Graduation into Uncertainty

Graduation. That rite of passage that indicates the student moves on into the wider world. This past week has seen many hundreds of Cambridge undergraduates pass through the Senate House and emerge with their BA’s (or other appropriate degree(s)). So many students graduate each year, each presented individually with the correct – one hopes – Latin words murmured over them, that this whole process occupies four full days in the Cambridge calendar.  Done in essentially chronological order of foundation, students in the older colleges will have proceeded to collect their degrees before the fall-out from the referendum started to hit.  By the time Churchill College graduands were celebrating their exam successes at the Graduation Dinner on Friday evening, their futures looked irrevocably different: the Brexiters had won.

Writing a speech to give at this dinner was a challenge. I like to write my speeches well in advance, but short of writing two complete versions for two different outcomes I couldn’t do that this year. How many people in the Hall had actually voted for Leave I had no way of knowing, but there is no doubt that the majority of students and academics present had not wanted the result we got. The dismay in higher education is palpable (feeling sick, weeping, remembering the possession of dual nationality and even resigning from post were some of the reactions I came across on Friday). But for the students I suspect a feeling of betrayal of the young by the old may have been a common reaction, overlaid by the pleasure that the degree they had so long worked towards was finally theirs.

So, in my speech, without labouring a point or hammering home the sector’s or my own misery – hardly appropriate for an ostensibly joyous occasion – all I could do was discuss resilience and the fact that not knowing what happens next is not terminal.  For those students – who will be numerous in this year’s graduating class across the country – who have not yet got a job for whatever reason, jobs may be in short supply. And those jobs that are available may not be what they had thought they aspired to. The talent to that increasingly nebulous (or even disintegrating) entity, UK plc, that may be lost as a result of politicians’ lies is appalling, be it lost through unemployment or emigration. I would always encourage anyone to develop resilience and not to be frightened of changing direction in the light of circumstances – I have written often enough on those themes on this blog in the past – but what is being asked of the young of today is on a potentially unimaginable scale. ­­

Cambridge as a region voted strongly in favour of IN. University folk will of course be classed as the elite towards which there is so much hostility from those who feel excluded from a comfortable standard of living. It is not difficult to understand why such people, quite possibly long-term unemployed or in jobs that are going nowhere, feel so angry. But the EU is not and never was the source of their problem.

We could look back to the systematic loss of manufacturing jobs overseen by Thatcher’s governments as one indicator of rot setting in. Or we could consider whether that prominent Leave campaigner Michael Gove has set in place educational policies that work for their families, as opposed to affording ideological control of schools and that dreaded word ‘accountability’. As I pointed out when I stood down as the Royal Society’s Education Committee chair

‘As long as league tables are essentially based on exam results there will be the tendency, one might almost say the necessity for a school’s survival, to work at getting those children near any particular critical assessment boundary ‘up’ at the expense of the weaker and stronger who sit outside this critical zone.’

Gove’s school reforms are still working through the system, but it would have been more honest of him to have said in his campaigning speeches that the real problem with those Polish immigrants was not that they were stealing British jobs, but that they were more qualified and hence better placed to get the jobs because our schooling system (indeed our pre-school system in which disadvantaged children fall behind essentially from birth) lets down too many families.

Where do we go from here? As a country far too many people have been duped by wishful thinking induced by politicians not only ignoring evidence, but telling everyone else to do so too; despising experts whose statements are already proving only too true; and by these politicians’ contempt for the truth, and hence by implication contempt for the public to whom they were appealing. Whatever happens next we have a problem in our society’s inequalities, in successive governments’ failures to recognize this inequality and to invest in schools, health, bricks and mortar and jobs to reduce it. Or perhaps, to be cynical, I should say they have failed to be moved by that inequality enough to do anything about it except occasionally wring their hands at a photo opportunity. I wish my graduating class success and happiness in these turbulent times, but that should be no more than we wish for every youngster with or without a degree. Far too many of them will now have a much reduced chance of their dreams coming true.

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Forgetting Compassion

Last Thursday I sat next to the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir Mark Walport, at a College dinner. We discovered we were exact contemporaries in Cambridge, both coming up in 1971 to a world utterly different from the one we found ourselves in that day. In 1971 there was a spirit of optimism loose, at least in the circle I inhabited. We weren’t worrying about jobs we were, in the words of the time, ‘finding ourselves’. Although immigration had formed the heart of Enoch Powell’s 1968 Rivers of Blood speech, he was widely shunned across the political spectrum. I don’t believe ‘balance’ had entered the BBC’s lexicon. We may not have been the flower power generation, a bit too young, but we probably both saw things essentially through flower-coloured glasses.

