Creativity Mustn’t be Allowed to be Hijacked


 ‘In 2019, the “two cultures” described by CP Snow in 1959 will have finally ceased to have meaning.’

So said Russell Foster in a recent article in Wired. Russell is clearly an optimist and I fear I do not share his optimism, despite all the evidence he adduces in his piece. The examples he cites – including statistics about visitors to the Science Museum – unfortunately only refer to certain segments of our population. Just like Russell is now, in the past I have been a Trustee of the Science Museum and have seen the data compiled by them on the views of their visitors; those surveyed or more than likely to be those already regarded as ‘engaged’ (to use the audience segmentation term adopted by museums, if my memory serves me right). Such visitors are likely to be scientifically engaged but also more widely; after a visit to South Kensington’s Science Museum they might pop across the road to the V+A to look at fine arts, jewellery or costumes. Not all parts of the population seem to think in the same way, including many very well-educated people who seem determined to claim ‘vive la différence’ when it comes to arts and sciences and write about this vociferously.

Let me quote from another recent article, this time in the Guardian just before Christmas. Here Natalie Brett (head of London College of Communication and pro vice-chancellor of the University of the Arts in London) sticks up for ‘soft’ skills in the modern world of work, but then appears to lay claim to these as being learned only on non-STEM courses. To quote her article about the skills such courses teach:

Google cites creativity, leadership potential and communication skills as top prerequisites for both potential and current employees.

As my last blogpost suggests, not all lab heads are exactly full of leadership potential, nor necessarily good at communication (but then who said a history graduate or a linguistics scholar was necessarily good at this either?) but the idea that scientists are not creative is a long-term bugbear of mine (see here for instance). In talks on the subject I like to cite Peter Medawar – always good with the finely-tuned, pithy sentence – who said, way back in 1968

All ideas of scientific understanding, at every level, begin with a speculative adventure, an imaginative preconception of what might be true – a preconception that always, and necessarily, goes a little way (sometimes a long way) beyond anything which we have logical or factual authority to believe in.

That’s what creativity is all about. Let us remember that the so-called ‘creative industries’ would not contribute as much to the UK economy as they do if it were not for all those allegedly tediously uncreative techie and STEM types who are capable of writing the code for video games, considering optimum ways to create ambience by appropriate lighting of the stage in the West End or finding innovative ways to record music. Why has creativity been appropriated by certain non-STEM folk as being theirs and theirs alone?

Natalie Brett does not stop with her criticisms of science and scientists with this bending of her thoughts to creativity. She goes on to say

To return to the Google example, many of the company’s top “characteristics of success” are soft skills: being a good coach, communicating and listening well, possessing insights into other points of view, being supportive of one’s colleagues, critical thinking and problem solving, and being able to make connections across complex ideas.

Again this seems a curious misunderstanding of what scientists get up to. Surely seeing other points of view, critical thinking (which to my mind frequently seems to mean no more than being able to see through bogus arguments) and making connections across complex ideas sit at the heart of a scientist’s day job. As for problem solving…..isn’t that what we spend our lives doing from the first day of our undergraduate degree, albeit the problems may be slightly different from what she actually was thinking about? Nevertheless, she cannot pretend to be Humpty Dumpty deciding to choose exactly what the word ‘problem’ might mean regardless of other conventions.

It seems to me scientists are far more likely to want not to put boundaries between the disciplines than non-scientists. To my mind it is a great shame that anyone wants to erect such walls. What I think we should be distinguishing when we consider education is the act of knowing facts in one’s own speciality – thermodynamics, the topic CP Snow was so agitated about, or the Greek lexicon, or the life of Napoleon or whatever it might be ­ ­– from skills useful to getting on in life. Language does not help us here: calling these latter skills ‘soft’ strikes me as ridiculous. Let’s call them ubiquitous, or broad or non-specialised but we should all worry about mastering as many of them as we can.

