Monday 23 February 2015

Should academics be immune from losing their job

** Warning, non-shale gas-related post**

It's been a while since I last posted something not related to shale gas. Instead, in this post I want to discus some recent developments in the academic world.

There is uproar at Bristol University at the sacking of an academic (in the veterinary science department), apparently for failing to secure sufficient research funding. A campaign has been launched for her reinstatement, and it's been reported in local media as well as HuffPo.

This is not an isolated incident. Across the UK, universities are showing themselves willing to fire staff who are failing to bring in research grant money. For instance, staff at Warwick have been threatened with redundancy if they fail to bring in sufficient research income.

I've never been sacked or otherwise forced to leave a job in my life. Therefore I am aware that I am a position of privilege in this regard. I can only imagine the stress and hardship involved. On a personal level, I have every sympathy with Dr Hayman and any other academic threatened with the loss of their position.

However, I think it raises a few issues regarding my chosen profession that I'd like to discuss.

I am currently in a postdoctoral position at Bristol. Most post-docs move from short-term contract to short-term contract (and often from city to city, or even continent to continent to do so), with no job security. Being required to bring in a certain amount of research grant money may indeed put a tenured lecturer "under enormous pressure", as Dr Hayman describes. However, I sincerely doubt that the pressure is greater than that experienced by post-docs as they try to eke out a career in academia.

I speak on behalf of the vast majority of my friends and colleagues as they continuously hunt out new opportunities, with the distant hope of one day reaching that holy grail of a permanent job somewhere (anywhere). Incidentally, post-docs may also be "the sole breadwinner", even more so perhaps because the requirement to move continuously from place to place often makes it very difficult for their partners to build a career of their own.

According to a recent Royal Society report, 30% of people who complete a PhD go on to an "Early Career Research" position. However, of that 30%, only 3.5% go on to get a permanent academic position. This is a huge issue for academia at present.

From the Epigram article, Dr Hayman's last funding award appears to be for £5,000 in 2012. This is barely enough to attend a couple of conferences abroad. Peanuts, in other words. For context, <humblebrag>I have been involved in some way or other (either as PI, Co-I, or writing a grant for my boss to put his name on top of) in over £600,000 worth of grant money awarded during my brief academic career, more than 100 times as much </humblebrag>.

In fact, the biggest surprise to me in the Epigram article is that there are 387 other permanent staff members who also have not brought in any funding in recent years. The job description for a "Pathway 1 Role Profile Level c" position - i.e. lecturer - is listed here, and you can see it includes the requirement to "identify potential funding sources and write, or help to write, bids for research funding".

Anyway, in the last few years I've applied for several permanent academic positions, thus far without success. I have no sour grapes and bear no grudges: in every case the candidate who got the job was better than me. And, incidentally, in almost every case also had a track record of bringing in hundreds of thousands of pounds of funding.

As above, I have every personal sympathy with academics who face losing their jobs. However, as one of thousands of young academics scrabbling from short-term contract to short-term contract, even when bringing in hundreds of thousands of pounds of research money, it's difficult to have any professional sympathy whatsoever when someone loses their job having only brought in £5,000 of funding. Perhaps there are a couple of post-docs waiting in the wings to replace Dr Hayman, with plans for grand and important research programs with the potential to bring in substantial research income. Is it not fair that they should be given that chance, rather than forced out of academia as incumbent staff sit on the choice positions instead?

There are a couple of broader questions to address here:

Should academics be immune from losing their job?
An argument sometimes made is that, once an academic has been appointed to a permanent position, she or he should never by sacked unless they have committed serious misconduct - sexually harassing a student, for example (it does happen, sadly). The basis behind this argument is the importance of academic freedom. It is important that academics are free to pursue their intellectual inquiries wherever they may take them. Sometimes a line of research simply never produces fruitful results.

However, I don't believe that the need for academic freedom means that an academic should never have to justify their position ever again. Pro-active, high quality researchers should be generating research outputs, regardless of whether they do blue skies research or applied research, and regardless of whether individual projects happen to succeed or fail. In any other job, if you are not meeting the expectations of your employer, you will be sacked. I believe that academics have to live with the pressures of the real world, just like everyone else. Otherwise, there is in theory no reason for an academic, once in a permanent position, ever to turn up for work again!

Is research grant income the best metric of success?
The first question is obvious, even though we often don't act like it (it is still very rare for a an academic in a permanent position to be removed). However, I accept that there may be good arguments for other, better metrics to use.

One metric is definitely not considered relevant, and that is teaching ability. Despite what many undergraduates may think, the primary role of academics is to produce top quality research, not to teach undergraduates. Every post-doc knows that it is their research metrics that will land them that permanent job, not their teaching ability. You could be the worst teacher ever (and I've experienced a few contenders first-hand), but if you've got a good research profile, it doesn't matter.

