Keeping Track

I am a great believer in Post-it notes.  Every room in which I work (perhaps embarrassingly there are three: in the Department, the College and my home in the Master’s Lodge) has torn off Post-it notes scattered around and a selection of virgin pads of different sizes to hand. This is how I scribble down those tasks I mustn’t forget to do. I don’t yet have one by my bed but, too often, as I lie in bed my meandering winding-down brain throws up crucial things I should have done yet have failed to complete. At which point sleepiness departs but I can’t scrawl anything down in the dark.

I know I could use some wonderful app or other electronic widget to organise myself, but it would not have the same tangible satisfaction or pervasive availability (with simultaneously the opt-out clause of losing the piece of paper). I like the physical act of crossing out entries, of watching a list visibly diminish in a way the use of a ‘delete’ option would not provide. I like being able to have multiple lists, not because they’re carefully organised into College, committee, domestic or other logical grouping, but because I can retrace the memory path of when the list originated: this one started during that interminable committee meeting, that one began when I was on the train back from London, and so on. And as I get to the point when one list is all but scratched out because I’ve managed to accomplish the majority of the tasks detailed, then I can copy the remaining items onto a new page. That too has a strange satisfaction about it.

However, Post-it notes on distributed desks (and sometimes on the floor too), don’t add up to the effect of walls of ‘buffered thesis’ that Pat Thomson described a little while ago on her own blog   .  In this case the idea was to use Post-it notes to help with thesis writing; an easy way to organize thoughts as bite-sized headings which could be moved around to try out different flows of logic and ensure that nothing got forgotten. Much though I like the concept I think if I were faced with a wall of Post-it notes each morning I would find it altogether too depressing (although admittedly I’m not currently painfully trying to wade my way through thesis-writing). In a way, half the point of my disorganised collection is that I don’t have to stare at them all the time, I can quietly bury them whilst doing some major task (or alternatively doing something time-consuming which isn’t the same thing at all) and then uncover them again when ready to move on.

No doubt this says a lot about my flibbertigibbet brain, my habit of doing one thing with half a brain whilst the other half is reminding me of what else I should be doing. I most certainly would not describe this as fruitfully multitasking, although I am quite capable of talking and doing up my shoelaces at the same time. It is probably also connected with the fact that I have a variety of hats to wear (just as I have a variety of offices to work in) and I don’t compartmentalise them very well. It is probably not surprising if a remark – for instance about references – in one meeting reminds me of a task I have as yet failed to do, such as write a reference myself. Jotting this down, as long as it is sufficiently comprehensive to put the idea in context, simply makes sense.

I doubt very much the world was easier when everything was done in hard copy, including reference requests. I remember from my early years seeing professors carrying around bulging briefcases with folders of letters requiring attention. The attention they received was probably a dictated response some shorthand typist would be expected to type up for checking. But now everything comes in by email and few departments run to shorthand typists, we need to do the typing ourselves. In practice, this is probably at least as fast (assuming you have got beyond the one finger typing mode, as I would guess most people now have) as the thinking –dictating – checking and correcting modus operandi  of yesteryear.

So, I am not apologetic for the quantity of yellow dog-eared bits of paper littering my desk. I just wish I could discipline myself to write phrases that are invariably translatable days (or even weeks) later. Finding a note helpfully saying ‘repetitive words’ to remind me of…what? is simply frustrating. That particular item I cannot gleefully strike out – or at least not until the inspiration that provoked me to write it in the first place revisits me.

Dear Reader, how do you keep track of your to do list  – assuming you do?

 

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Why Side-line the Women?

‘I bumped into my supervisor on the stairs when I was with X [my fellow postdoc]. I might as well have been invisible, he didn’t address a word to me. It really hurt.’

So wrote a young female postdoc during an extremely miserable couple of years working in the USA.

I came across these words as I was sorting through letters in my late mother’s house. They were of course from me during my disastrous first postdoctoral position. Many women (and no doubt some men) may identify with this invisibility. Never mind the fact that I was undoubtedly being less productive than my colleague X, a little encouragement might have made quite a lot of difference to my young self; might have turned me into someone who could be productive after all. There is no doubt that being treated like an outcast is not good for the morale.  At the time I was well aware I was the first female postdoc in this particular (and possibly any) engineering department at Cornell and I was vaguely aware that the professor with whom I was working might have found this difficult. I suspect this sort of invisibility and presumption of incompetence may still be a common phenomenon even nearly 40 years later, though at the time I most certainly did not see my problem as generic so much as personal. It is always easier to imagine the fault is one’s own (as indeed in large part mine was) rather than generic.

Nevertheless the reality is for many women in 2016 that they are still too easily relegated to the ‘less competent than men’ category. This is a problem compounded by motherhood, a problem summed up by the US phrase ‘mommy track’. Simplistically assuming a mother with child(ren) is not going to want to be stretched – or that a woman might be going to have children and so also might not want to be stretched  even beforehand – is a terrible waste of potential. This is hardly a problem just for women in science, it applies across the Board. I recently came across a Harvard Business Review report from 2014 which graphically illustrates these issues following interviews with a large number of their male and female graduates. Women started off with the same ambitions yet statistically failed to be able to attain them because, as the qualitative evidence showed, they were all too often actively side-lined against their will.

This HBR study focussed on one group of ‘high achieving’ women – you don’t get to Harvard Business School without being a high achiever. A second, essentially contemporaneous study by Cambridge’s Murray Edward College interviewing another large group of high achieving women in the form of their own graduates, reached very similar conclusions. Employers need to think much harder about how they view their up and coming women to make sure they continue to move upwards not sideways due to inappropriate expectations. All too often professional women do not ‘opt out’, they are forced out by other people’s expectations, making the balance between a backwater job and ‘being there’ for the children tilt in favour of staying home (I am of course describing the lot of women for whom sheer financial need is not the primary driver).

I have described previously how I managed to transform myself from unproductive and miserable postdoc to a thriving researcher in a matter of weeks (a situation the letters I came across demonstrated I had not misremembered). I was lucky. Nor was I held back subsequently by motherhood, my department – never having had anyone in this position before – just got on with treating me decently. Sometimes I wonder if this lack of departmental experience was a boon. No one had rules, regulations or expectations. I did not have to define whether I was working full or part-time because I don’t believe the latter even existed as a possibility. I did not have colleagues comparing me with other women of any rank to decide if they wanted me to be side-lined or not. And, perhaps just as importantly, I felt free to make up my own rules of engagement because I didn’t have to consider that Dr A had chosen one route, Dr B another and which made more sense for me? My husband and I just got on with things and ensured I fulfilled all my responsibilities. As I have always said on this blog, academia can be very flexible.

Nevertheless, these days every woman contemplating motherhood, whether in academia or anywhere else, is faced with an endless set of questions about timings relative to new employment, parental leave, pay, and part-time or flexible working upon return all of which need addressing. It can seem overwhelming. These questions are for both partner and employer as well as the woman concerned and have to be considered before any putative child becomes a sentient reality – which will anyhow change the dynamics in ways that are impossible to assess in advance. I, with nobody in the way of a role model who had done what I was doing, just naively assumed it was all feasible (and issues like parental pay didn’t exist anyhow). Maybe that naivete was an advantage!

I remember, as a young mother, an elderly fellow from my then college saying how sorry she felt for me because things had got so much more complicated than in her day. I asked her what on earth she meant and she explained: for her, as a married woman, there had been no question but that her academic career ceased (whether upon marriage or motherhood I no longer recall) and it was only many years later, after the death of her husband, that the then new college of Robinson had given her a fellowship and brought her back into the fold.  That she thought made life very simple. There had been no questions. Perhaps now I am almost saying the same thing about my own generation versus the challenges facing young women today.

And the reality is there is no need for this current problem. Women should be judged not as women, not as mothers (or mothers-to-be) but as members of the workforce who have what they have to offer. If they are excellent researchers, employers should bend over backwards to ensure they continue to be good researchers. Part time women can work incredibly effectively; full time women who work from home some of the time or at odd hours can do just as much as someone who exhibits a strong element of presenteeism. Attitudes need to change.

I am pleased to see that EPSRC is recognizing this shift in ‘norm’ by awarding a job-share Advanced Fellowship to two part-time professors in Cambridge (Serena Best and Ruth Cameron).  As the EPSRC website says

The mechanism for this Fellowship is novel: for the first time, an EPSRC Fellowship is based on a “job share” style arrangement with two PIs. The PIs jointly run the Cambridge Centre for Medical Materials, both having part time contracts based on their family commitments. This joint fellowship is split evenly between Professors Best and Cameron and reflects a forward-thinking approach by EPSRC based on Equality and Diversity considerations.

Let us hope this first example is not the last. Let us hope more funders and employers see the rich possibilities by being more open in their thinking.

 

 

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Politicians, Leadership and Academia

We now have a new Prime Minister. A woman. I well remember  a young relative saying to me as Margaret Thatcher stood down ‘Was it possible to have a male prime minister?’ Well yes, and history tells us this is rather commoner than a woman.  Over the past couple of weeks looking at our political ‘leaders’ fail to lead has been an unedifying process. We have to hope things improve from here on. Both the main parties have at times looked as if they were more interested in stabbing each other in the back (or possibly even the front) than leading. In the light of this it is worth considering what leadership in academia might look like.  Is it any better? Not simply how to be a VC, leading from the very top, but how to run a research group or some more modest sized entity than an entire university. Taking on such roles is a necessary first step in a scientist’s ladder of independence, but acadene does precious little to train anyone for it.

So, aside from not wielding a knife in an inappropriate way, what do I think such ECR leaders need to know?  These questions aren’t asked often enough as people naively are expected simply to step up to the mark. Again, one might make comparisons with politicians. I would draw the parallel with a politician good on the hustings or in the cut and thrust of debate but who hasn’t the slightest idea what to do once elected. Sound familiar? As a scientist making the transition to group leader, it is no longer enough to be an expert in your chosen field, to know exactly which knobs to turn on the apparatus, or which software to run in order to get the best results from a delicate experiment. Once one is in charge of other people a whole range of new skills are required but not often taught except by accidental example – good or bad. This isn’t even about those teaching skills of the sort the TEF might favour (if the HE bill progresses next week through a rapidly changing Parliament) but people skills, project management and the ability to get the best out of a disparate team. (In contrast training in grant-writing seems frequently to be on offer, although comments I have heard about some of these courses are not always complimentary.)

These skills don’t come naturally to many exceptionally smart people. Indeed many people completely fail to notice that being smart is not sufficient to turn you into a good group leader. Too often the inability of some academics to make this transition is unhelpfully stereotyped with barbed comments about someone ‘being on the spectrum’ or the old chestnut about the mathematician who is an extrovert because they look at your shoes not their own. We should do better in supporting ECR’s who are trying to find their feet (no pun intended) in this new sphere of activity. If we leave them to sink or swim we are potentially condemning their students to inadequate support, advice or even scope of project.

Being an extrovert, who looks like they ‘like’ people is no guarantee of success. Being apparently full of exuberant confidence may not help the shyer student get to grips with their PhD or win over a recalcitrant technician. Introverts (who, according to Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, are where much power currently resides) may equally fail to engage with a fresh student who is ‘full of it’, without the it they appear to be full of actually amounting to much. Has anyone seen a university – or funder’s – ­course on Emotional Intelligence? Such a course should help a fresh PI to consider their own character, their strengths and weaknesses and how these may impact on those around them if they are to enable others to reach their full potential. Or how about a course on how to haggle over equipment prices or to construct and deliver persuasive arguments to convince a head of department that they really do need new lab space?

Too often we exist in an environment where (s)he who shouts loudest gets; where the size of grants is the primary factor in success, not the development of people. The TEF may be going to attempt to improve our undergraduate teaching, but what about the education of graduate students, which can be rather hit and miss? This isn’t as simple as measuring how many PhDs are produced, any more than the TEF should determine excellence based on how many first class degrees an institution awards. Since measurement of intangible outcomes are so challenging, I am not advocating an attempt to devise some metric regarding PhD training, but I am suggesting student training should be factored into skills regarded as important by departmental management. Such considerations would also facilitate an institutional culture which is inclusive: it would then be easier to spot PIs who permit bullying or harassment or who exhibit such behaviours themselves. Indeed, I think promotion criteria should consider whether a candidate has actually facilitated such an inclusive culture. My University expects to see a personal statement about an applicant’s research and teaching as part of the promotion process, but there is no necessity – although some applicants do include such information – to discuss how a PI contributes to developing their teams.