Science communication is a ‘thing’. Some people are good at it – like Russell Foster, who amongst other roles is Chair of the Cheltenham Science Festival – some are most decidedly not, and should not be let loose on an audience of non-specialists at any price. Nevertheless that does not mean scientists, collectively, cannot communicate. Some scientists are brilliant leaders – Peter Medawar seems to have been in this category, much beloved as the Director of the Mill Hill Laboratory before his untimely death – others, as that last blogpost on jerks spells out only too painfully, are shocking at it. But that certainly does not mean that good leadership is the prerogative of those with an arts or humanities degree.

Furthermore I would hazard a guess – although I am more than happy to be proved wrong – that scientists are far more likely to read non-science books in their bath or bed than non-scientists are likely to pick up a science book, popular or otherwise. My current bath-time reading is actually Paul Warde’s The Invention of Sustainability, which has elements of science but even more of history and even philosophy within its covers. My current Kindle book is The Seabird’s Cry: The Lives and Loves of Puffins, Gannets and other Ocean Voyagers by Adam Nicholson which (forgive me), the Mail apparently said was written ‘with a heart full of poetry and a head full of science’ according to the book’s Amazon website. I like books that can’t be neatly pigeon-holed. I like my life like that. I do not appreciate being accused by non-scientists of being unable to think creatively, or to join the dots between different ideas let alone that I am incapable of listening well or supporting my colleagues: all things that Brett seems convinced of.

So, I wish I could believe that Russell Foster was right when he said there was no longer any division between the cultures. I fear his optimism has overtaken the evidence.

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Facing up to the Existence of the Jerk


As stories of harassment and bullying multiply in the media (social and otherwise), it is worth thinking about what it is in management and leadership that lets situations get out of hand. Too often I hear the phrase that someone is ‘on the spectrum’ provided as a rationale for why they aren’t too good at interpersonal relationships within a lab or team. I find the phrase objectionable of itself, but as an excuse I also don’t feel it cuts the mustard. If someone takes on a leadership role, then they need to think hard about their strengths when it comes to dealing with difficult situations and people. No one pretends it’s easy or necessarily comes naturally; it is a skill to be learned and if you can’t maybe you’re in the wrong role. It should matter to the individual and organisation to get this right. Running a team is too often seen to be only about the science, not about mentoring, developing others and ensuring everyone can work well together.

I have started asking men who champion women in science why they do it. One answer that struck me very much was the person (an extremely successful MD of a tech company who had a mathematical background) who said that it was because they were aware that they suffered from Asperger’s syndrome they knew they had to work at things that for others might seem intuitive. Putting in thought and work was exactly what made them so aware of the importance of the individual and personal if they were to get the best out of people. It made this person aware of just how hard it was for women to thrive in some workplaces.

When things go wrong in team dynamics, when bullying or harassment is suspected or proven, that the person at the top is deemed incapable of resolving the problem or, even worse, is the perpetrator, seems to me to be a collective failure. It needn’t be like this. Doing nothing – being complicit – is just one, unacceptable ‘justification’ for letting jerks rule the roost. Very often I believe the person concerned may be totally unaware of the impact of their behaviour or that they are indeed behaving like a jerk. I can think of examples of group/department/institutional leads who have overseen teams where things are publicly going wrong and yet never, for one moment, do they think they might have contributed to the mess or that they have some part to play in changing the culture. Others around have to be prepared to speak up and say something along the lines of: you may not be the guilty party, you may have nothing proven against you if complaints have been raised, but you certainly need to take the lead in improving the workplace environment. And, if you have any personal responsibility because you have been brusque (or worse) or looked the other way when complainants have come forward, you need to acknowledge this if improvement is to occur allowing everyone to move on.

The main trouble, I believe, is that so little weight is placed on leadership skills by our academic institutions, until it goes wrong or suddenly they can’t find anyone who looks remotely plausible as a departmental head. Insufficient conversations are had at senior levels about what good leadership looks like, so that, as one moves up the ladder, it can feel as if you are the only person who feels out of your depth. This does not encourage seeking help. I have talked at events for early career researchers, those who are starting to run their own groups after their postdoctoral years, and knowing how to do this well is always a key concern. Some of this (and I remember this well) is the mechanical stuff of how to build up a lab: equipment, consumables and such like. But it is also about interpersonal skills: how to criticise a weak student without making them crumble; how to choose projects so they don’t overlap; how to decide who to send to a conference and whose name goes on papers; when and how to intervene when two students are in conflict; how to spot bullying and how to respond to complaints about bullying….The list of skills goes on and on. But being an excellent scientist who has just landed their fellowship, lectureship or whatever because of their academic brilliance, is not enough to ensure good team leader skills.

