Answers on a postcard…

We started talking about it at about nine thirty. “Seriously, though, if we do vote to leave we should move somewhere else…” Except we weren’t really serious. I’ve always been bad at pacing myself on election nights and I was already two glasses of wine in. It was a fantasy conversation.

“I’d like somewhere warm.” That’s Scotland, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland out, I’m afraid, even if they do get themselves back in. Berlin’s great. But also quite cold for a lot of the year and a beach would be nice. I can’t speak French, Italian or Spanish which is also a bit of an obstacle. Asia could be fun… but I can’t speak any of those languages for sure. America could get Trump. Canada (cold, see above). Australia ticks a lot of boxes and I hear it is great for academics. But it’s a long way and (I’m reliably informed) not without its own problematic attitudes towards immigration. The Carribbean? The children love “Death in Paradise”. And, now I come to think about it, I am sure I can pick up any languages using one of those Linguaphone things while I lie in the sun before heading for an evening cocktail (again, by the beach). Heck, I could even still blog! I’ll send you all a postcard.

st luciaSund

St Lucia… or Sunderland?

And while I am sunning myself I can reflect on who’s to blame for voting us out? Actually I already made a start on this. Ultimately it’s the people who voted to leave, that’s democracy. But there are others at whom fingers need to be pointed. All politicians should be taking a close look at themselves – Gove needn’t bother, he doesn’t have a reflection. Sadly, one finger is firmly pointed at the abject failure of Jeremy Corbyn. Be in no doubt, the Labour party is in real trouble and it was those “traditional” Labour supporters who tipped the vote to leave. The runes were there to read for some time, and while people like me will always vote Labour, those traditional supporters will not. They won’t vote Tory either. In Scotland they’re already voting SNP and in Wales they might vote Plaid. And what fills the gap in England? Another nationalist party; although when minority countries in a union pursue a nationalist agenda that’s about autonomy. When the largest nation pursues it that is far more unpleasant. So let’s wait and see UKIP reinvent itself and pursue the extreme right-wing agenda that it barely concealed up to now. And I think a significant chunk of the population could vote for it.



I know I’m preaching to the converted saying that the changes also have profound implications for English and Welsh universities and especially science. All funding streams are now under threat. For education leaving means fewer students, fewer opportunities for student exchanges, fewer collaborations, fewer friends. And it will affect all overseas students, not just the European ones. Certainly most of the North American students I have met appreciate the bonus of a chance to travel around Europe while they’re studying in London; they’ll be needing another visa.  And the research culture will take an extraordinary hit. There will, of course, be winners and losers. There is no doubt that some of those universities that are heavily reliant on EU funding will have to cut back. UCL for instance, whose finances may already be in a parlous state, receives over £400m from Europe. There is no plan B for this.

Back to last night, and by 5am there was no wine left in the house. And, when I finally woke up, there was evidence of inroads into a bottle of whisky too. Of course we’ll just have to get on with things. Be positive. They say there are some surprisingly good English wines these days, they’re really getting much better, almost as good as the French ones. Except the ones I’ve tried aren’t as good, and I suspect English wines are no more likely to match French wines than Graham from the Jeremy Kyle show is likely to become a chartered psychologist. And the cost of that wine, at least the decent French stuff, is going up.

And my dreams of seeing out my career in a Caribbean university are probably just that, dreams. Realistically, we’re stuck in England for a while longer. Kids, mortgage, you know… But I suspect many of you academics, both British and others, are thinking about your futures now too. Hey, when you go, we’ll miss you. So please send us a postcard and remember us as we sit in the little England of the 1950s. That’s not my country. I never knew it and I don’t want to live in it. And I couldn’t imagine saying it before, but now I just want my country back.


Psychology: the punchline on a panel show?

Psychology has a huge amount to offer policy-makers, industry and society. So why is psychology research so often just the punchline on a panel show? And does it really matter?

You all know the stories I mean. “Hand squeezing can improve students’ grades”, “Sensitive people are more vulnerable to online dating scams” (who knew?), and “Sniffing rosemary improves your memory”. Academic psychologists often complain that the discipline is misunderstood as a kind of amateur, armchair psychotherapy and lacks the status of other sciences. But, given the way many academic psychologists portray the discipline in the media, it can’t be too surprising that most people don’t get what psychology is all about.

