I carried out my tertiary education, postdoctoral research, and work life during the remarkable period described below. It is the milieu over which I performed the research program described here. Using this example (1989 to 1999) I’ll illustrate how Research Management has come to set agendas for research by becoming arbiters of the productivity of researchers. I intend this article as a warning and a call for researchers to reclaim research by rediscovering “when research was research.”
Used to be — “back in the day” — ca. 1976 when I studied chemistry at the University of NSW, there was a Faculty of Applied Science and a Faculty of Science, occupying some of the most impressive buildings. There was a Faculty of Commerce but no Faculty of Business . The word entrepreneur was hardly ever heard and the richest business people were known as tycoons. The aging J. Paul Getty, an oil baron, was the richest man in the world in the mid-1970s. In Australia, some of the richest men were media and press moguls Kerry Packer and Rupert Murdoch. Another notable wealthy-figure was the iron-ore mining magnate Lang Hancock (the father of Gina Rinehart). None of this would have much interested me. It was research that was my interest. As I will show in this article.
This article is about the unsolved Tylenol and copycat poisonings with cyanide in painkiller capsules. My involvement in the case was as an analytical chemist to develop rapid methods for analyses of the potentially millions of suspect products recalled from shelves of drugstores. The hope was that such chemical testing might give clues to investigators concerning the distribution of tainted products that could lead to an arrest.
It’s been 40 years since seven people died from cyanide poisoning from adulterated extra-strength Tylenol tablets. The victims had purchased bottles of Tylenol, on store shelves, in suburban Chicago. A completely ordinary thing to do. They were tragically unaware of tampering by an unknown attacker who had replaced the contents of the pills with cyanide . It was a shocking incident that completely changed sales and production of pharmaceuticals. Today, we take for granted the safety of drugs and medicines because they’re produced in tamper-evident blister packs or sealed bottles. This was not the case before 1982.
Unfortunately, this incident attracted copycat attacks in the years that followed. It was after such a copycat attack in 1984, this time on a different brand of painkillers in Westchester County, NY, that I became involved. I was at Indiana University, Department of Chemistry, Bloomington IN and I had become friends with my office-mate, now Professor Robert Lodder (at the University of Kentucky, College of Pharmacy). Rob was working on combining Near-infrared Spectroscopy with intelligent algorithms, using statistics and mathematics, for an enhanced interpretation of the data.
In my former life as an academic, I used to joke to my colleagues that Game of Thrones was essential reading as a standard operations manual for working in universities nowadays.
GOT as a manual for negotiating the world of research grants, where, figuratively, you either win the game or die and of navigating a path between the wheeling and dealing of the big-time professors, administrators, bean-counters, health and safety officers (hey, don’t underestimate their power). On many occasions, the internal and external politics between all of the players seemed to operate on a GOT-like scale. There were times I must admit that I felt no better than a denizen of the “Flea Bottom” in King’s Landing.
Given that internal politics in most organisations of more than a handful of people can feel a bit like GOT, from time-to-time, why not distract yourself with a little idle speculation about the upcoming Game of Thrones Season 8? I’m hoping to speculate on enough topics that I’ll be able to make a random hit and be able to say “I told you so!” The truth is that my speculation is unlikely to be any better than anyone else. But its fun isn’t it? [March 7: I’ve added new updates in notes at the end]
When I started writing the Dossier at the end of July, I was still dealing with issues around job loss and finding a new direction. I wrote about some of this in the article: Job Loss and Sense of Purpose, getting that off my chest was a positive step forward for me. I’d like to thank Jo Stanley for her kind reply: my post was a response to a newspaper article that she had written about similar events in her own life.
I started to gain some sense of purpose which I wrote about with An Epiphany or Two, of Sorts which is primarily an appeal for online learning systems to be more personalised. The observation was that the area of online learning is dominated by institutionally-centralised learning management systems (LMSs) that suit a formal learning setting but aren’t necessarily well-suited to more personal and decentralised learning. In August requested support to get such a project off the ground This request is reproduced again below.
Support me in Developing a Device-centric Personal Learning System.
Develop and build the components of a personal learning system using Django for the back-end and Electron for multi-platform front-end support. Support is requested, in the first instance, for community-based proof of concept.
I write this in response to an article in the Brisbane Times online today: “Losing my job helped me find a sense of purpose” by Jo Stanley. Having lost my job* in the last 18 months I can sympathize. Losing a long-term job or a breakup after a long-term relationship are two of the most dispiriting experiences that you are likely to go through. You lose an anchor in your life and the knock to your confidence can easily lead you into depression and a downward spiral – no matter how much you thought you were ready for it. Particularly, in my case where I had been working in the same university teaching-research position for 28 years. Loyalty is no longer an asset, indeed it can paint a target on your back, as many people will attest to. Universities are no longer an ivory tower (if they ever were) and are rapidly catching up to being as cutthroat a working environment as anywhere in the private sector.
I write this in response to an article in the Brisbane Times online today: “‘This woman is so old’: Insults hurled at academics spur survey rethink” by Henrietta Cook. This comment posted in anonymous student feedback to Sydney academic Dr. Teena Clerke. These surveys are used by universities to measure the quality of teaching in its programs.
There is no question that universities need to maintain quality teaching but there is a problem with teachers being subjected to abuse under any guise as pointed out in the cited article above. What’s more, such measures are increasingly being used to judge not only the quality of university teaching programs but also the performance of teachers and to help decide questions of whether a given academic should be re-hired, promoted or fired.
While most institutions try to take a balanced view of survey data, in regard to staff management, it potentially opens a pandora’s box of for abusive behavior, gender and racial discrimination, bullying and sexual harassment to be perpetrated by pernicious managers and supervisors (or even students against teachers). So we need assurances that the benefits of such schemes outweigh the potential risks for abuse, however isolated and infrequent such instances might be.
The recent book “The Tyranny of Metrics” by academic Jerry Muller (2018) handles these issues in a more comprehensive manner than I can do here. What I have seen over my 28 years in academia is that teaching evaluation started out as a survey consisting of 10, or so, questions plus room for comments. They were handled by teachers on a class-by-class basis and returned in a sealed envelope to the university by an appointed student.
Typically, the academic could select one or more of the survey questions from a suite of optional questions, in addition, to standardized questions. I illustrate this with my own SET (student evaluation of teaching) results from October 1998 and the Insight evaluation report from June 2015, from the same institution and from the same unit of teaching, Instrumental Analysis:
My personal student evaluation of Teaching from Oct. 1998.
Insight evaluation of Teaching Unit (where I was Unit Coordinator), 2015
The evaluation instrument on the LHS above is for October 1998 and on the RHS for June 2015. Click on the thumbnail to enlarge the image.