Friday 29 May 2020

Boris Bingo: Strategies for (not) answering questions

On Wednesday 27th May, the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, appeared before the House of Commons Liaison Committee, to answer questions about the coronavirus crisis. The Liaison Committee is made up of all the Chairs of Select Committees, which are where much of the serious business of government is done. The proceedings are available online, and contrast markedly with Hansard reports from the House of Commons, where the atmosphere is typically gladiatorial, with a lot of political point-scoring. In Select Committees, members from a mix of parties aim to work constructively together. It is customary for the Prime Minister to give evidence to the Liaison Committee three times a year, but this was Boris Johnson's first appearance.

The circumstances were extraordinary. The PM himself did not look well: perhaps not surprising when one considers that he was in intensive care with COVID-19 in April, only leaving hospital on 12th April, with a new baby born on 29th April. Since then, the UK achieved the dubious distinction of having one of the worst rates of COVID-19 infection in the world. Then, last weekend a scandal broke around Dominic Cummings, Chief Advisor to the PM, who gave a Press Conference on Monday to explain why he had been travelling around the country with his wife and son, when both he and his wife had suspected COVID-19.

I watched the Liaison Committee live on TV and was agog. There had been fears that the Chair, Bernard Jenkin, would give the PM an easy time. He did not; he chaired impeccably, ensuring committee members stuck to time and that the PM stuck to the point. Questions were polite but challenging, regardless of the political affiliation of the committee member. Did the PM rise to the challenge? This was not the sneering, combative PM that we saw in Brexit debates – he, no doubt, could see that would not go down well with this committee. Rather, the impression he gave was of a man who was winging it and relying on his famous charm in the hope that bluster and bonhomie would win the day. Alas, they did not.

Intrigued by Johnson's strategy – if it can be called that – for answering questions,  I have spent some time poring over the transcript of the proceedings, and realised in so doing that I have the material for a new Bingo game. When watching the PM answer questions, you have a point for each of the following strategies you identify. If you do the drinking game version, it may ease the angst otherwise generated by listening to the leader of our nation.


This term refers to a common strategy of politicians of appearing to answer a question, without actually doing so. It can give at least a superficial impression that the question has been answered, while deflecting to a related topic. In the following exchange, 'I have no reason to believe' is a big red flag for paltering. The Chair asked what advice the PM had sought from the Cabinet Secretary about Cummings' behaviour in relation to compliance with the code of integrity, and the PM replied:
I have no reason to believe that there is any dissent from what I said a few days ago.
Asked whether Scottish and Welsh first ministers had any influence on the approach to lockdown (Q14)
Stephen, we all work together, and I listen very carefully to what Mark says, to what Arlene and Michelle say, to what Nicola says. Of course we think about it together.
Response to Jeremy Hunt on why there were delays in implementing testing
As you know, Jeremy, we faced several difficulties with this virus. First, this was a totally new virus and it had some properties that everybody was quite slow to recognise across the world. For instance, it is possible to transmit coronavirus when you are pre-symptomatic—when you do not have symptoms—and I do not think people understood that to begin with.
When Hunt later asked the straightforward question "Why don't we get our test results back in 24 hours", (Q45) Johnson replied:
That is a very good question. Actually, we are reducing the time—the delay—on getting your test results back. I really pay tribute to Dido Harding and her team. The UK is now testing more people than any other country in Europe. She has got a staff now of 40,000 people, with 7,500 clinicians and 25,000 trackers in all, and they are rapidly trying to accelerate the turnaround time.
When asked by Caroline Nokes about the specific impact of phased school opening on women's ability to get back to work (Q73), Johnson answered a completely different question:
I think your question, Caroline, is directed at whether or not we have sufficient female representation at the top of Government helping us to inform these decisions, and I really think we have

