The more things stay the same the more they change

I used to get/find/stumble upon inspiration for my Beestonian columns on my commute to work, either peering, half-awake, from the window on an Indigo or pottering along towards the West Entrance after a coffee in Greenhood. It gave me time to think about something to say and how I might go about saying it…

My current commute is about 3 seconds.

I thought it might be witty to just stop there but 1) the Beestonian’s (other?!) Yorkshireman is the funny one and 2) I’ve got a page to fill and an editor wanting copy.

So, words I shall write and if your lockdown’s not eased too much, you can keep reading if you want.

It’s easy to blame a lack of commuting time for a lack of inspiration but I think actually I’ve just hit some kind of lockdown stasis. It’s also been marking season at work and it’s not my favourite part of the job. I enjoy ‘teaching’ but in most cases, marking is the one part of learning facilitation that I find a bit of a drag. There are notable exceptions, I was marking dissertations over, what was technically speaking, the spring vacation and it’s great to see the original research work that our students undertake – they do a great job. The added bonus marking wise is that every dissertation is on a different topic.

I think I’m also suffering a bit from hope. Hope of what exactly I’m not sure, but as discussions begin about things easing and recovering, my own emotions seem to do the opposite. Maybe our copy deadline is just bad timing, and in a week’s time my clarity will be restored, and words will flow from my fingers like something that flows easily. But at the moment lockdown actually appears more straightforward than what might come next. Shutting down was/is a much simpler process than opening up again.

My own research is about benchmarking Earth systems, it’s based on the idea that by going further and further back in time we can find out how a given system can respond to a given forcing, and what happens if and when it breaks. There’s always a no-analogue problem though. That is, it’s possible the system can go into a state it’s never been in before; that however much we try we’re not going to find a perfect time in the past to explain where we might end up next.

“We’re not approaching a new normal, we’re heading for complete unknown.”

And at the moment it feels we’re moving day by day, more and more into a no-analogue space. We’re not approaching a new normal, we’re heading for complete unknown. Our current lockdown is unsustainable, but the forcing isn’t going away anytime soon. So how do our existing systems cope with that? If we’ve time/space/stimulants enough to worry about it further, should they?

What we hope (i.e. argue with confidence for in grant proposals) is that we understand the present and past systems enough that we can project what will happen to them with confidence in any potential future scenario. My guess is that our scenario testing will be substantially examined in the coming weeks, months and years.

We also, though, relish the challenge (clearly not personally this month!) and trust that we can find new ways, technological, philosophical or other, to keep going and keep growing. Maybe we focus on the positives, of which there are many, or re-scale our horizons and gain new perspectives. Maybe we churn out words into the ether as something selfishly cathartic…

If you know please contact my editor.

MJ

How has the lockdown affected our universities?

The last few weeks have obviously seen a change in how Universities have been working, or indeed how they have been able to work, but working they have been…

Teaching

In the days leading up to the ‘lockdown,’ much focus was on ensuring that students could continue to access the learning they needed to complete this academic year. The last few weeks of the teaching semester have moved online. We commonly record our lectures anyway, but teaching online is more than just providing an audio file to accompany a set of PowerPoint slides – and it is the important interactive elements of our learning support that led to many staff doing a bit of a crash course in various online platforms towards the end of March.

Universities have also been putting things in place to ensure students can get the marks they need to progress through their degrees, or, most importantly for final-year students, graduate with a degree result that is a fair reflection of their efforts. Graduation ceremonies themselves have been postponed but there’ll be little delay in final year students getting their degrees. Some have even already graduated, as you may have seen recently on BBCs The One Show, some University of Nottingham final-year medical students graduated early this year so they could start supporting NHS work immediately. A heartfelt round of applause to them, in particular, this week along with the final-year student nurses who have signed up for extended placements at this particularly challenging time.

Research

The move to a more virtual world has not stopped research across the University either, although in large parts of it there has been a shift to writing up work rather than doing new experiments, or a (re) new(ed) focus on desk-based work. Most of the University’s laboratories cannot be accessed at the moment, and travel restrictions have also paused some research programmes. Many of us have research networks across the UK and overseas and meeting these colleagues has now become a similar experience to meetings with people in our own department. There’s been a debate for some time in my own academic circles about how much we should be travelling anyway, given short- and longer-term environmental impacts of international travel. The coming months will see an increase in online workshops and conferences and it will be interesting to see how people take to these as an alternative to meeting in person and if behaviours remain changed in a post-COVID-19 world – no doubt someone will be doing some research on that.