The media is no doubt a fundamental part of the problem. We see it all the time – the stereotypes that are reproduced in movies, impoverished debates about serious and complicated social and political issues, as well as downright misrepresentation and the base propaganda of a fair whack of the national press. Psychology as the punchline on a panel show fits the media template. And a natural retort from journalists and presenters is that they’re just giving the public what they want. People like to read about how 12% of men on first dates think about Alan Shearer (at least once) and how there’s a simple answer to the complex, challenging, yet beautiful task of how to raise your children to be happy, healthy contributors to the world. On the wall of my maths classroom at school Miss Towell (she was great, Miss Towell) had a poster that said, “To every complex problem there is a simple solution… and it’s wrong”. That’s about the sum of it. The media, all of us, are guilty of succumbing to temptation and accepting simple answers to complex problems.

But we need to resist that temptation. Imagine if we applied some of the one-line research “findings” from the area to our teaching. That’s not education, that’s entertainment. The difficult task is to make people understand the complexity of the world and the sophistication (and contribution) of psychological research. Because with TV, with the mass media, where a mis-firing idea can become received wisdom, the stakes are high.


Let me give an example from my own experience. Many years ago my research on heuristics and conspiracy beliefs got reported in the Economist. The Economist is a great publication the journalist was superb – a really good, intelligent account of the research. But I was staggered at the reach of this single article. First, the idea got picked up and reproduced by other journalists so a single study with a group of first year undergraduates from Goldsmiths got my work as feature articles in Newsweek, Time magazine, and a request (I declined, we’d just had a baby!) to fly over and appear on Good Morning America. There were letters – lots of them – ranging from the intelligent and interesting to the alarmingly unstable. Lots from the US. Politicians, academics, friends had heard about it. The idea that a major event has a major cause has since entered the narrative of psychology and conspiracy theories although it has often morphed, mutated, and been mis-appropriated. Nevertheless people still occasionally mention it to me today, even though I’ve barely dabbled in conspiracy theory research since (for many of the reasons I am concerned about here). The CEO of a large pharmaceutical company even discussed it with my mother-in-law… not quite fame, but (uncredited) impact?

The media is very important then, no doubt, but what makes things go wrong? Well, often researchers are seduced by the media. Too often academics are complicit in the misrepresentation of our work. Many researchers appear to mortgage off their rational selves in a TV or radio studio. It may seem odd for those of us who have been a bit up and close with the insides of the industry, but the telly has huge power to make people do things they would otherwise not do. Far more power than Milgram’s white-coated experimenter ever had.

In the 1990s there was a show called TFI Friday, a Chris Evans “vehicle”. Chris had a slot on the show called “I’ll do anything to get on telly”. It wasn’t a complicated premise. Chris doesn’t do complicated. Basically, a hapless member of the public (let’s call him Colin) stared blankly into camera 1 and said, “My name is Colin, and I’ll do anything to get on telly”.  Colin then did something or other that Chris and his crew felt was disgusting like licking a hairy armpit or kissing  a granny on the lips. The audience guffawed, Chris did his Sid James face to make sure everyone knew how disgusting it was, and then they segued with studied inelegance to a single track set from Sleeper or Echobelly. Then the ads.


As we know, Chris Evan’s unique talent hasn’t left us yet and he’s shouting about different kinds of vehicles now. We all love the BBC, but how on earth did they decide it was a good idea to recruit the only man alive who is less subtle than Jeremy Clarkson, to replace Jeremy Clarkson? Chris Evans – TV’s version of the office fire alarm test. I’m not a fan.

Anyway, my point is that the lure of the media, and particularly TV, is very, very strong. And, it seems, psychologists are just as apt to be lured as anyone else. And even if not all psychologists will literally do anything to get on telly, they’ll do a lot of things they’re told to do which they shouldn’t once they’re on it. Typically, that is to give a soundbite of the baser denominators of research and forego the nuance and limitations of the science.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating a withdrawal from using the media to communicate our science. Communicating our research is vital. There’s little purpose to research without it. But we should be very careful how and what we communicate, and not present sensationalised topics or a set of salacious aphorisms that cast psychology as a simplistic, inconsequential domain. And that’s the huge danger. That the superficial image of our discipline obstructs the opportunities for psychologists to make a real difference, to influence policy and public understanding. That’s damaging for us, as psychologists, and everyone else. Because psychology has so much to give…

Maybe some academics are persuaded to engage with the media with bargain-basement stories by starry-eyed PR and communications departments? Maybe, but that doesn’t compel them to dumb down or talk on media-friendly topics that present the discipline as the court jester of the sciences. Perhaps there’s a belief this will attract more research funding – it certainly won’t from any credible sources – or that it might raise an institution’s or department’s profile and recruit more students. Think it through: it might raise profile, but in the right way? Do you really think a student will be more likely to pay £27,000 to study at a department that markets itself as the place where they research the cognitive impact of facial hair, than one that’s doing the important stuff like developing tests to help treat depression or devising strategies for tackling social injustice, prejudice and intolerance? Come on, get real.