This could take the form of bland agreement with the questioner, but without any clear commitment to action. Greg Clark asked (Q27) why we have a policy of 2 meters for social distancing when the WHO recommends 1 meter. The response was
...You are making a very important point, one that I have made myself several times—many times—in the course of the debates that we have had.
Pressed further on whether he had asked SAGE whether the 2-meter rule could be revised (Q32) he replied
I can not only make that commitment—I can tell you that I have already done just that, so I hope we will make progress.
Asked about firms who put their employees on furlough and then threatened them with redundancy (Q99), Johnson agreed this was a Very Bad Thing, but did not actually undertake to do anything about it.
...You are raising a very important point, Huw. This country is nothing without its workforce—its labour. We have to look after people properly, and I am well aware of some of the issues that are starting to arise. People should not be using furlough cynically to keep people on their books and then get rid of them. We want people back in jobs. We want this country back on its feet. That is the whole point of the furlough scheme.
Asked about how the Cabinet were consulted about the unprecedented Press Conference by Cummings (Q9), the PM was remarkably vague, replying:
...I thought that it would be a very good thing if people could understand what I had understood myself previously, I think on the previous day, about what took place—and there you go. We had a long go at it.
Asked to be specific about advice to parents who are in the same situation as Dominic Cummings re childcare (Q 21)
...The clear advice is to stay at home unless you absolutely have to go to work to do your job. If you have exceptional problems with childcare, that may cause you to vary your arrangements; that is clear.
The use of the word 'clear' in the PM responses is often a flag for vagueness.

A direct question by Greg Clark on whether contact tracing was compulsory or advisory (Q34) led to a confused answer:
We intend to make it absolutely clear to people that they must stay at home, but let me be clear—
When the questioner followed up to ask whether it was law or advice, he continued:
We will be asking people to stay at home. If they do not follow that advice, we will consider what sanctions may be necessary—financial sanctions, fines or whatever.
It is not always easy to distinguish vagueness from paltering. The PM has a tendency to agree that something is a Very Good Thing, to speak in glowing and over-general terms about initiatives, and about his desire to implement them, without any clear commitment to do more than 'looking at' them. Here he is responding to Robert Halfon on whether there will be additional resources for children whose education has been adversely affected by the shutdown (Q63)
The short answer is that I want to support any measures we can take to level up. You know what we want to do in this Government. There is no doubt that huge social injustice is taking place at the moment because some kids are going to have better access to tutoring and to schooling at home, and other kids are not going to get nearly as much, and that is not fair.
and again, when Halfon asked about apprenticeships (Q64)
All I will say to you, Rob, is that I totally agree that apprenticeships can play a huge part in getting people back on to the jobs market and into work, and we will look at anything to help people.
Halfon pressed on, asking for an apprenticeship guarantee, but the PM descended further into vagueness.
We will be doing absolutely everything we can to get people into jobs, and I will look at the idea of an apprenticeship guarantee. I suppose it is something that we would have to work with employers to deliver.
Other examples came from answers to Darren Jones, who asked about financial support to different sectors, and payments after the furlough scheme ended; e.g. the response to Q89:
We are going to do everything we can, Darren, to get everybody back into work.


This was the first strategy to appear, in response to a question by the Chair (Q2) about when the committee might expect to see him again. Johnson made it clear he wasn't going to commit to anything:
You are very kind to want to see me again more frequently, even before we have completed this session, but can I possibly get back to you on that? Obviously, there is a lot on at the moment.
Stephen Timms asked about people who were destitute because, despite having leave to remain, they had no recourse to public funds when they suddenly lost their jobs (Q68). The PM responded:
I am going to have to come back to you on that, Stephen.
It is perhaps unfair to count this one as deliberate strategy: Johnson seemed genuinely baffled as to how 100,000 children could be living in destitution in a civilised country.

When asked by Mel Stride about whether there would be significant increases in the overall tax burden, the PM replied:
I understand exactly where you are going with your question, Mel, but I think you are going to have to wait, if you can, until the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, brings forward his various proposals.

Refusal to answer

Refusals were mostly polite. An illustration appeared early in the proceedings, when asked by the Chair about Dominic Cummings (Q6), the PM replied:
I do think that is a reasonable question to ask, but as I say, we have a huge amount of exegesis and discussion of what happened in the life of my adviser between 27 March and 14 April. Quite frankly, I am not certain, right now, that an inquiry into that matter is a very good use of official time. We are working flat out on coronavirus.
So the question is accepted as reasonable, but we are asked to understand that it is not high priority for a PM in these challenging times.

Asked by Meg Hillier whether the Cabinet Secretary should see evidence provided by Cummings, the PM responds that this is inappropriate – again arguing this would be a distraction from higher priorities:
I think, actually, I would not be doing my job if I were now to shuffle this problem into the hands of officials, who are—believe me, Meg—working flat out to deal with coronavirus, as the public would want.
At times, when paltering had been detected, and a follow-up question put him on the spot, Johnson simply dug his heels in, often claiming to have already answered the question. Asked whether the Cabinet Secretary has interviewed Cummings (Q8), Johnson replied:
I am not going to go into the discussions that have taken place, but I have no reason to depart from what I have already said.
And asked whether he'd seen evidence to prove that allegations about Cummings were false (Q17), the PM again replied:
I don’t want to go into much more than I have said—
Asked by Jeremy Hunt on when a 24-hour test turnaround time would be met (Q48), the rather remarkable reply was:
I am not going to give you a deadline right now, Jeremy, because I have been forbidden from announcing any more targets and deadlines.

Challenge questioner

This strategy where unwelcome questions were dismissed as either having false premises, and/or being politically motivated. Pete Wishart (SNP) asked if Cummings' behaviour would make people less likely to obey lockdown rules (Q10). Johnson did not engage with the question, denied any wrongdoing by Cummings and added:
Notwithstanding the various party political points that you may seek to make and your point about the message, I respectfully disagree.
Similar phrases are seen in response to Yvette Copper (Q24), who was accused of political point-scoring, and then blamed for confusing the British public (see also Churchillian gambit, below):
I think that this conversation, to my mind, has illuminated why it is so important for us to move on, and be very clear with the British public about how we want to deal with that, and how we want to make progress. And, frankly, when they hear nothing but politicians squabbling and bickering, it is no wonder that they feel confused and bewildered.
And in response to a similar point from Simon Hoare (Q25)
...what they [the people] want now is for us to focus on them and their needs, rather than on a political ding-dong about what one adviser may or may not have done

False claim

This doesn't always involve lying; it can be unclear whether or not the PM knows what is actually the case. But there was at least one instance in his evidence where what he said is widely reported as untrue. Intriguingly, this was not an answer to a direct question, but rather an additional detail when asked about testing in care homes by Jeremy Hunt (Q44)
Do not forget that, as Chris Hopson of NHS Providers has said, every discharge from the NHS into care homes was made by clinicians, and in no case was that done when people were suspected of being coronavirus victims. Actually, the number of discharges from the NHS into care homes went down by 40% from January to March, so it is just not true that there was some concerted effort to move people out of NHS beds into care homes. That is just not right.
A report by ITV news asserted that, contrary to this claim, places in hospitals were block booked for discharged NHS patients.

The Churchillian gambit

When allowed to divert from answering questions, the PM would attempt the kind of rhetoric that had been so successful in Brexit debates, referring to what 'the people' wanted, and to government attempts to 'defeat the virus'.
For instance, this extended response to Q9 re Dominic Cummings;
What we need to do really is move on and get on to how we are going to sort out coronavirus, which is really the overwhelming priority of the people of this country
After a lengthy inquisition by Yvette Cooper, culminating in a direct question about whether he put Dominic Cummings above the national interest (Q24), we again had the appeal to what the British public want.
I think my choice is the choice that the British people want us all to make, Yvette, and that is, as far as we possibly can, to lay aside party political point-scoring, and to put the national interest first, and to be very clear with the British public about what we want to do and how we want to take this country forward.
Overall, there were four mentions of 'getting the country back on its feet', including this statement, appended to a question on whether sanctions would be needed to ensure compliance with contact tracing (Q58)
Obviously, we are relying very much on the common sense of the public to recognise the extreme seriousness of this. This is our way out. This is our way of defeating the virus and getting our country back on its feet, and I think people will want to work together-
And in response to a further request for clarification about Dominic Cummings from Darren Jones (Q94)
It is my strong belief that what the country wants is for us to be focusing on how to go forward on the test and trace scheme that we are announcing today, and on how we are going to protect their jobs and livelihoods, and defeat this virus.
In all these exchanges, the 'British people' are depicted as decent, long-suffering people, who are having a bad time, and may be anxious or confused. During Brexit debates, this might have worked, but the problem is that now a large percentage of people of all political stripes are just plain angry, and telling them that they want to 'move on' just makes them angrier.