We joked over dinner about the heyday of political demonstrations, both of us remembering an episode in our first term when he demonstrated against the then VC and I took part in a related sit-in in Old Schools. Neither of us now have the slightest recollection of what we were objecting to! But I do know that after that sit-in there were no more during my time (whether or not I took part in them). The optimism that students could change the world faded a little. Things became more serious as we moved towards Thatcher, monetarism and a neo-liberal take on how things should be. I knew the world had moved on from my generation’s hope of global change and peace, but Thursday has made concrete just how far we have moved. How could one believe in hope, love and flowers when the UK is now apparently so riven with hate of the ‘other’ fuelled by politicians with views little better (or well thought through) than Trump populism that we see the murder of an MP?

As a member of the ERC’s Scientific Council it is hardly surprising I am pro-European. In a personal capacity I have signed two Cambridge-based letters (one from a broad spectrum of academics to the Telegraph, the other from 150 Cambridge FRSs to the Times) supporting Remain. I have done less than I might have hoped having been so knocked by my mother’s death, in particular dropping out of a Today interview and not having the brain or energy to write for the Observer when invited. I did do a CNN interview last week, very much thinking that I was ‘doing it for my mother’ who felt, as so many of those born pre-war did and do, that the EU is a safeguard against armed conflict within Europe. As indeed did Churchill himself.

On Thursday the prospect of bloodshed became a reality. We have somehow created an atmosphere in this country where violent death is seen by some as a reasonable response to debate. The violent death of someone who seems to have stood out as compassionate, welcoming to those who did not resemble her and set to make her mark in our political system. It is sickening. The UK once prided itself as a nation that was compassionate through and through. With some of our politicians now being so openly xenophobic, not to mention economical with the truth, we are falling into the pits – or as Nick Cohen put it  , it is as if the sewers have burst. I am glad my mother did not live to see these horrors. But I have to remain optimistic that Remain will triumph and this moment of madness will pass as we revert to what I have always thought of as ‘British values’.

I do not normally write political polemic on this blog. Perhaps because of the rawness of my own grief, how can I not think about two small children who will not have the luxury of having known and loved their mother for 60 odd years as I have had? How can I not question what world we are creating by stoking up fires of hatred, based on a distrust of ‘experts’, empty lies and the rhetoric  of those who seek power for power’s sake by playing on emotions and fear? Mark and I can joke about the ideals of our youth, but we could not joke about the horrifying world that seems to be forming around us today. Reasoned arguments about what the EU does or doesn’t do well, even careful analysis of what our ‘sovereignty’ means, have got obscured by the fog of paranoia, loathing of anyone who is different and empty promises based on fantasy economics.

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In Memoriam

In Memoriam

A few weeks ago I was reading Anne Marie Slaughter’s book Unfinished Business. This book builds on an Atlantic article she wrote about why she quit working for Hilary Clinton to return to engage more fully in her family life and it had obviously struck a chord with many readers. This book expands on her thesis that attitudes towards caring have to change if women are not constantly going to be faced with the ‘can she have it all?’ conundrum or the presumption there has to be a choice between career and family. It is a thought-provoking book, although undeniably American (remember there is no statutory maternity pay in the US, colouring their working climate, a point she highlights in the book).

I don’t intend to discuss the book in depth but, even as I read it, I was struck by what she wrote about her mother and more particularly her two grandmothers. These were two very different women, both born into very different times, one in the US and one in Europe. Each in their own way held back by their generation and circumstances; each hugely significant in the impact they had on their children and grandchildren. To quote just a little of her comments about one of them

‘I still wish that she had had a much wider range of choices about how to live her life. But I now see a women who made it possible for my grandfather to tend countless grateful patients, raised two successful children who have each contributed to the world in their own way, provided a critical safety net for several of her grandchildren and brightened and improved the lives of many people.’

A few days later I was reminded of these words as I sat by my mother’s bed in hospital as she slowly slipped away. At 91 she was more than ready to go, but it didn’t stop it hurting (nor will it). My mother, of a similar generation to the women Slaughter was writing about, had likewise not had much opportunity – or even much education – to make a great deal of her life, but she was going to make damn sure her children had more education and were able to do more (if we wanted to) without ever giving us the sense that she was living her life through us. Or, in the words from Ecclesiastes that I used to have to sing as a dreary chant at my school’s Founder’s Day year after year

‘And some there be, which have no memorial; who are perished, as though they had never been…Their bodies are buried in peace; but their name liveth for evermore.’

Those words, drummed into my non-religious mind throughout my teens, resonated as I sat at that last bedside, as did what Anne Marie Slaughter wrote. They were comforting. (My recent silence on this blog will now be understood as the silencing of my voice as my grieving started; I have no idea when my voice will fully return but I suspect it may be a while before the words flow easily again.)

