Masters as luxury goods

There were many reasons I left academia. But here’s one. In case it resonates.

To secure my role, and the roles of other staff, I was expected to help recruit masters students. But to do a masters these days not only will you have had to go through massive cultural, financial and social hoops to even be accepted, you need a lot of money on top of it.

(a) I was selling a luxury good. If nothing else, I didn’t feel trained in how to sell this sort of product. But it also wasn’t what I went into academia to do.

(b) As the option to do postgrad study was increasingly exclusive, the student body was less interesting. I mean, each individual student was great. I’ve never taught someone I wasn’t interested by. But as a whole, each classroom was a less diverse place and not so interesting as a result. So the job wasn’t so much fun. Universities are duller places, and get duller the more “elite” an institution you go too.

(c) This luxury good of a masters was often sold to students on the promise of a good job for those with the qualification. Via a mix of nepotism between graduates and the sheer competition for jobs being reasonably arbitrary criteria is used for triage, this worked. So, often the very existence of these courses kept people out of jobs they’d be great at. I couldn’t be part of that and sleep well at night.

So I left. I am currently doing a bit of teaching part-time. I love it and it’s tempting me to think about going back. But I just don’t think I’d feel comfortable being part of the business it’s become. There are other reasons too, but this was a key component to my decision and I thought I’d share in case others feel similarly uncomfortable.

Rising Damp, by U.A. Fanthorpe

London's beach

It is World Poetry Day today. And World Water Day tomorrow. So here’s a poem about London’s rivers.


Rising Damp, by U.A. Fanthorpe

At our feet they lie low,
The little ferment underground
Rivers of London
Effra, Graveney, Falcon, Quaggy,
Wandle, Walbrook, Tyburn, Fleet
Whose names are disfigured,
Frayed, effaced.

These are the Magogs that chewed the day
To the basin that London nestle in.
These are the currents that chiselled the city,
That washed the clothes and turned the mills,
Where children drank and salmon swam
And wells were holy.

They have gone under
Boxed, like the magician’s assistant.
Buried alive in earth.
Forgotten, like the dead.

They return spectrally after heavy rain,
Confounding suburban gardens. They infiltrate
Chronic bronchitis statistics. A silken
Slur haunts dwellings by shrouded
Watercourses and is taken
For the footing of the dead.

Being of our world, they will return
(Westbourne, cages at Sloane Square,
Will jack from his box).
Will deluge cellars, detonate manholes,
Plant effluent on our faces,
Sink the city.
Effra, Graveney, Falcon, Quaggy,
Wandle, Walbrook, Tyburn, Fleet
It is the other rivers that lie
Lower, that touch us only in dreams
That never surface. We feel their tug
As a dowsers rod bends to the source below.

Phlegethon, Acheron, Lethe, Styx.

Open for business: Going freelance

"change your life" bit of Berlin Wall outside Imperial War MuseumThis picture has very little to do with this post. It is of a bit of Berlin Wall outside the Imperial War Museum

Personal note: I left academia at the start of the year and am currently freelancing. There’s no big drama behind the change, more a growing feeling of meh.

The widening inequalities of the sector – and those inequalities it wilfully helps sustain – as well as the egos and corruption didn’t exactly help. I found the intellectual bite went out of it a while back too; it got boring. But really it’s me. I want something a bit less abstracted from the real world, and something a bit less isolating. I want to work with other people, and work on projects with a bit more obvious impact.

I’ve freelanced in science communication and policy on and off since I was an undergrad, as well as spates of full and part-time work outside of academia, so it’s not like I’m suddenly tip-toeing out of the ivory tower. But I’m still a bit stumped about what I want to do long-term. Eventually I want something less piecemeal than freelancing. One of my frustrations with the work I’ve had in academia the last few years is how ephemeral it’s been; I’m itching to get my teeth into a bigger project, and to be part of a team.

But one of the advantages of freelancing it is offers chances to diversify skills, knowledge and contacts a bit, as well as simply giving me time to wait for the right post to come up.

So, I’m open for business. Want to hire me?

