James Ladyman | Universities as cartels?

Universities as cartels?

A succinct Council for the Defence of British Universities (CDBU) Opinion piece by James Ladyman, 15 January 2017. Quote:-

On the subject of the closed shop, one might as well ask why we let the medical profession control who becomes a doctor rather than the market. We don’t expect patient choice to set standards in clinical care, and we should no more expect student choice to set standards in higher education.

Related posts here:-
What do universities actually do?
A university is… | Comments welcomed
Academic Independence
Higher Education and Research Bill – what is it for?
Failing management in UK universities
The Managerial University: A Failed Experiment? – Demos
Research Assessment and REF

Evolving to Valhalla

How I wish that cells’ ancestors were not, now, being named after Norse gods.

The whole of Norse mythology is dark, superstitious mumbo-jumbo. Giving names of non-existent quasi-humans to hypothetical organisms inferred from metagenomes is an obstacle to thought, and an open invitation to anthropocentricity.

The usually admirable Ed Yong in The Atlantic, 11th January 2017:-

In Norse mythology, humans and our world were created by a pantheon of gods who lived in the realm of Asgard. As it turns out, these stories have a grain of truth to them.

No they don’t. Not a single grain. They are complete tosh.

The precedent for the terminology seems to be a fascinating mid-ocean hydrothermal field gratuitously named “Loki’s Castle” (Pedersen et. al., 2010) – by researchers, as it happens, from Norway. From Science Daily:-

The field has been named Loki’s Castle partly because the small chimneys at the site looked like a fantasy castle to the scientists. The Loki part refers to a Norwegian god renowned for trickery. A University of Bergen press release about the discovery said Loki “was an appropriate name for a field that was so difficult to locate.”

That explains it, then… Give me strength.

The origin of eukaryotes itself is unsolved, interesting, and raises many important questions. There is progress.

But is there not an element of parochial atavism in Nordic researchers claiming ties to their local demon-haunted world? Might one reference The Mabinogion for no better reason than happening to have some connection with Wales? Who else might wish to get their oar in? Terms from classical Greek and Latin were chosen for their wide intelligibility, not as cultural appropriation.

For the prokaryotic host in the symbiosis that produced eukaryotes we now have an array of proposed, whole phyla – Lokiarchaeota, Thorarchaeota, Odinarchaeota and Heimdallarchaeota. “We decided to name this archaeal clade Asgard, after the realm of the gods in Norse mythology.” (Zaremba-Niedzwiedzka et al., 2017). Who next? Freya must surely get a mention soon. Perhaps in the origin of sex?

And could Darwin and Wallace have been inspired by Yggdrasil?

I fear that we may be working towards the super-kingdom Valhalla. That was the location, in the after-life, of warriors who had died in combat. It could be appropriate. A reminder that there is no evolution without extinction? A tribute to the branches that led nowhere?

Or could Valhalla become the metaphor of choice for discarded evolutionary hypotheses?


Pedersen et. al. (2010) Discovery of a black smoker vent field and vent fauna at the Arctic Mid-Ocean Ridge. Nature Communications doi:10.1038/ncomms1124

Zaremba-Niedzwiedzka, K. et al. (2017) Asgard archaea illuminate the origin of eukaryotic cellular complexity. Nature http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature21031

McInerney, J. O. and O’Connell, M. J. (2017) Mind the gaps in cellular evolution. Nature doi:10.1038/nature21113

Newport – home of the Mole Wrench



Back in the days when there was clear separation between commercial interest and public service, the postmark “Ship through Newport, home of the Mole Wrench” had to go because it contained a registered trademark. That was right – no-one then wished to defend private “investment” in a public utility and natural monopoly. No-one thought to suggest that the Royal Mail should carry advertising. I very much doubt M. K. Mole & Son Ltd. had offered, or been asked, to pay.

The Mole Wrench postmark was more likely to have been a generous mistake, attributable to affection and local pride; a gentler age. Its replacement coincided with the General Post Office’s wish to promote postal codes, then new. Two substitute postmarks say much about the town. As I recall them:-

Send your letters with the postcode on,
Use a self-grip wrench from Newport, Mon.

The postcode helps to speed the mails,
The self-grip wrench from Newport hails.

I own an example of the original Mole Wrench, genuinely handed down, and still in good repair. Sadly, it sits in a toolbox in a distant country. I therefore had recently to buy a replacement from a hardware store. The design is unchanged and the new one, place of manufacture unspecified, is just as useful, solid, and apparently indestructible as the old.

