Thoughts for UCL (and perhaps other) students about the pension strikes at universities

Amid the continuing universities/USS strike I thought I should write a few reflections on what is going on to help you understand what this is all about, and why it is that some of us have sacrificed 6 days pay so far – with more to come. This is money which goes into UCL’s hardship fund.

These are, in case you’re wondering, personal views and I may be wrong about things so by all means post corrections in the comments section.

Pensions are something that most of us don’t think about. After all, old age is a long way away, and we have much more important things to spend our money on now, especially given the price of housing, transport and everything else. What is more, if you read the press there is a sense that pensions are a kind of unaffordable perk that only extravagant employers can afford to give to employees who should be grateful for anything they get.

So let me start by telling you some of the history of pensions from a chemical perspective. Back in the 19th century a young physicist Karl Abbé was hired by the microscope maker Karl Zeiss to advise him about how to improve his optics. Spurred on by this, Abbé developed the mathematical treatment of how polychromatic light travels through transparent materials; he worked out that the ultimate limit to resolution was the wavelength of the light, and the mathematics of  refractive index and dispersion (how the refractive index varies with wavelength – what Newton and Bunsen/Kirchoff relied on for spectra – but a disaster if what you want is to make a microscope or binoculars). His work leads straight to modern super-resolution microscopy today.

His contribution was so huge that Zeiss took him on as an equal partner. Abbé came from a very humble background – his family was dirt poor and he had somehow managed to get to university at a time when there was no system of grants or loans to support a student of limited (or no) means. Abbé introduced a system to make sure that his workers were treated fairly. He provided sick leave, paid holidays, and introduced pensions for when workers were too old to work. In other words he made a contract with his employees that they would work for the company, but that the company would look after them, and treat them fairly. Otto Bismarck, the iron chancellor who unified Germany helped spread these ideas by passing laws to protect workers against predatory employers.

The Zeiss company became the world’s leading microscope and lens maker, especialy after Abbé was joined by Otto Schott, a glassmaker who developed the crucial glass formulations needed to make the lenses that Abbé had dreamed of. Both Zeiss and Schott are, today, wholly owned by the Karl Zeiss Foundation. The foundation does not have shareholders and they fund a lot of science. You can read the stories of Abbé and Schott in Classic Kit.

At the heart of the idea of a pension is that an employee pays their employee in two parts. They pay them a monthly wage. But they also pay into into a communal pot – the pension plan or superannuation scheme. That deal is something the employee and the company sign up to when the person is hired. The pension is not a perk. It is deferred pay – this is the important part- and the employee too agrees to put part of their wages aside into the pot. What it means is that although you take home, say, £30,000 a year, you as an employee, set aside £3k into the pension and your employee puts in something else, say £3k. It’s important to realise what this means. You pay packet is not £30k. It’s £33k, with the £3k deferred for when the person reaches a certain age (and matched by the government through a tax credit). That means that this money can be invested and grow into a fund that will pay for their old age. By pooling with other employees everyone shares the risk of dying young (so your partner/kids are supported) or of living a long time. Typically the employer also agrees to support the pension pot if things don’t go right.

Pensions are crucial. All of us are likely to live into our 90’s and many of us beyond that. Chances are we’ll retire around age 67 or 70. Maybe we’ll do some odd jobs after that but eventually there will come a point where we won’t or can’t work. We still need to eat, still need to heat our home, and pay the rent or the upkeep, and eventually get help when we can’t do things for ourselves. Let’s not kid ourselves. it’s fashionable, when you’re in your 20’s, to say that you’ll live fast and die young, but that’s just talk. All of us can be pretty confident of living into old age. There is a less than 1/1000 chance of your dying in any given year until you get to your late 50’s (see the Office for National Statistics web page on Life Tables for more information).

