in power (especially when their hands need tying), to the public, and above all to ourselves – lest biology in the UK cease to exist.

*they didn’t have to of course, but you know what I mean.



‘I’m a scientist, get me out of here!’

I will be appearing in “I’m a scientist, get me out of here!” on 2nd March at the Barbican as part of the Wonder exhibition:

Are male and female brains different? Is the brain more like a sponge or a computer? Do we really only use 10% of our brain? Join comedian, geek songstress and science presenter Helen Arney, as she puts 5 brain scientists on the spot with your questions as they compete on stage for your vote to win ‘I’m a neuroscientist get me out of here’ – LIVE!