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No Signs of Life (Sciences)

Dec 07 2010 10:02
Lawrence Weetman
Students and staff are set to hit back at savage cuts in the Life Sciences department, which will see 17 top academics made redundant, PhD students left without research groups and an array of modules cut from multiple degrees.
Imperial College (centre) pictured with Oxford University (back-left) and Cambridge University (far-right).

This Wednesday, students are set to make their voices heard after details of cuts to the Life Sciences department at Imperial College London began to emerge.

Academics and lecturers facing redundancy:
  • Dr Simon Archer
  • Dr Gerard Bishop
  • Dr Robert Coutts
  • Dr Mahendra Deonarain
  • Dr Bart Feys
  • Dr Alex Grabov
  • Dr David Hartley
  • Dr Richard Murphy
  • Dr Kevin O'Hare
  • Dr Glen Powell
  • Dr John Rossiter*
  • Dr Jane Saffell
  • Dr John Tippins
  • Dr Yuri Ushkaryov
  • Dr Rudiger Woscholski

* Dr John Rossiter will take early retirement, as will two others within the department.

A meeting, due to be held tomorrow (8th December) at noon will give students and staff a chance to grill departmental heads over the cuts. After the meeting, students will be leaving masses of plants and bunches of flowers outside the Faculty Building, colloquially known as the "Blue Cube", in one of the biggest silent protests Imperial has ever seen.

The cuts affect two sections within the Life Sciences department. These are "Plant & Microbial Sciences" and "Cell Biology & Functional Genomics". Seventeen academics (listed right) across these two sections will be made redundant, leaving the two sections with just twelve academics between them. The Plant Sciences section was opened just two years ago at a cost of £2.7million, so shutting it now would appear to be a huge waste of college and tax payers' money (as some funding came via HEFCE).

Live! has been informed, by an anonymous source using our tip-off form, that some of these academics have been told to accept voluntary redundancy by 7th January 2011 to avoid being issued with forced redundancy at a significantly lower rate.

The cuts will affect students and staff right across the department. The redundancies include staff who currently hold vital positions, with both Biology and Biochemistry losing their Senior Tutors, Admissions Tutors and Directors of Undergraduate Studies in one fell swoop.

In the Molecular Plant-Microbe Interactions module, four of the five teaching staff are being made redundant, despite the number of students taking the course this year standing at a record level. Meanwhile, the Biochemistry degree will lose at least six final-year modules. Many first year courses across both Biology and Biochemistry will also be affected, since most students on either course will be familiar with some of the names on the list from their first year courses. An anonymous source told Live! that the co-ordinators of 19 different courses are being asked to leave.

Biochemistry modules to be cut:
  • Biotechnology & Business
  • Cellular Neuroscience
  • MolecularNeurobiology
  • Genetics and Genomics
  • Molecular Basis of Development
  • Biochemical Pharmacology & Drug Action

PhD students will also be greatly affected, however a statement from Imperial College Union says that the only explaination they have received from the department has been an email saying "The relevant core-funded academic members of staff have been informed of how this affects them".

Many PhD students in research groups led by the academics set to leave won't be able to finish their PhD, unless they can move research groups. ICU claims that the only way some PhD students are likely to be able to finish their studies is by moving institution with the academics, however this depends upon where their research funding is tied to and whether the academic manages to secure a place elsewhere.

ICU Deputy President (Clubs & Societies) Heather Jones said that the cuts "will certainly damage [Imperial's] chances of being considered a world class institution for Science in the future" - a statement echoed by many on an official facebook group.

DP (Education) Alex Dahinten issued a statement, in which he said, "these plans will result in the ruining of a very impressive section at our University. The world-class research done here will be redirected to other institutions. Top plant researchers (UG & PG) educated at our institution, who go on to give immense contributions in this field, will no longer exist".

Biology modules deemed "unteachable" after redundancies:
  • Advanced Topics in Plant Molecular Biology
  • Animal Behaviour
  • Environmental and Industrial Microbiology
  • Genetics and Genomics
  • Molecular Plant-Microbe Interactions
  • Plant Biotechnology and Sustainability

Mr Dahinten continued by expressing his anger at the department's handling of the matter, explaining: "one of the things I find most shameful is how most of this restructure has been done behind closed doors and how the Union had to go out of their way to give input into the process. This input, which encouraged the Department to rethink their plans since they completely ignored numerous core issues, such as teaching, were effectively ignored by the Department".

