Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Taking control

Posted by Jean Adams

Being an early career researcher (ECR) isn’t always easy. So much emphasis is put on finishing your PhD, you slog your guts out getting the thing done, then a bottle of champagne and a long sleep later and life doesn’t seem to have changed much. As an early post-doctoral researcher you aren’t paid a whole lot more than a PhD studentship. And whilst that studentship might have been three, or even four, years of fairly secure ‘employment’, now you are suddenly in at the sharp end of short term contracts. On more than one occasion, I got sent a redundancy notice before I’d received the relevant contract to sign. You are generally beholden to more senior colleagues to find money to pay your salary and the dark arts of patching together pots of money from here and there to make a job can seem incomprehensible, sinister and even vaguely illegal.* It is easy to feel like your career is suddenly way out of your control.

It ain't easy being an ECR
At the same time, the demands can be overwhelming. The PhD that you thought was going to be the crowning glory of your CV suddenly feels as irrelevant as your GCSEs were the day you got some A-levels. It now has to be added to with teaching experience, publications, grants of your own, and examples of impact, engagement and outreach. All at the same time as fulfilling the demands of the day job, or jobs, that the person, or people, who have found you a salary require.

High demands. Lack of control. Sound familiar? It’s not surprising that so many ECRs feel totally stressed out by the whole thing. It is the very definition of a stressful working environment.

Of course the story above is a gross over-simplification. There are all sorts of pathways by which people come to the role of ECR. Just as there are all sorts of pathways that ECRs take from the point of PhD onwards. I don’t know the magic formula for ‘making it’. But I would suggest that if you want to get a grip on the stress, there are two things you can do: reduce the demands, or take back some control. I am not too great at moderating the demands of academic life. There always feels way too much to do, I’m hopeless at saying ‘no’ (and make it worse for myself by using synonyms for ‘no’ and then getting pissed off when these are interpreted as ‘yes’), and I’m never sure who I could or should delegate to. So my main strategy is to try and maintain a modicum of control.

Here is my five-step plan:

1. Decide what you want to do. Having a PhD doesn’t mean you have to stay in research, or that you will have failed if you don’t. It might feel like that in a university, because that’s what the people who seem to have the most status do. But I know lots of people with PhDs and MDs who have fulfilling lives and careers outside of university research. On the life achievement side, all of them have more children than I do.

2. If you want to stay in research, decide what sort of role you want. Not everyone has to be a professor. In fact, it’s quite obvious when you look around any university department that it’s pretty unlikely that every ECR could become a professor. Without a massive expansion in the sector, there will just never be enough professorial positions to go around. But there are other jobs within research - either within the ‘lab’ as a career researcher, or outwith it in research support.

3. Work out a plan. Once you’ve decided what you want to achieve in the long term, work out what the main steps are for getting there - say over the next 5 to 10 years. Then work out a more detailed plan for achieving the first of the steps - say over the next couple of years.

4. Make sure you have formal and informal mentors and support groups. The ‘answers’ to steps 1 to 3 are going to be obvious to some people and totally opaque to others, with a range of experience in between. Throughout your career (just as throughout your life) you are going to need advice and support. Make use of all the advice and support you can to help you work out where you want to go, how to get there, to keep you on track, and to remind you that you are awesome. It’s way too easy to forget, in an environment full of high achievers and extraordinarily clever people, that you too are amazing.

5. Reappraise regularly. If you’re not getting what you want from your chosen plan then go back to step 1 and reconsider.

*I promise they aren’t. They just seem that way.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Have we taken our eye off the ball?

Guest post by Andy Graham - specialty registrar in Public Health, County Durham

A couple of years ago I found myself in need of a dissertation topic for an MSc in Public Health – ‘make sure it’s something you are interested in’ was the advice. Simple I thought, I just need to weave football and beer into a research project! All joking aside though, I have become interested in the relationship between the two over the years. As a public health professional and former A&E nurse, I am well aware of the potential harms of excessive alcohol consumption. Also, as a fan who both attends matches and watches on TV, I have become increasingly aware at how visible this relationship has become. Of course, football and beer have long been associated, ever since Victorian landlords would set up teams, use the land out back for a pitch and, in the amateur days, employ the team as barmen in lieu of pay.

