John Whitfield

John Whitfield is comment editor at Research Professional News.

A Bit of Everything: REF-Worthy

John Whitfield, 19 January 2023

When​ Margaret Thatcher died in 2013, Times Higher Education asked the former Cambridge vice-chancellor Peter Swinnerton-Dyer, who ran the government’s University Grants Committee in the 1980s, about her approach. ‘The instinct of a woman is to spring-clean,’ he said, ‘and this country needed spring-cleaning, not least the university sector.’ Swinnerton-Dyer...

Replication Crisis: Shoddy Papers

John Whitfield, 7 October 2021

The pressure to churn out papers drives a culture of overwork – and in some cases bullying – which bears down most heavily on postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers. These are the people who actually do most of the laboratory and fieldwork; they are usually on studentships or contracts lasting between three and five years, and their ability to build a publication record depends heavily on the patronage of the senior researchers in whose labs they work. None of this does anything to encourage a diversity of viewpoints in the scientific workforce, or to challenge biases. If a brutally competitive environment helped the best work rise to the top, there might be an argument that the misery was justified. You might, for example, think that a system which can deliver several highly effective vaccines for a new disease in less than a year must be doing something right. Maybe so, but most research has to fight for funding and attention in a way that work on Covid-19 does not. 

Tens of thousands of years ago, the arrival of people in the Americas, and in Australia and New Zealand, was followed by a wave of extinctions, particularly of the largest species, which made the most attractive game. More recently, rats, cats and goats have eaten their way through the native plants and animals of small and not so small islands; and California is home to four hundred...

Get the Mosquitoes! selfish genes

John Whitfield, 30 November 2006

Some flour beetles carry a gene called Medea. Their offspring look normal as larvae but, around the time of hatching, half the females become listless, then paralysed; and then they die. No one knows how it works, but the female offspring that inherit a copy of the gene are protected from the poison it uses, while those that don’t are killed by it.

Medea has evolved thanks to sexual...

70 Centimetres and Rising: plate tectonics

John Whitfield, 3 February 2005

Alfred Wegener, born in 1880, pioneered the use of balloons in meteorology, and in 1906 broke the endurance record by staying up in the air for 52 hours. He spent several years studying the weather on Greenland, crossing the island on foot. He died there in 1930, after getting lost in a blizzard while returning from a trip to relieve stranded colleagues. In 1910, he had mentioned in a letter...

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