And so it goes on as progression through the ranks occurs. The habit of not intervening when bullying starts, the habit of shouting at weak students or having favourites who always get sent to the best meetings, these failings can get ingrained. If the work continues to go well, if the plaudits come in your direction for the scientific brilliance, why stop to think that actually people’s lives are being destroyed? Group leaders can be totally successful (academically) and yet utter bastards. We need to change our lab cultures so that the bastards cannot thrive. (The failings do not need to be anything as egregious as formal harassment, but of course that might be included in what I’m discussing.)

It worries me that, because excellence is seen as the be all and end all so often in our universities, that it is inevitable that bullying ends up being tolerated by too many people. A head of department or institution who has reached that heady state of being able to hire and fire people, to make or break careers, may do so in ways that are shattering. Never mind that, if someone complains, it may prove necessary upon occasion to introduce a pay-off perhaps with gagging order attached, the person at the top may still be untouchable. I know it happens and the system appears to think this is a small price to pay. I don’t believe it is. It is a huge price to pay if people are casually destroyed in the process. Ah, but I hear leadership say, they are ‘small’ people who are in the way of scientific excellence. I leave you to judge if that is sufficient excuse.

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Pyramid Schemes and the Book Cover Challenge


As a child I occasionally got sucked into a strange pyramid form of exchanging postcards, an old-fashioned form of chain mail (but not of the metal variety). The details escape me but the basic idea was that you contacted half a dozen of your friends to encourage them to continue the chain and sent a picture postcard to the person whose name had reached the top of the list you yourself received. In time you were expected to receive hundreds of postcards. In practice I never received a single one from the few times my mother was willing to provide the cards and stamps to enable me to participate.

The book cover challenge doing the rounds on Twitter currently has some similarities, except it requires no stamps and is rather more interesting. I was challenged by my physicist friend and colleague, Sheffield’s Richard Jones, to post images of seven book covers of books that meant a lot to me, and to nominate seven other people to do the same, one each day. Richard, himself had been nominated by my Churchill College colleague, economist Diane Coyle. In turn I passed the baton on to seven of my Twitter followers, only one of whom declined.

What made this so painless was the fact you needed to give no justification for your choices, just a photograph of the cover of the book. This meant the book had to be in your possession and many book covers I saw on Twitter were delightfully ‘distressed’ (as antique dealers would have it), well-thumbed and clearly much loved. Even without the necessity of explaining one’s choice, I nevertheless thought hard about what books mattered to me. And what ‘matter’ means in this case is an interesting question. Was it a book I’d loved as a child (quite a lot of the ones I saw chosen elsewhere were children’s books, but I did not opt for that route for any of mine)? Or (A) ones that I read when feeling miserable and wanting a lift or a bit of escapism (several of mine fitted this category)? Or  (B) ones that I felt had made a difference to how I thought (a couple were like this)? Or (C) ones that simply were enjoyable in a more serious kind of way (one of those)? With one exception they were books I had read, reread, or dipped into multiple times.

So my choices and reasons were:

Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers – category C. Of all the Sayers’ books, this is far and away my favourite. I have read it over and over trying to work out if women’s Oxbridge Colleges really were as described here, and how accurate the psychological motivations she ascribes to the different characters actually are. I am not convinced that she has not described a very distorted view of female education establishments, but she was writing about a time some 35 years before I entered (the then all-female) Girton College. Or maybe Oxford was distinctly different all along.


The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes – category B. This is my one ‘cheat’ because I have only read this book in its entirety once. I read it at a time when I was consciously trying to read more widely about the history of science, indeed more consciously trying to read more serious books than my previous lightweight diet. It made a big impression on me and encouraged me to think further about the arts-science divisions of the last 150 years and how, at the turn of the nineteenth century, this division was faint if not non-existent. This book fed into the lecture I gave at Newnham College in 21 on Science: Awareness and Ignorance.

