A visit to the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences

Last week I visited colleagues that continue to work at my former department. I and others had our affiliations severed following the restructuring of SBCS in 2012. My trip coincided with the publication of the names of individuals (and their contributed papers) representing SBCS in a major UK government evaluation, known as the REF. It is therefore unsurprising that conversations centred, amongst other things, to an evaluation of the REF outcomes for the department and the effects the restructuring had on its performance. Some of the comments I heard are difficult to transmit without placing valued colleagues or myself at risk of further reprisals. In this category I place important matters such as the wellbeing (health) of friends who have been put under “performance management” or subjective views on the dramatic shift in what is being valued and rewarded within the restructured department.

What I felt necessary to do, however, was to at least give some numbers to show how much academic staff mobility has been effected in just over three years and to set the ground to evaluate in the future, if time permits, how much detriment the College suffered in terms of the REF quality assessment in the short term and its mission to serve knowledge and the public’s education in the long term.

The REF results (per institution or per unit of assessment) can be found here. 25 individuals from SBCS were returned under Biological Sciences and 14 individuals under Chemistry.

For 39 submissions one needs to ask how many individuals were not returned. My calculation is 81. If this number is correct, it would mean that for every academic whose work the College presented as part of its submission to the REF two colleagues were excluded.

These 81 colleagues fall broadly into three categories: those who have been members of the department for a number of years but were sidelined by the present managers, those who have departed as a result of the restructuring and those who were recruited only very recently to replace the departing staff. The decisions who will be returned and who not were never discussed in the department: this loss of academic participation in decision making is by far the biggest problem presently facing the UK Higher Education sector.


Looking separately at the Biological Sciences submission, one cannot help noting the absence of

1) the former head of school,
2) the former director of research,
3) the former director of graduate students and
4) the current head of school.

The four individuals continue to hold professorships (?) in the School. What can the leadership of this department offer in terms of quality research?

In passing, I note that it is equally unclear what criteria were used to include or exclude individuals from the REF submission. Of the 25 individuals submitted in Biological Sciences, I understand that two have already resigned and seven were recruited after my departure in 2012. That is a “healthy” 8% departures – 28% renewal. Of the 14 individuals submitted in Chemistry, three have already departed and six were new recruits bringing up the figures to 21% departures – 43% renewal (note the departures are from REF-returns only 1 year later, whereas the renewals are comparing REF-returns to staff already in post in 2011).

Before I move to another interesting aspect of the Chemistry submission, I copy once again quotes from a letter I co-authored with John Allen in The Lancet.

“Sadly, the “restructuring” hits exactly the wrong targets in many cases, and leaves unproductive academics unscathed. The reason is simple—the Head of School and HR have neither interest in, nor understanding of, individuals’ research, still less their research potential. This slaughter of the talented relies entirely on a carefully designed set of retrospective counts of the uncountable. These are labelled research “metrics”.

The same double standard follows, now, in our School of Biological and Chemical Sciences. For example, one of the “metrics” for research output at professorial level is to have published at least two papers in journals with impact factors of 7 or more. This is ludicrous, of course— a triumph of vanity as sensible as selecting athletes on the basis of their brand of track suit. But let us follow this “metric” for a moment. How does the Head of School fair?”

Possibly the most interesting aspect of the Chemistry submission were the two “senior” submissions included in it:

Jeremy Kilburn and Simon Gaskell both submitted publications they have co-authored as research performed at Queen Mary (notwithstanding different institutional addresses in 7 out of 8 of the papers they chose to submit).

Naturally, these athletes were not selected on the basis of their brand of track suit. You might say this is good, they may have learned from reading our letter and perhaps the reviewers actually read each one of Gaskell’s three contributions in the Journal of the American Society for Mass Spectrometry. I am afraid the question for the Journal classification remains: is JASMS an A* Journal or did it have an Impact Factor over 7, Professor Gaskell? I recall your words:

Where academic performance has been assessed, it has been important to do so on the basis of objective criteria including metrics – any subjective assessment would be quite unacceptable. These objective criteria were based on generally recognised academic expectations and set at levels that reflect the imprecision of any such measures.

Double standards again, with hundreds of thousands of pounds in renumeration for implementing personal agendas and terminating prematurely over 36 careers in what used to be a vibrant department engaged in teaching and research. What also needs to be done now, is to assess the outputs of these 30-36 scientists and learn of the true destruction in knowledge, wisdom and expertise at Queen Mary. Or as we said in May 2012:

“So, we are looking at the end of the road for unique and internationally leading-edge Queen Mary research. Among many outstanding projects we stand to lose are: sociogenomics of mole rats, the only eusocial mammals, and a model, incidentally, for the endocrinology of bullying; genetics of circadian rhythms and iron homoeostasis from experiments on fruit-flies; imaging of neural activity in zebrafish—a paradigm for vertebrate development; and heterogeneous catalytic oxidation and carbon–carbon coupling in inorganic chemical synthesis. The list is long. Alas, there are no boxes to tick for advances in knowledge and understanding—no metrics for science itself.”

12 thoughts on “A visit to the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences

  1. The above post should be read in the context of the “rules of the game”

    18. The following principles govern the conduct of the REF. They set the framework in which the REF team co-ordinates the exercise and in which the four main panels and 36 sub-panels will deploy their collective professional judgement to draft criteria for assessment and to assess submissions.

    a. Equity: All types of research and all forms of research output across all disciplines shall be assessed on a fair and equal basis. Panels have been instructed to define criteria and adopt assessment processes that enable them to recognise and treat on an equal footing excellence in research across the spectrum of applied, practice-based, basic and strategic research, wherever that research is conducted; and for identifying excellence in different forms of research endeavour including interdisciplinary and collaborative research, while attaching no greater weight to one form over another. The REF aims to assess all types of research without distorting the activity that it measures or encouraging or discouraging any particular type of research activity, other than providing a general stimulus to enhancing the overall achievements of the UK research base.

    b. Equality: HEIs are strongly encouraged to submit the work of all their excellent researchers. To enable this, institutions may reduce the number of research outputs submitted for individuals whose circumstances constrained their ability to work productively throughout the assessment period. Panels will assess their work on an equal basis without any penalty for reducing the number of submitted outputs. To help HEIs submit the work of all their excellent researchers and comply with equality legislation, we will require them to develop, document and apply an internal code of practice on the fair and transparent selection of staff for inclusion in REF submissions. The measures to support equality and diversity within the REF are set out in paragraphs 39-43.

    c. Transparency: The credibility of the REF is reinforced by transparency in the process through which decisions are made. The criteria and procedures that will be applied in the assessment will be published in full, well in advance of institutions making their submissions. The outcomes will be published in full and decision-making processes will be explained openly. We aim to make all written documents and statements about the REF clear and consistent.

    Click to access GOS%20including%20addendum.pdf

  2. It took me almost a year to write: “I broke free from a strange type of slavery – where the masters had been managers at Queen Mary University of London. I feel a free human being again”. Today I received a message from a friend who resigned from SBCS a few months ago, he was writing to a third party who had asked “How do you feel?” saying “I feel like being cured from severe depression, by which I do not mean that I was personally depressed but had become used to a state of mind that I shared with so many others at SBCS and that can be described as changing between hopelessness, frustration and anger regarding the situation at work.” Well done Queen Mary, well done.

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