Moving Beyond a Silo Mentality

Wherever I turn currently I seem to come up against the questions that assessing interdisciplinary research throws up. Nature recently had a special issue highlighting some of the challenges and rewards, but taking a very broad brush approach. Its editorial headed ‘Why interdisciplinary research matters’ rather implied the discerning reader might never have considered its importance, which I very much doubt. Collectively researchers are in no doubt of the significance of interdisciplinary projects, whether or not they personally choose to pursue that line.

I am interested in encouraging specific actions that may make the playing field more level between monodisciplinary projects and those which reach out beyond traditional boundaries. I will take it as read that a large number of topics (say, sustainability, energy solutions….) require multiple disciplines to be involved. I am surprised by those – including funders – who behave as if it was still necessary to encourage people to dare to dip a toe into the waters of inter-/multi-/pan-disciplinary research (I am not going to worry about these linguistic distinctions here). Of course that doesn’t mean that every project needs or could be like this; many topics fit neatly within standard labels and as such will be well suited to traditional decision-making panels. I am interested in the fate of projects which can’t so easily be pigeon-holed and what systemic changes might facilitate their success. I think there are a variety of distinct issues involved which often get conflated.

Some schemes require sole PIs: the ERC standard grants are like this. The ERC’s own data shows that proposals which tick more than one panel’s remit do not fare as well as those that don’t, a focus of concern. Different approaches have been tried out over the years to overcome this problem; further discussions about new possibilities are underway. So much for thinking that a single research council will cause fewer problems for such proposals, as I once naively did. (As an important aside I hope the Nurse Review will explore how the UK can do more to stop proposals falling down the cracks between research councils that does indubitably currently occur.)

However, for other than large conglomerate proposals (as tend to arise in specific calls as opposed to responsive mode) there will usually be at most 2-3 PIs and what follows applies equally to these proposals as to single PI-type grants. Let me take a specific topic to illustrate the challenges, that of driverless cars. One can imagine a project which requires some engineering (be it algorithms or something to do with manufacturing) as well as some social science such as what the public might be willing to accept. Logically one can see what outline shape such a project might have. One or other aspect might be regarded as cutting edge, or the novelty might lie in the synergy and not in either facet independently. How many times have you heard a panel member say ‘Topic A is really mundane, topic B ditto and yet the whole is highly innovative and amounts to frontier research’? Unfortunately that really isn’t how ‘experts’ tend to behave and yet that may absolutely be the right answer. I fear they are more likely to say ‘Topic A is mundane and I haven’t a clue about B so I’ll give this a low score’. The other only-too-common complaint from referees and panels, particularly where there is a single PI, is that the project is too ambitious because it transcends boundaries. This comment is likely to be heard even if it is clearly stated who the PI(s) will work with to cover some of the more remote bases.

It has been suggested (I have heard this in the context of UK Research Councils) that what one really needs is a panel (and referees) solely consisting of people with a proven track record themselves in performing interdisciplinary research to judge such proposals – although I don’t think any of them have gone down that particular route (charities may have). I have a lot of sympathy with this view because I think such people would be less prone to say that one particular facet of the proposal is pedestrian and therefore the project overall is flawed. This sort of refereeing comment seems to happen with disappointing regularity. In my own field of biological physics it is a well-worn complaint of applicants which as yet the research councils have failed to address or, I believe, even attempted to address in any meaningful way.

Another argument I have heard time and time again, from various different funders, is that a home will always be found for any proposal and that applicants should simply write the best grant they can. I’m sorry, this response strikes me as completely inadequate (I have been reminded of it just recently in a context that is outwith the research council system). A ‘home’ means simply that the funder is prepared to put the application in front of a panel, not that the panel is well configured to deal with it on equal terms with a monodisciplinary application. Having someone judge a proposal is simply not the same thing as having someone judge a proposal competently or fairly.

So, as I head off to yet another group who will be discussing this problem, having spent an evening last week over a glass of wine arguing the same point with a yet another funding agency, it seems to me the problem persists in the face of the oft-stated desire by scientists, funders and politicians (in the context of societal benefit) alike to encourage such cross-cutting research. It seems to me that the problem should be broken down into several stages, none of which are tantamount to needing to encourage more people to get out of their silos. I think there are plenty already out there wanting to do just this, although (given the challenges) early career researchers may well feel nervous about making the attempt. Anyone trying the interdisciplinary venture may simply become frustrated by the funding landscape and end up trying to modify their proposal deliberately to obscure its inherent multidisciplinarity.

