When is a Professor an Expert? Part 2: Biomedical Strategies

St Andrews University Court

It’s never pretty when academics disagree with one another. Prof John Robertson takes issue with the recent interventions of a fellow academic about Scottish Government proposals to democratise university courts.

“That this is happening in the birthplace of the Enlightenment, home to several of the world’s best universities, and in a country famed for commitment to education is, to me, a Scot, a source of shame.” ( – Professor Jim Naismith, Fellow of the Royal Society and Director of the Biomedical Research Complex, University of St Andrews).

Professor John Robertson
Professor John Robertson

Oh no, not another professorial prophet of doom! Jim is unhappy with the Scottish Government’s plans to democratise university courts by including staff, union and student representatives and by making the Chair post elected.

He’s been all over the media bemoaning these crazy lefty ideas which will hand control to politicians. The proposals give no role to elected politicians interfering at all. Perhaps it Is really his argumentative PhD student, his competitive senior lecturer and union rep, and the chief science technician,who is always going on about safety concerns that he doesn’t want on University Court?

Jim’s a real professor. He’s not like a visiting professor of PR (Small) from the BBC reporting another real professor who found bias in BBC’s coverage of the Referendum to his employers with a view to getting him sacked. He’s not like an emerita professor of German History (Stephenson) calling the lovely Mhairi Black MP, nasty names. He’s not like an honorary professor, former depute chief constable and Labour MSP (Pearson), trying to blame the Scottish Government for any mistake made by the police.

I’ve written before about these unreliable experts (When is a Professor an Expert? and Labour Police Report Lacks Clarity , but Professor Naismith is yet another kind – Geeky Science Professor! Science professors research mainly physical sciences and are often very popular with corporations and the arms industries. Professor Naismith does biomedicine. I love biomedicine. I know next to nothing of it but I’ve heard it might be useful in keeping me alive, so keep going Jim please…

Here’s one of Jim’s publications: Polymeric chains of SUMO-2 and SUMO-3 are conjugated to protein substrates by SAE1/SAE2 and Ubc9 (Michael H Tatham, Ellis Jaffray, Owen A Vaughan, Joana MP Desterro, Catherine H Botting, James H Naismith, Ronald T Hay in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, 2001).

Not having even O-Grade Chemistry, I’ll have to guess but it looks quite easy. It’s about how lower-grade (2 and 3) Sumo wrestlers are abusing drug regulations by licking stamped and addressed envelope (SAE) gum, sizes 1 and 2 to get protein supplements? Like a lot of science research, you’ll see the research teams can be quite big. I can never get anyone to work with me. Is it me?

The one in the middle of this picture studied chemistry.
The one in the middle of this picture studied chemistry.

So, you know to be wary of visiting, honorary and emerita/emeritus professors pontificating on matters they have never researched and exploiting the common public respect for professors of any kind. Now add geeks or science professors thinking they know a lot about society, politics or culture. Remember, Margaret Thatcher did Chemistry.

Of course, knowing a lot about chemistry doesn’t stop you knowing a lot about politics. Professor Naismith has a history in political campaigning. See this from the Times Higher Education in September 2014:

‘James Naismith, Bishop Wardlaw professor of chemical biology at the University of St Andrews and a member of the pro-union Academics Together, said he believed that opinion on campus against independence had actually hardened, despite growing support for it elsewhere. “The majority of academics discern that, even under the most optimistic scenarios, independence will harm universities,” he said.

Now just because Professor Naismith was part of the Academics Together group surely doesn’t mean he’s going to disagree with anything the SNP do, does it? Well, actually specialising in a science did make academics more likely to vote ‘No’, according to the Times Higher’s research. Science professors tend to be paid more too, and Edinburgh University found that those on higher pay were more likely to vote ‘No’. If you’re paid more and tend to benefit from large grants from the UK government and from global corporations you’re unlikely to vote for changes that will mostly benefit the less well-paid.

Is anyone curious about the Bishop Wardlaw Professor of Chemical Biology? Medieval bishops and chemistry seems an unlikely pairing. From Wikipedia: ‘He appears to have been an excellent bishop, although he tried to suppress the teaching of John Wyclif by burning its advocates.’

There’s a curious sentence if ever I saw one. I suppose Bunsen burners, had they been around at the time, would have been excellent firelighters. St Andrews University’s own website credits Bishop Wardlaw thus: ‘the account of the contemporary chronicler Walter Bower tells us that Wardlaw was kind and liberal, slight of build but pleasant in personality.’ I suppose everybody was burning protestant heretics in those days. Don’t judge him by today’s standards eh?

So, altogether, a highly paid professor of science, royally recognised and lazily content and with a professorial title associated with a bishop who burned medieval religious protestors at the stake and, later, a church torturing and killing the early fathers of modern science, thinks changes to university regulations are a source of shame? Give the man copies of Professor Tom Devine’s histories of Scotland and take away that bloody microscope!

John Robertson, 1st December 2015