There is a case to be made for a new system where research and teaching career paths are more clearly defined and separate (i.e. you have teaching staff who only teach, and research staff who only do research, and very few staff who mix the two). However, such a system would probably be more expensive, because you'd need twice the staff for the same overall output. Anyway, we don't have that system now, so we are where we are, and it is your research that counts.

Academic metrics in general are a tricky thing. Numerous options exist, from impact factors, H-indices, REF scores, and grant income, to name a few. Estimating the quality of academic output is something of an intangible judgement call. In general, I would expect people with experience in the field to be capable of differentiating high and low-quality research programs. However, coming up with quick and easy metrics to quantify that difference isn't easy.

However, these things tend to correlate. While REF scores aren't solely based on journal publications (academics can have impact in other ways, through government policy and through contributions to industry, for example), an academic with a stack of papers in high impact journals is unlikely to fare badly at REF, and will likely accumulate a decent H-index over time. A track record of high impact research publications is also likely to translate into research funding success as well: if the editors of Science and Nature think someone's research is really interesting, then those on funding panels are, generally speaking, likely to think so too.

Ultimately, when departments hire someone on the basis of one or many of these metrics (or the intangible judgement call that we might replace them by), it is because they hope that a successful researcher is likely to bring in future grant money. So really, as far as administration is concerned, going straight to the funding record cuts out the middle men, especially once employees have been in place for a number of years.

I don't deny that grant success rates are low for some funding councils. NERC grant success rates are typically around the 20% mark, for example. And, yes, funding body decisions can be capricious. However, there are a lot of funding sources out there if you know where to look. This doesn't even have to include industry sources. For example, in the last few years our group has pulled in funding from UK research councils, but also from various EU grant-making bodies, from charities, and even from both the Canadian government and the US government. Yes, it can be a hard slog as you drag your research idea from potential funder to potential funder. But capable researchers are able to find ways to get their work funded.

Why does the money matter? Employing a staff member costs money, and the administrators need to ensure that the department's income equals or exceeds the total cost of running it. If the cost of running a department, a significant chunk of which is staff costs, exceeds the revenue it generates, then over the long term it will likely be faced with closure (and then everyone loses their jobs, regardless of their research metrics).

I will use my own department as an example. Bristol Earth Sciences is a fairly typical, medium-sized science department. We usually have about 200 - 250 undergrads spread over 4 years, and 40 full time academic staff. These students will be paying £9,000 per year. Taking a mid-range value (let's say 222 students, because it rounds easily), this gives us an income of £2,000,000 from student fees. Divided between 40 staff, this is an income from teaching of £50,000 per staff member, which is in the ball-park for a typical academic salary.

So student fees appear to just about cover staff costs. But remember, we also need to pay for buildings, electricity, heating, the internet, a library (with expensive journal subscriptions), teaching labs (and materials and equipment to go in the labs), employer's national insurance contributions, pension contributions, administrative staff, cleaning staff, computing facilities, a contribution to the university's central administration, contributions to capital funds to build new buildings or renovate existing ones. The list goes on and on.

Now, most departments will also receive the HEFCE block grant, which will offset some of these costs. But the overall equation stays the same: for a medium-sized science department, unless millions of pounds of research funding are brought in every year, then things soon become financially unsustainable.

Assume a department needs £2 million per year of research income. Divided between our 40 staff members, that's an average of £50,000 per staff member, which interestingly is in the similar to the requirements reportedly placed on Warwick's academics, which demonstrates that I'm in the right ball-park with my numbers here.

Finally, if staff aren't bringing in research grants, then a department will be able to fund only a small number of Ph.D. places, and no post-doc staff whatsoever. I suppose that'd solve the issue of post-docs to permanent jobs issue, but realistically I don't think it's a direction we want to be going! A department unable to offer post-doc opportunities isn't really conceivable. Yet most post-doc positions (such as mine) are funded by external research income from funding bodies.

So I don't think department administrators are obsessed with money because they're a bastard children of Scrooge McDuck and the Wolf of Wall Street. I think they're trying to ensure that their departments are financially viable, so that they stay open.

Now, the simple solution here is to provide more funding to universities. Ideally we'd have unlimited funding, and that way we could give permanent jobs to all the post-docs while keeping all our current permanent staff in jobs as well, regardless of research output. However, we must play the hand we've been dealt.

I have been involved in campaigns to persuade the government to increase (or at least keep constant and not cut) academic funding, and I urge you to do so too: increased funding for science is incredibly important in what is increasingly becoming a knowledge-based economy. However, there are many worthy causes in need of the public money, and not enough of it to go around. So we're unlikely to see huge increases in academic funding anytime soon, even in the most optimistic scenarios.