Contact details are Dr Alice Bell, alicerosebell at Full CV on request, or there are some notes in my about page. I’m an adept writer, researcher and teacher. I have a PhD and have taught on several leading science communication and policy degrees. I know loads about the workings of science and engineering, with a particular interest in environmental politics, bioethics, the mass media and public participation. I am equally at home arguing with Nobel Prizewinners or Government ministers as I am running classes on climate change for teenagers or participating in workshops to unpick communications strategy. I’m a decent analyst, good listener and don’t pull punches when it comes to asking questions.

I’m especially keen to find ways to bring my expertise of the scientific and engineering establishment to groups that currently lack much knowledge/ contacts there, but helping science and engineering think outside of its bubble is always something I’m up for. So if you have a something you think I might help you with, get in touch: alicerosebell at

And if anyone has any bright ideas as to what I should be when I grow up, let me know.

Arming Mother Nature

Book review: Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism, Jacob Darwin Hamblin (OUP: 2013). This was first published on New Left Project.

When you look at recent cuts to environmental research – the Keeling Curve appealing for crowd-funding, for example, or the destruction of Canadian fisheries libraries – you might be forgiven for wondering how such work ever got funding in the first place. Environmental science challenges our current economic and political structures quite profoundly, and politicians the world over seem to be playing the toddler’s game of covering their eyes in hope it’ll go away by shutting down our systems for measuring it. You need to invest heavily in environmental research to render climate change visible, it’s not something you can spot by peeking out the window. How did anyone manage to get funding to even start looking?

According to Jacob Darwin Hamblin’s recent book, Arming Mother Nature, much contemporary environmental thought has political roots in the Cold War. Far from deep-green hippies, it was built by military and political elites who sought to control the planet, not save it. 20th century ecology was aways as much about war-mongering as tree-hugging.

The book’s early chapters are very much in the shadow of the atomic bomb. Hiroshima marked a change in the nature of war, of weaponry and relationships between science and the government. These changes were long in the making, that was partly how and why the bomb had been made itself, but they were ingrained by the fallout (political as well as physical) of Hiroshima. There is a longer history of chemical and biological weapons – both the development of them and questions about the ethics of their use – but the context of environmental science offers a slightly new frame. Biological and chemical weapons are seen as unusually ethically problematic because they turn the work of science – which could be applied to heal, protect and liberate us – to cause pain and suffering and achieve social control. But the atomic bomb turns the very fabric of our environment against its targets. It uses detailed physics to work deep across our bodies, into our soils and through our airs. It’s not a bullet from a machine, it’s a massive release of energy which is followed by a range of parts of our world working often slowly and invisibly against us. A divide between technology and nature is simplistic (bullets are made from the Earth too, as well as by people) but there are reasons why nuclear weapons feel more extreme.

In this context, Hamblin offers us a story of the growth of the idea of total war. Here, the whole environment could be considered as a weapons system, and scientific expertise on how the planet works would be used as inspiration. We think of ecology and its systems-based approach to viewing the world as something favoured by the hippies, but it can be applied to a variety of ends, including war.

One of the clearest examples of the sorts of weaponised ecology the book is about comes with a story riffing off Operation Plowshare (peaceful use of nukes). There had been an environmental impact audit of an idea to use thermonuclear explosions to excavate an artificial harbour in Alaska. It was decided it would impact too heavily on Eskimos’ diet, so the idea was scrapped, but the data collected inspired military thinking. Having traced radioactivity through the food chain, NATO scientists could now build more advanced models of ecological warfare. They knew Eskimos lived interdependently with seals, otter, fish, caribou and plankton. If the plankton were killed, the rest of the chain would drop out. ‘At best he would have to move,’ the group pointed out. ‘At worst he would die.’ This kind of thinking, they realised, could be tailored to other regions. A lethal rice-rust could make life in parts of Asia much more difficult, perhaps untenable. Further, weaponised ecology offered more insidious forms of biological coercion. You didn’t have to kill people as your goal, and that meant populations could be part of the prize. Getting rid of plankton, for example, would make the Eskimos’ entire food system collapse and force them to be entirely dependent on food supplied from outside the region. Toxic agents could be developed to target very specific links in ecological chains, with the aim of shaping a new interdependent web, forcing ecology to a new will, and with it forcing the people into newly disempowered positions.