Service

Laboratories that have remained open in the University have largely been those that have been working on COVID-19 related work, for example as part of a national effort to understand the genetic code of the virus. Equipment from both Nottingham universities was also loaned, early on in the shutdown, to the national testing effort. About £1 million worth of Nottingham PCR machines are now in the new Lighthouse Laboratories being used for running COVID-19 tests.

What next?

As we settle down into the rest of this academic year with a clear plan of what we are doing (and a big thanks to those colleagues who put in significant shifts to ensure those plans were in place), thoughts also turn to next year. Our big sisters and brothers in the national press have been speculating and reporting on concerns for university finances over the coming months, the sector will likely be hit substantially along with many others. We also wait and see if Freshers’ Weeks in the autumn are likely to be seen as a good idea, or if we’ll still be operating largely virtually for the new academic year. As with us all, we’ll just wait and see on those things and in the meantime keep supporting each other and others as best we can.

Take care.

MJ

University of Beestonia: Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015 the United Nations released a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and improve the lives of all. This ambitious blueprint outlined 17 Goals and a 15-year timeframe in which to achieve them.

Sustainability is a challenging concept but is broadly defined in this context as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs”. The focus on the SDGs and sustainability in general has opened a wealth of opportunities for scientists. One of the biggest shifts in the UK has been in the nature of the funding landscape, with the introduction of the “Global Challenges Research Fund” in 2015 – a £1.5bn UK Government funding initiative. This has in turn seen many Universities and Research Institutes align their research strategies with the SDGs – for example, the British Geological Survey’s “Geoscience for Sustainable Futures” programme, or the University of Nottingham’s Global Research Theme “Developing Sustainable Societies” and Future Food Beacon of Excellence, which have been discussed previously in this column.

Geoscience, our focus at the BGS, as well as other (and arguably all) science disciplines have a crucial role in underpinning and delivering applied solutions to improve economic and social welfare both at home and overseas. Perhaps the key to achieving the goals is tied up in Goal 17 –Partnerships for the Goals. We can no longer be scientists that sail our own ships, the need for crossdisciplinary working has never been stronger. We also need to work effectively and appropriately with overseas partners – be these academics, government bodies, or local communities – working together to co-design research, and co-produce knowledge to positively impact economic, environmental, and social development at local to global scales.

Achieving the UN-SDGs by 2030 might seem like an insurmountable task, and will be challenging, but does represent an exciting opportunity for scientists both in the UK and overseas to contribute to making positive change at a global scale.

Thanks to Dr. Keely Mills from the British Geological Survey (BGS) for contributing to the column this issue.

University of Beestonia

A global top 100 happy university.

I was thrown a right editorial curveball this issue, I was ready and primed for a whole year (I’d set myself a challenge) of positive celebrations of Higher Education (HE). If anyone has ever read this column you may have noted the occasional grump, the odd bout of cynicism, and sometimes a pointed suggestion of where things might improve. Not this year, there’s loads to be happy about (should not have used positive and celebration in the same phrase earlier, internal thesaurus’ run out already), and this is what the column will focus on for at least the next 12 months.

And then we hit the start of the new semester, it started raining and the theme for this issue comes through (thanks new Ed.). Amazing how quickly my head went to “HE Horror Show” or “Halloween is traditionally the time to remember those that have passed, like our HE system”. But neither of those things is true, it would have been lazy writing, and I see enough of that from some of the professionals these days.

There’s always a buzz about the beginning of the new year, often created by 100 young (and by golly they’re getting younger) coughs raining, often literally, down to the front of the lecture theatre (there’s a seasonal image for you). The campus is full of people again and the academics are chuckling about how they always forget what this time of year is like, even those that haven’t done it before.

So that bright light isn’t an oncoming train, after all, a rare occasion when the gentleman of Half Man Half Biscuit were wrong, at the end of this year’s tunnel there is joy, rainbows and undoubtedly bunnies (not the Monty Python type). Alternatively, I’m well and truly down the rabbit hole, but hey if I am it’s nice here and I’m not coming back. Reality sucks. Is that your Sanderling?

MJ currently has part of his salary paid for by The Future Food Beacon.

MJ

 

 

University of Beestonia

Augar-ing down into the world of Higher Education

On my return from a University of Beestonia sabbatical I find HE in the national headlines, in May sandwiched somewhere between Farage and Trump (don’t dwell on that imagery too much) Dr Auger and his colleagues presented their Review of Post-18 Education and Funding (from the literal rather than creative school of titling I
guess…).