Travel to a recent, wonderful family gathering on the Gower Peninsula took us past Newport, my home town. A slightly magical world seemed to begin with the elevated view of the Severn Estuary from the Eastern approach, on the M4 motorway, to the “new” Severn Bridge. Once across, in South Wales, the light seems different, and there are dramatic coastlines with great tides, fascinating cliffs, real mountains to the North, and the Somerset and North Devon coasts, outlining and merging with the Southern horizon. I suppose the sense of enchantment could have been the occasion coupled with fond memories and familiar skylines.

An outline, personal, geobiography in a map. So much has happened. Yet, the further West one travels, so much remains the same. I’ll post some photos from the birthday week, in mid-December. And I promise never to use the term Locking Pliers.


A week in Molecular Evolution, HHU

Great thanks for such hospitality and generosity to Bill Martin and his colleagues at the Institute of Molecular Evolution, Heinrich-Heine-Universität, Düsseldorf. Bill is an outstanding scientist and has others in his superb institute. I particularly appreciated illuminating conversations with Sven Gould and Sriram Garg, as with fellow speakers Louis Tielens (Utrecht) and Dave Speijer (Amsterdam) at the mini-symposium on November 30th.

I also also thank Nicolas Smelling, whom I have not met, but who generously tweeted accurate summaries of my main points at the mini-symposium and a research seminar on December 1st.

Tweets: Popper; Mitochondria; CoRR

On Twitter: Sven Gould, Sriram Garg, Nicolas Schelling, John F. Allen.

A hashtag: #corrhypothesis

Academic Freedom, Academic Independence

“Established by Royal Charter; accountable to Parliament”.

In a British University a Professor can be sacked for failing to obey instructions of persons with neither interest in, nor understanding of, research and teaching; who have accordingly achieved little or nothing of academic distinction themselves; and who waste one’s time. “Managers”, unelected and unaccountable, may, of course, have ulterior motives. For some reason, however, they are hostile to questions about what it is they hope to achieve. The most one can hope for are vacuous terms such as “change management”. “To what end?” is a question that remains unanswered. It is as if no thought has been given to the question what do universities actually do?

Academic Freedom is under even greater threat from the UK’s Higher Education and Research Bill. Academic Freedom has already disappeared within some UK universities. Academic Freedom has high priority in Statutes and Ordinances, which read as if a legacy from more enlightened times. In practice “management instructions” now have higher priority, and over-ride informed individual judgment. Management Instructions are enforced by “Human Resources” who thus breach their own Codes of Practice. Management Instructions are upheld by application in Employment Law. Academic Freedom is not.

With freedom comes independence. It will be helpful if we seek to be clear that what matters most is Academic Independence. Managers who destroy lives and careers also obstruct fields of enquiry – closing off progress within the institutions under their control, and more widely where their targets would otherwise have made important and original contributions.

Independence of members of an academy or university is vital for the same reason that it is vital for a judiciary. Academic Independence distinguishes one’s teaching from salesmanship, and one’s research from propaganda. It is the name of the game.

Without Academic Independence, what is left of a university?

The Higher Education and Research Bill in a Nutshell
The Convention for Higher Education

What do universities actually do?
A comment on Academic Freedom and the Corporate University

The Higher Education and Research Bill – what is it for?
The Managerial University: A Failed Experiment?

Queen Mary: nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition – The Lancet
A salute to whistleblowers | Peter Cameron’s Blog

Enhancing photosynthesis | Royal Society Discussion Meeting

Enhancing photosynthesis in crop plants: targets for improvement

October 10 and 11, 2016.

Contributors presented interesting new findings, approaches and techniques, while the outlook and prospect of “enhancing photosynthesis” seems not to have changed significantly over many years. Crop plants rely totally on the same photosynthetic mechanisms as those used by all plants, and some bacteria. I like the idea of tinkering with these machines to see what might be done. Totally unexpected results, rather than targets, will be the most useful. Important discoveries and new possibilities always arise from a problem in understanding, and from thinking of ways to solve it. There were definitely some important problems, good ideas, and experimental tests freely reported at the meeting. Some were very good indeed. I shall comment on these. It was unfortunate that the meeting opened with an unscheduled ten minutes intelligible only to those already aware of some sort of bid for funding, thus excluding most of those present.  I was happy to be in the majority on this.

There is progress – resting always on the possibility of ideas being open to examination and criticism.