In 1961, Kennedy approached the start of ‘Operation Ranch Hand,’ the codename for the US’s herbicide campaign in Vietnam. This was advanced environmental warfare, with immense ecological and chemical expertise going into developing agents that could target particular crops, deciding which plants would live and die in Vietnam. Monsanto and Dow did trials, but they also drew on a network of university scientists in the US and the UK, including Oxford plant physiologist Geoffrey Blackman. Interestingly, British researchers at Porton Down were keen to distance themselves from US offensive action, arguing that they were helping to develop ‘true defoliants’ – where the leaves fall but the plant doesn’t die – compared to the more destructive Agents Orange, Purple and Pink. This, apparently, stood on a more ecological footing (we have calls to ‘green the military’ today, lead-free bullets and the like). By 1967, the US Army knew its crop-killing schemes in Vietnam were having little effect on the food sources of soldiers. But scientists at RAND linked data on spraying with more on the Vietnamese soldiers’ rice rations, and concluded that this policy was primarily hurting civilians. The US Army rationalised this as helping to weaken ‘sympathisers’ but such a grand starvation campaign was unpopular, with the American Association for the Advancement of Science calling for the military to halt the spraying programme.

Another key point in this story is the International Geophysical Year of 1957-8. A project in science diplomacy, the idea was that science could be an apolitical means for collaboration between East and West, but behind the talk of peace, hope and understanding were some very canny political games. One of the outcomes of the IGY was the Antarctic Treaty, which established the space for cooperative scientific research, with freedom of scientific investigation and a ban on military activity on the continent. The text of the treaty is worth a read – there is something quite inspiring about it – but for all the rhetoric of peace and knowledge, it is very much a product of Cold War politics. It could play a colonising role; study on a bit of the Antarctic and you get to put your flag there, a point satirised by Punch at the time (even if isn’t populated, there are minerals you don’t want the other side getting their hands on). Much of the polar research looked ostensibly like studies in weather prediction, but was also detailed observation of spaces which could be a crucial future battleground. The scientists were happy to do military monitoring, knowing they could also do their own work around it. Indeed, we have knowledge of the hole in the ozone layer from Antarctic work, and that Keeling Curve has its roots in the IGY too. Moreover, as Hamblin describes, the buzzword of the IGY was ‘synoptic’ – literarily, and for many of the scientists, just a matter of viewing together – a word which was taken up by the military as a sense of vastness, the idea of ‘synoptic scale’ weapons which could dominate whole physical systems. As Hamblin puts it, ‘while the IGY was concerned with synoptic-scale measurement, NATO was concerned with synoptic-scale manipulation.’

In constructing ideas of environmental warfare, military planners also drew inspiration from the natural events earth sciences studied. There was a devastating earthquake in Chile in May 1960. Whole villages were swept away in 24-feet tsunamis, with quakes so powerful whole mountains disappeared and lakes appeared, all going on for several weeks. The New York Times described this as ‘tragic testimony that in this age of the conquest of the atom and of triumphs in outer space man is still helpless against the vast and still largely unpredictable forces that frequently go berserk in his immediate environment – hurricanes, volcanoes and earthquakes.’ NATO saw it quite differently. It gave them ideas. If this earthquake was equivalent to hundreds of nuclear bombs, why not find some way to bring such disasters into their arsenal? The idea of controlling the weather was particularly appealing, especially as they were increasingly aware of the impact humanity was already having on the upper atmosphere. Whereas weaponising the weather got into the popular press with jokes in the Financial Times about the 1975 British drought being a cunning Warsaw Pact plot, military analysts in the US had already pondered whether it’d be possible to punch a hole in the ozone layer to expose the Russians to fatal amounts of radiation. The most alarming of the more wildcat ideas was probably the one to melt the polar ice caps by exploding nuclear weapons on it, thus raising the global sea level. It was calculated it would take about a million tons of fissile material to melt enough to raise sea level by 30 feet, but it was, apparently, worth considering (just in case the Soviets were plotting the same).

