Mr Schpackenbaum, first of all, let me thank you for agreeing to this interview, especially given your tight schedule. You are a very experienced member of the Society, and you have seen it evolving across many years. What was the most prominent change?
Christopher Schpackenbaum, FNS (CS): If I were to compare the Society now, in 2016, to what it was in 1956, it is actually not that different at all! The world has changed immensely, but because the society was always designed to keep up with the change, challenge the status quo and be very sceptical to the current state of mind, it managed to secure its freshness of mind and scientific reasoning. I appreciate the average age of our distinguished House has quite deteriorated since Coronation, but just as Her Majesty, we are doing very well indeed!
With the advent of the ICT, social media and computerised health service, we faced major challenges. Not all of us could easily modernise to the paperless communication, publishing on the websites or setting up Twitter accounts. I guess we still need some major improvement in these areas. I cannot emphasise it enough, however, that the world outside the Net does exist! And it is much more interesting and vivid, if you ask me.
It has now become almost an urban legend that you know the exact year of establishment of the society, but will only disclose it on your death bed. Is that true? Perhaps your departure could be a more pleasant moment to share this knowledge?
CS: [Laughter] Yes, yes, I heard that. Though funny it is, I am not in a possession of that knowledge. As we all know, it has been established somewhere in the 1820s maybe 1830s? Who knows? People were not noting down everything these days, they just casually met up to discuss important questions of neuroscience, I doubt anyone thought about putting that in writing back then. You must appreciate that we have officially registered as charity only about a year ago, on advice of one of our young fellows. I really cannot understand the obsession with paperwork; one would have thought we could escape that obligation with the advent of computers. I sometimes think bureaucracy will survive longer than the cockroaches…
We do have some documents in the archives, but no one has investigated that so far. I guess our archives aren’t that different from the Griffith’s collection in the Ashmolean! [the collection from Egyptian discoveries in mid 1920s which is not completely studied by this date, being stored in the Griffith’s Institute, Oxford]
We have always been teased as the avant-garde of the neurosciences [laughter]. We adopted the Evidence Based Medicine approach, believing that Cochrane and Bradford-Hill were right that the evidence and randomised controlled trials are what should take priority over one’s “clinical experience”. It is very well-established truth in the UK now, but it caused a lot of stir in the scientific and medical community at the time! It still meets with a lot of resistance in some countries.
Many people say the application for fellowship is not fit for the 21st century and should be modernised. What’s your take on that? What was your application like?
CS: Well, I’ll have you know we do have an online preliminary written exam now! Since it is just something to check the Candidate’s basic neuroscientific knowledge, we decided it is more than appropriate to make the written examinations redundant. I cannot, however, agree that the oral examination is bad. It was, as many of the examinations at that time, derived from the All Souls College, Oxford examination. You sit before a commission and get one word. Then you elaborate on that word. I love that process, it really encourages creative thinking, and allows us to test one’s ability to reason outside of scientific convention. It must still be on topic and we always point all unnecessary deviations on the spot, but your associations and declamations are entirely up to you.
Plus, I would not give up my right to a carrot cake in the vaults! What could be better than enjoying a fresh cake whilst watching passionate Candidate defend their arguments on neuroscience. Isn’t that all the science is about?
But why four days?!
CS: Oh, we used to have four days exams at Oxford! Well, maybe not in my times, but they were there, I can assure you of that! It was all discussion and argument, you could easily pass in your first day, but if your tutor thought you are not prepared, they could prolong the exam for up to four days. You knew something wasn’t quite right when you were invited for your fourth day. And your friends were there, cheering up for you, or in most cases, making you even more stressful.
Although All Souls have abandoned their one-word exam, and most of Oxford’s exams are now written papers, we have kept those traditions. Vaults is open to everyone, so members of the public are more than welcome to join in the examination, submitting their own questions and enjoying the spectacle.
It is the most fantastic experience of many of our Fellow’s lives. Including mine.
What was your one word, then?
CS: A chair
And your answer…?
CS: Oh, I’m not going to give you that! We haven’t got that much time. I may declaim it in the House at some point.
Finally, looking at the forthcoming election of the president, who is your favourite candidate?
CS: I couldn’t possibly name the person! I do believe that the society faces many challenges at the moment. We fail to encourage young people to join us and I’m afraid to say that some of our members need a bit of a shake-up. Our conferences are no longer as influential as they should be, and we have a way to go to transform our traditional structures to suit the modern age.
I am sure this is within the merit of all five candidates. I will be thinking carefully about my votes this summer.
All in all, however, whoever wins, society will be the victor.
Thank you, Mr Schpackenbaum. I hope you’ll enjoy your retirement.