So what’s the problem with pensions? The first thing is that people are living longer. So when individuals and companies set money aside back in the 1960’s and 70’s, they assumed that most people would die in their seventies and eighties. As people started to live longer things no longer looked so rosy. But many pensions continued to pay out pretty generously. After all, pensions were an issue for old people. Denial was everywhere. What then started to happen was the companies started to panic as they realised that they had enormous sums to pay out because they’d not done their arithmetic right – many pensions were underfunded i.e. there wasn’t enough money in the pot to keep paying pensions at the expected rate. In some cases, the money had never been put in the pot at all. It had all been used to pay the pensions of older, retired workers. This is the case for teachers and quite a few parts of the public sector. These pay-as-you-go pension schemes rely on having more young workers than pensioners. But the pensioners were living longer… You immediately see what’s going on: younger people end up transferring some of their earnings to support the elderly, and nowadays one might not be so confident that there are enough of the younger members.

In other cases, there was a pension pot but it just wasn’t big enough. How could you fund it? By asking current workers to put more money in… (similar story) or by getting the company to contribute more. But shareholders have consistently refused to do this. Why should “their” money, “their” profits be reduced to pay for pensioners? The answer is that one after another company pension plans were trimmed down and scaled back.

Two things happened at the same time.

First of all, pensions started to be referred to as a perk. Some companies started telling employees that they would get this extra “gift”. Others didn’t offer anything at all. And the government also came up with forms of employment where a company didn’t have to offer any of the “perks” that made employing people so expensive. No sick pay. No holiday pay. No pension. Sounds familiar? That’s what the zero hours contracts are all about. It’s about an employer washing their hands of their responsibility for you as a person. To them you are a “human resource”. In other words the old idea that there was a mutual bond formed between you and your employer was whittled away. This has been spun as “flexibility”. You can change your job whenever you want. Equally, they can change you for someone else. And their responsibility ends at the end of each month.

The other thing that happened was to change the terms of pensions. This is the old style scheme: If you work for us for x years, together we will contribute enough to the pot to give you, say, x/80 of your salary after you retire. This is called “Defined Benefit” – you, the employee, know what you’re going to get. But for employers it looks risky because if the pot isn’t full, they’re in the frame. So they came up with “Defined Contribution” – what you and the employer have put into the pot and when you retire you’ll see how much is there, and then you can use that sum to buy yourself a pension. Notice the crucial difference. While the first scheme makes the employer responsible for making sure that the fund is hunky dory, in the second, the employer doesn’t care. Because you’re the one who, at age 70, finds out what you’ve got.

This is a classic place where you see the difference between “the left” and “the right”. The left says that there should be a joint responsiblity between society/the employer/the individual to think through a lifetime of pay. The right says that it’s your responsibility to look after yourself, and you should have freedom to choose how you invest and what you do with your money. And if things don’t work out, well, tough. Maybe you’ll learn something…

So now to the USS strike. What is this all about? The universities are big employers and a very long time ago they set up a communal system where everyone who was on an academic contract – lecturers, librarians, postdocs, research associates etc – could join USS, a common pension scheme. It is huge because it covers many many institutions across the country. This is important because the bigger you are, the lower the costs of running such a scheme. But at the same time by sharing in a pot you also reduce the risk. If UCL went belly up it would be a minor hit to the fund because UCL employs much fewer than 1% of the total number of people in the scheme. The scheme is also pretty well funded. The pot is very substantial so it’s not like the teachers fund. What we have contributed over the years goes to pay for our retirement as we had planned.

So what’s the problem? The first thing is that back in the 1980’s the stock market was doing so well that many employers including the universities took “pension holidays” where they cut the amount they were putting into the pot. When the stock market took a hit in the 90’s they panicked and moved their contributions back up to almost (but not quite) the contributions they’d made previously. But because of this, they spent £7 bn that should have gone into the pot on other stuff; now there is talk of there not being quite enough money in the pot. Whether this is true is very strongly disputed by unviersity academics with expertise in statistics and pensions. It’s complicated and it requires you to make a number of assumptions. You can find lots of information about this here and here.