The point I remain unconvinced by in Hamblin’s book is his continual reference to the idea of catastrophic thinking, which simply doesn’t cohere for me, and the idea that this still frames our thinking today. He uses the discussion of environmental warfare in Vietnam – and in particular how it was discussed publicly in the US – as setting some of the tone for environmental politics of the 1970s. Thus, Nixon’s environmentalism can be understood at least in part as part and parcel of his foreign policy. Hamblin also refers to how the American obsession with environmental warfare meant early 1970s discussions of the greenhouse effect were framed by nuclear war in diplomatic discussions, as a world-ending cataclysm, and how this frustrated scientists at the time. Finally, there is a neat story of two Al Gores. In 1951, Congressman Albert Gore advised Truman to ‘dehumanise’ a belt across the Korean peninsula by covering it with radioactive waste which would, he argued, deter Communist troops from crossing. From the 1990s onwards, his son framed environmental policy as a sort of new Cold War struggle; as if ignoring climate change was equivalent to going ‘soft’ on communism. Whereas many saw environmentalists as green on the outside but red in the core (‘watermelons’), Al Gore Jr. referred to a new Global Marshall Plan and a need for a Strategic Environment Initiative, echoing Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative. For all that this is part of the story, it seems only partial. Perhaps if Hamblin had traced his story alongside one on the rise of neoliberalism, it might have had a stronger core, but I still feel it would only offer part of the picture.

That quibble aside, it’s a great book. One of the best I read in 2013. It offers an important, fascinating study of intertwined stories of nature, technology, science, war and peace, and offers a very different frame for considering the history of environmental science than is usually offered. If you want to take a lesson from it, simply remember that science is useful to politicians, and they know this. We’re increasingly invited to worry about a neoliberal war on science, but we should spare some concern for those in power who do profess a love of science too. Owen Paterson likes science when it serves him (genetically modified foods, for example), as do George Osborne and Vince Cable (new products for the arms industry, ever more inventive ways to extract fossil fuels). What science, to whose ends? Technologies of control, or of liberation? As climate change becomes an increasingly pressing concern, more than ever we need science and engineering managed by the people, for the people.

We need to talk about the Conversation

There’s been some fuss over the possible death of Facebook, and whether such reports have been exaggerated. I’m not too interested in the story itself as much as what it shows us as a study in problems of science journalism. For me, it flags up larger questions about academic writing, and I’d be interested to know if others share these concerns.

Background: The BBC’s technology correspondent, Rory Cellan-Jones, did a bit of debunking, and complained about journalists overhyping academic research in the process. It was noted that one of the “hyped” reports came from an academic involved in the research, writing on the Conversation, a site which aims to bring academic voices into the public sphere, promising content from academics themselves (tagline: “academic rigour, journalist flair”). Then the academic himself, Daniel Miller, wrote a longer post via the UCL network saying that a key passage had been re-written by a professional journalist and he regretted agreeing to the final text. Cellan-Jones dubbed this “ghosted” which is maybe the wrong word. As Miller notes, there are compromises academics have to make in sharing their work to larger and different audiences, and it can be hard to draw lines between inaccuracy and retelling. Also the line between ghostwriting and editing can be slippery.

Problem: Miller’s experience of the Conversation resonated with me. I’ve been worried about its approach for a while.

When the Conversation launched first in Australia and then moved to the UK, I was sceptical. I didn’t see the point of a space for just academics’ content. Indeed, I thought that was possibly even a slightly dangerous idea. Also, I wasn’t sure it was needed, especially in the UK. Many academics were blogging on their own or university owned sites already, or for media organisations. But I could also see the value in a space for those who wrote less regularly, including support from professional writers and, despite my misgivings, I think they’ve published some great pieces which might not have made it out of the ivory towers otherwise.

Then, a few months ago, one of their journalists emailed to ask if I had views on university league tables. I said I had opinions but nothing I’d actually researched, and also I was really busy that week but, because I was sympathetic to the topic, I’d give her a quote if she wanted to write something herself. I also didn’t see the point in me writing for the Conversation. I can publish directly to the Guardian site. It seemed silly to chase people like me, a bit cheeky of them even (and I’d previously told Conversation staff this). Still, I stayed late at work and emailed a quote. She replied with a full piece incorporating my few hundred words but really by her, expecting me to add a little more and sign off as if it was authored by me. They were great words. But they weren’t mine. What would I give other than the credibility of my academic affiliation, which meant very little anyway as its not even a topic I have done empirical work on. I was rather shocked by this, so said no.