Persuasion by Jane Austen – category A. 20 years or more ago, I would have opted for Pride and Prejudice as my favourite Austen novel, but with years of maturity I have switched allegiance to this slightly darker novel; darker but still with a happy ending. In it the heroine’s father is said to be ‘a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour and consolation in a distressed one…’. Well, for me Persuasion is one of my select band of books which gives me consolation in a distressed hour, that I turn to when my world seems to be going sadly awry. It is of its day, though, as is all of Austen, and does not provide a good template for how to live my own life. Nevertheless it is lightly ironically amusing and demonstrates that steadfastness wins the day.
 
A Voice for Now Anne Dickson – category B. I wanted to choose something under the ‘gender’ heading, since over the years I have expended so much energy (and reading time) on the topic. My initial choice was Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice, which I have read several times, but curiously I could not find a copy in the house. Had I always just had it from the library? I’m not sure. The Dickson book is if you like a parable, but I first read it at a time when I felt my gender was making my life difficult, when I felt my powers to make my voice heard within the University were negligible and I liked the idea of doing things differently. Whether it actually had direct consequences for how I acted I don’t know, but it certainly resonated (and still does, even if it may look as if I don’t need it any more).

The New Science of Strong Materials by JE Gordon – category B. I nearly didn’t accept Richard Jones’ challenge because he had chosen this book himself, but he encouraged me to opt for it too. It’s a classic (and was the book cover I posted that got most response over Twitter). I read it as a teenager, probably during my A Level course, and I fell in love with the subject of Materials. As a result I chose, as the ‘investigation’ I had to do as part of the novel Nuffield Physics A Level my school was piloting, the topic of the strength of glass whiskers directly inspired by the book. The experiment, needless to say, did not come up with the canonical results (by which I mean it didn’t work, of course) but that did not put me off. I was less enthusiastic about pursuing Materials Science as an undergraduate at Cambridge, however, as I felt the first year course was rather hand-waving (when it wasn’t about the obscure relationships between planes in monoclinic crystals), but later I still worked for six years in various Materials Departments before ending up finally back in Physics. My mother was very cross with me when I did return to the Physics fold as she had spent 6 years trying to understand – and explain to her friends – what Materials Science was, but with Physics at least her non-scientific friends thought they knew what I was doing.

Checkmate by Dorothy Dunnett – category C. This book is the last in a series of six historical novels, set largely in Scotland at the time of the young Mary Queen of Scots. That set of books was my choice on Desert Island Discs – Kirsty Young kindly allowed me to take all six with me – because they are so complex I felt reading and rereading them would keep my mind in trim for however long it took to be rescued. I suspect, despite having read the whole set at least three times, there are many allusions, cross-references, plots and sub-plots that I have still not got to the bottom of, but the books are a ‘ripping good yarn’ even if I am missing 50% of the subtleties.

The Clever Woman of the Family by Charlotte Yonge – category C. Charlotte Yonge is a Victorian author who wrote many improving novels for the young female, heavily steeped in patriarchy and Christianity; she was strongly influenced and guided by John Keble. Not, you might have thought, necessarily the books that might appeal to me. But the very fact that they stand in opposition to the way I live and the things I believe in are, I think, exactly why they appeal. I am trying to understand how I might have had to live 150 years ago. This particular novel is, as the title implies, about a young woman who has more brains than the women who surround her. Despite these brains she gets duped by a con-man and is only saved by the love of a good man. He is a hero from the Indian wars, whose shockingly worldly and highly pregnant sister is polished off by falling over a croquet hoop when trying to escape a former suitor’s attentions, going into premature (and fatal) labour as result; the moral is obvious. The plot seems so fantastic it is funny and I find it a curiously soothing book to read. Much my favourite of the many substantial tomes Yonge wrote.

So there are my confessions about my choices. Other books nearly made the cut. Most notably Mike Hulme’s Why we Disagree about Climate Change which, like the Holmes, really made me think, in this case about the interplay of social science and science. I even got as far as photographing the cover before switching to the (radically different) The Clever Woman of the Family.  I was also tempted by Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking which is a wonderful book for dipping into when you want to understand just what is going on in that saucepan at a fairly scientific level. I learned a lot from that book during the years I was formally researching the physics of food.