Ironic politeness

The final characterstic has less to do with content of answers than with their style. British political discourse is a goldmine for researchers in pragmatics – the study of how language is used. Attacking your opponent in obsequiously polite language has perhaps arisen in response to historical prohibitions on uncivil discourse in the House of Commons. Boris Johnson is a master of this art, which can be used to put down an opponent while getting a laugh from the audience. He had to be careful with the Liaison Committee, but his comments that they were 'kind to want to see me' and that he was 'delighted to be here today' were transparently insincere, and presumably designed to amuse the audience while establishing his dominance as someone who could choose whether to attend or not.

The final exchange between the Chair and the PM was priceless. The PM reiterated his enjoyment of his session with the committee but refused to undertake to return, because he was 'working flat out to defeat coronavirus and get our country back on its feet'. The Chair replied:
I should just point out that the questions on which you hesitated and decided to go away and think were some of the most positive answers you gave, in some respects. That is where we want to help. I hope you will come back soon.
I read that to mean, on the one hand, most answers were useless, but on the other hand, where the PM had pleaded for deferral, he would be held to account, and required to provide responses to the Committee in future. We shall see if that happens.

Wednesday 13 May 2020

Manipulated images: hiding in plain sight?

Many years ago, I took a taxi from Manchester Airport to my home in Didsbury. It’s a 10 minute drive, but the taxi driver took me on a roundabout route that was twice as long. I started to query this as we veered off course, and was given a rambling story about road closures. I paid the fare but took a note of his details. Next day, having confirmed that there were no road closures, I wrote to complain to Manchester City Council.  I was phoned up by a man from the council who cheerfully told me that this driver had a record of this kind of thing, but not to worry, he’d be made to refund me by sending me a postal order for the difference in correct fare and what I’d paid. He sounded quite triumphant about this, because, as he explained, it would be tedious for the driver to have to go to a Post Office.

What on earth does this have to do with manipulated images? Well, it’s a parable for what happens when scientists are found to have published papers in which images with crucial data have been manipulated. It seems that typically, when this is discovered, the only consequence for the scientists is that they are required to put things right. So, just as with the taxi driver, there is no incentive for honesty. If you get caught out, you can just make excuses (oh, I got the photos mixed up), and your paper might have a little correction added. This has been documented over and over again by Elisabeth Bik: you can hear a compelling interview with her on the Everything Hertz podcast here.

There are two things about this that I just don’t get. First, why do people take the risk? I work with data in the form of numbers rather than images, so I wonder if I missing something. If someone makes up numbers, that can be really hard to detect (though there are some sleuthing methods available). But if you publish a paper with manipulated images, the evidence of the fraud is right there for everyone to see. In practice, it was only when Bik appeared on the scene, with her amazing ability to spot manipulated images, that the scale of the problem became apparent (see note below). Nevertheless, I am baffled that scientists would leave such a trail of incriminating evidence in their publications, and not worry that at some future date, they’d be found out.

But I guess the answer to this first question is contained within the second: why isn’t image manipulation taken more seriously? It’s depressing to read how time after time, Bik has contacted journals to point out irregularities in published images only to be ignored. The minority of editors who do decide to act behave like Manchester City Council: the authors have to put the error right, but it seems there are no serious consequences. And meanwhile, like many whistleblowers, far from being thanked for cleaning up science, Elisabeth has suffered repeated assaults on her credibility and integrity from those she has offended.