A Kick in the Neuros

What’s so great about football? Well, the commentators for a start. Usually they’re entertainingly trite but so far Robbie Savage appears even to have lost the ability to speak: at one point he shrieked about a “tying flackle” which, for Radio 5 live listeners, suddenly turned the Wales match into Game of Thrones. There’s also a frisson of excitement every time one of the old school “could-say-something-career-ending-at-any-moment” commentators is handed the microphone. Or worse, a more extended pitch-side interview. Glen Hoddle’s bound to say something like that soon. He’s already been mentioning miracles in his match commentaries which, for Glen, is dangerous ground.

IT Crowd football

Yesterday, England drew 1-1 with Russia. England were good, but unlucky; at times they were even quite entertaining. That’s a change from business as usual when England are either bad and unlucky or just bad. So, unexpectedly, England could for once seduce Europe with the quality of their football. Unexpected, although Roy Hodgson (Mike Baldwin) may yet confirm our suspicions that he’s a master of winning hearts but losing the game (as Ken Barlow – aka Jurgen Löw – can attest).

Very sadly, seduction is much more difficult when the people you brought with you are busy beating up anyone else who happens to be at a party. The violence in Marseille is reminiscent of the dark days of previous England Euro involvement. One wonders why on earth so many of our European neighbours want us not to Brexit! Of course, many of the other nationalities involved in the violence don’t look like a very nice bunch. Lokomotiv Moscow t-shirt anyone? But there are still too many England thugs with the default look of a forensically aware Mitchell brother, who drink way too much, and hang around the wrong places. For many social psychologists this violence is the consequence of enduring national stereotypes and prejudice compounded by alcohol and growing fascist elements in many European countries. Social psychologists’ work on crowd behaviour did much to mitigate these sort of scenes in the 1990s and 2000s. Sad, then, that this excellent example of impactful research appears to have been largely forgotten. Bring it back.

Mirror Violence

In a little over a week it will be that time in a tournament where I declare my allegiance to the German national team – listen, my father is German, so it’s not just a flag of convenience and it means there’s always a realistic prospect of winning. With that in mind I also ought to turn to some psychology (and neuroscience), because if England go to penalties, especially against the Germans, journos will dust off their contacts book and find some psychologist or other to trot out old national stereotypes about clinical Germans and plucky England players choking. Can we please be clear? These are stereotypes.

First, facts: England have a 17% success rate in penalty shootouts in major tournaments, compared with Germany’s 71%. Now there’s no denying it’s a numerical difference but would it satisfy the denizens of the “open science” community that this is statistically reliable and reproducible? Probably not. That’s football for you. Still, there’s always numbers. The Economist has predicted that there is only a 10% chance that England will win in France 2016! We’d possibly get slightly better odds with Oobi-Ooobi the psychic Koala.

Now previously, my neuroscientist friends have berated me for what they think are my unreconstructed views on the discipline. I want to put the record straight here. I have nothing against neuroscientists! Some of my best friends are neuroscientists and still more have dabbled with this dark art. In fact, given what’s at stake in the Euros, I am prepared to countenance some sort of fMRI study into what’s going through the minds of England and Germany players when they take a penalty. I can almost hear ESRC salivating at the prospect of funding that. I predict there will be absolutely no difference between players in a scanner. But get them out on a pitch, in a semi-final, in front of 80,000 fans and millions of TV viewers, with the hopes and expectations of a nation on their shoulders and I suspect that might be a different story.


England vs Germany and penalties: Andreas Möller and Gareth Southgate’s “sad face”

Neuroscience is an important and essential part of the landscape in research these days. What I have a problem with is the proliferation of unwarranted inferences in all of science and a generation of researchers who think that different brain blobs belie innate, necessary or inevitable differences between people (of difference races, genders or nationalities). And I also have a profound problem with the divisive rhetoric, from both sides, that often casts social scientists against “proper” scientists. That rhetoric pervades British psychology and is institutionalised in funding decisions and particularly in the REF. I’ll be writing more on all of that soon…

…but for now, my view is that England’s failure from the penalty spot is, in extremis, an example of what social psychologists have called social facilitation or audience effects. If you could scan the England and the Germany players right then and there, as they kick the ball in a semi-final shoot out, I think you might see a difference in their brains. That’s the effect of social context and social psychologists study that. And short of brain surgery neuroscience can inform but isn’t going to directly solve that behavioural and social issue. If psychology has any chance of ending England’s 50 years of hurt it requires social psychologists, sports scientists and neuroscientists working together. And, heaven forbid, also with footballers. Perhaps that’s going a bit too far. Something that, at least on previous form, England won’t be doing this summer!