In the meantime, we need to ensure that the system is fair both to those currently in permanent positions, as well as those seeking those permanent jobs. I'll happily accept that there may be better metrics out there than grant income, however it must be accepted that ultimately grant income is very important for the continued success of a department. A system where, once given a permanent job, an academic cannot be replaced even where there are more productive candidates (by whatever metric you prefer) stuck on short-term contracts to the extent where they are leaving the field by the thousands, is not a fair system.

Tuesday 10 February 2015

Science and the Public

Science and technology are hugely important in our current society. Our quality of life, our health and the levels of wealth we now enjoy are all predicated on technological and scientific advances.

However, it seems that wherever science and society directly intersect, controversy is never far away. My particular expertise is in shale gas, but we see similar controversies with respect to GMO food, nuclear power, climate change and vaccines, for example. A recent Pew Society report documents substantial differences between the opinions of scientists and those of the general public.

In an article for the Washington Post, Mark Lynas documents a "new Age of Ignorance", noting "determined lobbies working to undermine public understanding of science."

We've seen the (ex) Science Advisor to the European Commission hit out at dishonesty from environmental NGOs who pressurised Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to axe the position. According to wikipedia, the EU Commission:
"is the executive body of the European Union responsible for proposing legislation, implementing decisions, upholding the EU treaties and managing the day-to-day business of the EU." 
Why indeed would such an institution need someone to advise them on matters of science?

A recent article in Vox, on the anti-vax lobby, provided the original motivation for this post:
There's a broader point here. It can be easy to stereotype the vaccine debate as people who believe in scientific evidence versus people who don't. But that's an oversimplification. Vaccine skeptics do think they believe in scientific evidence. They can cite dozens of studies and cases. They see themselves as the side in this debate that's actually following the evidence, while the pro-vaccine side is blindly trusting in authority and ultimately getting taken in by a massive pharmaceutical scam. 
The problem is when you dig into the studies they cite, the evidence they're relying on doesn't hold up — it's misinterpreted, selectively reported, or refracted through conspiracy theories. But knock down one bad interpretation of a study and there's always another, and another, and another. And then there's the flood of wrenching anecdotes which can't be checked, but which are reported by people who are in pain and arouse our deepest sympathies. The result is that to someone primarily consuming anti-vaccine arguments, the evidence looks overwhelming, the media's dismissal of it looks corrupt, and the victims seem very real.
I couldn't help but notice that you could substitute any of the above controversial technologies into these two paragraphs. Read again but substitute "vaccines" for "GMO", for "nuclear power" or "shale gas" and I think this summary is equally valid.

Wednesday 4 February 2015

Prof Smythe: "Well" out of date

It would appear that I have a new admirer. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, I consider myself very flattered that Professor Smythe has created a blog in my honour, going so far as to name it "Frackland" in reflection of my own small contribution to the national shale gas debate.

Prof Smythe has featured previously on this blog, firstly when I pointed out errors in his critique of Cuadrilla's Balcombe operations, and subsequently to document his contretemps with the Geol. Soc. and Glasgow University.

In his original critique of Cuadrilla's operations at Balcombe, Prof Smythe proved himself to be ignorant of modern drilling technologies. Sadly, it seems that Prof Smythe has doubled down on his errors in a new presentation, which, in a comment on his blog, he claims "show[s] that it is James Verdon, not I, who misunderstands the technology of drilling".

In his latest piece, Prof Smythe admits to learning about geosteering and LWD at the Dart Airth CBM planning inquiry, and grudgingly concedes that one of my principal criticisms was, in fact, accurate: "It is correct that I did not at that time know about the gamma-ray geosteering technique." I would add that listening to a submission at a planning inquiry does not make anyone an expert in anything.
It is interesting that Prof Smythe refers to a "gamma ray" geosteering technique. I don't actually refer specifically to gamma-ray logging at any point in my original comments. There is a reason for this: there is a huge range of LWD measurements that can be made to measure the properties of the rocks through which a well is being drilled.

The motivation for this is severalfold - in addition to the real-time aspect of LWD, in horizontal wells a "well tractor" is required to pull wireline logging tools (the traditional method of well logging, done once the well had been drilled) along the horizontal section of the well, which can be time consuming and expensive. LWD obviates this need, so as a result in the last 20 years much effort has been put into developing LWD tools that can match traditional wireline tools both in terms of the different petrophysical measurement techniques, and the quality of the measurements.

If Prof Smythe thinks that LWD is limited to a non-directional gamma-ray measurement then he is still spectacularly uninformed as to the state of modern drilling technology.