The Strawberry Pub, Newcastle, Phil Thirkell
But at the risk of sounding like my dad, when I ‘was a lad’, you either went to the match, where as a young working class man it was normal to have a pint with the lads, or you waited for Saturday night’s Match of the Day for your football fix. The pubs were open sporadically, had no TVs, and the football was rarely broadcast anyway. Fast forward a few years and we have football on satellite TV almost every night of the week and all day at weekends, most top flight football clubs sponsored at some level by an alcohol brand, marketing of alcohol, beer in particular, is rife and the norm appears to be drink beer and watch football with the lads in the pub. Opportunities to do both are far more common than when ‘I was a lad’, and not just within pubs, but within living rooms, where the cheaper alcohol deals of the supermarkets are very popular. As a dad myself I was disturbed by these developments, but hadn’t been able to quantify them.

I decided my dissertation would try to measure the amount of alcohol marketing that football TV viewers were exposed to. With the help of Jean Adams at Newcastle University, I planned the research. I chose six live broadcasts representing over 18 hours of footage, developed coding frameworks and watched 40 hours plus of coding footage to consider all the verbal and visual references.

The results shocked me:

• Over 2,000 visual images, 111 per hour on average, or around 2 per minute.

• 32 verbal references.

• 17 traditional advertisements, accounting for 1% broadcast time.

• Over 1,100 visual images in one alcohol sponsored Cup competition alone

The issue of traditional advertising commercials is interesting because the ‘voluntary’ codes of practice in place to regulate how alcohol is portrayed (should not appeal to youth, should not suggest social success, etc.) are most relevant to this type of advertising. Given that we know that quantity of alcohol marketing is more important than content, then the apparently unchecked stream of visual references in this research may be even more important, and we could argue that the current controls are completely inadequate because they are focused on content, rather than quantity.

I can’t help but feel that we have taken our eye off the ball – the globalisation of sports such as premier league football as a product, the satellite age, the endless thirst for profit and market share within corporations, the ‘self’ regulation that fails to control the exposure reported above, the relaxed licensing laws in this country, and the increase in type, availability, and affordability of alcohol. All of these things create a perfect storm in which alcohol and sporting idols become normalised as one and the same, and the brand becomes a member of the team. It feels as though the relationship between sport and alcohol has evolved towards its perfect and logical form.

I am disturbed to be one of a generation of football fans that has been manipulated in this way and that my children are also targets. And meanwhile, the alcohol industry has a seat at the policy making table through the Public Health Responsibility Deal. So we must ask the question: are we sleepwalking into a situation where drinking alcohol is so closely associated with the sporting heroes that children see on TV, that they are being actively normalised to become drinkers? No one seems to question this, but it is time someone did, and through public health advocacy it may just be up to us.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013


Posted by Jean AdamsI went to my first science communication conference at the weekend. I’ve wanted to do this for ages. Going to my two favourite academic conferences – the annual meetings of the Society for Social Medicine and the UK Society for Behavioural Medicine – makes me feel so alive. They are environments where I feel entirely immersed in my people, buzzing with ideas, invigorated to go back to my desk and do new and better things. And also often both physically and mentally exhausted.

I thought a science communication conference might make me feel more part of that community. Oddly, it didn’t. Probably because I’m not part of the scicom community and one conference a community member does not one make. Probably this feeling of being a little out of it and like I’m not absolutely sure I’m following the conversation is exactly how I felt the first time I went to SSM in Oxford all those years back. 2001 if you must know.

At SpotOn London 2013, I was taking part in a session on scientist-2-scientist communication – primarily via the medium of blogging. If you happen to be interested (and have an hour to kill), you can see a video of the session here.

Beforehand I’d been worried that talking about blogging at a scicom conference was a little passé – preaching not just to the converted, but to the evangelical. A quick show of hands on the day confirmed that about 90% of the 40-50 people at the session were bloggers.

But it seemed to go okay. The session generated a lot of Twitter chatter (#solo13blogs). Predictably, although the panel discussion covered a lot of ground, the audience conversation seemed to get a little bogged down in the very last (and, I think, maybe least important) issue we discussed – if it matters whether or not people comment on your blog.

Are we in the Wild West of science blogging?
I’ve previously whinged a bit that hardly anyone comments on this blog. But I’ve got used to it. I know that posts can generate discussion in other forums and I’ve started to believe that people genuinely do read these posts – that we’re not just sending words into the void. It was still nice to hear that we’re not alone in our virtual comment-less-ness. One of the science correspondents at The Guardian confirmed that only about 0.5% of visitors to The Guardian website leave a comment and that about 80% of those are left by the same hard core of commenters. There are just a lot more comments on The Guardian website because they get a lot more traffic that the Fuse website (hard to believe, I know).