One doesn’t know the consequences of one’s actions or one’s words, but one should always be aware that the consequences may indeed resonate down the years. That same care that parents and grandparents show to their family’s young folk is something we in academia should recognize as a responsibility too. You never know whether a careless dismissal of a young enthusiast will permanently scar or if a supportive comment may help someone on their way. A conversation you may not remember having can perhaps have more significance than you attributed to it at the time. Again recent reading brought this home to me forcefully, when I read – quite by chance – on the Institute of Physics’ blog an article about a recently appointed PVC in Sheffield discussing his career path. I was completely astonished to read Nigel Clarke  attributing to me advice I certainly don’t recall giving!

‘When I started my first academic appointment back in 1998, I was overwhelmed by the demands on my time to prepare new courses, write grants to generate research funds, and to generally be a good citizen for my department. I had been a member of the IOP’s polymer physics group throughout my time as a PhD student and as a postdoc, but when Athene Donald suggested that I should become more involved with the group, my immediate thought was that this would be yet another activity for which I didn’t have enough time. Thankfully, Athene put my name forward anyway.’

So, folks, beware that conversation in the bar may have long term consequences (since I have never collaborated with Nigel nor worked in the same university, propping up the bar after a conference dinner seems the most likely venue for this conversation). One can only hope it is for good not ill.



Posted in Science Culture, Women in Science | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

What’s Missing from the White Paper?

This post first appeared on the Campaign for Science and Engineering’s website on 19-5-16

With over 600 responses to the Green Paper consultation, Jo Johnson and his team have had plenty of advice to consider. And some of the White Paper content shows he clearly has listened. Whilst recognizing much that is encouraging in the document, I would like to highlight a few areas which have had little airing in other commentaries.

The bulk of the text concentrates on new providers, regulation and undergraduate teaching. For the latter, it is heartening to see that there is some rowing back from too simple a reliance on crude metrics to assess teaching ‘excellence’ in the TEF (the pace of change has also been reconsidered). The creation of an appropriate panel of experts to tension the numbers and to read accompanying narrative descriptions is to be welcomed. Whether this is sufficient to give the “robust framework… to measure teaching in its broadest sense” that the document claims will be set up, whilst criteria for measuring teaching excellence remain so ill-defined, is unclear.

However I have a more specific concern regarding how students rate different kinds of lecturers. Jules Holroyd and Jenny Saul in a careful analysis of existing evidence, have suggested the TEF could (unintentionally) be sexist. The evidence shows that white males score more highly in student assessments than do women or ethnic minorities, something likely to be reflected in the National Student Survey (one of the key metrics). I was alarmed to see there was no discussion of this issue in the White Paper but I understand the danger has indeed been recognized within BIS. I am told the narrative should allow institutions that have a high proportion of minority ethnic or women lecturers (for instance) to describe this and the probable consequences on the NSS scores for panels to take into account.

Secondly, my own institution of the University of Cambridge made very clear in its response to the Green Paper that divorcing undergraduate and research strands of the University would be extremely unhelpful, stating that such a separation would ‘irreparably damage the student and academic experience and the sector’s reputation’. Maybe I’ve missed something, but there seems only one sentence in the White Paper that links teaching and research and this specifically applies to funding. This does not amount to a recognition that the interplay between undergraduate teaching and research activity is important, despite the word holistic being used to describe the funding landscape.  From this it is hard to believe that the centrality of active researchers in providing a healthy learning environment has been appreciated.

I am sure that Ruth McKernan, CEO of Innovate UK is pleased to see that the overarching committee that Paul Nurse initially proposed should be called Research UK has now morphed before birth into UKRI  (UK Research and Innovation) so that the word innovation sits firmly in the title. It is also reassuring to see that, along with it and the seven Research Councils a ninth organisation to look after the dual support system for England now sits under this umbrella. However whether the seven individual research councils (plus Innovate UK) are satisfied with the degree of autonomy accorded them in this new structure is less obvious since UKRI is charged, for instance with advising the Secretary of State on the funding balance between research disciplines. An additional key but unanswered question is exactly how cross-disciplinary research will be facilitated by this structure. Although this new organisation is intended to place a greater focus on cross-cutting issues that are outside the core remits of the current research councils, how this will be done and who will set the budget for such work is left unspecified. I worry that genuine inter-Research Council work may still, as now, be at a disadvantage.

Finally let me highlight one further cross-cutting issue that I hope UKRI will focus on. It is one which ties in with my first point: diversity but also career development. RCUK has only recently put out its action plan for diversity. It is a plan that might be viewed as a first dipping of the toe in the water rather than a definitive list of the issues that need to be addressed. For instance, no requirement is placed on institutions to consider what excellence looks like or how promotion criteria are defined, both of which typically remain steeped in an outdated view of academics.  We need to see an expansion of such expectations from the new body.  Additionally, there is no mention of the nurturing of early career researchers or the skills they need to acquire if they are successfully to address the current pressing societal challenges. The absence of any mention of such UKRI responsibilities must not be allowed to mean that such responsibilities are not shouldered.

