The week in higher education – 6 July 2023

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

July 6, 2023
Source: Nick Newman

In today’s climate of soaring energy costs, we are often encouraged to switch off devices not in use to save money. But a New York cleaner is alleged to have caused more than $1 million (£790,000) in damage after he switched off a lab freezer containing “groundbreaking” photosynthesis research on solar panel development, the BBC reported. Stored in the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York in 2020, the samples needed to be kept in a freezer, some at −80°C, to preserve them. Lab workers had written a sign explaining that the freezer was beeping because it was under repair, and gave instructions on how to mute the alarm. But a cleaner turned off the circuit breaker providing electricity to the freezer, and lawyers said the temperature had risen by 50 degrees by the time the error was spotted.

In an interview with student newspaper The Harvard Crimson, Rakesh Khurana, the dean of Harvard College, answered a series of fairly routine questions – including his favourite pizza places, his favourite records, and his most treasured Harvard memories. His response to the last question has triggered global headlines. Asked what advice he would give a senior Harvard student, he laughed and told them to avoid boasting too much about their achievements, saying: “Don’t gratuitously drop the H-bomb.” Harvard graduates are well used to the impact such a reveal can have on a conversation, with one telling The Times that although the institution is not the best undergraduate education in the world, it is “the best in terms of branding. There is no ‘Yale bomb’.” Advice like that from Professor Khurana has prompted some very 2023 debates about elitism and self-awareness.

The Twitter account ARC Tracker – which monitors Australian Research Council grant outcomes – described it as “shocking, but entirely predictable”. And it is hard to disagree. In the least surprising ChatGPT news of the week, peer reviewers assessing ARC grant applications have been accused of using artificial intelligence chatbots to produce their feedback. Applicants for grants of up to A$500,000 (£262,000) alleged spotting “tell-tale” signs of ChatGPT when receiving feedback from assessors, with one even forgetting to remove the “regenerate response” prompt that appears at the bottom of all ChatGPT-created text. If true, not only does the shortcut represent a dereliction of duty, but also a “significant IP breach”, according to one academic integrity researcher. However, the ARC Tracker account did say that using ChatGPT in this way was not a surprise given the time pressure on researchers.

Romp. Lag. Love nest. Boffin. These are all words you will read regularly in British tabloid newspapers, but which you will almost certainly never use in a real conversation. The Institute of Physics (IOP) might not have any issues with romps, lags or love nests – but it does with boffins. Typically used to describe scientists or experts, the IOP has an ongoing campaign to urge journalists to “Bin the Boffin”. They say many young people are put off physics because they see limited, outdated portrayals of what physicists look and act like in the media – with the B-word one of the main culprits. Although it has already won a commitment from the Daily Mirror to stop using the slang term, the IOP is yet to hear back from The Sun or the Daily Star. Last week it took the boffin battle to new heights when it beamed giant projections of its campaign slogan onto offices near the newspapers.

The annual Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings – held in Bavaria, Germany since 1951 – bring together the largest congregation of Nobel laureates in the world, outside the Nobel ceremony itself, to foster scientific exchange and discuss leading ideas. It was during one of these talks on the future of structural biology that Kurt Wüthrich, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2002, interrupted fellow speakers to denounce what he saw as a culture of bias against men at the event. Brandishing a copy of a recent newspaper interview with Germany’s only female Nobel laureate, Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, Professor Wüthrich said: “As a male scientist, I have a feeling of discrimination when I am here, in the climate that this meeting is being held.” To date, only 61 women have won the Nobel Prize, compared with 898 men – so many may take the view that Professor Wüthrich’s comments just don’t add up.

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