The other thing the guy from The Guardian pointed out was that building community takes time and effort. I know this. Who could not? But it’s nice to be reminded of it. I think that we could do more to build community within and beyond Fuse and I’d be interested in your thoughts on how we might do this. You could leave a comment if you’d like…

When I was originally asked to take part in SpotOn, I was pretty hesitant. I don’t think I’m some massive expert in blogging, or science blogging. I feel like we at Fuse came to the blogging party pretty late and that we are a fair way behind the curve, not in the vanguard of some great revolution. For me, this is okay. I mean, we’re a research organisation run by committees of academics, not a hack day run by precocious teenagers. But the current situation of science blogging was described by one participant as “the wild west” – a place with no rules yet, where only the strong enter and only the brave survive. I’m still not sure how much I agree with this. But it brought some fun images to mind.

With thanks to Roland Krause and Ingo Helbig of Channelopathist; and Lauren Tedaldi of What’s a PhD to do? for being part of a very well behaved and easy to manage panel.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

The north loses out yet again under NHS funding proposals

By Clare Bambra, Durham University and Alison Copeland, Durham University

The north-south divide is a powerful trope within popular English culture and it’s also evident within the country’s health. A recent report by Public Health England showed that between 2009 and 2011, people in Manchester were more than twice as likely to die early (455 deaths per 100,000) compared to people living in Wokingham (200 deaths per 100,000).

This sort of finding isn’t new; for the past four decades, the north of England has persistently had higher death rates than the south, and the gap has widened over time. People in the north are also consistently found to be less healthy than those in the south across all social classes and among men and women. For example, average male life expectancy in 2008-10 in the north-west was 77 years, compared to 80 in the south-east.

A large amount of this geographical health divide can be explained by social and economic differences with the north being poorer than the south.  Certainly, over the past 20 years the north has consistently had lower employment rates (for example this is 70% in the north-east compared to 80% in the south-east).

This is of course associated with the lasting effects of de-industrialisation (with the closure of large scale industry such as mining, ship building and steel) and the lack of any replacement jobs or a strong regional economic policy.

While the NHS clearly cannot address all the issues that cause the north-south divide, there have been attempts to increase NHS funding in areas that have the worst health – and many of these are in the north. The current NHS funding formula considers factors such as deprivation and ill-health indicators by area, so places with worse health and higher deprivation have higher NHS budgets.

However, NHS England has a new funding formula out for consultation which fundamentally changes the way money is allocated to General Practitioners for the care of patients, and it appears that the north will lose out.

In our BMJ letter, we mapped the new NHS funding data and this showed clearly that the more affluent and healthier south-east will benefit at the expense of the poorer and less healthy north. For example, in areas like south-eastern Hampshire, where average life expectancy is 81 years for men and 84 years for women, and healthy life expectancy is 67 years for men and 68 years for women, NHS funding will increase by £164 per person (+14%).

This is at the expense of places such as Sunderland, where average life expectancy is 77 years for men and 81 years for women and healthy life expectancy is 57 years for men and 58 years for women, and where NHS funding will decrease by £146 per person (-11%). More deprived parts of London will also lose out with Camden receiving £273 less per head (-27%) under the proposed formula.

While the objective of the new formula is to provide “equal opportunity of access for equal need”, these geographical shifts are because it has defined “need” largely in terms of age and gender, with a reduced focus on deprivation.

It also uses individual-level, not area-level need, GP-registered populations rather than higher wider population estimates, and secondary care (use of hospitals and A&E) not primary or community care use. This means that areas with older populations have higher health care usage so they are getting money transferred to them from areas with fewer old people.

However, areas with more old people are also areas that have healthier populations who live longer – hence there are more old people. These healthy old people are largely in the south-east so, within a fixed NHS budget, the new NHS formula can only shift money to them by taking it from others.

The new formula appears to shift NHS funds from some unhealthy to healthy areas, from north to south, from urban to rural and from young to old.

Many of the areas that will lose NHS funding if the new formula is implemented are the same areas that have also lost out from above average cuts to local authority budgets. The scale of the potential NHS funding shifts will add further stress onto these local health and social care systems and potentially widen the north-south health divide by reducing access to NHS services where they are needed most.