The second problem is more subtle, but also very interesting. And it’s where you come in, as a student. As you know the universities are currently enjoying something of a bonanza of money. Everywhere you look universities are building and repairing gleaming new buildings. It’s exciting and all of us love the swish of big glass door and the comfort of a well-padded seat in a lecture theatre. The thinking is that we have to compete on the world market and we need to invest, right? Where is the money coming from? Well a good chunk is coming from the government which passes to us the money that make up your fees – that you will repay later. In addition, universities have also been allowed to expand – student numbers are much much higher than they’ve ever been. That means we need more buildings. They cost money. So there’s something of a financial wheeze here – the fees are off balance sheet because they’re loans. Someone will have to pay out eventually and this is an increasingly, and rightly, becoming a contentious issue.

Meanwhile the universities have gradually turned into businesses. UCL has a Chief Financial Officer now, just like a company does. He is not an academic. He and many of the people who run the institution see the university as a business and a business that has to grow and increase market share. If we expand we need buildings. How do we pay for them? It’s not just fees and government money. The interesting new development is loans. While you guys get into hock with your fees and living expenses, universities are, for the first time, taking on serious debt. UCL has taken on almost £300M in loans to pay for UCL East. The result is that because interest rates are low, UCL has got itself in hock to the banks in order to build the shiny new buildings that it needs.

So now we come back to pensions. As UCL has taken on loans it has realised that bankers want to know what the business is worth if things go wrong. Clearly, if UCL went bankrupt you could sell of the central London site for an absolute fortune. Imagine those Grade 1 listed designer flats under the dome! But it also looks at liabilities – what UCL might owe. Yes, there are the loans already taken (and no one knows what the terms of those loans are, something that is making a lot of UCL academics very angry and worried). But there are also pensions. The lower the risk and the liabilities, the greater the opportunities for a university to get loans to be able to grow and build bigger newer buildings.

So the proposal is to change from Defined Benefit to Defined Contribution for members of the USS, the universities pension scheme. The point is to lower the financial risk to the institution. And that’s done by transferring the risk to the employees. What the universities propose to do is to renege on their contract with their employees. Those of us that joined 10, 20 or 30 years ago did so with the knowledge that we had a good pension deal. And for the universities to turn round and say “tough luck, things have changed” is what makes us so angry. And the impact on younger lecturers is a LOT greater because those of us who have been here for longer have some of our pension “locked in”. I’ve got skin in the game, but academics in their early 30’s risk losing a whole lot more.

To compound this, there is a pretty strong body of evidence to suggest that there is more money going into the scheme than there is going out and that many of the assumptions underlying the arguments that our Provost and others are presenting to make these changes are at best disingenuous, or at worst, wrong. And rather than explaining things clearly and having a discussion, many of the Vice-Chancellors and Provosts have not even tried to rebut the analyses that have been presented. Universities are all about argument and discussion. It’s how we learn. It shows you how disconnected from academia some of these VCs are that they have to hide behind their highly professional finance guys. In the case of UCL, our CFO said that UCL did not have “the risk appetite” for how USS was currently run. As a chemist, I’d like to ask you where you have come across the phrase “risk appetite” when you’re writing a risk assessment? It’s financial bullshit that shows that they are not prepared to engage in a proper intellectual, adult discussion.

Academics don’t get paid that badly, although their salaries at any given level buy a lot less then they did 30 years ago. But in addition to the freedom of being able to do and think about the stuff that we love, the pension structure is something that adds a lot of security to the job. If this change is rammed through, as the universities want, the academic life will be made significantly less attractive. Universities in the UK may not be able to attract the best people – and this is on top of other reasons why this is likely to be more a problem – Brexit, for one. And if you struggle to recruit the best people you start to jeopardise the whole of the UK’s lead in teaching and research, the very things that attracted you to university in general, and to UCL in particular.

But it also represents part of a steady shift away from the idealism of Karl Abbé, and instead giving people the freedom to make bad decisions, decisions that can cost them decades of poverty.

So we’ll be on picket lines for the next few days and, again, next week. Not a day goes past that we don’t regret the fact that we aren’t lecturing, advising students, or doing stuff in the lab. Forget the fact that we are sacrificing pay; it’s that we’re not doing the things that we really love. But there is a lot at stake for us and we hope that we can come to an amicable agreement quickly. Because the alternative doesn’t bear thinking about.

