The week in numbers


Last week a series of events brought home to me the enormity of the SCALES project. Luckily, I’ve had some help to get through it all. Here are a few examples, in numbers:

10,000: the number of parent information leaflets delivered in 25 boxes. The RHUL Communications team has done a fantastic job and they look great, but Debbie and I realise it is going to take rather a long time to divide 10,000 leaflets into school packets.

144: the number of schools currently enrolled in the project, just over 50% of all schools with reception classes in Surrey (and more than 6,000 children). We are aiming for 80% so have a way to go, but this week we are concentrating on getting the packets together. That means 144+ envelopes, labels, invoices, return envelopes, and screening instructions. We persuade some undergraduate and PhD students to come and help us in exchange for chocolate and wine. With these supplies and cheesy music in the background, we have a very pleasant Friday afternoon counting leaflets and stuffing envelopes. One small room of the lab has now been taken over by school packs ready for posting and the remaining boxes of leaflets.

219: the number of applications we had for our 12 month graduate research assistant post. Once again, I seriously underestimated the scale of SCALES! We want to interview this week and needed to give a week’s notice to the candidates. I had expected about 70 applications and Debbie and I had blocked out Thursday morning to read through them and come up with a shortlist. What actually happened was that after a few minutes of shock and horror passed as seven batches of applications arrived, we both spent all day reading applications, stopping only for lunch and tea. We missed running club. I got home at 7.30 and started applications again after I put the baby to bed at 8. I finally stopped at midnight after falling asleep in front of the computer for the second time. I was up at 5.30 because we had a staff meeting all morning on Friday and I had to have my shortlist ready before that meeting started. Debbie too put in a massive effort and by 3pm we had it whittled down to seven. Sadly, not many applicants had read Dorothy Bishop’s useful guide to applying for RA positions making it an extremely challenging task indeed! Instead of elation I think we felt a bit deflated – we are hopeful the right person is in the final seven, but we also know that many bright and talented young people will be disappointed.

8: the number of undergraduate research projects I’ve got left to mark

6: the number of consecutive screens Debbie entered before she found the bug in the programme! The teacher screen is web-based; teachers will be able to log on remotely and fill in a short on-line questionnaire for each child in the class. This has been in development for some time now and we’ve done lots of practicing and proof-reading, getting nice teacher friends to give us feedback, filling out 2 or 3 at a time to make sure transitions between questionnaires worked and to find out exactly how the data were saved. It all seemed to be fine, but then genius Debbie decided to plough through 30, as if she were a participating teacher. I would not have had the patience to do this, but thank goodness she did – after six questionnaires it stopped saving the data in columns and put it all in endless rows! IT have now sorted the problem, but it did increase our anxieties about screening 10,000 children. Our next mission is to get a large number of people to log on at once to ensure the system doesn’t crash…

3: the number of reviewer comments I’ve got to address. Obviously the paper is not about SCALES, but some of the comments are relevant. The sticking point seems to be the fact that, try as we might, the group of children we’ve included with language impairments have lower non-verbal ability scores than their typically developing peers. There are at least two reasons why I think this is the case. One is that it seems unlikely that language will be selectively impaired in the developing brain. In essence this is what we are trying to test in SCALES –children will be selected for concerns about language and communication and then we will assess other aspects of development systematically to see what (if any) other deficits go hand-in-hand with language problems. The other reason is that language is a fantastic problem solving tool. You can hear typical kids use their language to figure out ‘non-verbal’ tasks (i.e. ‘it can’t be that piece, the lines are too thick.’ ‘oh, I need the piece with red on this side’). Children with language impairments are less likely to use language in this way because it is not always helpful to them. Over time then, children with language impairment will not do as well as their peers on non-verbal tasks.

Still, the notion of ‘specific’ language impairment persists and the reviewer wants us to either exclude children with lower non-verbal reasoning scores or ‘control’ for non-verbal ability. This makes no sense: excluding children will result in an unusual group that is less representative of the population as a whole.  And because non-verbal and verbal ability are so intimately linked, ‘controlling’ for non-verbal ability will have the effect of controlling for the variable we are most interested in. This is what I’ve said to the reviewers – hopefully they will listen this time! I am more hopeful that SCALES will provide much needed evidence about the impact of language impairment on non-verbal cognitive development and vice versa.

2: the number of PhD applications we made in connection with SCALES and the number of disappointments we’ve had about those PhD applications. One was not funded, one was funded (ranked 3rd in the Doctoral Training Centre) but the candidate has decided to go elsewhere. Both decisions are bewildering to me. The latter is particularly annoying as the studentships are not transferable, so we lose the money and the project. A quick straw poll suggests that I am not alone – people much more senior and amazing than me have been let down. But the small comfort I get from this is quickly replaced by frustration at the amount of time and energy that goes into supporting these applications. Of course there is so much uncertainty and competition in funding that great candidates will have to apply to multiply places. But few things are more painful to an academic than having to give money back (and this is the second time this has happened to me in the last year). Not to mention the time taken to work on the proposals and the number of potential students I turned away to support this one. There must be a better way – why not link studentships to grants? This would guarantee a motivated supervisor and that the student could work as part of a larger team. Or the CASE model, in which the project is funded and the supervisor advertises the studentship and awards to the most suitable candidate. As it is, I am loathe to put another application into the DTC. So I mope about for a few days and then start thinking about how to fund the projects…

The final number has nothing to do with SCALES, but is relevant to my last post:

44: the number of new Fellows elected to the Royal Society last week. Of which 2 were women.

I wonder if they ever had to stuff 10,000 leaflets into 144 envelopes in one afternoon…

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