Ways to (D)Phil your brain – SPRU’s 22nd student conference

What follows is in no way an “official” (nor even necessarily entirely accurate) account of the two day event for PhD students at the Science and Policy Research Unit (SPRU), University of Sussex.  First off, thanks and congratulations to the 1st year cohort of students who organised it.


The Monday started with brief opening remarks by Prof Johan Schot, who remarked that the DPhil Days – this was the 22nd – were an important institution, allowing networking, learning and and the creation a positive atmosphere. The ‘theme’ for this one was plurality  – spanning divides between constructivist and positivist perspectives, qualitative and quantitative research, academia and policy making.    He called on us to go beyond the “one best way” models of modernism (19th and 20th century).

He then introduced Carlota Perez, who gave an overview of her work, arguing that “the environment is not the problem… it’s the solution.” (See her Green Alliance blog post on a similar topic.)

Perez stated that she was addressing us not as DPhil students but as citizens of a troubled world – saying se would talk about what is happening, why it’s happening, and (how) can we overcome the daunting problems we face (unemployment, inequality, secular stagnation, the robotics revolution (hello Skynet!), the financial world becoming a casino.  She referred to people and companies with “so much money they don’t pay any taxes” and referred to “austericide”

Three major challenges were the focus of her talk – global warming, pollution and waste disposal, and insufficient resources.

She said that to solve these is the best way to solve all the others, because they’re all caused by

  1. the legacy of previous mass production revolution
  2. the decoupling of finance from production
  3. political and economic ideology inherited from bubble times.

Perez cautioned that she was not advocating degrowth, but green growth, from labour saving to resource saving,  increasing the proportion of intangibles in GDP and increasing the durability of ‘tangibles’. This, she said, would lead to an explosion in employment around rental, maintenance, repair.  She envisioned a world where we move from possession to access to goods, where we move from aspiration for possessions to health, creativity, experience and networking.

The key to all of this is… Information and Communication Technologies.

Perez then looked briefly at  previous transitions and turning “points” (she pointed out that these points are sometimes prolonged), based on her extensive previous work. These revolutionary points are distinct from Schumpeter’s and not based on GDP.

These were the industrial revolution (machines, factories, canals dating from 1771 onwards, the age of steam (coal, iron, railways, 1829), the age of steel and heavy engines (this one leads to a global economy, (includes electrical, chemical, civil engineering (bridges etc) and naval developments, dating from 1875), the Age of the Automobile (from 1908 onwards, Model T Ford and so on) and finally the age of the infotech revoluiton (dating from 1971, with Intel’s microprocessor).

A further revolution – biotecn, nanotech, bioelectronics etc, is gathering pace.

For Perez, each has led to a techno-economic paradigm shift, with far reaching transfer of changes in producing, consuming, working.  This of course, doesn’t happen quickly, gently, or without resistance…  For each surge there is  two periods – an instillation phase and a deployment phase. As the paradigms battle, concentration of investment in new technologies grows, income inequality grows.  (To be honest, some of this reminded me of Alvin Toffler‘s The Third Wave, and his later [1990s] observations about de-massification of production and consumption. This is not of course automatically a Bad Thing).

Perez said that there was a need for clear direction from government, to aid the convergence of innovation and create dynamic demand for the newly installed capacity. She pointed to the actions of the British state around the Napoleonic war, the creation of urbanisation and world trade conditions, the global infrastructure of transcontinental rail-roads and canals, suburbanisation and the cold war and… finally the “global greening of production and lifestyles” [As a member of the Sustainable Consumption Institute, I should be cheerleading this, but I have an irreducible scepticism].

For Perez, we need a new (green) Keynesianism, but that to take advantage of these turning points (periods of strong political confrontations and pressures) there is a need for “enlightened and bold political leaders” who know what to do and make the shift. [I wonder if this strays too close to advocating the Great Man of History – Roosevelt did what he did because he both could and had to thanks to serious pressure from organised labour (unions) and the collapse of the credibility of the old system.]