This week I saw the latest tale in this saga: Bik tweeted about a paper published in Nature that was being taken seriously in relation to treatment for coronavirus. Something in me snapped and I felt it was time to speak out. Image manipulation is fraud. If authors are found to have done it, the paper should be retracted and they should be banned from publishing in that journal in future. I call on the ‘high impact’ journals such as Nature to lead the way in implementing such a policy. I’d like to see some sanctions from institutions and funders as well, but I’ve learned that issues like this need a prolonged campaign to achieve small goals.

I’d be the first to argue that scientists should not be punished for honest errors (see this paper, or free preprint version). It's important to recognise that we are all fallible and prone to make mistakes. I can see how it is possible that someone might mix up two images, for instance. But in many of the cases detected by Elisabeth, part of one image is photoshopped into another, and then resized or rotated. I can’t see how this can be blamed on honest error. The only defence that seems left for the PI is to blame a single rogue member of the lab. If someone they trust is cooking the data, an innocent PI could get implicated in fraud unwittingly. But the best way to avoid that is to have a lab culture in which honesty and integrity are valued above Nature papers. And we’ll only see such a culture become widespread if malpractice has consequences.

Hiding in Plain Sight’ is a book by Sarah Kendzior that covers overt criminality in the US political scene, which the author describes as ‘a transnational crime syndicate masquerading as a government’. The culture can be likened to that seen in some areas of high-stakes science. The people who manipulate figures don’t worry about getting found out, because they achieve fame and grants, with no apparent consequences, even when the fraud is detected.

Notes (14th May 2020)
1. Coincidentally, a profile of Elisabeth Bik appeared in Nature the same day as this blogpost
2. Correction: Both Elisabeth Bik and Boris Barbour (comment below) pointed out that she was not the first to investigate image manipulation:

Friday 8 May 2020

Attempting to communicate with the BBC: A masterclass in paltering

My original blogpost from October 2019 is immediate below - scroll to the end for latest response from BBC

A couple of weeks ago there was an outburst of public indignation after it emerged that the BBC had censured their presenter Naga Munchetty. As reported by the Independent, in July BBC Breakfast reported on comments made by President Trump to four US congresswomen, none of whom was white, whom he told to "go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came." Naga commented "Every time I've been told as a woman of colour to 'go home', to 'go back to where I've come from', that was embedded in racism."

Most of the commentary at the time focused on whether or not Naga had behaved unprofessionally in making the comment, or whether she was justified in describing Trump's comment as racist. The public outcry has been heard: the Director General of the BBC, Tony Hall, has since overturned the decision to censure her.

There is, however, another concern about the BBC's action, which is why did they choose to act on this matter in the first place. All accounts of the story talk of 'a complaint'. The BBC complaints website explains that they can get as many as 200,000 complaints every year, which averages out at 547 a day. Now, I would have thought that they might have some guidelines in place about which complaints to act upon. In particular, they would be expected to take most seriously issues about which there were a large number of complaints. So it seems curious, to say the least, if they had decided to act on a single complaint, and I started wondering whether it had been made by someone with political clout.

The complaints website allows you to submit a complaint or to make a comment, but not to ask a question, but I submitted some questions anyhow through the complaints portal, and this morning I received a response, which I append in full below. Here are my questions and the answers:

Q1. Was there really just ONE complaint?
BBC: Ignored

Q2: If yes, how often does the BBC complaints department act on a SINGLE complaint?
BBC: Ignored

Q3: Who made the complaint?
BBC: We appreciate you would like specific information about the audience member who complained about Naga's comments but we can't disclose details of the complainant, but any viewer or listener can make a complaint and pursue it through the BBC's Complaints framework.

Q4: If you cannot disclose identity of the complainant, can you confirm whether it was anyone in public life?
BBC: Ignored

Q5: Can you reassure me that any action against Munchetty was not made because of any political pressure on the BBC?
BBC: Ignored

I guess the BBC are so used to politicians not answering questions that they feel it is acceptable behaviour. I don't, and I treat evasion as evidence of hiding something they don't want us to hear. I was interested to see that Ofcom is on the case, but have been fobbed off just as I was. Let's keep digging. I smell a large and ugly rat.

Here is the full text of the response:

Dear Prof Bishop
Reference CAS-5652646-TNKKXL
Thank you for contacting the BBC.
I understand you have concerns about the BBC Complaints process specifically with regard to a complaint made regarding Breakfast presenter Naga Munchetty and comments about US President Trump. 
Naturally we regret when any member of our audience is unhappy with any aspect of what we do. We treat all complaints seriously, but what matters is whether the complaint is justified and the BBC acted wrongly. If so we apologise. If we don’t agree that our standards or public service obligations were breached, we try to explain why. We appreciate you would like specific information about the audience member who complained about Naga's comments but we can't disclose details of the complainant, but any viewer or listener can make a complaint and pursue it through the BBC's Complaints framework.
Nonetheless, I understand this is something you feel strongly about and I’ve included your points on our audience feedback report that is sent to senior management each morning and ensures that your complaint has been seen by the right people quickly. 
We appreciate you taking the time to register your views on this matter as it is greatly helpful in informing future decisions at the BBC.
Thanks again for getting in touch.
Kind regards
John Hamill
BBC Complaints Team

8th May 2020
 Well, I had complained again, to say the original complaint did not address the points raised. Nothing happened until today, 7 months later, when out of the blue I received another email. The evasion continues.  The answers provide a masterclass in what is known as paltering - here's an article by the BBC explaining what that is. The story, of course, is now so old it will be buried, but I'm minded to conclude that the continuing failure to answer my questions means that this case was escalated on the basis of one complaint by a Very Important Person.

From BBC Complaints, 8th May 2020
Reference CAS-5652646-TNKKXL 

Dear Ms Bishop,

Thank you for getting back in touch with us and please accept our apologies for the long and regrettable delay in responding.

Our initial response didn’t address all of the specific concerns you raised, so we’d like to offer you a further response here addressing your four other questions.

1) Was there really just ONE complaint?
As widely reported in the media, one complaint was escalated to our Executive Complaints Unit (ECU).

2) If yes, how often does the BBC complaints department act on a SINGLE complaint?
Anyone can proceed through the BBC Complaints Framework and take their complaint to the ECU. Ultimately what matters is whether the complaint is justified and each complaint is judged on its own merit - sometimes complaints that go to the ECU are individual, sometimes more than one audience member will make a complaint about the same broadcast.

However, it is worth noting that the number of complaints are not the key factor and our main concern is whether the BBC acted wrongly. Full detail of the ECU’s findings can be found via the links below:

Recent ECU Findings:

Archived ECU reports:

3) If you cannot disclose identity of the complainant, can you confirm whether it was anyone in public life?
For reasons of confidentiality, and our responsibility to protect the identity of an individual who complained, we won't be providing any information about them.

4) Can you reassure me that any action against Munchetty was not made because of any political pressure on the BBC?
We can assure you of this. The BBC is independent, and the ECU came to their judgement based on the merits of the case before them, not as a result of any pressure or lobbying.


Saturday 2 May 2020

Stepping back a level: stress management for academics in the pandemic

In my last blogpost, I suggested some things scientists could do if the pandemic prevented them conducting planned studies. Here I develop that theme. The bottom line is that in the current circumstances it may help to re-evaluate what you are doing by taking a step back to consider your broader goals. I'm prompted to write this by two tweets: one by a frustrated journal editor, who complained about the difficulty of finding reviewers right now, and the other by my colleague Laura Fortunato (@anthrolog) who tweeted about something I'd said recently.

We'd been in an online meeting of our steering group to discuss progress of Reproducible Research Oxford. We had had a clear planned timeline, including doing surveys to discover what activities/training people thought they needed, and what was already available at Oxford University. Laura noted that we were behind schedule. However, I thought it would be a mistake to go ahead and try to run any kind of survey at a time when most people were already overwhelmed by the adaptations to the pandemic, working from home, often with children present, and trying to adapt to deliver teaching online. In addition to the practical difficulties, many people were experiencing mood swings and periods of poor concentration. So this was most definitely not the time to ask them to fill in a survey. Instead, thanks to our splendid co-ordinator Malika Ihle, we had done things that were not planned, including setting up a range of online activities, focused on training and interaction, which had brought a large number of new people on board. So I just remarked: "We're not behind schedule: We have strategically adapted our activities to the current situation." Laura found this change in perspective helpful and tweeted about it, prompting me to explain my thoughts a bit more.

