All posts by Rob Jackson

Chemistry/Forensics Academic (Reader), researcher in Computational Solid State Chemistry; blogger, trombone player, CAMRA member.

‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees: a response

Richard Pike, chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry, writing in his blog has said ‘‘Mickey Mouse’ degree courses should be swept away, and priorities in university education and research should reflect the challenges facing the country over the forthcoming decades’.

My objections to this line of argument are twofold:

(i) It’s against the principle of academic collegiality. Universities, such as mine, are founded on the basis of mutual respect, with equal value given to all subjects. We can’t continue as we are if some subjects are considered to be ‘superior’ to others, and therefore get more funding.

(ii) In this time of pending cuts in funding, we must all stand together, and argue the case for universities as a whole. The line being proposed amounts to ‘divide and conquer’, turning subjects and departments against each other. We will be far stronger if we face this together.

Incdentally, I am a Chemistry lecturer, and care about my subject, but not at the expense of academic collegiality, and good relations between departments and colleagues.


A view on conferences: (ii) Abstract submission and conference attendance: a chicken and egg issue?

In a recent post by kjhaxton, it was discussed whether once an abstract has been submitted for a conference, the decision to attend has essentially been made (or that the decision to attend is made before submitting an abstract). In this blog post, I want to discuss an alternative situation, based on my experience over a number of years.

In my field we have an international conference every two years, which alternates between a European and non European location. This field has historically had a strong participation rate from Eastern European and former Soviet Union countries. Although the situation has improved somewhat, many scientists from these countries have had great difficulty in obtaining funds to cover the costs of conference attendance. Conference organisers therefore try to obtain funding which is then competitively applied for. The grant awarding bodies that we approach stipulate conditions, normally that applicants must have had a paper accepted for the conference. So potential conference attendees submit abstracts first, and then apply for funding. There are invariably more applicants than the available funding can support, so some applicants will be disappointed. But the accepted procedure here is to submit the abstract first, and find out later whether conference attendance will be possible.

Another example relates to my own personal experience. A few years ago I submitted two abstracts for a conference which I was interested in, and had the funds to attend, but I decided that I would only attend (and use my limited resources)  if at least one abstract was accepted for an oral presentation. Unfortunately both were accepted as posters, so I didn’t go, because I wanted to get maximum exposure in return for the registration costs.

Finally, my subject group organises an annual conference and awards student bursaries to enable PhD students to attend. To qualify, an abstract must have been submitted and accepted for oral presentation.

In conclusion, in my field at least, the principle of submitting an abstract to a conference before the decision to attend has been made is well established. Having submitted an abstract, subsequent non-attendance may be based on financial reasons, or (as in my example above) the accepted mode of presentation (although that may be less common).

A view on conferences: (i) conferences and networking

I am writing this in response to kjhaxton’s blog post on conferences (Conference Concern, [1]), which raises a number of concerns about conferences, and (amongst other things) suggests that networking online might be an effective replacement for the kind of networking that happens at conferences. Not for me it wouldn’t!

As a Chemistry lecturer and researcher, I depend on conferences to (i) communicate my latest work to others in my field, (ii) hear about latest developments in my field, directly, from those that are doing the work, and (iii) to get ideas for new projects for myself, my research group and collaborators. I come away from a typical conference with pages of new ideas for projects, and with my enthusiasm fired up and renewed (important after long periods of concentrated teaching!).

Like kjhaxton, the nature of my research field leads to me having interests in more than one major area covered by conferences, and because of limitations of time and resources, I cannot attend all the conferences that I would like to. So I have to be selective, but usually attend about 3 conferences a year, at least one of which is outside the UK.

For me, there really is no substitute for being there and hearing about work in person! It is then possible to catch speaker(s) later and talk to them informally, exchange contact details, and maybe even start planning a collaboration (as I have done several times). OK, some of this might be possible online, but many of the key players in my field hardly respond to e-mail, and probably think Twitter is something that birds do, so it’s not a realistic option!

I deliberately don’t usually attend the very large conferences for all kinds of reasons, but mainly because they are not so productive (for me). The conferences I attend typically have between 50-300 delegates, and I find those sorts of numbers enough to locate the interesting work without being overwhelmed by the amount of material presented. Apart from hearing interesting talks, attending posters sessions and informal networking in coffee breaks and in the bar are absolutely key to discussing work and getting new ideas, and the latter is definitely not just ‘a boozy night out courtesy of the boss’ [1] .

Turning to expense, to say that most conferences are expensive is not true. OK, conferences organised by professional bodies, that need to cover the salaries of their conference staff, may be. But not conferences organised by academics, which constitute the majority that I attend. Here, the registration fee needs to just cover the cost of room hire and invited speakers. I am speaking from first hand experience here as someone who regularly organises this type of conference. And the number of new ideas plus the renewed enthusiasm I get from attending them is worth every penny of the fee! I am even willing to pay my own way to attend a conference if I’m low on grant income at the time, and I don’t think I’m alone in this.

In conclusion, conferences will continue to be very important for me. Online networking tools like Twitter and Facebook can offer useful ways of publicising conferences and reporting on them, but I don’t see them beginning to be a real substitute for conference attendance and face-to-face networking in the foreseeable future.

(The issue of barriers to participation in conferences, (Conferences Part 11, [2]), will be covered in my next post.



2000-2009: a brief retrospective

Looking over the last decade, it is clear that I started 2000 with a lot more optimism than I have now! But what were the highlights (and lowlights) of the decade for me? As an academic, my job dominates my life (my wife says it’s a vocation, not a job), so much of what I have to say here inevitably relates to work. In 1999/2000 I went through the process of successfully applying for promotion to Reader (which turns out probably to have been my last promotion), so that seemed to be a good start. My research collaborations, particularly the one with Brazil, were going well, and we presented several papers at a conference in South Africa that year. This collaboration continued as the decade progressed, with papers presented at conferences in Poland (2002), Latvia (2004), Italy (2006), culminating in Brazil in 2008, which I also jointly organised. The other part of my job, teaching, continued much as usual except that my department came under a lot of pressure in the early to middle part of the decade, and was effectively threatened with closure at one point. We survived by digging our heels in, taking more students but not increasing staff numbers. Teaching and administration loads inevitably increased, and there were some hard years. But things slowly got better with new staff appointments, and until a few months ago, everything seemed to be going well. But now we face government cuts resulting from the recession, and it is impossible to predict the effect of these. But we carry on and try to be optimistic about the future!

Almost at the end of the decade, I started two new research collaborations which should feature prominently in the coming decade. The first of these involves colleagues in the USA, and the second is a funded project from a company in the UK, which has enabled me to take on a new PhD student. I will write about these projects another time.

I should also mention my main interest outside work, music, specifically as a trombone player. At the beginning of the decade I had more or less stopped playing as a result of work commitments, and I missed it badly. But I managed to get back into playing, largely thanks to attending two Summer Schools at Marlborough College. I now play in two local orchestras, and may be able to do more playing in the coming decade.

So as we begin 2010, there are positives and negatives. The positives include new and exciting research collaborations, and more musical activities than 10 years ago. On the negative side there is the uncertainty arising from possible government cuts affecting my University, and some difficulties in maintaining my collaboration with Brazil, due to communication issues which need not be gone into now. So although I have less optimism as we start the new decade than 10 years ago, there are enough positives to keep me going, and I hope to be able to report on these another time.