Monday, 28 March 2011

Comedy from Dangerous Depths: Udo Schuklenk on Open Access and "post publication peer review"

If you – like me – have any interest in the currently ongoing phenomenon of open access online research publication, post publication or open "peer review", et cetera, here's an entertaining piece on the subject from Udo Schuklenk's Ethx Blog. I must warn you, though, if your loyalty and engagement is with the idea that academic publishing should be about safeguarding quality, you may experience a number of not too comfortable symptoms after finishing the read.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

A Great Contemporary Moral Philosopher with Papers for Download

It isn't often that I come across colleagues whose writings I not only learn from, is challenged by and/or, occasionally, agree with, but that to my eye embodies the very core of what philosophy is about. If you know anything about philosophy, you may also know that the question of what it is about is deeply contested among philosophers, so perhaps a better way of saying this is to put it in terms of what initially attracted me and keeps me attracted to the subject. Anyhow, moral philosopher Jeff McMahan (Oxbridge man, now at Rutgers University) is one of these few people. He caught my attention when I was a Ph.D. student writing on the morality of abortion with what I think is his first major academic publication, the lengthy review "Problems of Population Theory", that has since then become a classic primer for anyone seriously wanting to pursue the intricate problems involved in formulating an ethical theory capable of handling the tricky aspects of how our choices may impact on posterity. After that, McMahan has been writing extensively on what may be defined as the ethics of life and death – not least that of killing. In particular, he has pursued and (I would say) thoroughly revived the classic theme of the ethics of war and warfare. What I like about McMahan is basically the combination of three things: his honest engagement with moral philosophy as a practical subject, his commitment to critical thinking – never quitting to question the content and plausibility of his own premises, arguments and ideas, and his view and practice of making applied ethics as an integral part of making ethical theory – and vice versa.

However, luckily, you don't have to take my word for it. McMahan has had the very good taste of making a lot of his writings available for free download via his university webpage. Enjoy!

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Keele University Retracts Proposal to Close PEAK and Philosophy

Today, the Keele University Senate wisely decided to retract the proposal to close the Centre for Professional Ethics, as well as the Department of Philosophy. Earlier reports and comments on this drama for us in the world of applied ethics can be traced back from here. I'm quoting verbatim from Angus Dawson's message to the Save PEAK Facebook Group just a few minutes ago (with an added link to a page demonstrating the support referred to in the statement):

We are delighted to announce that due to substantial discussions over the last two days the proposals to close PEAK (the Centre for Professional Ethics at Keele University) have been withdrawn.
This decision was accepted and endorsed at today's meeting of Keele University's Senate.
This means that existing and prospective students need not be concerned about their studies.
PEAK remains committed to teaching and research excellence - and is actively recruiting for next year's intake to our courses.
However, we are required to produce a business plan outlining ways to ensure the required cost savings over the next few weeks.
This means that we may need to reactivate this campaign, but for now, we are focusing on positive developments for the future.

We would like to thank all of our friends and colleagues from across the world for their support.
We would particularly like to thank all those that took the time to write letters of support that went to our VC, DVC and Dean.
It was very important to our case that they considered our international reputation and you all made this obvious in the strongest terms.
This has been a difficult week (to say the least) for all of us and our families.
However, your solidarity and support has really helped us to put the evidence and arguments forward.
This is a remarkable victory in a relatively short period of time - and it is due to you all.

So, most probably, cuts will still have to be made, but reportedly, the senior management now has an assignment from Senate to take a broader view in this work, not only targeting single units for close-down. My most heartfelt congratulations to the Keele University Senate for listening to reason, to PEAK and to the international community of applied ethics researchers and scholars.

Monday, 21 March 2011

PEAK's Response to Keele University Close-down Plan Provides Ample Reason for Retraction

The Keele University Centre for Professional Ethics (PEAK) has now made public its response to the suggestion by University senior management to close it down (reported on earlier here, here and here). It can be downloaded here.

