Friday 29 July 2016

Journal Club, not

I love my job.  I work at the teaching coal-face of science helping a variety of youngsters fulfill their potential as technically capable contributers to Ireland Inc. and, hopefully, questioning and interested in the workings of the natural world.  The Institute's management aspires to re-casting us as a Technological University, as if a change of name will make us all smarter. For me the defining characteristic of a university is a ferment of intellectual curiosity and structures which encourage wide-ranging interests.  In a university, you can cross the campus and hear a talk about Blaise Pascal's Pensées or the diet of a sooty mangabey Cercocebus atys or the birth of the universe. But it's not so much the availability that defines a university as the fact that members of the community actually cross the campus to hear about things outside their field of expertise.

That's really valuable; there are numerous examples of ground-breaking insight being generated by going to hear about something different. The strange perspective can act as a creative trigger. Universities make a point of having a schedule for external speakers; any academic visitor expects to be asked to give a talk about their research. Usually in parallel, an active academic department with thinking students will run a Journal Club.  Here you're not getting it from the horse's mouth but you should be getting it from the cutting edge.  Since I wrote about reading last week, 24,000 new papers have been published in biomedical science: plenty of choice - surely you can find something to talk about from your recent reading of the literature.  Not reading the literature? Then you're not doing science.  I've had a long, fruitful and interesting relationship with Journal Clubs over the last 30 years.

At The Institute we have a Journal Club but the running of it is like pulling teeth. The post-graduate students maintain that they are too busy to take half-an-hour a week out of their schedule to learn something new. It's like the old adage that if you think you're too busy to do 15 minutes of X - meditation, say -, then you really need to take 30 minutes. Their supervisors rarely turn up to JoClub because of the insane teaching schedule we are subjected to - more than half the working week we are giving face-time to the students. To people who work in factories and offices that sounds like a doddle because those outsiders don't know about class prep, marking lab copies, meetings . . . and the sharpening pencils, checking the e-mail, updating Friendface, filing stuff and trying to find the stuff you filed last month with which all office workers consume their day.  There are also a large proportion of the teaching staff who gave up on active research years ago and devote their remaining hours and years to teaching. Needless to say, none of them ever attend Journal Club. Even when the schedule was let slip to once a fortnight, only the usual suspects could be reliably found at a JC session and only a handful of them at that.  Unsurprisingly, the usual suspects are also up for it if you offer to fill a car and drive to Dublin for some celebrity speaker. It was one of these who made me happy by sending me the link about Sara Seager. The same chap won a $10,000 prize presenting his research in Kentucky last month.  Coincidence? I don't think so!

No Journal Club. No real research. No credibility as a university.

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