"The reduction of Plant Sciences cannot be undone, and will surely come back to haunt Imperial in the future", he continued. "For one, the majority of academics which are being laid off provide the foundation of the entire Department of Life Sciences; their positions will be filled by members of staff which have no experience being a Director of Undergraduate Study, Senior Tutor or Admissions Tutor. Further, we will be able to perform incredibly limited research on modern fields such as plant genome sequencing, biofuels and numerous other fields".

The Backlash

Two events have been organised for Wednesday 8th December. The first is a meeting with Head of Department Professor Ian Owens and Head of Faculty Professor Maggie Dallman at noon. During the meeting students and staff will be able to grill the two influential figures, whilst the heads will be able to finally explain the reasons behind those decisions to the students and staff who will be affected.

More longterm I predict that this will lower the quality of the undergraduates applying to read Biological Sciences at IC, as the course will be imbalanced ... Such a short-sighted, indeed blurred 'vision'.
Professor Sarah Gurr, Oxford University

The meeting will be followed by a silent protest, devised by Live! Editor Lawrence Weetman, which will see students and staff leave potted plants and bunches of flowers outside the college's Faculty Building.

At the time of writing, 432 people are listed as "attending" the meeting in SAF G16, with 79 adding their name as a "maybe" on the facebook event page. The much newer facebook event listing for the silent protest already stands at 152 confirmed guests, with a further 52 saying "maybe".

The number of signatures on an online petition regarding the matter have mushroomed in the last 24 hours, with the current total now standing at 875 signatures - around 100 more than when Live! last checked at around 8pm on Monday evening.

The petition carries damning comments from students, staff, academics and members of the public. Many students and former students are echoing the long-mumbled mantra that "Imperial cares more about reasearch than undergraduates", with some suggesting that this is proving to be more and more apparent. One of the more recent individuals to sign their name added: "This restructure has been conducted unprofessionally with no thought for the impact on the students. How can they justify getting rid of staff who have received awards for excellence in teaching?".

One of the things I find most shameful is how most of this restructure has been done behind closed doors and how the Union had to go out of their way to give input into the process. This input ... [was] effectively ignored by the Department.
Alex Dahinten, ICU Deputy President (Education)

Another said, "at a time when tuition fees are going up, I wonder what exactly our next generation of undergraduates is going to be paying for".

The most difficult comment for Imperial to contend with comes from Professor Sarah Gurr of the Plant Sciences department at Oxford University. She wrote: "I am proud to have been educated at IC. The teaching was unparalled in its quality and inspired me to pursue an academic path, which has led me to Oxford. I am stunned by this outcome, not least because it will deprive future students of superb teachers, so denuding Life Sciences of something so precious, excellent research and inspirational teaching. More longterm I predict that this will lower the quality of the undergraduates applying to read Biological Sciences at IC, as the course will be imbalanced - students want to know about Food Security. Such a short-sighted, indeed blurred 'vision'".

The cuts stem from a 5% budget cut given to all departments around college, which is currently facing its biggest squeeze in living memory. The cuts have already resulted in the cull of many subjects in the Humanities Department, as well at the Imperial College Volunteer Centre. An anonymous source pointed out that "as a whole, the college is not in debt" and added that the 'restructuring' is entirely "strategic".

Students, staff and the wider public who disagree withthe cuts should sign the online petition as soon as possible. Students and staff can attend the meeting at noon on Wednesday and are encouraged to leave potted plants or cut flowers outside the Faculty Building at any time on Wednesday afternoon.

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Discussion about “No Signs of Life (Sciences)”

The comments below are unmoderated submissions by Live! readers. The Editor accepts no liability for their content, nor for any offence caused by them. Any complaints should be directed to the Editor.
Dec 07 2010 20:13

In just 10 hours the petition has gone from 875 signatures to 1,022!! Not bad at all. :o)

Dec 07 2010 21:49

Is it entirely unreasonable to ask for Live! to pay even lip-service to the idea of balanced journalism?