One point I was well aware of was that of my seven choices five were by women. I don’t think that is necessarily the normal proportion in my reading; I suspect if I looked at a year’s worth of books I probably wouldn’t exceed 50% women authors. However, it is perhaps not surprising my ‘favourites’ – and in particular those in my A and C categories but less so B – are by women. Rebekah Higgit – challenged by Occam’s Typewriter colleague Stephen Curry, who was one of my nominations, also remarked on the preponderance of female authors in her choices.

However, perhaps the fun thing about the Twitter challenge was that you didn’t need to explain any of your logic. Let the tweeps make of the choices what they will.

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A Bad Week to be in Brussels

Historians of the future will no doubt make much of the UK’s political ramifications of the moment. This week has seen a particularly strange spectacle as the Tory party tears itself apart and the Labour party seems unable to sort itself out and step into the breach of political leadership. I happened to be in Brussels during the excitement of the no-confidence vote against Theresa May. That was not the city I would have chosen to pass such critical and fevered (if ultimately pointless) days, but the trip for my final plenary session with the European Research Council’s Scientific Council had long been in my diary, and so go I had to. It was a depressing experience all in all.

First of all, readers will know, because I have written about it before, that I am a great fan of the ERC. Loss of access to it, if Brexit happens (at least in the months if not years until an agreement over Associated Country status can be agreed, assuming it can be agreed) is just one of the many blows the academic sector will be hit by. For universities like my own, the loss of research funding will be very significant. UKRI and BEIS will be hard pressed to make up the shortfall, at least at speed, even if the money is made available by the Government (but what will a pound be worth by then?).

It isn’t just the money of course that is at stake. The ERC is a prestigious source of funding because of its approach. It has excellence as its sole criterion, its panels are international and their membership is regularly considered to make sure that everyone is playing their full part. As I said in my farewell speech to my fellow Scientific Council members, the rigour and scrutiny with which all parts of their work is carried out far exceeds the processes I am familiar with in the UK. The ERC worried about their gender statistics long before UK Research Councils published such data, possibly before they even collected the information. The care with which every single panel (75+ a year across all domains) is examined every year, again has no parallel that I am aware of in our domestic processes. I would be happy to be corrected on this point if I am simply ill-informed.  Success rates at every stage against variables such as host country, gender, scientific age and so on are compiled and examined for clues about what might be done better. Through widening participation efforts there is a constant push to encourage and facilitate applications from EU13 countries, without diluting the excellence criterion in the face of the challenges they face in terms of infrastructure etc.

So, I am a fan of the ERC but I am not sorry to be leaving the Scientific Council. Ever since our fateful referendum it has been a sad experience to attend the meetings and, yet again, be reminded of what we have voluntarily given up; to recognize that there is a Europe out there which is full of scientists (at least) who don’t want to see us go. They know what UK institutions have brought to the health of scientific research across the continent and they know that our absence will hurt everyone. The first meeting I attended after the referendum was the week following that fateful vote. Everyone pressed me to try to explain what had happened; of course I had no answer, no rationalisation. It is well known that by and large the academic community are committed remainers.

Over the dinners the two nights we were all present, conversation did seem to come back to politics. Not just the UK’s current shambles but many other countries were discussed, with representatives from other parts of the continent sharing feelings of gloom about their own country’s political strife and unease. The dinner on my final evening, when I and the three other members all of whom started at the same time as me six years ago were being celebrated, saw many phones on the table – not just mine – while we kept an eye on the no-confidence vote. And when it became clear May had survived, again all those embarrassing and impossible questions to answer: what does this mean and what happens next? I tried to smile rather than weep, but I came away from these days immensely depressed.

It isn’t, of course, all about science, nor do I think the Remain campaign in the run up to the referendum was wisely run in terms of reaching out to those who do not feel the benefits of an improving quality of life. Unfortunately, as so many have written and said over the last couple of years, those who voted leave because they felt short-changed by society are not going to see any improvement if we crash out. Even more jobs will be lost, the NHS will lack doctors and nurses, and the short respite of a trip to some sun on the continent will be both more expensive and more difficult to undertake.