Here is a list of the challenges I can readily identify at different stages of the process. Others may want to add in more:

  • Referees do not explicitly identify the parts of the proposal they don’t feel competent to judge. They may make sweeping judgements based on only partial understanding.
  • Likewise they may fail to recognize that novelty sits in bringing two quite standard approaches together to create something new.
  • Panels can find it hard to reject or nuance such flawed referees’ reports.
  • Panels can be very conservative and risk averse, preferring ‘safe’ but possibly incremental research which has received enthusiastic referees’ comments; where one project fits centrally into a remit and another is peripheral, such conservatism (I tend to think of it as ‘regression towards the mean’) is liable to favour the former over the latter.
  • Attempts to bring in external panel members from a different panel in some ad hoc way (I know BBSRC used to do this and may still) their views tend to be downplayed: I have seen internal evidence to support this statement.
  • In some cases proposals may be passed between funders, or (where two or more funders co-fund) one party may have right of veto despite only appreciating a portion of a proposal.

The Nature Special I refer to at the start of this post remarked in passing that industry does not have a similar problem. Nor, from my previous experience, do research institutes when using their own internal funds. When, over a decade ago, I was involved with the governance of the Institute for Food Research in Norwich, it was very clear how, being driven by projects with an over-arching aim, where nutritional and textural aspects might mingle or the impact of genetic modification of a crop on downstream processing, they could bring teams together in a fluid way and all that mattered was the outcome. Maybe the textural characterisation was entirely pedestrian but if in an attempt to achieve better nutrition (e.g. a lower fat content in a food) concomitant with acceptable mouthfeel such characterisation was necessary, then so be it.

We collectively need to find ways of moving to a problem and not discipline-based judgement so that all researchers have the same opportunities to get beyond traditional (sub-)disciplines and solve the problems that need solving and not the ones that fit some old-fashioned idea of what physics, or engineering, or biology look like.



Posted in Interdisciplinary Science, Science Funding | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

The Fresher’s Balancing Act

It’s the start of another academic year. For some universities, students have been in residence for some time; for others, such as Cambridge, freshers (undergraduates and graduates) are only now arriving. That of course goes for ‘Heads of House’ too, i.e. people like me who are Masters, Presidents, Principals and Wardens. I am very conscious of the fact that I am no longer the new kid on the Cambridge College block, as we welcome Jackie Ashley (Lucy Cavendish) and Chris Smith (Pembroke) to their new roles; conscious also of the fact that a year in, I hope I’m not only older but wiser about the ways of my specific College and also the collective collegiate system.

However this blogpost is not about me but about the students who, nervously or confidently, are arriving heavy laden both with luggage and expectations. It can be a daunting moment when you leave the familiar for the unknown. Perhaps you are clutching a literal or metaphorical cuddly toy to get you through the first anxious days; or indeed a well-thumbed dictionary which still does not provide the colloquial or idiosyncratic words needed to traverse the environment. Gyps and bedders don’t necessarily appear in standard dictionaries, and I note that Trinity College has helpfully provided an online glossary to assist both native and non-native speakers into the arcane world of Cambridge lingo.

But what actually has prompted this post was the little phrase ‘you have to take control. I came across in quite an old blogpost written for postdocs. It very much echoes advice the Royal Society put out for doctoral students. People can give you plenty of advice and support if you ask for it, but if upon arrival at your new home you sit and shake in your room it is hard for others to know what is going on. If you are a fresher – at whatever level – you are likely to be surrounded both by colleagues in a similar position and by those more senior/experienced in a position to proffer advice. Of course occasionally that isn’t true (particularly if you’re starting a new job in an unfriendly organisation) but as a new student it almost certainly does apply and you should avail yourself of the support on offer.