The authors do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article. They also have no relevant affiliations.

The Conversation This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Alcohol marketing, football and self-regulation

Posted by Jean Adams 

This post is a 'story behind a paper'. All papers have a story. We would love to post more of them.

When we work at home, my partner and I share a workspace (or kitchen table as it is also known). This is generally friendly and allows for moments of mutually constructive musing and problem-solving. A recent exchange went like this:

Me: “Who is Everton’s shirt sponsor again?”

Him: “Emmm...is it Chang with the elephants?”

Me: “Yeah, right, thanks.”


Him: “Sorry, what are you doing? I thought you were working?”

Me: “I’m doing my talk on alcohol marketing in sport.”

Him: “What’s Everton’s shirt sponsor got to do with that?”

Me: “Well...duh...Everton’s a football team and Chang’s a beer.”

Him: “Chang’s a beer? That’s outrageous! What are they doing on Everton’s shirts?” [he’s a public health researcher too]

Everton player Louis Saha sports a Chang branded training top. Photo: nicksarebi
My partner is a not a football fanatic, but he knows a bit about football. Certainly enough to be able to easily remember Everton’s shirt sponsor; and Everton is not his team. Chang is definitely not his beer. So the only place he must know the brand from is Everton’s shirts.

When we set out to quantify the volume of alcohol marketing in televised English football, I knew there would be some, but I was caught off guard by quite how much there was. We found an average of almost two visual references to alcohol per minute of broadcast. But what was much more interesting was how embedded these references were. Less than 1% of the broadcasts were devoted to formal alcohol advertising during commercial breaks. Instead, almost all of the alcohol marketing we found was on or alongside the football pitch, or part of the graphics added by broadcasters. It was simple logos, frequently repeated.

We know that alcohol marketing affects children, in particular. When children are exposed to alcohol marketing, those who do not yet drink are more likely to start drinking, and those who already drink are more likely to drink more. Children are also very aware of alcohol marketing. More than three-quarters of Scottish 12-14 year olds are aware of some sort of alcohol marketing, and two-thirds of them are aware of alcohol marketing in sport.

In the UK, alcohol marketing is governed by an industry sponsored self-regulatory code of conduct. When commercial industry is charged with regulating its own marketing, the potential for conflict of interest is obvious. In the sphere of food marketing to children, there seems to be numerous examples of industry involvement in regulation leading to watering down of who and what is covered by the regulations. Indeed, in the USA, industry backlash led to the White House abandoning efforts to even introduce standardised self-regulation. There is now clear evidence that the UK alcohol industry is breaking its own code of conduct by making specific efforts to target products at under-age drinkers.

In addition to the inherent problems of self-regulation of marketing and the growing failure of such self-regulation, the frequency and nature of alcohol marketing we found in televised football highlights a mismatch between what the code of conduct is designed to restrict and what is actually shown. The alcohol marketing we found in English football was almost entirely frequently repeated exposure to simple branding and logos. In contrast, the code of conduct focuses on what alcohol should not be associated with.

According to the code, alcohol marketing should not “in any direct or indirect way…suggest any association with bravado, or with violent, aggressive, dangerous or anti-social behaviours…illicit drugs…sexual activity or sexual success…[or] that consumption of the drink can lead to social success or popularity”.

The impact of marketing is related to both exposure and power. Power refers to the creative content of marketing -- how memorable a single exposure is and how well it appeals to particular individuals. Power can be difficult to quantify, but is why Don Draper gets paid so well. Exposure is simply about how often you see the marketing. There is no simple formula linking impact, exposure and marketing. But clearly if you can’t have one, you would be well advised to go all out for the other.

The UK’s alcohol marketing code of conduct seems to focus entirely on marketing power. It restricts the creative content of the sort of narrative advertisements shown in the commercial breaks between programming. It has absolutely no impact on exposure.

It is difficult to say if restrictions on alcohol marketing power triggered increases in exposure, or if industry lobbied for restrictions on power rather than exposure because they know something about the relative influence of each on impact. Or perhaps there is no simple either:or. But what we are left with is a code of conduct that appears to have little bearing to the nature of the huge volume of alcohol marketing seen in televised football (and, I would wager, elsewhere).

Stronger restrictions on alcohol marketing in sport, and elsewhere, are never going to be a magic bullet that will solve the problem the UK currently seems to have with alcohol. But as part of a suite of approaches limiting advertising, affordability and accessibility it would make an important contribution.