For me, the basic facts set out in the response is no news: PEAK is a remarkably successful academic unit – nationally as well as internationally – teaching wise as well as in research. In all respects. At the same time, the response makes clear that the proposal to close PEAK down indeed rests on faulty facts and incomplete analysis of the consequences of such an action. The most blatant examples are:

- The architects behind the proposal have made their calculation based on an inflated figure regarding the number of PEAK staff.
- The proposal ignores the losses of income implied by closing PEAK down
- The idea in the proposal that some PEAK activities could remain within a new ethics stream in the law school lacks all practical feasibility (partly because the number of PEAK staff is significantly less than believed by the authors of the proposal)
- The same authors have completely ignored the rather significant loss of income for the University in the form of research grants if PEAK is closed
- The statement in the proposal that PEAK impact and research productivity is low lacks all foundation.

The Keele University VC and Senate now have excellent reasons to politely thank the authors of the proposal for their service, retract same proposal and instead make their own analysis – this time based on correct figures, complete facts and an analysis built on what is in the long-term interest of the University.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

PEAK's Response to Keele VC Email

As reported earlier, when the Keele University Vice Chancellor started to receive what has now developed into a virtual tsunami of emails (made public at the save PEAK blog) in protest against the plan to shut down the Centre for Professional Ethics (PEAK), he was quick to supply each an every protester with an identical email response. Now, this email from the Keele VC as well as the PEAK response to it is publicly available. I won't go through the points made by either side, just read for yourselves. However, PEAK's response adds to the reasons I have set out earlier here and here to distrust the basis of the plans – the process of preparing the plan has apparently not been about transparency and taking care to base any suggestion on correct facts and sound reasoning. The covert nature of the process, and the haste with which it has been implemented (presenting the plan at the beginning of the weekend before the meeting of the university Senate, where the matter is to be decided) bears witness of a panic-stricken, nervous management that is not in control of the situation.

Further Evidence that Keele University Plan to Close PEAK is Based on Hodgepodge

In my post yesterday on the plan of Keele University to close down its outstanding applied ethics research and teaching unit, PEAK, I aired some cautious doubts about the correctness of the figures and calculations forming the economic basis of the decision, this due to comments from a former PEAK staff member. As suspected, it now reveals itself that there are more points to be made about these, one would have thought, elementary points of departure for further strategic reasoning on how to handle the funding cuts faced. In an "open letter" to the VC of Keele and the architects behind the suggestion to close down PEAK, Andrew Willetts – a Keele University student – makes it rather painfully obvious just how little the analysis of university senior management is worth taking at face value. And note, this is only about the basic economics that has to underlie any decision of this sort. To this may be added what sort of strategic reasons that can be brought forward on the economic basis – which I argued yesterday won't support the close-down of PEAK even if the figures put forward by senior university management were to be correct.

A reminder also about the Save PEAK blog-page, which continuous to host an ever growing number of support statements from academics and students.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Arguments Behind PEAK Close-down Suggest University Senior Management Incompetence

The shocking news relayed yesterday indeed seems to be true: Keele University is planning to quash its stellar research and teaching unit in bioethics: PEAK. Besides the support-group on facebook, there is now also a blog supporting PEAK, already featuring several of the support letters sent to the Keele University senior management.

When I heard about this it seemed senseless – and I'm saying this as someone active in university management myself – having also had the unpleasurable task of dealing with rather serious economic difficulties. When you face severe cuts – as several UK universities do at the moment – you just don't elect to save money by crushing one of the few things you have of world-class quality and status. Quite the opposite, you are actually willing to make quite large sacrifices just to be able to keep the few gems you have, so that when better times arrive, you have at least something to build on as a university. Unless, of course, your plan is to join the ranks of polytechnics and such.....

Well, now the VC of Keele University has sent his reply to the flood of emails from across the UK and all over the world on the matter. The very same letter to each one, arriving quite quickly, so we may safely assume he had it in handy for just such a rainy day. In this letter, the reasons for the crushing of PEAK set out in the original "Senate paper" are summarised, followed by the usual assurances customary in these sort of matters when senior management speaks up: everything has been played quite fairly and done by the book. Well...... actually, when reading the Senate paper itself and the instant response of Nafsika Athanassoulis, until recently part of PEAK's staff, one starts to wonder about how clean the hands of senior management really are. At the same time, it is difficult not to sense the reason behind the decision to be about a rather disturbing combination of saving face and covering own tracks. Nafsika's entire letter to the Keele VC is here, and she has been kind enough to allow me to quote some passages.