But I felt crap that we’d both put time into this and didn’t want a fight with a writer I respect, so wrote my own piece as a replacement, staying up late at night to do so. This is the result. I included a bit by the Conversation writer (paragraph 5) because she’d put work into it, and it was good, and I felt rude ignoring it. But it felt very wrong and I regret it. Not, as in the case of Daniel Miller, because it was bad. Quite the opposite. It saddened me that the work of a professional science journalist was being ignored because people seemed to want the cache of an academic voice.

I felt pressured into co-writing something I didn’t want to write, and pressured into saying it was by me. I should have just stood up to them and said “this is dumb and dishonest.” Because it is.

I’ve spoken to several other UK academics about the site since, wondering if they’ve had similar problems. Most say their experiences have been positive; light editing and useful feedback about focus or questions readers might ask, exactly what the Conversation purports to do. But a few others have grumbled too. It’s hard to tell if they are just grumbling in the cliched precious academic way of “but but but of course my jargon-filled eight-page single-sentence rant was more accurate” but I’m not sure. I also think that even if so, the work of the professional writer should be made obvious. A press release from a university communications team, for example, might well re-write research, but it won’t pretend to be the academic themselves (quotes are routinely fabricated by press officers in many fields, but honestly I don’t like that either and I also think the full posts of the Conversation are another step). I also continue to worry about them chasing content from those of us who are already writing a lot in the media, or even have careers in journalism. Mark Lynas has written for them, for example (he’s a visiting fellow at Cornell) and that seems even weirder than when they’ve asked the Guardian science bloggers to write for them. Lynas doesn’t need the Conversation’s help, he’s a highly skilled and successful writer.

If the Conversation is doing journalism, they should acknowledge that and have co-author credits, or even pieces written entirely by their writers, and celebrate that. They don’t, because the idea is that it they offer unmediated academic voices. But unmediated academic voices are often the last thing anyone wants, and playing up to that bollocks isn’t doing anyone any favours.

It reminds me a bit of the fuss over Futurity. I worry that the Conversation seems to be more about offering a shine of academic credibility than meaningful interaction between academics and society at large. I’m all for editing academics (I’ve learnt a lot and had my prose improved by many editors myself) but by passing off the work of a professional journalist as written by academics you do both professions – and the public – a disservice.

I’d like to see the Conversation grow, but I want to see it do so honestly.

Ho ho ho? Making jokes about science

This first appeared in the December edition of Popular Science UK. Subscribe to read the January edition, including a New Year’s piece from me on whether scientists have the future in their bones.

Happy holidays. Families congregate to catch up with each other, reflect on times passed and their hopes for the future, chat, eat, play games, offer gives, laugh and FIGHT. This is as true for groups of science as any other form of family.

Just before Thanksgiving, enter Joe Hanson of It’s OK to Be Smart show, with a special video featuring a dinner table of famous scientists from history. I’m going to have to describe it because it’s been taken offline (more on that in a moment). Featuring bobble-head dolls of Einstein, Tesla, Marie Curie, Darwin, Newton and Galileo and with a large turkey in the centre, they all laugh and joke, saying how pleased they are that their work has had so much impact on the world. Hanson points out that, for all that in many ways they have been mightily influential, there’s a long way to go.

Because, er, yeah, about the whole everyone believing in evolution thing, and um, we might get the whole third law of motion, but the public appreciation of the physical consequences of climate change could probably do with a bit more work.

It’s comedy, though rarely laugh-out-loud; light-hearted with comic fantasy of silly voices, anachronism and jokes about mixing up the movie Gravity with the physical force.

But on the holiday season fight. Because that’s the fun bit. I’m OK to be Smart is popular and held in respect by much of the scientific community, but as soon as it went live, there were complaints. Firstly, the scientists are it chooses to give thanks to are all white, there is only one woman and she starts off by saying she was just happy to have been included. Perhaps it’s traditional at Thanksgiving to whitewash history, but what kind of celebration of science only remembers those famous people our unequal society usually chooses to revere?