The headline grabbing recommendation (out of all 53 of them) was that to reduce the University Tuition Fee from its current level at £9,250, to £7,500 per year for undergraduate students. Less widely reported, but fairly critical for the Universities was the following recommendation that Government should replace in full the lost fee income by
increasing the teaching grant, leaving the average unit of funding unchanged at sector level in cash terms.

This seems fairly critical, as otherwise most Universities will see substantial reductions in income, given the high percentage of that income that comes from tuition fees.

However, word on the lanes and boulevards is that the next government is likely to embrace the former recommendation and quietly ignore the latter. After all, saving folk money is a good thing, whereas taking it away from something else or increasing taxes generally doesn’t go down so well.

Some point out though that government also want a high quality higher education sector in the UK – it has its uses after all, not least the 1.2 % of GDP in contributes (figures from the Auger review).

So how does one go about balancing that alongside the other things Universities have to do, like undertake research? It is the question that Universities and those that work within them have been batting with for some time. How do you balance the books and maintain or improve quality? How do you measure quality and ensure it? Themes such as this have drifted through this particular column before.

And whilst we juggle with the balancing, there are still huge uncertainties about just what will happen to the review in the hands of a new PM, a new government and in an uncertain Brexit landscape. It’s difficult to plan for, and so institutions have to look to the worst case. A cut in fee will likely have to be compensated for by an increase
in student numbers or cut in provision somewhere. Neither are ideal in terms of providing a leading higher educational experience to our future students. 20 go to 10.

There’s a challenge to doing more with less, to more by fewer. And it’s a shame because we have great students who deserve and should demand a good University education, and we want to be able to provide that. I don’t think the Auger review wanted anything less than that either, I just hope whoever implements the review allows it to happen.

It’s good to be back…

Prof. J

University of Beestonia: 30 Days Wild

Somewhere in Beestonia…

30dayswild
Logo credit to @30DaysWild (Twitter) and The Wildlife Trust

As I write I’m just recovering from a two-day conference run at the University in collaboration with Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust, perfect for this issue’s ‘wild’ theme and their 30 Days Wild campaign.

The conference itself was very calm, the wildness left for the content of the presentations and debates. We heard about koalas, sheep, badgers, lizards, stone curlew and hedgehogs. Hedgehogs were mentioned quite a lot… not least in our public lecture by Hugh Warwick on Monday night.

I co-lead one of the University’s research priority areas called Life in Changing Environments. We exist to bring together all researchers across the university working in any way on this broad theme. Working with The Wildlife Trusts, particularly the team from Nottinghamshire we were also able to bring together many environmental practitioners from across the East Midlands and beyond.

“We all have a responsibility to look after the bits of the world that we can, our own gardens, our own streets, the nature reserves we enjoy spending time in.”

We listened to panels discuss how best we can all work together to improve environmental conditions for all, and the challenges posed by environmental policy, including those in a post Brexit landscape. These panels included Paddy Tipping, the Nottinghamshire Police and Crime Commissioner, Sara Goodacre from the University, Oliver Harmar, the North East Area Director for the Environment Agency, Jeff Knott, Eastern England regional director of the RSPB, and Ellie Brodie, Senior Policy Manager, for The Wildlife Trust. These were highly informed, enthusiastic debates that were inspiring to listen to.

In the afternoon we heard from a panel about the concerns of our current students’ generation about what is going on with our environment, and not just about plastic. The panel included Katie Jepson, Sustainability Project Officer, for the NUS and Isla Hodgson, Associate Director, of the youth organisation A Focus on Nature. We then listened to a fascinating discussion about how best to communicate environmental science issues to a wide range of audiences including politicians and the general public, and how to best make a difference.

A theme that ran throughout the conference was how we all have a responsibility to look after the bits of the world that we can, our own gardens, our own streets, the nature reserves we enjoy spending time in. It’s also clear that there are many amazing, inspiring and engaging people working hard to make all the bits of the world we encounter better for everyone and everything in it. We should be thankful to them and hopeful that bit-by-bit differences can be made in the right way. Challenges and uncertainties around funding and future legislation make life difficult for environmental practitioners, as it does for those of us working in universities and many other sectors, but there was a definite sense of the ‘cautious optimism’ described by Ellie Brodie throughout the meeting. It was good to hear.

We were optimistic enough about the feedback from the conference to put next year’s in the diary already. It will be on the 24th and 25th June 2019 – keep an eye on our twitter feed @LCE_RPA and we’ll maybe see some of you there!

MJ

The Beestonian is: Matthew Jones – Co-founder/Resident Don

Matt has lived in and around Beeston for 14 years and founded the Beestonian with Matt. Since then he’s stayed involved with the magazine (can actually almost call it that without infringing any trade description issues!) in one-way or another. He reads it occasionally, and edits the ramblings of Prof J and other contributors from the university. Matt is excited, and secretly a little proud, by seeing the Beestonian take its next steps.

Somewhere in Beestonia…continued

Somewhere in the University of Beestonia Dr. Chewtaar sighed. It was a long and audible sigh directed towards his office ceiling, and it had at its center a less audible, but critical, growl. It had been a funny few months and, between him and his ceiling, Ainsley was feeling a little broke.

The spring term hadn’t felt particularly springy. It was particularly daft calling it the spring term this year anyway, having already finished by the time British Summer Time had started (more potential confusion there…), but mulling over it there didn’t seem to be a particularly good alternative. The ‘grey, cold few months when lots of people are a bit miserable’ term didn’t seem particularly catchy, and certainly didn’t fit into the University of Beestonia branding particularly well.  He’d had a Great Aunt called Hilary, he seemed to remember, that was a nice name, and apparently one she’d shared with a French saint …

Reality was returned with a sharp knock on the door. “Sorry to bother you…” for a second Ainsley drifted back to his Great Aunt, he had this vague recollection of her at some odd meal held in honour of an important wedding anniversary of his paternal grandparents, “… could I come and see you some time this week about my coursework?”

Ah the vacation, those long sprawling oceans of free time, which family members and people you meet randomly in shops think you have off because you work in an educational establishment. If only. In fact having them off isn’t the goal, having them free would be good enough. Free to think (?!), create and push back those intellectual boundaries one increment at a time.

“No worries, let me just check my diary,” Ainsley smiled back. In his more cynical moments he remembered that the Office for Students was drilling down into its spreadsheets, making sure the curvature of his smile was above the minimum standard required, but most of the time he enjoyed teaching the students that came each year to the University of Beestonia. They were generally nice kids and kept him on his toes. If all he’d had to do was help them learn and push an occasional boundary a little bit closer to its next increment the term would have been a lot more springier.

 I didn’t get much sleep…

Prof J

Somewhere in Beestonia…

The Office for Students (OfFS); an Orwellian curiosity located within its carbon-neutral, architectural award winning, many windowed new complex down Diagon Alley.

In the penthouse twelve carefully selected volunteers sit around their roundtable overseen by a mysterious and dangerous sounding overlord. Never seen, this Master of the Twelve exists behind a set of beautifully carved wooden doors which if opened eject plumes of green smoke which legend has it will melt you in seconds (the reality is a fairly normal looking fellow sat in front of a bank of spreadsheets – but perception is everything dear reader).

Out of town a renegade band of academics, feeding off scraps of research funding, shelter in dark, cold corners whispering about how they could make themselves heard. “Where is our champion?” they shout into the wilderness, the words swallowed in the wind before anyone can hear them.

This is not a good combination; conflict is inevitable. A war fought on many fronts for the soul of what should be a ‘higher’ education. Or perhaps it’s more than that, battles for actual souls.

Questions remain on both sides however if the enemy is really the other, or if there may be some greater force, a common enemy to which their energies should really be pointed. For a grey, slightly damp, autumn is coming. Hidden behind a wall of call centres and satisfaction surveys, something is stirring; no-one knows what.

It was against this background that Ass Prof Ainsley Chewtaar peddled his way into work one fine winter’s morning. He’d had a reasonable night’s sleep after reviewing some piss poor attempt at a paper that he’d meant to get back to the journal six weeks ago. He was feeling rather smug about his cryptic ‘anonymous’ comments to the authors and slightly lighter in the shoulder area having had a good rant to the editor about how the subject never really progressed, and how these authors in particular should know better.

The story will continue (once I’ve had a bit more sleep)…

“What? Pensions you say? Sorry, no idea mate, is something going off?”…

Prof J

The Twelve Days at Uni…

On the first day of Christmas my Uni sent to me: A nine grand tuition fee

(Imagine starting out with a 9 grand tuition fee…

…oh…and technically of course it’s the government that means we have the fees, but it doesn’t scan as well.)

But less of that grumpy stuff, ’tis the season to be jolly, so forthwith, a carol of our times:

On the twelfth day of Christmas my Uni sent to me:
Twelve student e-mails
Eleven impact pathways
Ten masters projects
Nine grant rejections
Eight Moodle mandates
Seven 4 star papers
Six weekends marking
Project xxxxxxxxxxxxx *
Four strategies
Three 9 a.ms
Two peer reviews
and a nine grand tuition fee.

Wishing you all an admin free Christmas and a grant filled New Year.

* feel free to include a 2 syllable project of your choice here.

Prof J

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