Perez pointed to the admission by Schumpeter, arch-anti-state guy, who grudgingly admitted that the Federal Housing Act of 1937 (6?) was the necessary impetus to create cheap prefab housing [see here], and that the market alone would not have made this technological advance. In the context of this and the usefulness of the Welfare State (unemployment insurance enabling demand to continue at high and predictable rates) she pointed to the car and radio industry and their innovation of hire-purchase/installment plans, with banks coming later to this party. [At this point I was thinking of Frederik Pohl’s 1954 novella “The Midas Plague” where Keynesianism and Fordism create a world with so much unstoppable production that all must consume, with the richest allowed to consume as little as they want).

We need to move, according to Perez, from the world of cheap electricity to cheap information, but of course, each paradigm is burdened with the legacy of the previous one.  She gave a lovely quote from Chris Freeman from 1992 – “There are powerful forces in our society…” [watch this space – I will try to track it down]

Questions to her (including from me) were about the developing countries’ role in all this, the impending anthropocene, the military options (killer graphene drones!!) to prevent renewed social democracy, the spatial aspects (e.g. China)

In her answers Perez pointed to the problem that so many policy makers were unable to see the big picture, that environmental catastrophes, financial crises, the rise of the Trumps and Le Pens could all intervene. In addition, current elites were so hyper-mobile that the did not have to worry about the local populations/pay taxes.

Next up was an interesting session from “The Council of Elders” (all of whom protested that the world in which they had become academics was so fundamentally different to what today’s early career researchers faced that any advice would be if not moot, then hedged with profound caveats.)  Nonetheless, 160 years of experience sat in a row in front of us, on the subject of “If I had only known then”….

Professor Ben Martin gave us Ten Commandments (his tongue firmly in his cheek on that framing).  They were

ONE Identify tomorrow’s problem – what willb e the main problem on politicians’ desk next year

Don’t take too long – or you’ll be irrelevant

Beware dimininshing returns in your research (repetition, replication, saturation etc)

TWO Focus on 1 or 2 areas where you have comparative advantage (don’t go too broad too soon, and learn to say no)

THREE Network and collaborate. Seek individuals with complementary skills and knowledge, learn from others.

FOUR Be bold, explore new territory, take risks, speak truth unto power, learn from mistakes, persevere.

FIVE Carpe the diems – don’t die wondering, be prepared for opportunities, and follow those opportunities up

SIX Be clear and succinct, and adjust your style to the audience

SEVEN Invest in the Favour Bank (here Martin referred to Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities).  Make public good contributions to the community

EIGHT Be generous – give credit ot others, especially juniors, identify antecedents.

NINE Do as you would be done unto (when reviewing papers)

TEN Preserve your integrity. In digital age, act on the principle that everything will become known.


And a PS Always have a Plan B.

There was then a very interesting panel discussion with Martin, Perez and also Professors Martin Bell and Erik Millstone.  I won’t ascribe any particular bit of advice that I wrote down to a particular individual.

Self-doubt doesn’t go away, the trick is to learn to manage it

Do NOT wait for self doubt to go away before writing your thesis etc. Pursue your topic with energy and enthsuaism

“Screw the REF” (publishe what you feel is important)

Set the trend, don’t follow it.

Be aware of, challenge, attempts to suppress your work, attempts at cesorship.

Find something you are passionate about/”passion matters enormously”

Outsiders can become agenda setters (able to see things insiders can’t)

Link helpfully, lucid and interesting inter-disciplinarity

Finally, on the question of what builds a reputation for inter-disciplinarity

  1. a) sensitivity to disciplines (cultures, norms, languages)

  2. b) openness ot new ideas

  3. generotisy, cite sources, acknowledge where ideas came from

  4. d) willingness to make “public good” contributions


Around the writing of theses –

bite off what you can chew (you don’t have to solve all the world’s problems in 70,000 words, and you only need to write one thesis, not three.

You don’t need to write at the same level of detail about everything that seems important.

You can acknowledge and then “park” related but not-crucial debates. This shuts off opportunities for external examiners to find holes.


After a well-earned break there was a session with Dr Paula Kivimaa and Dr Gregor Semieniuk on “plurality in research methods” looking at the pros and cons of different research methods (e.g. focus groups) and distinguishing between types of theories (interpretive and predictive)

After lunch there was another useful session, this time on plurality in impacts.

Antony Froggatt of Chatham House gave a compelling account of a recent report on “Changing Climate, Changing Diets” that Chatham House had produced. Advice included

  • Build strong case for action
  • Break down siloes
  • Enhance evidence base for interventions
  • Mobilise national debates

Froggatt’s main point (that I took away, anyway) is for the need for coalitions of the unusual suspects.