Further, Telsa’s played as crazy, a bit too crazy perhaps, with crazy played for laughs in a way that understandably aggravated people who’d like to see better treatment of mental illness. The silly accents were arguably a bit racist. And then there’s the way the Einstein character treats Curie. He starts off just by being a bit flirty, this moves to outright lecherous, as the others discuss science and history, with every cut to Einstein you seem him escalating his moves. Again, this is all played for laughs. It’s extreme and fantastical. It ends up with the bobble-head doll naked (the gentles pixelated out) “falling” on top of Curie. It’s a joke, yes, but it does look a lot like attempted rape. Many were appalled. Comments on the video’s Google + page were disappointed, shocked and angry.

In response, Hanson initially offered a not especially apologetic apology. The PBS ombudsman offered the excuse that it had ‘opened debate’ about women in science. As Emily Willingham pointed out, that debate was already quite open thank you very much, and if PBS and Hason had really been paying attention, they’d have realised how unhelpful, unimaginative and plain hurtful the video must have appeared. After further complaints, Hanson took the video down, with a fresh apology.

Two things are particularly interesting about this fuss. Firstly, it was a reasonably rare example of people arguing against a joke. It’s hard to say ‘no, that’s not funny’ and stand up against the premise of a joke. It’s one of the reasons feminists are often labeled ‘joyless’ or lacking a sense of humour. There’s a pressure to say anything goes in comedy, or at least it’s ‘just having a laugh, eh?’ Jokes act to articulate shared ideas, logic and attitudes. It is one of the reasons a shared joke between friends feels so special, and why you can feel so hurt or confused when you feel left out of one. Similarly, it’s hard when a joke falls flat. In many ways it was brave of Hanson to eventually take the video down. It’s always hard to say you think that, in retrospect, you were wrong, but perhaps especially true when it’s a matter of a joke.

Secondly, I find the whole video indicative of the way humour tends to be used to replicate the traditional structures of power in science, not buck them. There’s been a bit of a rise in science-related comedy in recent years, from the Science Museum’s Punk Science to the Infinite Monkey Cage. For all that we might imagine science to be a highly serious business, in many ways scientist and comedians are an obvious match.

A striking feature of comedy in modern Western societies is how much of it is based on the premise of some laughable imagined stupid Other person. Perhaps it is because so much of our lives is based on ideas of rationality we feel a need to laugh through the various anxieties we have about that. Or maybe we just need to feel superiorly rational. Whatever, science-based jokes offer a lot of material from which to build jokes about stupidity. George Bush’s dyslexia gags getting old? Try one about how there’s nothing in homeopathy.

As a result, the comedians largely side with scientists who can provide the knowledge. There are still a lot of jokes at the expense of scientists as a bit weird. The Big Bang Theory geek, for example. But in a way, that serves scientific authority too, painting them as a bit otherworldly, not really one of us and so hard to argue with. We don’t understand them which is why they are funny, but it’s also why they get to tell us what to do. Members of the scientific community may get angry at mad scientist serotypes, but in many ways, it offers them a lot of power.

I wonder if the web played a role in people standing up against the It’s OK to be Smart video. Those who felt offended by the joke could find others and collect together to feel less isolated, more justified in calling it out. This context of the web also reminded me the way Richard Dawkins has become a figure of fun online. Previously isolated quiet admissions that “I don’t really like Dawkins much” has flourished online to a whole sub-culture of people who regularly respond to everything his tweets with the in-joke of “your a dick” (a response to this). There’s even an online game. This is new, and feels significantly different from something like Monkey Cage.

I’m not sure if laughing at Dawkins is really much progress from homeopathy jokes made by educationally privileged people at the expense of the confused. But the comparison between the two, as with the controversy surrounding Hanson’s Thanksgiving video, can remind us that humour in science isn’t simply a matter of finding new audiences to talk about science to. As is often the case with science in popular culture, science comedy reflects a politics and should be politically aware. We should ask whose humour, about whom, disrupting what exactly, and why? Not simply how do we make more of it.