Category Archives: Soapbox

Slow-motion multi-tasking leads to productive research

Most of my academic colleagues focus their research activity on a relatively narrow field and many have established international reputations in their chosen field of study.  However, my own research profile is broad, including recently-published studies on the motion of nanoparticles, damage propagation in composites and stress analysis in aerospace components  as well as current research on the fidelity and credibility simulations and tests (FACTS) in the aerospace, biomedical and nuclear industries.  My breadth of interests makes it difficult to categorise me or to answer the inevitable question about what research I do.  And, I have always felt the need to excuse or apologise for the breadth and explain by making  tenuous connections between my diverse research activities. However, apparently my slow-motion multi-tasking is a characteristic of many high-performing artists and scientists.  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has proposed that slowly changing back and forth between different projects is a standard practice amongst people with high levels of originality and creativity.  Scientists that work on several problems at once and frequently refocus their research tend to enjoy the longest and most productive careers according to another study by Bernice Eiduson.

So, no more excusing or apologising for my range of research interests.  It is merely slow-motion multi-tasking to achieve a long and productive career characterised by original and creative research!

Sources:

Tim Harford, Holidays hold the secret to unleashing creativity, FT Weekend, Opinion 25/26 August 2018.

Root‐Bernstein RS, Bernstein M, Gamier H. Identification of scientists making long‐term, high‐impact contributions, with notes on their methods of working. Creativity Research Journal.  6(4):329-43, 1993.

Alternative definition of education

I am taking a final week of vacation before the new academic year starts.  During the fortnight of vacation we took in July, I read a novel by Elizabeth Taylor called ‘A View of the Harbour‘.  One sentence in particular struck a chord with me: ‘education [meant] the insinuation into children’s heads as painlessly as possible of a substance which might later turn out to have money-making properties’.  It describes how I sometimes feel, in my more cynical moments, about teaching in a university today.

 

On the state of universities

In the UK we are limbering up for the Research Excellence Framework 2021 (REF 2021) which is the process of expert review of research activity in UK universities that is conducted periodically by the government – the last one was in 2014.  The outcome influences the allocation of government funding for research as well as providing accountability for public investment in research and benchmarking information.

Earlier this month I received an email inviting me to contribute to a government consultation on the draft guidance and criteria for REF 2021.  It reminded me of a description of Abraham Flexner’s 1910 report for the Carnegie Foundation on medical schools in the US that I read in an essay by Robbert Dijkgraaf.  Flexner branded many of the 155 medical schools in the USA as ‘frauds and irresponsible profit machines’.  Hopefully that will not the outcome of REF2021!

Source:

Robbert Dijkgraaf, ‘The World of Tomorrow’ in The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge by A.Flexner, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2015.

Only the rascals think they win

‘I learned that you always lose.  Only the rascals think they win.’ This is quote from Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre.  ‘Rascals’ has become a cute word for a villain; but, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as ‘a mean, unprincipled person’.  It’s a rather pessimistic view of life – that everyone loses; only some people don’t see it.  Or perhaps Sartre is saying that if you are successful then it’s not as a result of your own efforts but of the efforts of others around you and the opportunities that come your way;  so, if you think you won then you must be mean and unprincipled.

I was puzzled by the always losing until I read an Op-Ed by Lilliana Mason in the New York Times on June 7th, 2018.  She explains that as individuals we hold multiple identities, as a partner, parent, employee, feminist, etc; and that some of these identities are more important to us than others.  She says that, at any one time, the most important identity tends to be the one whose status is most threatened.  This could make you feel as if you are always losing.  In other words we tend to focus on the negative – our brains are wired to blame rather than praise [see ‘Depressed by exams‘ on January 31st, 2018 and ‘Happenstance, not engineering‘ on November 9th, 2016].  Or as my editor commented: ‘we tune into the threats in our lives – it’s a matter of survival’.

Sources:

Lilliana Mason, The President’s ‘winning’ is our loss, Op-Ed, New York Times, June 7th, 2018.

Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea, translated by Lloyd Alexander, New York: New Directions Pub. Co., 2013.

Bruek H, Human brains are wired to blame rather than to praise, Fortune, December 4th 2015.