Overall, I am left fretting about the absence of many details of issues which will affect the state of the UK’s avowed strength in higher education. Just as with the Brexiteers, I worry the drafters are simply hoping that everything will come out all right eventually and the details can be left to be resolved at some unspecified later date. I hope this is an unfair comparison.





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The Competitive Streak in Academia

Does being competitive necessarily mean foregoing kindness? In essence this was the question posed to Uta Frith at the end of her public conversation with me last week (you can hear the whole conversation here). Uta didn’t give a completely explicit answer but it seems to me the answer has to be no, not necessarily, but it does depend who you are trying to compete with.

Undoubtedly there are many PIs who are ultra-competitive. They may be competitive with their peers; they may make this abundantly clear in terms of wanting to be the first to achieve some landmark experiment or to solve an apparently intractable problem. But this does not necessarily mean – although sometimes it may – that they are unpleasant about the competition. It can be an entirely personal driver. Sometimes indeed the only person they are competing with is themselves, constantly pushing themselves to new heights as it were. I think I would put myself in that camp. Competition in that case might be seen as simply an additional bit of adrenalin rather than something inherently nasty. (Of course, sometimes one can end up being very nasty to oneself, but that’s a different story.)

Nevertheless, some people will indeed be competitive directly with others. In this category I am reminded of the person I met to discuss diversity issues with in a university not my own who, when I mentioned I had just come from their VC’s office and what a nice room it was, proudly told me that their office ‘was bigger’. I felt we were not off to a good start on the more subtle philosophical front of discussing gender issues, albeit the person was entirely committed to increasing the number of women studying STEM in their faculty. Moving on from that, some people will indeed play dirty in a competitive spirit in their approach to research. This can be just as true amongst team members as PIs, one of whom may be tempted to sabotage a peer’s experiment so that they can gain kudos themselves. Pressure to publish may lead to some very unattractive, indeed unethical behaviour. This is where competition gets truly nasty and where, the current HE system may indirectly promote it due to too many criteria for success embodying the ‘winner takes all’ spirit.

To resolve this, at least in part, we need to re-evaluate what success looks like. Can we value looking after PhD students well – which could translate into ‘kindness’ – and not just the number of papers churned out? Can we think about impact in terms of the broad contributions of a PI and not just impact factor of journals they publish in (remember DORA)? The publication of the University of Cambridge’s book The Meaning of Success more than two years ago was meant to kickstart this debate about what we value, with the suspicion that rethinking this could disproportionately benefit women. I do not believe it has had as much traction as we would have hoped.

Nevertheless I think posing the question as competition versus kindness highlights one part of the debate we need to have. Some competition may be healthy. Trampling on other people in order to get on should never be rewarded! Uta herself is a shining example of someone who hasn’t done this. One can see this through the help she has given to many of her students over her long and successful career and through the virtual network she has set up (known as Science and Shopping and to which I belong) to remind people that we can be mutually supportive and have some fun too without losing our identity as serious scientists.

I wrote a thumbnail sketch several years ago about Uta and I stand by what I wrote then about her. It is one of the reasons I wanted to invite her to participate in my public ‘Conversations’ at Churchill College. These conversations are designed to tease out what makes my interviewees tick, what set them on their path to success and what keeps them awake at night. All the Conversations from this year – with Carol Robinson, Mary Beard and now Uta Frith – can be listened to through the Churchill College website. Churchill was the first Cambridge College to vote to admit women but, as I’ve said before, our gender statistics are still far from 50:50. These public Conversations are a part of my strategy to raise the profile of the college with respect to women. When I proposed them, though, I hadn’t really thought this through very carefully, about what it would mean for me to be the interviewer trying to frame a dialogue that would appeal to the very diverse audience I hoped to attract. It’s all very well to think ‘Desert Island Discs without the music’, as I did. But I’m no Kirsty Young and carrying the interview forward in ways that are informative but not intrusive suddenly struck me (in the days before my first event with Carol) as quite a challenge.

I needn’t have worried because all three interviewees are such remarkable, articulate and fascinating women I could happily have continued talking for twice as long as time permitted. So I look forward to next year’s series (all lined up, but I will keep their names under wraps until we’re ready with the publicity) with slightly less trepidation. I need also to rememberi that pride comes before a fall and I could yet spectacularly go wrong in front of the audience!

Posted in Science Culture, Women in Science | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments