Oral history of British science

Helliwell, John (13 of 13) An Oral History of British Science

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  • Recording date

    2017-03-22, 2017-03-28, 2017-04-11, 2017-05-09, 2017-06-13, 2017-07-25

  • Interviewees

    Helliwell, John, 1953- (speaker, male)

  • Interviewers

    Lean, Tom (speaker, male)

  • Abstract

    Part 13: Remarks on return to Manchester University: activities benefiting from civil service management training; familiar environment, easy to return to; fewer successful grant proposals and research students to supervise; JH taking on more senior administrative roles, such as Athena Swan scheme, senior mentor to new academics, project sponsor for new student records system; [05:00] advantages of civil service management training to JH university activities; joint appointment 50% time split role with Daresbury, ongoing involvement with DARTS [Daresbury Analytical and Research Technical Services] meetings; details of new student record system project and JH involvement with it's development; anecdote about lavish university administrators conference; JH labelled as someone willing to take on a management roles when he returned ot the university, but still preferring to work on science rather than become a full-time university administrator; JH never considering a career outside science. [10:35] Remarks on merger of Victoria University of Manchester and UMIST [University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology]: JH elected to interim university senate; JH advocating new university having UMIST style integrated physical and biological science faculty, JH career based on integration of subjects, but idea opposed by others; JH reflections on effects of merger, sadness over loss of UMIST; anecdote about how being willing to complete disliked normalisation of salaries paperwork resulted in JH pay rise. [17:20] Reflections on career: changes in JH work; successes in synchrotron radiation work; Lonsdale, Patterson and Perutz Awards; public recognition of lobster colouration work; research metrics and numbers of citations; drawbacks of preoccupation with research metrics. [22:30] Story about JH failure to convince biology crystallography journals to require authors to include their data when submitting articles, so it could be verified: JH proposal voted down at World Congress at Crystallography in 2002; distrust that journal referees might steal authors' data; failure biggest of JH career; JH continuing to champion argument, most recently through work for International Council for Scientific and Technical Information; data submission accepted practice in other fields, sometimes using automatic validation of data; JH paper on subject rejected for publication, but available on pre-print server; [28:10] JH DPhil thesis also including research data on microfiche; importance of making data available to reviewers; crystallography good at supplying data after publication through structure databases; drawbacks of automatic data validation approach. [32:40] Remarks on retirement: workaholics not giving up work easily, JH continuing projects through transition period; ongoing collaboration projects, editor of 'Crystallography Reviews', advisory positions; freedom of having control over own time commitments; non-work project, including learning guitar, cycling, attempting golf; JH no longer applying for own funding grants but working on projects run by others, JH continuing to supply ideas. [36:55] Remarks on emeritus professor activities: recognition; twice yearly events with other emeritus professors; influence of emeritus professors on university thinking. [39:15] Remarks on effects of Brexit on science: widely considered a mistake by academics; importance of university consulting 7% who voted in favour of leaving European Union; most academic in favour of leaving concerned about sovereignty not immigration, multinational nature of working in universities; wider fears of immigrants taking jobs not felt so much by specialised academics; academics concerned over loss of funding opportunities; cross European collaboration allowing research in specialist areas that may only later becoming more mainstream, contrasts with Einstein developing theory of relativity independently. [45:15] Remarks on JH’s 'Skill for a Scientific Life' book: no one scientific method; contrasts and similarities between JH approach and that taken by an author writing a scientific skills book from the 1960s; retirement project for JH; process of pitching it to publisher who he had previously worked with; JH writing 200 papers but surprised at higher output of colleagues; JH writing several research monographs, satisfaction of putting topic in wider perspective; good reviews of skills book, possibility of translation; [51:50] differences between JH skills book approach and that of 'From Dream to Discovery: On Being a Scientist' by Hans Selye from 1960s, however many similarities too; help of philosophers of science in JH formulating skills book. [53:30] Discussion about philosophy of science: post doc Andre Olczak gifting JH 'What is this thing called science?' by Alan Chalmers; Thomas Kuhn; JH massive open online course [MOOC] on philosophy; differences in perspective between scientists and philosophers of science; philosophers sharpening up the logic for explaining what scientists do; synchrotron radiation work representing a paradigm shift; value of Karl Popper’s black swan theory in science, importance of understanding outlier results in data sets; [57:50] more than one scientific method, example of Darwin's theories developing out of collections; immodesty of describing own work as a paradigm shift. [1:00:30] Remarks on interview: future listeners; wider perspective than originally realised. [1:02:40] Remarks on changes in career: JH surprised by the extent to which science has developed beyond his early impressions; development of Internet outside JH imagination, despite his early realisation that data was important; impact of crystallography on the world, semiconductors, structure of DNA and genomics, pharmaceutical design and development; [1:07:00] JH article in New Scientist when he was a DPhil student about structure based pharmaceutical design. [1:08:40] Remarks on interview process.

  • Description

    Life story interview with John Helliwell, crystallographer

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