So what might relevant ‘leadership’ training consist of? I’m not convinced compulsory attendance at some formal lectures on the topic would help. But perhaps some small group role plays, some discussion of strategies senior colleagues (with a respected pedigree in this field) have found constructive, and appropriate mentoring could all help. One-to-one coaching would be common in industry but much less so, at least at junior levels, in academia. One might ask why this is so.

It doesn’t take much to show up our politicians’ weaknesses, but academia should not be smug that it is better when it comes to leadership. It is just differently inadequate all too often.

 

Posted in Leadership, Science Culture | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Dressing for Success?

Women’s attire is so often the focus of media attention. I expect the relative merits of Andrea Leadsom’s and Theresa May’s wardrobes will be dissected as front page news for weeks, along with Angela Eagle’s. Focus on the importance of clothing in the job market was recently highlighted in research from the Paris-Sorbonne University, which apparently showed that women who wear low-cut tops in photographs attached to their job applications are up to five times more likely to receive an interview invitation than those with round-neck clothing. I’m not sure what sort of jobs were under consideration, but as scientists, or indeed any sort of academic, does it matter how we dress?  Is it too naïve to think that the evidence of merit should trump any superficial decisions based merely on clothing?

There was some discussion about the significance of this point in the comment stream on an early post of mine.  As gerty-Z  said in those comments

Professional attire can be…tricky

She highlighted the issue of safety in particular: long floaty dresses, currently back in fashion, might be regarded as a case in point here, and open-toed sandals are certainly banned from many, possibly all, labs. But there are other reasons beyond safety for thinking carefully about one’s attire and the messages which may be conveyed, intentionally or otherwise, by one’s sartorial choice.

Let’s start with those interviews. A while back US blogger Female Science Professor posed the question on Scientopia  of what one should wear for an academic job interview, and specifically whether a suit (and tie) should be worn.  The answers were collated here,  where I was surprised to see that Astronomy seemed to be singled out as a sub-discipline where suits should not be worn. Even more troubling – to my mind – was the response from an anonymous respondent

Call me old fashioned, but i believe that females should wear something a little sexy and wear some subtle makeup. I really think this helped me with being accepted to 3 TT [tenure track] jobs in earth science.

Actually old-fashioned is not what I’d call it, but inappropriate. It really worries me that someone felt that sexy was the right way to set about getting an academic job, possibly even worse that they felt they’d succeeded three times; this is where conflicting messages may arise. If you wear (and I’m assuming the respondent was female) a sexy little number what are you subliminally saying about yourself to the interview panel?

Get me on your faculty and at the very least I’ll be a sight for sore eyes at faculty meetings.

Surely not what you want to convey! These are jobs about science, so in my book the message should be

I’m a serious professional, this job is important to me so I have taken the trouble to brush my hair and find some clean and smart clothes, but what I want you to do is concentrate on my science so listen hard….’

Clothes should not be distracting the panel – and the interviewee presumably just assumed the panel would be at least mainly male, which I would like to believe will in itself be a miscalculation – but neutral.  Some of the commenters on my earlier post absolutely saw any personal remarks about their clothes as demeaning and inappropriate in a professional setting (though probably not at the Christmas party), so one must assume that implicitly they wanted their clothes not to be the story in such a setting, interview or not.

Received wisdom has it that it takes less than 10 seconds to form an opinion of someone based on their overall appearance, and that certainly includes dress. If you want to be taken seriously – at a conference, in a committee meeting or indeed at an interview – it’s worth thinking carefully about what that first impression might be. Hence I do think it matters what we wear; and I’m inclined to think it matters more for women than for men. Maybe I’ll be shouted down on this, although clearly Laura Bates agrees with me in her piece discussing the Sorbonne research I allude to above.  Nevrtheless, it is true that for men too there are issues.

The late lamented David Mackay  absolutely changed his style of dress when he became Chief Scientific Advisor at the Department of Energy and Climate Change. He moved on from the shorts and sandals that had been his customary accoutrements when a mere professor in the Cavendish, switching them for wearing an unexceptionable and unmemorable suit and tie. He knew most civil servants would take him less seriously if he were so ‘peculiar’ as to turn up in the ministry dressed in his younger self’s garb.  Many other academic males I know have replaced the jeans and T-shirt of their youth for something more conventional, be it a full-blown suit or just an open-necked collared shirt coupled with trousers rather than jeans, in order to convey greater gravitas.  However, one problem I see for women is that, because they have a wider variety of outfit types on offer to them, which convey different degrees of (in)formality, there is more scope for ‘getting it wrong’ than the simple uniform of a suit (or not) for men.