So, how should newcomers set out to ‘take control’? What can be done to ensure that they put themselves in a position to squeeze the most out of their new opportunities? Just remembering that you are not alone in being uncertain, nervous and probably totally confused is a good place to start. It is so easy to be fooled into thinking that you are the only one operating in a fog when the reality is that if you don’t feel like that you are probably missing an awful lot that is going on around you. Admitting to being befogged in that first week is not an admission of failure it is an admission of reality. However, remaining struggling in the mists of confusion most certainly means that you aren’t taking control by asking enough questions. Ask your peers but, probably even more importantly, ask all those who are ahead of you in the game: most freshers are assigned a mentor (possibly named a parent or buddy) who has in the recent past been in the same situation as you. In Cambridge as an undergraduate you will have both a Tutor (for pastoral care) and a Director of Studies for subject-specific issues. These are experienced folk who are used to answering questions, possibly even before you’ve grasped enough factual information to formulate them.

During the first few days students will be inundated with facts which are impossible to absorb all at once. If you are given stacks of paper it is well worth keeping them to hand, since in a little while you will both know what facts you really need to know and have forgotten who told you what. But paper copies – of timings when you can get food (or indeed alcohol) in the building, for instance – will remain of use: don’t simply recycle them at the first opportunity.

It’s not all about facts, there are decisions to make, starting with people. Finding like-minded people (however defined) to hang out with is hugely important. I well recall feeling overwhelmed by everything happening to me but making bad choices amongst my fellow freshers as to who to confide in during my first few days as an undergraduate. I chose someone who was neither sympathetic nor like-minded and in due course I felt vulnerable I had exposed my lack of confidence to someone who could potentially use it against me. I don’t think she ever did but it made me very cautious in all my future dealings with her. Nevertheless, perhaps the benefit I derived from blurting out my anxieties made that subsequent unease worth it. Hard to tell.

What I’m sure is true, though, is that exploring the company around you is well worth the effort. Some you can instantly tell are alien to you, however worthy they may be. Perhaps good for discussing problem sheets with but not who you want to hang out with in more relaxed circumstances. Others may be positively not your cup of tea, those who instantly make you feel small or otherwise uncomfortable (they are probably the most insecure of all in your cohort and it is merely their attempt to cover up their own fears, but that’s not your problem). But many will just be muddling along, feeling uncertain but ready to have a natter with a friendly face. Time will tell whether the nascent friendship survives the first reception glasses of warm chardonnay (or equivalent; in my day it was sherry) or a foray to the local source of coffee.

Decisions also need to be taken about furnishing your living quarters, which may resemble a slightly dreary and battered monk’s cell upon arrival. Making sure your space gives you comfort is hugely important because you’ll spend a lot of time there. If, as I realised about my College office after the best part of a year, the space gets you down then do something about it (although admittedly this is still a project in hand in my case)! Feeling at home, feeling you have a retreat that is ‘you’, comfortable and a space you’re prepared to invite someone else into, is important. Take control of this even if you feel still adrift when it comes to lectures.

And of course, most important of all, find some way to take control of the courses you are studying. By which I mean, make your choices as thoughtfully as you can as to what lecture courses to attend, and think about the effort you need to expend in order to survive them. Thinking back to my own experiences, I still recall the folly of leaving my first week’s supervision work to the last possible evening and then attending a choir practice and hanging around for a drink afterwards so I ended up doing – or more precisely failing to do – the work at midnight. It did not augur well but perhaps taught me that living like that did not make me satisfied. Nothing wrong with enjoying myself at the choir or afterwards, but I needed my work in the bag if I was to feel OK about it.

Indeed, working out how to balance the work-relaxation-sleep triangle is perhaps the fundamental challenge for all students wherever they may be and whatever course they are studying. Taking control of those three aspects of student life is fundamental to survival.

Posted in Education | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Can We Get Beyond Quotas?

As people talk increasingly about the need for quotas of women on Boards and senior management teams of different kinds, it is worth considering not only whether this is desirable but whether it is viable. I am prompted to ask this question by an email from a senior civil servant seeking a diverse pool of applicants for such positions within a government department who questions whether the idea of ‘Board fatigue’ is genuine or an urban myth. It is an interesting question and one that I think has a complex answer. The complexity is neatly exemplified by a recent EMBO report looking at the pros and cons of quotas in academia; it deliberately doesn’t come up with a yes/no answer and probably the answer is ‘it depends’ on the specific situation.

Some women get asked to do many different things, to serve on a wide variety of committees some of which may wield genuine power and influence. These individuals are what one might term the ‘usual suspects’. Of course, because they are in the public (or at least the Government or Research Council’s) eye they get myriad opportunities to serve and to make their voice heard. Just as with men there is an inner, well-recognized group whose names easily trip off head hunter’s tongues or who will be instantly brought to mind by Vice Chancellors when asked to name an eminent woman. The number in these ranks is small and will vary between particular areas of science and engineering. There are likely to be more in the biological sciences than in computing, for instance, although often at the highest levels the specific discipline may be less important than the skill set possessed. These women can pick and choose, within reason, and may well suffer from Board fatigue.

What matters, though, is the next tier of individuals. As yet less visible, without quite the same blend of confidence and experience, these are the ones whom Vice Chancellors and head hunters should be thinking about, those who are ready for that tap on the shoulder which may nevertheless never come. It should not take a woman to come up with a woman’s name but experience tells me they try a little harder to do so than the average man. Diverse talent will be better recognized when that statement finally ceases to be true. Until it is, too often it is women recommending women and women’s networks that will facilitate women becoming better recognized. This needs to change.

So, what is the best way of facilitating this process of highlighting those on the cusp of readiness and not simply those who have already reached the most senior roles? How can we get past merely recycling the names of obvious individuals who are not going to have spare capacity to take on yet another role, however enticing that role might be? I think this is a challenge for the whole community.

Of course, one can have a committee of the great and good (but largely the very same) women designed specifically to come up with names of women. I’ve been involved in various such committees and by and large I am not convinced they are ever able to do enough. Nor do I believe it amounts to a genuine structural solution; it merely continues to load women with additional responsibilities whilst leaving too many men able to say that they didn’t think it was their role to do anything. Head hunters, as I’ve said before, have a crucial role to play but as yet I don’t think they’ve fully embraced this role, too often ringing around the obvious names who propose other equally obvious names. Maybe LinkedIn is the answer: I can’t say, as I’ve never joined. There is a European network (AcademiaNet) being set up to highlight female scientists across Europe, possibly more with an eye to conference speakers than Boards but certainly relevant to the latter too. This is relatively new and I haven’t heard whether it regards itself as a success yet or not but it is an interesting experiment.

Can the community itself do more? This is where I think the answer has to be yes. There should be a way of garnering names – locally by discipline, sub-field or geography – and making sure these names get picked up. Can universities build such an internal mechanism perhaps? I don’t know the answer; every organisation will no doubt be differently constructed and what works in one place may not in another. Perhaps it should be the Faculty Dean’s responsibility (or head of department) rather than leave it to the overarching VC who simply can’t be all-seeing. Do they do so, to seek out those up-and-coming women in their purlieu whose names should be kept constantly in mind for internal or external appointments? Do they have immediately to hand the names of women who could be asked to take on different types of roles so that they can easily put them forward on request? Professional bodies are often approached to suggest names and again, they could maintain lists of the approaching-the-top individuals who should be borne in mind but I certainly don’t know that they do so. The trouble is, from what I’ve seen, everyone thinks it is someone else’s responsibility.

Now I’m sure there will be readers who think this is all artificial. Why should women be given special treatment and shouldn’t we just be gathering lists of middle-ranking people regardless of gender? No doubt, in an ideal world, the answer would be yes. I wish it were so, but as yet we haven’t reached that happy state. Recall what the High Court judge Jonathan Sumption said just this week about women in the judiciary:

‘We have got to be very careful not to do things at a speed which will make male candidates feel that the cards are stacked against them. If we do that we will find that male candidates don’t apply in the right numbers.’

As barrister Charlotte Proudman responded tartly

‘Wouldn’t it be awful if men enjoying the privilege of an imbalance of power felt this privilege threatened?’

I don’t think things are so different in science.

I remain uneasy about quotas, for all the reasons the EMBO report highlights, though less so when it comes to Boards than when it comes to faculty appointments. Nevertheless, the least we can do to help to redress the balance is to make sure that anyone trying to construct a senior level committee has access to names of highly qualified women who could, perhaps should, be considered. We, collectively, need to make this easier.

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

Why so Few (Still)?

If you ask a kid to draw a scientist, very often they will draw a ‘mad’ scientist with sticking up hair in a white lab coat, probably holding a test tube containing some evil-looking smoking liquid: an amalgam of Einstein and Frankenstein. Oh yes, and they’ll be male. Perceptions about this really don’t seem to be changing very fast. The L’Oreal Foundation have just published the results of a survey they carried out across Europe, asking around 5000 people their views and perceptions of scientists, and in particular whether they thought women possessed the right skills to do science. The answers shocked me.

