Letters – 20 June 2019

June 20, 2019

Politicians should stay out of science

Governments attempt to interfere in many areas where there is a significant gap between politicians’ knowledge and expertise in that domain (“Is the Haldane Principle obsolete?”, Features, 13 June), generally with poor results. In the UK, both school-level education and the NHS have demonstrated this. The government’s role needs to be confined to deciding how much public money should be spent in that area; they have neither the right nor the competence to attempt to micromanage how it’s used.

The Haldane Principle cannot be allowed to die – indeed, it needs to be extended.

Via timeshighereducation.com

Rachael Pells’ otherwise excellent piece forgot two aspects: first, if it is “new” money (as was David Willetts’ extraction from the then chancellor of £600 million for the “eight great technologies”), that is a different story from stealing from or influencing an already agreed research budget. Second, and unfortunately, although it is well established that investment in civil science and technology is the best means to stimulate an economy, the last nine years have seen a continuing attrition in scientific investment in the UK. Politicians wanting economic benefits should put their money where their mouths are, and we shall deliver.

Douglas Kell
Research chair in systems biology, University of Liverpool

Let’s do business

Angus Laing’s insightful article “Innovate or liquidate” (Opinion, 30 May) provides food for thought on the future development of UK higher education institutions. It is true that certain establishments face the prospect of being liquidated.

The Higher Education and Research Act 2017 provides further pressure to adapt by allowing other bodies, outside the traditional educational sphere, to establish their own universities catering for specific employment demands. Pearson plc has already responded by establishing Pearson Business School, providing degrees tailored to commerce. It is simply a matter of time before other business enterprises follow in its wake.

Additionally, overseas universities are likely to seize the opportunity to expand into the UK HE market. Approximately 40 overseas universities and colleges already have a presence in the UK.  Such openings for expansion represent an irresistible attraction. Only a foolhardy university would  ignore these developments and not act accordingly.  For many, the status quo is simply not an option. The HE sector is perfectly poised to follow the transilient state of the retail sector.

John Clifford
Head of law programmes,
Pearson Business School

Block is best

Block courses are very good for doing things (“Scholars ‘ignore’ data on better teaching practice”, News, 13 June). In the 1980s at Queen’s University Belfast, students taking the full final term for a research project became immersed, and the good ones were three months into a PhD by the time they graduated. Modularisation and cost, with rising student numbers, stopped that and project quality plummeted.

Blocks are not so good for module choice or information transmission. With seven lecture slots a day, it is easy to run modules in parallel at three lectures a week and allow students to take options from other degree pathways. Progressive understanding in sciences may need time to digest the basic stuff before tackling the more complex. Teaching in topic-sized blocks within a module at three lectures a day would take two weeks. Blocks could be left free for self study or alternative courses, and provide the current contact hours in blocks with module flexibility. That is, once someone had worked out the timetabling.

It would be hell for a part-time lecturer relying on preparing lectures the day before presentation and employed only for two weeks.

Dr Hugh Fletcher

Banish the trolls

It is clear to me that abusive, aggressive comments should be disregarded as a matter of editorial policy (“How to deal with the gruesome reviewer 2”, News, 13 June). It is a form of anonymous trolling after all.

More worrying in the long run is critical comment based on entrenched views of what the field requires. The intellectual stasis of the status quo is often the worst enemy of truly innovative research. This is much harder for editors to deal with. Indeed they may be complicit in the process, as they will have established their reputations within existing research paradigms. I’m not sure how this can be effectively tackled. Peer review, for all its obvious flaws, remains the most reliable monitor for research excellence.

Peter Muchlinski
Via timeshighereducation.com

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