When I was a postdoc at Cornell at the tender age of 24, and hence much younger than the average US postdoc, I learnt that dressing like a student (i.e. wearing jeans) led to trouble: people didn’t believe I was a postdoc. The most memorable occasion on which this was manifest was when, in the Faculty Library (I was at that point in an Engineering department) I was accused of stealing my husband’s library card because, as a postdoc, I had a faculty rather than student card (OK my name may have confused them too, as Athene is just plain odd and Donald is obviously a bloke’s name). Nevertheless, thereafter I vowed not to wear jeans again and look less than my age – or status – and have stuck to that ever since even though it seems improbable I would be mistaken for a typical student anymore!

With only 10 seconds in which an unconscious mental pigeonholing takes place in the brain, your appearance and not your words of wisdom will be the dominant component of the impression you leave with someone when you meet them for the first time. Not for nothing was First Impressions the original title of the novel Pride and Prejudice. It is one form of unconscious bias that we probably all suffer from. So is ‘sexy’ the first message you want to give, or ‘young and scatty’ or even ‘hippy’? Wouldn’t it be better to come across as ‘serious, clever and competent’? But I absolutely don’t think that means that all women of whatever age should dress in unrelenting black and reach for the horn-rimmed glasses. In fact, very much the contrary. For situations other than an interview, such as speaking at a conference or sitting on a committee, both situations in which in my field women remain a minority, wearing something bright may actually mean that people are more likely to remember you, something that has the potential to be a future advantage. I know a woman who dresses in a conservative trouser suit – it just happens to be bright red, a colour she can carry off.

As far as I am concerned the bottom line is that one should not only be comfortable in one’s clothes but also should be comfortable with the message they give out.  People may remember the clothes and, as with a police caution, use it against you in the future.  There is no single way of being right, but there are definitely many ways of being ‘wrong’. But I hope such factors do not decide who becomes the next Prime Minister.

 

 

 

 

 

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Science Funding from Europe and Commissioner Moedas

I went to Brussels this week for a Plenary meeting of the European Research Council’s Scientific Council. It was a strange week to go. As I sat on Eurostar and stared out at the passing countryside I strongly felt, what am I doing here, do I belong, why will they want to see me and, perhaps most strongly, WHAT HAVE WE DONE? As a scientist I was one of the greater than 80% (precise number depending on which journal or newspaper you read) who wanted to stay in the EU. Maybe we still can, or at least have access to it. The optimists amongst us can speculate wildly about possible still-favourable outcomes. We can daydream that reality will sink in about the economy so that, whichever politician currently thinks they are in control will step back from pulling the trigger of Article 50. Regrettably during the week this looks less and less likely. However, in the interim, work has to be done, and keeping the ERC running smoothly is part of that.

So, I arrived feeling maudlin, wondering why no one had graffiti-d over the ‘Britain is great’ signs in the Gare du Midi terminal and considering how long Eurostar would give me such a smooth ride without guards checking my passport in the Chunnel or separating me from those with EU passports for more thorough scrutiny. My ERC colleagues were delightfully supportive – and depressed. It was the main topic of conversation. The question ‘what have you done?’ was echoed; comments such as ‘it’s a sad day for science’ floated around. Still, work to be done and part of that work was a long-scheduled meeting with Commissioner Moedas, who of course brought up Brexit. The issue of Brexit was also separately discussed with the Council at my request.

Moedas and AMD copy

With Commissioner Moedas in happier times in the spring during his visit to Cambridge

There is huge anxiety among researchers in the UK both about existing ERC grants and about those they thought they were about to put together. Likewise about the other pillars in the H2020 programme. Those fears are entirely understandable. However, let me stress the reality. Nothing has changed for the time being.  Moedas has been reinforcing that message  as has the Commission as a whole. The UK remains a full member of the EU. UK Host Institutions are still able to host grantees and grants; eligibility to apply has not changed just because (remember, a constitutionally non-binding) referendum has occurred. We cannot peer into the future to know whether optimism or pessimism about the future applies. There is of course uncertainty, and will be for months if not years.