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I’m gutted but I just can’t justify attending Google/O’Reilly Science Foo Camp

I recently received an invitation to Google/O’Reilly’s Science Foo Camp, for 2017 at the Googleplex in Mountain View later this summer. I’d so love to go. But I just can’t bring myself to do it, and this is the letter I sent to them in reply.

Dear Tim, Chris, and Daniel,

Thank you for your invitation to Science Foo Camp 2017. Alas I cannot come. This is a plea that you organize satellite Foo camps in other countries and develop platforms to link them up.

I cannot tell you how sad I am that I cannot join you. It breaks my heart. This is not because I don’t want to – I would LOVE to be there – I have heard so much about the Camps and how creatively energizing they are. Nor is it that I have other commitments. I don’t. My diary is free.

But to come to the Science Foo Camp would requires me to fly half way round the globe. The emissions from that single return flight would be around 2 tonnes CO2e (see the ICAO Carbon Calculator, including the IPCC’s suggested factor of ~2 to account for radiative forcing).

Let me put this into context.

I am married and I have two children. We live in a typical British “terraced” house. Our gas consumption from cooking and keeping the house warm in 2016 amounted to ~750 m3, equivalent to 1500 kg CO2. Although I have solar panels on my roof, I still draw electricity from the grid. The 1700 kWh that we drew in 2016 are equivalent to about 900 kg CO2.
After subtracting what electricity our panels produce and export to the grid, my single flight to Science Foo Camp comes very close to my annual direct domestic energy emissions. To fly to the Camp would negate all the energy saving measures that I have put in at some effort over the years. It would also undermine my position on UCL’s Environmental Sustainability Steering Group which has spent the past few years battling to hold our institutions emissions steady, let alone reduce them.

I cannot tell you how painful it is to find myself in this position. I would dearly love to come to Sci Foo Camp. It is, in fact, the third time that you have invited me and the third time that I have, very reluctantly, felt forced to decline. But having young children my time horizon extends to the end of the century.

Again, some context. I was born when CO2 levels were around 315-318 ppm. We are well past 400 now, not simply the highest in our lifetimes, but the highest level in the entire course of our species’ existence. That CO2 is a key determinant of planetary temperature is uncontroversial – we have known this since the 1850’s. Sea levels are rising steadily and ice is melting. It is now expected that the Arctic will be largely ice-free in the summer by the time my children graduate from high school – the mid 2020’s.

To someone who grew up with the idea of the Inuit hunting seals (“Nanook of the North”), and reading adventure stories about the North West passage, this is a jaw-dropping development. I draw your attention to these two graphs, courtesy of Dr Jim Pettit, and based on NSIDC data, that sit of your own servers:

[A polar plot of Arctic sea ice over the decades from 1980-2017]

A plot of the steady disappearance of Arctic ice in the four decades after 1980. When the line reaches the origin the Artic ocean will be effectively ice free. Image courtesy of Dr Jim Pettit.

[A graph indicating that ice loss is about to be equivalent to the amount of ice remaining]

The trend in annual ice volume loss (in red) versus ice remaining at the end of the summer (in blue) for the Arctic. Image courtesy of Dr Jim Pettit.

Both of these plots are striking indications that our planet is changing at astonishing speed while we continue with a business as usual mindset. The situation in the Antarctic gives little room for comfort.

I know that I am preaching to the converted – you are all aware of the issue and its magnitude. It surprises me, therefore, that Google, with large headquarters in the heart of London and and other cities, and with its dominance of worldwide communications technology, does not organize satellite events across the world in an effort not simply to minimize its CO2 impact, but also to draw attention to the reality of how our world is changing. Could you not devote more effort to find ways to link the Foo camps together virtually through some kind of virtual/augmented reality platform?

Perhaps it is the fact that bringing a few hundred people together seems so insignificant in comparison to the many millions who fly every day. Let me therefore ask you a question. Do you buy your loved ones jewellery made from ivory? You don’t? Surely one little ivory trinket is tiny in comparison to the vast worldwide market that is decimating elephants across Africa… So why do you not buy ivory? Is it a matter of principle?