This post was originally posted on the OUPBlog

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Finagle’s law, Murphy’s law or Sod’s law?

Posted by Balsam Ahmad

I am finally writing a post for the Fuse blog. It is not the happy one I anticipated, but rather a reflection on one of the worst nightmares for a PhD student. That is a corrupted word file of a PhD thesis minutes before turning it into the final PDF that I was hoping to send to Print Services in the library.

I still remember the day vividly as if it was yesterday. The day that was supposed to be the beginning of the end of a PhD project that took me such a long time to complete. What happened proved to me the accuracy of three laws I knew about, Finagle's Law of Dynamic Negatives, Murphy’s Law and Sod’s Law. Finagle’s Law says “ Anything that can go wrong, will—at the worst possible moment”. This is similar to Murphy’s Law that most of us know “Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong” and what an ‘unlucky sod’ I was. According to Wikipedia ‘"Toast will always land butter side down" is often given as an example of Sod's Law in action’ and ‘being "mocked by fate"’ is another enactment of it.

Now I just want to tell the story for it has many learning points that are maybe of use to other PhD students. Even if there are none, the story in itself is interestingly spooky.

On the 30th of September, I had a plan to integrate the revisions that were approved by my PhD external examiners into my thesis and update it so that it was ready to print. I anticipated this work would take 5-6 hours, which I had planned out of my work for this purpose. Everything was going well and I was pleasantly surprised that even my Endnote file with more than 360 references, which caused me a lot of anguish at times, was behaving nicely. I even remember pinching myself in disbelief that I could finally see an end in sight. After 6 hours of meticulously working through the PhD file correcting typos, mistakes and tidying the formatting and referencing, the disaster struck. In my final attempt to save and update the document everything froze and my whole 400 page PhD thesis turned into one page of footnotes. The strange thing was that it had the same large size as the original PhD file.

I was in utter shock as my whole thesis dwarfed in a matter of seconds literally just before I turned it into the final pdf to send to print. I tried to stay calm though and searched for temporary saved files and for backups. Nothing appeared on my personal folder on the university network drive. I tried retrieving earlier versions but nothing worked. It was 8 pm then and I was anxious that if I stayed at work any longer, I would miss my children’s bedtime so I carried myself home feeling very tearful. I found sharing my status on twitter that evening quite helpful as the messages of sympathy and advice from colleagues poured in.

The Twitter support network kicks in
I spent the next two days emailing and meeting various people in IT and support services across the university. A whole team of 3-4 people worked relentlessly to find backups and recover my thesis file. At the end of the day on the 2nd of October I got the following message from someone in support services:

“Unfortunately we have not been able to recover the content in Word. It is there, but not visible and we don’t know why. You may just have to revert to a previous version of your thesis…let me know how you get on and if one of my colleagues comes up with a miracle we’ll send you a message. So sorry we can’t help you at this time.”
Having lost any hope for retrieving my document I realised that I had to redo the work. It took me a few evenings to complete but worse was having to complete the work whilst feeling so terrified that the same thing would happen again.

So reflecting back now, these are the lessons learnt that I want to share with you:

1. Never trust 100% that saving your work on a network drive is entirely safe. Try to save throughout on a flash drive or a different medium as well.

2. Email yourself with a copy even mid-way through your work. Do not wait until the end.

3. Take regular breaks and never work when tired.

But, like a fairy tale, the story has a happy ending. On the 1st of November I submitted two copies of my thesis to the Graduate School of the Faculty of Medical Sciences. Fingers crossed I will graduate from the PhD program in December this year!

Proof that there is a happy ending to this fairy tale

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

A thousand words

Posted by Linda Penn

I am invited to speak at a conference next week (6th November). This conference is “Organised and provided by Diabetes UK Northern and Yorkshire Region, the University of York and the University of Huddersfield in collaboration with healthcare professionals representing their diabetes services from around the region”.

I know this invitation is a huge privilege and I am aware of the responsibility to properly present work which involves many people. I might analyse the data, sometimes I conduct interview studies as well, and I might draft the research papers with input from statisticians and co-authors, but I never really feel that I do the real work.

The ‘real work’ is done by the intervention delivery staff. Thus I am anxious to do them credit and I was thinking about this when my son (who is a painter) sent me a text about prints. This prompted me to request intervention photos. Problem solved. The data is of course of paramount importance, but my guess is that people will mostly remember the pictures.