Prof Gordon MacKerron followed this with various good advice (this below is what I captured)

  • Don’t assume all impacts are necessarily a good thing!
  • Remember the difference between independent and objective (they overlap, but not always by much!).  Think also in terms of optimal versus absolute independence (i.e. you can be so ‘independent’ that you end up out of touch with agendas)
  • Who do we hope to have an impact on?  Elites (policy makers, powerful sorts), the marginalised (trade unions etc), on scrutinisers.

There are various ways of having an impact that are worth considering.

  • Get media (local, national, international) interested – cultivate journalists, feed them bits of research [of course, journalists come and go…]
  • respond to specific invitations
  • Be involved in an advisory capacity
  • Engage in consultancy (nb beware of over-identification with a funder)
  • act as a n expert witness (this less common, now that public inquiries are no longer so often used to attempt to resolve contentious issues)
  • temporary employment in areas where you might have some influence

More generic advice (from both)

  • Learn to write clearly, briefly about complex issues
  • Form alliances with other actors.
  • Get external people (especially ones trained in the field you will be engaging – eg. Journalism) to look over what has been produced, because they will be able to spot the sorts of things you will be asked.

The final speaker of the day was Doctor Flor Avelino, on the subject of “Contesting Transformational Social Innovation

This is a subject close to my heart (as I made [too?]clear in the Q and A.  Avelino was presenting the work – at the half way stage – of a four year EU funded project with twelve research institutes involving 25ish researchers with backgrounds in Science and Technology Studies, Transition Studies, Innovation, Economic, Environmental studies, Social Psychology, Political Psychology (I may have missed some)

You can find out more here transitsocialinnovation.euand also @TransitSI

They’re aiming to generate conceptual and empirical insights into the whole “new ways of doing/knowing/framing/organising”  consumers/pro-sumers thing.  (Hacker spaces, labs, hubs, hipsters, expensive coffee, blah blah blah). The “underlying assumption is that social innovation contributes to wider trasnformative change and empowers people to deal with change.

So, they’re looking at “narratives of change” and “game-changers” (these co-evolve – perhaps there is something in Discursive Institutionalism of Prof Vivien Schmidt et al that could be of use here?)

For me the key problem (as I made [too] abundantly clear) is that much of this work ends up being guilt-alleviation busy work by the posh end of the smugosphere, engaging in emotathonic   mobilisation rather than movement-building.  Also if you only measure promises (as available via glossy websites and brochures produced at the start of a project, and not the grubby failure at the end) you can end up with a very wrong account of how much is actually changing.  Many of these  so-called “networks” that were established in the giddy days of 2006-8 are basically just vestigial websites and a small clique and claque around the originators now). Also- related – activity is easily measured, but action (and impact) is less so.  But I strongly suspect these sorts of empirical difficulties are actually being dealt with…

Also (!) we’ve been through previous waves of “social innovation” and sometimes they got crushed like bugs (I’m thinking of Stafford Beer and Cybersyn, versus Kissinger and Pinochet)  #nocontest.

All those caveats aside, I really like Avelino’s work, and the working paper titles of the project look fascinating (e.g. “The Institutionalisation of Social Innovation: between Transformation and Capture” by Bonno Pel and Tom Bauler).  Definitely stuff for After I Finish The Thesis (AIFTT). If I try it before I will be skinned alive [literallyby both my supervisors. And probably my external too. And definitely the wife…]

Things to send Dr Avelino


Johan Schot was discussant on the Avelino presentation, and had a series of comments and remarks, including

ONE what do we gain by using the notion of social innovation.  He noted that as a trained historian the warning was always “never split social and technical/material”

TWO what IS transformative change? How do actors perceive it? What is then going on at the institutional level? What connections are theere between the narratives of actors and the analytics?   What is the renegotiation of institutional “logics” – for example, ‘streets’ used to be regarded as private space, and are now public space (mostly)

THREE what relationships between these new roles and power relationships.  And is political struggle always productive.

Apologies to Dr Avelino – my brain was well and truly full by this stage in the day’s proceedings.  All I can say is that her answers were clear and interesting, and that she ‘defended’ bits of the project without becoming defensive (an important distinction).