For the UK, the 3% annual growth in air travel means that by 2050 if the country meets its Paris Agreement commitments, air travel on its own is expected to account for 50% of the UK’s carbon budget, an issue that has enormous implications;  it is something that we need to start to address now, not in 2030, or some other arbitrary date.

It is time for Google, O’Reilly and other big digital players to help us to give us alternatives to having to make these difficult choices. The ethical dimensions of this are huge given the enormous percentage of the world’s population that lives within 5 m of sea level and on flood plains. I am thinking of Miami, of New York, Rio de Janeiro, Shanghai, and London, all cities that will need to be protected in the coming years if we remain as we currently are – myself included – in denial about the severity of the situation.

Please, Google, wake up. You have enormous reach. Enormous power. Don’t talk. Act.

Best regards,

Andrea Sella

Posted in carbon footprint, climate change, public science | 3 Comments

Less water going to waste

A long time ago, I wrote a series of posts here about how I was trying to reduce our Department’s water use. It’s an incredible dull topic but I’d like to present it as an example of how it is possible to make quite substantial changes by being patient, methodical, and persistent.

So this is a little update on what we have achieved – you can look back to see the horror of our water use back in the bad old days – every so often we exceeded 200 tonnes a day.

When I first managed to get data, back in 2010, it was clear that we were haemorrhaging water – on some days 200 tonnes of water were pouring through our pipework. It made no sense, and when I first presented the data, it was met with consternation and surprise by my colleagues. Many even suggested that the water meter might be broken.

It’s taken us a lot of slow, tedious work, to get the water flows down.

Our initial experiment was to turn water off completely every Christmas and sometimes at Easter too, in order to see what the baseline usage was. Then we turned instruments and lab activity back on, one lab at a time, a process that identified cooling water for diffusion pumps as major contributors. This led us to installing inline flow monitors onto water cooling lines. This brought water use down very substantially.

By making both staff and students aware of the progress we were making (water use dropped by almost 50%) the idea that individual action mattered slowly entered my colleagues’ consciousness. Interestingly, as we have replaced X-ray equipment my colleagues have bought compact micro-sources that require little external cooling (a bit of air conditioning which was in place already).

Water data also helped build the argument to (finally!) replace water stills with deionizers.

In late 2015, Thames Water let us into their meter feed, making the process of monitoring things a whole lot easier. So here are plots showing water flow data at the very beginning and more recently where you can see how the flows have gradually decreased.




The point is that we are now running around 30-40 tonnes a day are remarkable 70-ish% below where we were. Many of my colleagues have contributed to this but I’m especially grateful to colleagues from Estates and Facilities like Tony Overbury and Joanna Marshall-Cook who’ve contributed it a million quiet ways behind the scenes to make it all possible.

Water use will rise again once our undergraduates return and their practicals resume in October but we have achieved a lot.

But it’s clear that we can push water demand down even further as we work on the 15 tonne a day baseload and instal more flow restrictors in taps and faucets round our labs. This is coming.

It’s dull, but in a university it makes much-needed savings. But more importantly, this kind of effort and engagement brings goodwill. Our Department is now being looked at closely for ways to improve performance. Our building is now undergoing a massive window-replacement programme that should make quite a difference to both comfort and to energy use. If, as we expect, that brings savings in the coming years, then it will provide further incentives and enthusiasm to reduce our footprint further.

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Going green and saving money

This blog is nothing more than the very occasional rant but it has, it seems, attracted a little attention. Enough anyway that my friends at Chemistry World have just featured our Department and our collaborators at eeCO2 Energy in an article about how to start thinking about saving money while also achieving reductions in environmental impact in labs. The article focuses almost exclusively on electricity and water which are an important start but are just the beginning. The connexions between health and safety practice and our long term environmental impact are something I keep highlighting when I talk about gloves. But chemical inventories will lead us to using chemicals more efficiently.

The important thing that I think all of us should be asking ourselves as we go about our daily business is: “Are the energy, water, chemicals suppliers and the waste disposal companies our charity?” No? Well then let’s be a bit more frugal and spend our money on giving our students more time, more resources, and keeping our equipment in tip top shape.

