The week in higher education – 16 May 2019

The good, the bad and the offbeat: the academy through the lens of the world’s media

May 16, 2019

Feeling misunderstood by the public? Does it boil your blood to read about society’s rejection of experts? New research suggests that it might be worth channelling your inner Kardashian and sharing a selfie or seven. According to a study undertaken by researchers in the US and Canada, published in Plos One, scientists who post pictures of themselves on Instagram can help to change public perceptions that scientists are cold or unfriendly. The group surveyed 1,620 social media users recruited to view scientists’ pictures of themselves online. Participants who saw selfies of a scientist smiling evaluated the researchers as being significantly “warmer” than the scientists they saw in typical stock images. “We believe that overall, scientists who use social media to humanise themselves are helping to foster transparency of science, public trust and interest in science,” concluded one of the study’s authors.

If that doesn’t convince the public of scientists’ superpowers, ambitious plans from the University of Cambridge surely will. Proposals for a new research facility to explore radical methods of combating climate change include geoengineering techniques to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, deflect heat with clouds and even refreeze the Arctic’s polar regions. If the proposals are given the go-ahead, the Centre for Climate Repair could quite literally save the world at a wallet-friendly price of $2 billion to $3 billion (£1.5 billion to £2.3 billion) a year. For comparison, that’s about 10 per cent of Nasa’s annual budget. Sir David King, a former UK chief scientific adviser, described the proposals as a “bit of a last-ditch attempt”. “However, it has a very good chance of success, provided we get enough agreement around the world and enough effort behind it,” he told The Times. “I’m reasonably optimistic that will happen.”

A private school headmaster faced intense criticism after angrily lamenting that the universities of Oxford and Cambridge had “successfully driven down the number of Oxbridge places awarded to privately educated pupils” and that parents detected in this “social engineering”, likening it to the Nazis’ treatment of Jews. Anthony Wallersteiner, headmaster of Stowe school, where fees come to nearly £40,000 a year, told The Times: “Some of the criticisms [of private schools] echo the conspiratorial language of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It was relatively easy for Hitler and his henchmen to suggest that the Jewish minority was overrepresented in key professions: medicine, law, teaching and the creative industries.” After the comments appeared, they were criticised as “appalling” and “offensive”. With the UK’s private schools educating about 6.5 per cent of school pupils yet taking about 40 per cent of Oxbridge places, there does appear to be social engineering going on – but not the kind Dr Wallersteiner perceives.

The US vice-president, Mike Pence, delivered the commencement address at Liberty University, telling graduates at the evangelical institution that they should be prepared to be “ridiculed”. “Some of the loudest voices for tolerance today have little tolerance for traditional Christian beliefs. Be ready,” said Mr Pence, USA Today reported. Whereas in the past it “didn’t even occur to people that you might be shunned or ridiculed for defending the teachings of the Bible…things are different now,” he added. Some Liberty students have claimed that the university’s president, Jerry Falwell Jr – a prominent Donald Trump supporter, suppressed a student newspaper column critical of Mr Trump, while some alumni said they would return their diplomas in protest against Mr Falwell’s glowing approval for Mr Trump’s notorious comments on the Charlottesville white supremacist rally. But Mr Pence did not reflect on whether the politicisation of Liberty is another factor making life harder for the university’s graduates.

What is the only thing less welcome in a university library than an Elsevier subscription bill? A durian, the stinking fruit that has prompted the second evacuation of an Australian university library in a year. Fire and rescue crews were called to the University of Canberra after reports of a strong smell of gas, The Guardian reported. Within an hour, the source of the stench had been discovered to be a bin-deposited durian, the fruit whose smell has been likened to sewage or rotting flesh and which is often banned in hotels and on public transport across Asia. In April last year, RMIT University’s library was evacuated after a similar gas alert turned out to be a durian. University libraries are often prioritising open access these days, but in the case of durians the best policy may be no access whatsoever.

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