The organisers of the conference had asked one of the professors to do something tricky – to sum up the whole day in a few minutes.  That’s not easy, and demands close attention for prolonged periods, followed by synthesis and clear communication.  On this occasion it was carried off with considerable aplomb by Prof Ed Steinmueller.

He pointed out that the day had begun and ended with “the Big Picture” and that this can be daunting to early career researchers, and make them doubt the point of their (necessarily small at this stage particularly) contribution. However, the Big Picture is nonetheless useful [what Frederic Jameson would call a cognitive map].

He pointed to anxiety about (academic) tribes, but also to the necessity of their existence.

He restated the invocations to passion, persistence, perseverance, seizing the moment and self-doubt (that is a spur, not a cage).
He told us that we have to become entrepreneurs, operators, making a difference. He counselled that it helps to like to other similar people making a difference, that generosity is crucial – academia has features of a gift economy, in which giving is a precondition of receiving.

He reminded us too of more concrete lessons from the day, around the selection of methods, confronting your approach with alternatives, making claims based on evidence within a certain framework.

There was a recapitulation of the advice we’d received on impacts –  cultivating alliances, reputation, timeliness, packaging (concisionexactly as I have done in this blog post, oh yes!), and the journey of the social entrepreneur – of experimentation, and experience that it leads to.

There was just enough time to swig a couple of big glasses of wine before a hired coach took us down to the Olive Branch restaurant in the Lanes.  Great food, more wine, and some jokes. Some of which I can repeat.

  • What do you call a cow with three legs? Lean beef.
  • What do you call a cow with two legs? Extra lean beef.
  • What do you call a deer with short sight? Bad eye deer
  • What do call a deer that needs glasses to function? Very bad eye deer.

We won’t do the ones about the couple in the nursing home, or the three women in the obstetrician’s waiting room, since I’d like to stay on at MBS until I get my PhD….

Day two of the conference was all about the PhD students presenting their work and then getting feedback from each other and the other folks present (including some very very astute professors).
The beginning of the day though, saw brief remarks from Professor Tim Foxon on “how best to learn form others, and presenting our work”.

He mentioned that yesterday he’d been at the launch of the “Energy Systems Catapult”, the latest government scheme to promote innovation and deployment of technology [just don’t mention CCS, ‘kay?!].

Foxon then laid out five thoughts

ONE Challenge Authority (at this point he was pelted with rotten tomatoes and told ‘get off’ – true story).  Foxon said elders don’t always know better, and that we should (re)consider existing frames.

TWO Formulating your research question more clearly will help, especially on what is important, and what is outside the boundary

THREE You can then answer the question with appropriate methods (what quantitiatve tools, what qualitative ones?)
FOUR Accept constructive feedback

FIVE Enjoy your PhD.

The rest of the day was then 22 PhD students presenting their work for 15 to 20 minutes each, in two parallel streams, divided into four sessions.  Obviously you could see only 11, and of the ones I did see, the stand-outs were;

Soazic Elise Wang Sonne, whose work is looking at “Understanding clean fuel adoption in Sub Saharan Africa: Does Woman’s intra-household bargaining power matter?” and

Emily Cox, presenting on “Understanding the intensity of UK policy commitments to nuclear power: the role of perceived imperatives to maintain military nuclear submarine capabilities” –  a possible (and under-explored in the literature) reason for the British state’s renewed enthusiasm for Nuclear Power (hint – it might be to do with maintaining the a talent pool that has the skills needed to keep the engine of those wretchedly expensive and murderous Trident submarines going).

I am going to post a separate piece on what I learned from doing and watching presentations, and listening to the good advice of the chairs.

I skipped out at the end to make sure I could see the wife (#longdistancemarriage), but I am sure the final session and the summing up were as good as what went before.  Kudos to the organisers and the participants, including the chairs of the PhD sessions (a relatively thankless task, I suspect!).  And massive thanks to the facebook friend of a facebook friend, who let me stay on her couch!


Things to look up (stuff people mentioned that I didn’t know)

Things to read

America by Design: Science, Technology and the Rise of Corporate Capitalism by David Noble (casually mentioning it in a room where people had actually READ it was perhaps not my smartest move)

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