Some time-bounds can be placed: Article 50 allows for 2 years of negotiation before a member state has to leave so, given we haven’t yet triggered it and it is hard to see there can be anyone with even a shadow of a remit to do so in a position to take action till the autumn; given also that we do not have a huge team of civil servants with nothing else to do but complete the negotiations and all the expertise required to do so expeditiously, I think we can safely assume nothing will change for at least 2 years.  So folks, I think you should not give up on present or future grants with the ERC just yet! And, if a move to Associated Country status can be accomplished as soon as we formally cease to be a member state, then we could still access the funds thereafter anyhow with a smooth transition. However, and this is a big however, achieving such a status would still require free mobility of workers so cannot by any means be guaranteed given current noises from politicians. I am simply trying to put the facts as I understand it on the table. Emotion cannot enter into these legal niceties.

I felt Commissioner Moedas entirely understood the anxieties. He wants to work with the community and is absolutely clear that, come what may, he will still want to call upon the UK’s scientific expertise when it comes to advice (as he does upon nationals of any country as appropriate). I had the opportunity to speak, in as far as I was able, on behalf of the majority of UK scientists who were solidly IN.  I know he is listening to and in direct contact with many key players from the UK as the dust settles. It cannot resolve the uncertainty and, just as with all parts of the Commission, he cannot negotiate separately for the sector. Free mobility of researchers is something scientists collectively value greatly, through EU schemes and much more broadly. It is non-negotiable for the EU as it is across the entire workforce regardless of sector. We will have to work closely with UK politicians to make sure they hear that message.

There is another worry that I have heard expressed. Not only that EU partners may not wish UK researchers to be involved as collaborators in wider H2020 programmes (something that is hard to determine and worrying, but plausible and impossible to prevent in a risk-averse climate), but that grants with a UK PI may be disadvantaged by way of ‘punishment’, as I have heard it expressed, during evaluation. The ERC Scientific Council discussed this. As has been stated by a Commission official, ‘evaluators would receive “additional briefings” to avoid such bias.’ Since its very inception, excellence has been the only criterion to be used in evaluation of ERC grants and the Scientific Council discussed this explicitly, with a view to their own panels being specifically reminded of this fact in guidelines. I hope this helps to reassure UK scientists.

None of this alters the potential loss of funds and funding opportunities the community is facing. But as yet it is just that: potential. Individuals will have to choose whether to run scared as of today, be it as a collaborative partner turning down a UK team’s involvement or a UK PI deciding not to put together an application. If they go ahead they can be sure they won’t be discriminated against but, they cannot currently be sure they will be able to hold the grant for the full 5 years within a UK institution. My own view is clear. Researchers should proceed as if this is the best of all possible worlds. It isn’t, at least with certainty, but to do nothing for the next two years just in case it all goes belly up doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, particularly for young researchers. An awarded Starter Grant will always add lustre to a CV after all, and is portable.

I wanted to give my view of things from Brussels. Not rosy, but not yet definitive. I hope the community absorbs what is going on in terms of grants.

However, there is one further aspect that both the President, Jean Pierre Bourguignon and Commissioner Moedas spelled out. Far beyond our parochial problems, across the EU, the disaffection with experts, with evidence and with science is obvious. As a community we all need to work harder to reach out to those who hate what we stand for, seeing us as an irrelevant elite in their lives. I’m not sure how this can be done. Pop stars and celebrities were mentioned so perhaps we need to work harder with the likes of Dara O’Briain, Lily Cole and Robin Ince to get the importance of what we do into mainstream conversation and media. Anyone who has influence with the Daily Mail, the Sun, Hello or Grazia perhaps particularly could work on their editors to include more articles which might appeal but also contain a grain of solid science.  I hesitate to suggest input to Fox and Sky News but no doubt they are also highly relevant. I have no such contacts or I’d be working on them. Anyone who does – go for it! The community needs to do more collectively on this front. Equally we need to be vocal about the imperative of addressing inequality of all kinds if we are to have a just society as well as one in which science is seen as relevant on a daily basis.

 

 

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