Almost every traditional wireline logging tool is now available as a LWD equivalent. This might include measuring the electrical resistivity (which is particularly sensitive to whether the rock is full of oil/gas (high resistivity) or salt water (low resistivity)), the porosity, the bulk density, and the acoustic properties of the formation, in addition to its gamma-ray levels. The latest technologies can even tell you the colour of the rock you are drilling through (organic-rich rocks tend to have a dark colour), and microimaging even takes images of the rock as you go!

Equally importantly, these measurements are not taken uni-directionally. Modern LWD tools take measurements at many angles to the well bore. This enables an operator to identify the dip of the beds through which he is drilling, as demonstrated in the image below, taken from a Schlumberger Oilfield Review paper. Note that this SOR is from 1996, which gives an indication of how out-of-date Prof Smythe's comments are. Prof Smythe (and the interested reader, of course) would do well to peruse the latest offerings from the various oilfield service providers, such as this from Weatherford or this from Schlumberger.

So, how does all this tech help an operator stay in zone while drilling a horizontal well. In most cases, an operator will have prior geological data from logs run in vertical wells (such as Cuadrilla will have had from Conoco's drilling of the first Balcombe well in 1986). They will have identified marker beds from this log data, characterising the petrophysical properties of each different layer (the resistivity, porosity, density, acoustic properties, the microimages etc.). These marker beds, along with the dip information, are then used to guide the horizontal wellbore and stay in formation. If a fault is intersected, the well will find itself in a different geological layer. The operator can determine which layer this is by comparing the LWD data with pre-existing logs and, in combination with the dip data, determine where the well must be steered in order to return to the formation.

Now, if a fault is encountered that has substantial offset, it may not be possible (or economic) to steer the well back to the target formation, and the well must be abandoned. And of course it's better if an operator has 3D seismic data to help plan their wells, and to ensure that their LWD matches the 3D seismic data. I make this point in my original post, and I expect that as operators move from exploratory to production phases, we will see more 3D seismic data collected. However, LWD data alone is usually sufficient to keep a well on target, even if faults are encountered.

Importantly, however, the proof is in the pudding.

One of Prof Smythe's principal conclusions was that keeping the well within the 30m thick target layer would be a "near impossibility", "all-but impossible", and "the drilling will therefore almost certainly transgress into the Kimmeridge Clay, either above and/or below the micrite (the target layer)." Indeed, Prof Smythe goes so far as to claim that Cuadrilla will intentionally drill out of formation in order to collect samples of Kimmeridge Clay with a mind to future fracking at Balcombe, and makes the claim that Cuadrilla's activities at Balcombe were little more than a "cover story" for future unconventional work.

Prof Smythe maintains that "[his] criticism of Cuadrilla in 2013 was and remains substantially correct". However, in September 2013, Cuadrilla announced the results of their Balcombe well, and that "using geo-steering technology, the entire 1700ft was successfully drilled within the target limestone".

Now, Prof Smythe might claim that Cuadrilla are still deceiving us. If they are, it would be a odd thing to do, given that all well log data becomes publicly available after a short confidentiality period, so they'd know that they'd soon be found out.

He also makes the unsubstantiated accusation that Cuadrilla may actually have encountered a fault, and that they had been forced to stop drilling as a result:
"We do not know why the horizontal well stopped at 518 m (1700 ft). For all we know, Cuadrilla may have encountered a fault."   
This seems very unlikely. If Prof Smythe were more familiar with the full history of the Balcombe site, he would have been aware that Cuadrilla's planning consent for the site expired on the 30th September 2013. By this date they were required to have removed all of their drilling and other kit from the site. The two images below show the drilling equipment on site, and the condition to which Cuadrilla had to return the site by the 30th September.

Cuadrilla completed their drilling on the 23rd September. Prof Smythe claims that Cuadrilla stopped drilling because they had encountered a fault. I would suggest that the far more likely explanation is that they only had 7 days left before their planning consent expired, and wanted to give themselves enough time to run whatever tests they wanted to do, before removing all their kit from the site, and probably leaving a bit of spare time as well in case protestor activities caused further delays (as happened earlier in their operations).

In his original criticism, Prof Smythe made strong conclusions ("near-impossibility", "all-but impossible") , and accused an operator of intentional deceit, which should not be done lightly. I would suggest that when an "expert" claims that something is a "near-impossibility" and "all-but impossible", but then that thing happens, then those claims do not "remain substantially correct", as Prof Smythe claims. In fact, I'd think it would be considered rather embarrassing, and would draw the status of said "expert" into question. Perhaps this is why the Geol Soc asked Prof Smythe to cease referring to himself as a Chartered Geologist.