And then we’ll take a look at academic travel. Those emissions will be interesting…

Thanks to Philip Broadwith for giving me so much rant time.

Posted in green champions, saving money, Uncategorized, water | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

More reasons for not wearing disposable gloves in the lab!

Readers of this very occasional blog will remember that I have discussed at some length the reasons why the wearing of gloves in the lab may, counter-intuitively, put us, our students, and our fellow lab workers at greater risk than riding their flasks bearback.

[A photograph of a cardboard box]

A box containing many boxes of a hundred blue or purple disposable nitrile gloves. Look closely at the pictograms at the bottom.

Our Safety Officer, Ian Watts drew my attention today to a symbol that appears on the boxes of gloves  (as opposed to “gloveboxes” which means something very different). Have a look here at right.

[A pictogram indicating chemical resistance]

A pictogram referring to the chemical permeability of the glove.

Notice that there is a small icon on the bottom right which shows a shield containing a beaker that has a liquid in it. A closeup is shown at right.

The icon is very important. EN374-3: 2003 refers to the European Norm governing the performance of chemically resistant gloves (UKIP and Conservative Party readers please note that the EU does more than regulate the shape of bananas!)

It is defined here in the EU Guide “The Right Glove”. This is what it means:

The ‘Low Chemical resistant’ or ‘Waterproof ’ glove pictogram is to be used for those gloves that do not achieve a breakthrough time of at least 30 minutes against at least three chemicals from the defined list, but which comply with the Penetration test.

In other words these gloves are not designed to protect you against solvents or other “chemicals” that you are likely to encounter in the lab – yes they protect you from aqueous solutions, but not much more than that.

If you wear them when doing chemistry involving organic solvents then you are lulling yourself into an illusion of safety, while at the same time looking very “professional” and competent.

Wake up! Safety is a much bigger issue than simply slipping on a lab coat, some specs and some gloves while keeping your brain switched off.

You can take the gloves off for most operations, making sure that if you spill stuff you wash your hands very thoroughly with soap and water. Above all, by feeling like you’re doing something a little bit dangerous you will probably behave much more carefully.

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Ten Rules to stay safer on a bicycle in London.

With yet another cyclist killed this morning you may be thinking that cycling is London is too dangerous. Not so. Cycling pits your short term risk of falling off/being injured against your long term cardiovascular health as well as your wealth. By cycling you incorporate into your everyday routine low impact aerobic exercise that will be very much to your advantage by the time you get to my age. Yes, there are lots of things that TfL can or should do for us, but it’s critical that we follow these ten rules to stay safer on the roads.

1. Get out there and cycle. The more cyclists we have, the more others aware are of us. Think of it as herd immunity. I’ve cycled in London for 25 years and it’s a totally different, safer world out there.
2. Obey the rules of the road. This isn’t an issue of safety. It’s a question of respect. You cannot expect people to be treat you with respect if you behave like an idiot. Rules work both ways. If we transgress, we can expect to be treated accordingly. Upbraid (!) cyclists who ride on the pavement and go through red lights. It’s your reputation they’re ruining.
3. Make sure your bike is fit. Get it checked out at UCLU’s wonderful Pop Up Bike Workshop in the Quad on a Tuesday. Both your brakes should work and your gears should shift smoothly. Pump up your tyres properly. There’s a great bike pump behind the reception desk.
4. Give large vehicles a wide berth. 4 of the 6 people killed in the last few days were crushed by trucks or buses turning left. It’s the fashionable way to die. Just assume they can’t see you when you’re near them. Stay away. There monsters be!
5. Be seen. Wear bright colours and get lights and reflectors. We cyclists should look like the Christmas version of Dunsinane Wood.
6. It’s not a race. Remember that cycling at a normal pace you will get from A to B in London faster than by almost any other mode of transport. And a lot cheaper too. So don’t sneak through narrow gaps unless you’re dead sure (!) that the vehicles won’t move.
7. Plan ahead. Learn to look behind without wobbling. Watch other road users’ body language. Make eye contact with pedestrians, drivers and other cyclists. Position yourself so you don’t need to cut across lanes when turning.
8. Signal early and clearly. Be theatrical. Your arms should be stretched perpendicular to your body for several seconds. Don’t wobble.
9. Be assertive. You have as much right to be in the middle of a lane as a truck does. Don’t let them squeeze you. But equally, be courteous, and let vehicles past when there’s more space.
10. Ring your bell and smile. Cycling is fun and takes us back to the happy freedom of our childhood. Chill out, pedal, and spread the love.