Universities will suffer, our science and our education never mind our reputations and prestige, but other sectors and other workers will suffer more. It does not cheer me up to recognize that.

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Loading the Women – or Not?

The question of what should the composition of any team ‘look’ like remains one I feel uncertain about. Whereas a list of a dozen invited speakers who are all males smacks of bias or incompetence rather than a true reflection of those whose work is outstanding, if a senior executive team is small enough, say 4, but is all male can one say the same thing? There was the year my College was run by a predominantly female team (Bursar, Domestic Bursar and Senior Tutor were all female, for instance, as well as myself as Master but the Vice Master was male). Should I have been concerned about the imbalance in the other direction and done something differently?

If a senior executive team is overwhelmingly of one gender how does this distort the issues that get addressed? It shouldn’t of course, but almost certainly it will. In my last post I referred to the fact that no one had stopped the barracking of Jocelyn Bell Burnell when, as the only female student, she entered her Physics lectures. If there had been a female lecturer would that have made a difference? Did the male lecturers just have an extreme lack of imagination about how threatening the atmosphere might feel for that solitary woman, or did they (worse) feel it served her right for entering into male terrain? Would a female lecturer have had the courage to take on the male audience in the hall? At least, one hopes, that that specific situation will never arise again in any lecture theatre around the world.

This week fellow Occam’s Typewriter blogger Stephen Curry tweeted

More power to Stephen for doing this, walking the walk as Imperial College’s Assistant Provost for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion and not just talking the talk.

The next part of his story was less public. The organisers are obviously quite thick-skinned, since they approached yet another UK male when Stephen said no! He too declined but presumably the organisers will keep ignoring the issue and eventually find some man who has a gap in his diary and does agree to turn up and talk. It is clear – because the next man approached said so privately – that the gender composition of the group was not mentioned when this follow-up invitation was issued. The organisers must be pretty impervious not to feel some compunction at the make-up of their list of invitees.

I must admit my first reaction when asked to participate in some event is not, but perhaps should be, to enquire the make-up of the speaker/panel list. It is often the case you can’t find out anyhow, if many people are being asked in parallel. Perhaps embarrassment later in the day when it becomes apparent that there is a massive imbalance often stops people from then saying they will drop out to allow the introduction of someone of the minority gender to participate. But surely, surely, by now there have been enough examples of ridiculously imbalanced lists for organisers to grasp the fundamental point: an all male (or all female) line-up is not fit for the 21st century. Since invitations mean exactly that, it should not be beyond any group’s capability to find a good balance (and not just by gender) of those to invite.

However, it does seem to be the case that women are more likely than men to turn down speaker invitations. There is evidence from different studies to this effect: some years ago I wrote about one particular study in the field of Evolutionary Biology. Women decline for all kinds of reasons ranging from the much-cited and challenging childcare problem to the fact that they get asked to do so many things, sit on so many committees and so on, that they simply can’t fit a trip into their diary. The childcare problem should of course apply to fathers too, and I believe increasingly does, but it has not yet made a visible dent in the number of male speakers accepting invitations. The problem of women, when in a minority in a field, getting lumbered with more of the ‘we must have a woman on this committee’ is not likely to go away any time soon – until there is a better gender balance across the board.

We do need, as a society, to be careful not to put the onus on the women always to accept invitations. Feeling that one is letting the side down because you can’t face another trip, or another committee can be insidious. Refusing to be an ‘expert’ with local or national media just so that there finally is a woman’s voice on the radio is sometimes the right thing to do but (I know, I’ve been there) can lead to a nasty feeling of guilt. Most men, I suspect, don’t have to battle these negative emotions just for trying to preserve some semblance of sanity and work-life balance.

The answer in the long term is of course to try to ensure that children get plenty of opportunity to see careers in a non-stereotyped way essentially from birth. Then perhaps our children and grandchildren will not still be battling away at the same gendered problems, calling out manels for the stupidity they are or worrying about whether the executive team is appropriately balanced. The best people will simply fill the roles, regardless of their sex (or colour of skin, or sexual orientation or….). We have a long way to go, but that should not deter us from trying.

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