Celebrating the Knowledge Economy

Welcome to the “Knowledge Economy”. No, it’s not an oxymoron (like “military intelligence”), it’s the future for our universities. Because it’s always about the economy, stupid, and like everything else knowledge is inevitably subservient to that.

Last week we held our annual Celebration of Education at the Institute; a recognition of the education arms of our part of endeavour towards the knowledge economy. We rewarded academic and support staff and students for their work above and beyond the hard work that all of us put in every day to continue to deliver world-leading, research-led education. It may have been a serious omission, but we didn’t really banner this as an economic event; we didn’t mention economics at all. That’s dreadfully “off message” from the White Paper that was released last week and will frame our sector’s future. Sorry.


Above: Award winners at the IoPPN Celebration of Education Event, 3 June 2016

For the White Paper on Higher Education, the economics of knowledge means two entirely separate things. First, and most persuasively, the knowledge economy is about how research and innovation can feed into bottom-line economic performance of UK plc. The UK has a poor record of translating research innovation into commercial or industrial innovation compared with other nations. Thus far numerous impact initiatives have had only mediocre success (see my previous blog on ESRC for more on that) and the dialogue between industry and universities in the UK is still patchy at best. It is important to exploit research but for success the task requires that the worlds of business and research develop a greater appreciation of what each side brings to the table.

Its worth noting that the White Paper says very little about how the consumers of research (business and industry) will go about translating research and generating income. Rather, the White Paper is about tidying up (and cutting down) the infrastructure that supports and sustains research in universities. The biggest change here is the abolition of HEFCE and the conflation of Research Councils into one body.

With this in mind, what (you may ask) is the future for the REF? There are several assurances in the White Paper that although REF administration will transfer from HEFCE to UKRI (the new super-Research Council), research grant funding and QR-grant will remain separate. Many, including me, feel that this Chinese Wall at UKRI won’t last for long. It makes no financial sense for the same body to develop complex and costly mechanisms to spend the same funding pot in two utterly distinct ways that will lead to very similar outcomes. And the REF certainly is a hugely expensive endeavour (by some estimates, £1bn, in 2014) that for most universities outside the top 10 is more a vanity project than a serious source of income.

The White Paper has a lot more to say about the second arm of a knowledge economy, education. For the current government, knowledge economy also means a free market in Higher Education for students. It’s worth pointing out here that these are two entirely separate uses of the term/idea of a knowledge economy: the government is clearly confused (another oxymoron, by the way) by its banner headline on HE. Whereas for research and innovation the emphasis is on enabling the consumers of research (business and industry) to work better to generate income, for education changes are entirely ideologically driven.

Knowledge economy

Although there are some (rather naïve, but alarming) proposals about new providers, the principal mechanism for guaranteeing a free market is the TEF. Now, of course, the idea of a TEF and the proposed metrics may appear problematic. It could cost a bomb, although Universities are being invited to stump up the funds for that themselves! The ways in which newspaper league tables employ statistics to generate a competitive ranking further compounds the problem. It’s also undeniably the case that the TEF proposed by the current government is deeply misguided as an attempt to drive up teaching standards. (These standards weren’t hugely problematic before we had a TEF or an NSS, and it still remains and will remain the case that students apply to universities for the prestige and opportunities that a certain degree will deliver. Hence a course at Oxford University with a rock bottom TEF score will always attract more and stronger applicants than a comparable post-92 programme with glowing student appraisals. A dismal TEF score won’t materially damage the Oxford programme). Universities themselves are surely motivated to care about their reputations and the threat of litigation from students when things go badly wrong regardless of an external assessment.

Sadly, we have a minister who doesn’t appear to understand either research or education and at times it can feel as if the government sees the university system as the R&D and Human Resources arms of UK business. Hence government may take much firmer control of what remaining competitive grant money is allocated (the Council of Science and Technology looks like it will become a big beast here) and do away with REF altogether. And what of education in all of this? There can be little or no appreciation that celebrating education is a worthwhile thing to do in its own right when it’s all market-driven. And it’s worth noting that many departments are seduced by the metrics too: they’ll pop open the champagne for a good REF or NSS score, but rarely actually celebrate the impact, learning or extra-curricular successes of their students and staff.

Teaching, like research, is hard and time-consuming work that sustains and builds the generations that will make the knowledge economy flourish into the future. Just doing what we do well is real success. And, if we removed the huge costs of REF and TEF from the picture, there’s a good economic case for it too!