But first I'd like to comment a bit on the basic economic reason for shutting down PEAK made in the Senate paper. So reads point

In 2010/11 the staff costs are 119.4% of income, projected to fall to 94.6% at the end of the forecast period; the contribution remains negative throughout the forecast period (-29.8%, moving to -1.5%), meaning that the projected costs of PEAK remain consistently in excess of its projected income.
The first of these sentences means that 2010/11, PEAK generated a negative economic result in terms of direct costs and income, income covering 80.6 percentages of staffing costs, but that at the end of the coming period covered by the planning of the university, PEAK would indeed more than carry its own costs, generating a positive result of 5.4 percentages. This, it would seem, is a very positive prognosis! This is what you want to hear from a unit that has happened to get into some economic trouble, isn't it? PEAK is on the right track!! In particular, this is how you think about a high-quality research unit. The rest of the passage (as far as I have been able to understand from asking around) is about what total costs, including so-called indirect ones – i.e. how much central university administration (incl. such things as the VC salary) has to rely on PEAK to cover its costs; this is the "contribution" spoken about. Now, what sort of "contribution" of this sort is expected from a unit in terms of percentage is mainly determined by the size of this unit – the larger the unit, the lower the expectation (this since larger units need to contribute lower percentages in order to contribute the same amount of actual money). That is, this problem could be easily fixed simply by expanding PEAK, or by having the entire PEAK be absorbed by a larger unit (expected contribution thus being calculated on the basis of the size of this larger unit, which by absorbing PEAK will attain a lower contribution percentage). In fact, axing PEAK would seem to imply that the rest of the units at Keele University will have to take on larger contribution expectations in terms of percentages. However, aside from such technicalities, one may again observe that the projected trend when it comes to PEAK's contribution is positive: PEAK is on the mend also when it comes to covering its indirect costs. Again, this is good news from a unit housing the qualities that PEAK does.

Now, it should be said that there appears to be reasons to doubt the figures given in the first place. Here's a quote from Nafsika Athanassoulis' letter to the Keele VC (you can look up the points commented on in the Senate paper) that throws some light on the ability of university senior management to have the books kept properly:
During my time at Keele PEAK’s budget was absorbed by Law and it became impossible for anyone to figure out the real numbers relating to either unit. Given the diverse nature of the activities of the two units it became very difficult to properly account for income generated in any way that would clarify who contributed what to where. To give you an example, as Director of the MA in the Ethics of Palliative Care I alerted Professor Thomson to the fact that figures for student income were persistently misrepresented in the budget because the course started in January rather than September, but the figures were never corrected. Even in the academic year where the course changed from a January to a September start and managed to recruit double its usual number of students (a remarkable feat under the circumstances) the figures simply did not reflect this fact, nor were they adjusted despite my numerous attempts to make the errors knows.
So with regard to the economic reason given for crushing PEAK, there seems to be two problems. First, do the negative figures really represent economic reality, or are they rather a result of sloppy work of the central university book keeping administration? Second, if the figures are indeed sound, they seem to indicate that PEAK's economy is in fact on a positive track, and that there are simple organisational measures that could speed up that process with regard to the "contribution".

It is at this step in the analysis that we come the next critical point made in the Senate paper. For it seems that Keele University senior management – contrary to the joined voices of leading applied ethics researchers in the UK and globally – thinks that PEAK is in fact a rather poor research unit. Point portrays PEAK as underperforming research wise (research performance in the UK being measured through a so-called RAE). If that was true, the positive economic trend would indeed be a much weaker argument for keeping PEAK. However, as one would expect against the background of the praise by actual experts in PEAK's field, the basis of this claim appears to be the direct result not of PEAK activities, but of serious misjudgments by senior university management. Nafsika Athanassoulis writes: was the University’s higher management decision not to submit most PEAK staff for RAE review on the grounds of ‘lack of fit with the University’s identified research units’. Of all the irrational decisions affecting PEAK this was perhaps the worst, robbing the University of an almost certain source of income for no good reason. Again PEAK tried to reason with this decision at the time and had little or no response from those in charge.
Simply put, PEAK appears to be underperforming, since its stellar performance has not been submitted to the process measuring performance (i.e. RAE review). And this for what looks very much as a bona fide bogus reason cooked up by senior university management. You may all check Nafsika's claims about PEAK's possible contribution by inspecting the PEAK staff publications and performance lists at the homepage.

Nafsika make several other points as well, which you can enjoy together with several other voices supporting PEAK at the blog mentioned at the outset. However, this is quite sufficient for me. The main reason for closing down PEAK is the claim that its research is not worth having and that this is supported by the RAE review of Keele University. The latter, it now turns out, didn't even include the research performance of PEAK staff – and this as a direct result of senior university management not letting PEAK research output become available to the RAE reviewers. In effect, it would seem that the same RAE with regard to PEAK measures nothing, besides the lack of judgment of senior university management. If actual research output of PEAK staff is considered, however, another picture appears – as one would expect in view of the strong support of PEAK from leading applied ethics researchers and units all over the UK and the world. And if that picture of PEAK's actual research quality is considered, the economic reasons put forward in the Senate paper in fact speak in favor of keeping PEAK, or even expanding it!

I'm sure that this affair will reveal several more interesting details in due course. So far, however, the plan to close down PEAK seems mainly to be based on a combination of lack of good judgment, lack of analysis and – in effect – lack of competence on the part of University senior management.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Outstanding Professional Ethics Unit at Keele University to be shut down?

Apparently, as a way of handling the cuts currently burdening many UK universities, Keele University plans to shut down its outstanding and internationally highly regarded Centre for Professional Ethics (PEAK). The full story is at the BMJ Medical Ethics blog, where you also can find instructions on how to add your weight to a quickly building storm of protests from both the UK and the international community of applied ethics research.

There is now also a PEAK support group on Facebook.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Using Japan for Cover

As Japan struggles to handle the devastating problems following a record earth quake plus aftershocks, serial tsunami and a continuously escalating nuclear hazard situation, the lowlifes of global politics have a field day. The eyes of world media and multinational political bodies (presumably to great relief) diverted to the far east is apparently great cover:

Muammar Gadaffi steps up the campaign that in all probability will make Libya into a virtual slaughterhouse.

The dictator (so-called King) of Bahrain, aided by armed forces supplied by the local league of dictators, The Gulf Cooperation Council, has made his own country open for any level of violence against his own people by declaring a 3 month state of martial law.

All these guys are or were (as once the Talibans of Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein's Iraq) until very recently strategic and military allies of Western democracies in Europe, America and elsewhere in their "war on terrorism" and "global battle for peace, liberty and democracy".

So much for that lot.

And here's the latest from the U.N. and Libya front, while General Secretary Moon is apparently trying to create an appearance of action.

'nuff said.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Nuclear Power and Climate Change – No Easy Fix

The massive earthquake and following tsunami hitting Japan yesterday, today had a first serious secondary effect in the form of a large explosion in a nuclear power plant close to Fukushima, causing physical injuries and severe structural damage – thus adding to an already quite serious situation of other nuclear power plants in the same area:

This picture, circulated by global news media illustrates the amount of damage to the external structure caused by the explosion:

The problems started already yesterday, when the tsunami caused electrical failures that incapacitated the technological installments meant to control the temperature of another plant in the Fukushima area. Already then, radioactivity was emitted and tens of thousands of people where relocated for protection, and plans for venting radioactive gas into the air to release the pressure inside the reactor was made official. The explosion in the second plant means that the problems have significantly escalated, it now includes five nuclear reactors and the evacuation scale has been  doubled; now to cover a 20 km radius around the plants. If not before, both plants' cooling systems are now declared completely out of order. The Japanese agency for radiation protection has gone public with warnings that there is a risk of a bona fide "meltdown" – i.e. a Chernobyl type development that may cause massive radioactive emissions and ruin a large area around the plant for any sort of human activity or habitation for a very long period of time. This, however, is denied by the Tokyo Electric Power Company, that owns and runs the plants. According to them, the technology is of a sort that will stop the process of nuclear fission as the temperature rises – that is, assuming – I would personally like to add – that no vital parts of this technology has been damaged due to the precedent events. In any case, there will be substantial emissions of radioactivity due both to the explosion and the venting, and factors such as wind conditions will determine how this will immediate affect japanese people. Reports and further footage of all of this can be found here, here, here, here, here, here and here (in my own country, here, here and here) and in numerous other places. And here is an excellent link for keeping yourself updated on this matter.

Now, besides all of the tragedy directly caused by these and the related events, this development also provides some important perspectives on the recent return in Western countries of  strong nuclear power advocacy and support in view of the threats created by climate change due to green house gas emissions. This angle has revived the political leverage of the nuclear power lobby's old environmentalist argument, now beefed up with supporting claims about technology that guarantees that no Chernobyl scenario would be possible even if there was to be serious incidents in the plants. In my forthcoming book, The Price of Precaution and the Ethics of Risk, I assess this argument with rather pessimistic conclusions. Seen in a larger context, where the not only immediate security but also the serious long-term waste problems of nuclear energy are taken into account, there are much better alternatives for dealing with the challenge of ensuring energy production in the face of climate change. However, the recent events in Japan adds a further layer of doubt regarding the idea of nuclear power as the easy fix of climate change problems.

The events we now see unfolding in Japan need to be viewed simultaneously through four lenses: (1) Japan is a vastly rich and technologically well-developed country and its nuclear technology can therefore be assumed to be top notch, (2) for historical reasons, Japan is well-known to host a very demanding security culture when it comes to nuclear power, (3) what has broken down the security measures in this case are concentrated powers of nature, and (4) one of the main aspects of climate change scenarios are about how familiar patterns of where and when concentrations of such powers, resulting in events severely threatening human life and infrastructure, may change in virtually unpredictable ways.

Now, for sure, climate change will not directly affect the movements of Earth's shell – the basic cause of earth quakes and tsunamis. However, it does massively affect large-scale patterns of interaction between water, air, land and biological life (whether or not this may interact with the basic geological forces causing earth quakes, I don't know). I'm not any sort of expert in the field, but it doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand the basic uncertainties that this creates regarding temperature and sea levels, weather patterns, and so on. This adds severe complications to the context of any risk-benefit analysis of the idea of the developed world securing its access to energy in the face of climate change through a vast expansion of nuclear power. We have seen what one single earth quake and an ensuing tsunami means in a case where none of the excuses about lax security measures or dated technology wielded in the Chernobyl case are accessible. In the face of the severe uncertainties regarding very powerful concentrations of natural powers created by climate change, how can we in a responsible and cost-effective way decide such things as the proper construction of nuclear power plants, their location, and a suitable system for managing the waste problem?

It is not given, of course, that the answer to these questions have to be that we cannot. However, the apparently tempting piece of chocolate made up of the idea of managing climate change while not having to pay much of a price in terms of energy production cannot be taken seriously until thorough risk analysis is undertaken. Such an analysis needs to not – as is otherwise commonplace – assume basic patterns of nature making up the context of factors determining the security of any sort of installation to be static or foreseeable as linear predictions. It has to address the uncertainty regarding these factors created by climate change scenarios head on, as it has to include the costs needed to guarantee sufficient security in the light of such uncertainties.

Friday, 4 March 2011

The Consequences of Research Fraud

It may occurr to some that the research fraud cases that I have been posting about recently are mainly of interest to the insiders of academia and merely harming their esoteric sense of justice. This piece, pertaining to the scandal of German medical researcher Joachim Boldt that I posted about a while back, in today's Telegraph provides apt illustration of how this is far from what is actually at stake.