The economist John Kay in his book Obliquity drew a distinction between actions, goals and objectives, illustrated by the story of a visitor who encounters three stonemasons working on a cathedral. When asked what they are doing, the first person says "I am cutting this stone to shape"; the second says "I am building a great cathedral"; the third says "I am working for the glory of God". According to Kay, across a wide range of human activities, projects fail when they lose sight of the objectives and focus only on goals or actions. Of course, to function you need to translate your objectives, which are typically fairly abstract, into goals, and then specify actions to achieve those goals. But if you then get fixated on carrying out the actions, and fail to adapt when circumstances change, you are likely to come unstuck.

I'm seeing many people, both senior and junior, who are made miserable and frustrated by their current inability to carry on as before and do planned work. I can feel for the journal editor who sees her job as getting papers reviewed efficiently, only to find that she can't find reviewers. But the current blockage is not the fault of either the editor or the potential reviewer: we're up against external circumstances that none of us has experienced before. So we need to think in a more agile and flexible fashion.

The approach is going to vary hugely depending on one's personal circumstances. I'm one of the lucky ones. I can continue to do my job from home, my house is spacious with good wifi, I don't have to supervise home-schooling of children, and, to date, I and my loved ones have escaped the virus. Nevertheless, I find the situation strange and unsettling, my attention and emotions are up and down, and I'm much less efficient than usual. I'm aware that for many, many people it's much worse.

In this situation one needs to reconsider whether to attempt to carry on as usual, or whether to do something else. And here's where I think stepping back a level, from activities to goals, is helpful. For many postgraduates and early-career researchers it is particularly stressful not to be able to do a planned piece of work, because the clock is ticking and, in some cases, opportunities to gather data may be lost forever. It may be that you can find creative ways to do the work (e.g. in psychology, many studies are moving online, as I discussed in the previous blogpost), but before you do that, consider the question: why am I doing this study? There's usually two reasons: the more lofty one is genuine academic curiosity; the more prosaic is to take the next step in one's career. For postgraduates, gathering data is required for a higher degree. For postdocs, it is part of building a research portfolio. By considering the broader picture, you may realise that your planned actions are not the only way to move towards your goals – again, there are some suggestions in my last blogpost. Of course, you will mourn the sunk costs and missed opportunities, that's only natural. But the key is to recognise that there can be alternative ways to move forward. For some people, this may be impossible and you have to accept that the best way to hold things together is to press the pause button on your plans; this would be similar to a period of parental leave, and it's good to see at least some funders and institutions supporting this.

You can step further back and ask about broader objectives, why do I want this career? Is it to bring in an income, to create a sense of fulfilment, to prove to myself and others I can do it? Or even further back: what do I want out of life? To be happy, wealthy, famous, fulfilled? I've been watching TV interviews with those who survived COVID-19 and a common theme is that it makes them re-evaluate their life, often leading to a change in priorities. In particular, many people start to realise that family, friends and good health should be the highest priorities, and that working in a way that ignores these will ultimately lead to misery. In the UK, even before the pandemic, academic institutions have adopted different standards to managing staff, and the pandemic has exaggerated these. Some have tried to keep on with "business as usual" whereas others have been flexible and sympathetic to the varied impacts on their staff. You may come to the conclusion that if your employer ignores your circumstances and expects you to damage your physical and mental health to deliver on their agenda, you might be happier doing something else.

I don't want to come across as playing down the seriousness of the stresses that people are experiencing. There are no simple solutions, and the uncertain future makes planning difficult. But I hope it may help some people who are stuck in a dark place because they can't move forward to think about dropping immediate plans and taking a step back to consider if other options might allow them achieve the objectives that matter most to them.