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Classic Kit Number Seventy Something: Lichtenberg’s Figures

I have to tell you that I’ve been thinking about printers of late. I know. This risks being one of the most boring posts of all time, but humour me and read on.

I’ve been thinking of printers in part because I sit on UCL’s Environmental Sustainability Steering Group. But also because I’m puzzled by the psychology of the printer. Why DO people have printers on their desks? To print documents, of course, you will answer. But if you ask people how much they print a day many report that they print only a dozen pages at most. So while it’s convenient there has to be more to it than that.

Habit plays a large role. When you start as an academic you are often given some basic office stuff to get you going – a computer, a screen and a printer. But that doesn’t explain why, in our General Office, where our support staff and the Head of Department, Deputy Head etc. live, there are eleven printers of nine different models. It occurred to me that owning your own printer has nothing to do with convenience and everything to do with status. Putting a printer on someone’s desk allows them to say “I am Master of my own Destiny”. “Look! I don’t even have to stand up to produce an object that would make Gutenberg drool”. It’s a bit like buying yourself a Mercedes. It doesn’t matter that it doesn’t get you anywhere faster than the clapped out Trabant next to it. Nor that fact that it spends 95% of its life sitting by the kerbside gathering dust and bird poo. It says “I’ve made it”! And that’s enough. Same with printers.
This made me wonder how many printers there were round the Department, and what kind of energy and support load they impose on us. It turns out we have at least 108 printers spread across five stories, we use about 1 millions sheets of paper a year, and need to keep 35 different models of printer cartridges in our stores. Take a look at the panorama below. As far as I can make out we stock more printer supplies than we stock chemicals. Whoever thought Chemistry was our core business?


It’s madness.  And just in time comes UCL’s Print@UCL scheme for pull printing. We hand over our individual printers and in return get strategically located printers operated on a centrally managed service contract that we don’t have to worry about. If we site them “a la Google” in strategic locations to act as condensation points where people will meet and chat, perhaps ideas will flow. Maybe pairing the printers with a cheap coffee machine would help too. Above all, I expect that thousands of pounds of savings will result from the change. I can say that confidently because that is what has been seen elsewhere in the College. And friends who work in “the private sector” are rather astonished that we even allow individual printers.

The project which is now underway with the first shared printer due for delivery in a couple of weeks time. Will that create a stink? Probably. I fully expect opposition. But I’d be surprised if I don’t win the argument within six months.

But it made me ask the question what is the most important piece of shared equipment in a chemistry lab. It’s nothing to do with science. What all of our scientific tools share is a printer to record our results. Photocopiers and printers – at least those for high volume work – use electrostatics to distribute the toner and the history of electrostatic printing is quite fascinating.

I happened to be on set last summer during the recording of BBC Science Club for which I was Mark Miodownik’s understudy. One of the things they recorded was truly astonishing. I”ll probably get into trouble for uploading this video but until they force me to pull it down here is the snippet:

It is a piece of perspex which has been bombarded with electrons. The stored charge is then discharged using an earthed nail. It’s a spectacular demo and the video barely does it justice. In fact, not only do I dream of being able to do the demo for myself, I want one of those trees (in fact you can buy them on eBay). You’ll find lots of information on the Captured Lightning page (thanks to Andres Tretiakov for the link).

The discoverer of this phenomenon, albeit in a somewhat tamer form was Georg Christof Lichtenberg one of those incredibly romantic polymaths of yesteryear. I only wish my German were better so I could make more of his writings.

So in the latest episode of Classic Kit, I give you Lichtenberg’s Figures.

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