Dec 08 2010 00:10

Imperial College Union has been very helpful during the process of writing this article. The department is yet to comment. They have our email address, if they wish to put their side of the argument across.

Alternatively, if you support the cuts, I'd happily publish a comment piece from yourself explaining why that is the case. Thanks.

Dec 08 2010 06:16

Yes it's extremely obvious that Imperial College London has helped you write this piece.

That's not how it works I'm afraid, how do you know that anyone from the Life Sciences department even knows that this article exists? It is your responsibility as a journalist to actively seek their side of the argument.

Finally, the cuts do not stem from the 5% cut given to all departments. They stem from the removal of a so called flexibility fund. I imagine that if you had contacted the College or the department they would have been able to tell you that.

5. @2,4   
Dec 08 2010 09:46

"Is it entirely unreasonable to ask for Live! to pay even lip-service to the idea of balanced journalism?"

No, in fact it is perfectly reasonable to suggest that more effort is put into journalism at Live! But the brilliant thing is, you can be that extra effort!

Why not start today, I'm sure there are hundreds of stories you could give your expert touch to.

Or you could just sit in comments whining like a wet dick in winter.

Dec 08 2010 09:57

@5 Rubbish. The author of an article has a responsibility to ensure that their article presents a story in a balanced manner. I could write a hundred articles for Live! but this article would still be terrible.

Dec 08 2010 10:15

How do you know that I haven't approached the department?

I've honestly given up waiting for people to give me statements for articles. If I telephone people they ask me to put it in an email. If I email people they don't get back to me for days. I had an article "ready to go" about Justice Week four days before Felix published one. It took three days for College and ICU to get back to me. It took eight days for ISoc to get back to me.

Imperial College Union isn't entirely blameless. One member of staff often ribs me for publishing inaccurate articles, but I regret waiting three days for that member of staff to "provide a statement" about Metric's opening being delayed, only for it to be posted on the ICU website three days later (and before a Live! article was written).

The same can be said about many other stories that I have had, then been unable to publish because people have dragged their feet for so long. I can think of at least two more that have gone unpublished in the last month because those involved kept putting off providing statements.

Nope, I've gone back to Live!'s old method of publishing what we know in the hopes that it'll coax information out of people more quickly.

Had I waited for the department to get back to me then the meeting and protest mentioned in the article would have passed. Yes, I could have chased harder... however in the next 10 days I have two exams, a group project due in, a business studies presentation to give and two job interviews. So I didn't chase...

As an anonymous commenter on Live! once said: "If you can't accept that an advantage of being online is that you can publish what you know, then update it with more information later, why read live at all?"

Dec 08 2010 11:34

The article doesn't put across the departments side of the argument. However, it seems unlikely that even if they asked they would get any more information, as PhD students and other in the affected devision still haven't been given a proper explanation, despite being directly involved.

Dec 08 2010 11:44

We'll hopefully have some answers after today's meeting.

10. ...   
Dec 08 2010 11:59

Let's be clear - this is bad decision... let's fight back not fight

Dec 09 2010 00:33

@2,4,6 - Well done pillock, you managed to take an important article and turn it into a slag about Live! Clearly you're not a life sciences student otherwise you'd have something a bit more productive to say. So why don't you go back to that hole from which you crawled out of, shut up and let the grown ups deal with the important situations with you out of the way.

And FYI, given the way the meeting went today, I doubt you could get much truth out of it all anyway even if Lawrence had been sent an email to produce a so called "unbiased article". They were squirming out of every question like perfect politicians.

I'm appalled that they can do this. It's quite obvious that teaching is not important to them at all. If you asked for a list of suggestions of some of the best Biology and Biochemistry teachers, the list of those facing redundancy is pretty much the one you'd get.

And yet Ian Owens claimed teaching isn't going to be affected? I think he's been spending too much time with the Bluetits!

Dec 13 2010 01:59

I've made a Freedom of Information request for some of the missing information:

I think one of the many underlying problems here might be a mismatch occurring over time between the department's research and teaching so ICU's call for the proposals to be put on-hold pending a teaching review appears sensible to me.

I've written an article on my views:

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