Based on the responses recorded in the study, it would seem that overall 67% of Europeans think that women do not possess the required skill set in order to achieve high-level scientific positions (the figure is 64% specifically for the UK). When comparing this figure with China, despite this shockingly high percentage of people who hold such negative views, the Europeans come out as less prejudiced against women scientists: in China an absolutely staggering 93% believe that women aren’t cut out to be scientists. Clearly we shouldn’t be astonished that, with this level of incredulity about women being capable of doing science, progress is as glacially slow as it is in seeing women rise to the top of the profession. And it would rather imply that we should also not be surprised that teachers (and indeed parents) aren’t always as encouraging as they might be when it comes to ensuring girls stick with science post-16, without even noticing that this is what they’re doing.

When asked for which fields do women possess the right aptitude, 89% of the survey’s respondents said ‘anything but science’, whilst favouring the social sciences, communication and languages as being suitable. These figures differed only slightly between men and women. Nevertheless one question where there was a noticeable distinction between the replies of men and women came in reply to the question asking what stops women progressing to the top in science. Whereas around half of both men and women said cultural factors were important, rather more women than men (45% versus 41%) also attributed this to men impeding the women’s progression; and 44% of women (compared with 37% of men) said there was a problem in the support management provided for women.

These figures are truly dismal. I feel almost astonished that so many women are actually entering into and succeeding in the scientific disciplines when you see the level of pretty explicit negativity about them doing so. Despite this apparent bias, those questioned actually thought there were more of us female scientists out there than there really are: on average they estimated that women hold 28% of the highest academic functions within scientific fields across the European Union. What’s the reality? Rather less than half that figure, with only around 11% women at the top.

Whether or not you think a scientist needs make-up, L’Oreal should be commended for everything they do to promote Women in Science in conjunction with UNESCO . (I am of course a beneficiary, having won their 2009 L’Oreal/Unesco Laureate for Europe) They offer financial support to many early career women through their national fellowship schemes and aim to create a multitude of role models – with accompanying imagery and life stories – for the next generations. This current campaign, headed up by Nobel Prize Winner Elizabeth Blackburn, is entitled ‘Change the Numbers’, with a view to seeing more women join her in that rare club of female Nobel Prize winners, currently crawling along at around 3% of all winners. And this goal can of course only be achieved if more girls and young women enter the profession in the first place. Hence L’Oreal have created a short video calling for #changethenumbers. Like my own call for #just1action4WIS, this is all about focussing attention on the current dire situation and finding ways to overcome it. By highlighting the prejudices and misconceptions the average man and woman in Europe feel when it comes to women rising through the ranks of scientists, we can see how important it is to keep talking about the problem.

Any particular woman may or may not actively be impeded by men and management (as the answers suggest), but whether this is her lot or not she will be surrounded by a crowd of people who just do not believe she is likely to succeed simply because she is a woman. If the people she talks to in the cinema queue, in the bar or the student union are prone to say ‘really?’ when she admits to loving science and aiming high, the drip-drip-drip of negativity is liable to sap self-confidence and aspiration.

The UK is little worse or better than the other European countries studied (and all seem better than China), men are not much more likely to hold negative beliefs than women, but collectively Jo(e) Public just doesn’t seem to have much faith that women can and should be scientists. Getting past the active hostility of a Jim Watson against Rosalind Franklin has to be seen as progress, but only when gender becomes irrelevant to how people view the person at the bench will equality in the lab even start to be a reality.



Posted in Equality, Women in Science | Tagged , , , , | 18 Comments

Compartmentalising our Passions

As scientists, many in the world believe we are reductionist, breaking everything down into component parts. For some humanities’ scholars this can be equated to the fact that we can’t possibly be creative or, in Thomas Carlyle’s words (in 1833), that

‘The Progress of Science…is to destroy wonder, and in its stead substitute Mensuration and Numeration’.

That attitude is, I fear, one part of why scientists are too often seen as ‘other’, not part of our nation’s culture, despite the fact that it is a complete misunderstanding of how scientists typically operate. For further thoughts about this take a look at what I wrote about the philosopher Mary Midgley’s take on science here .

The fact that, at least since around Carlyle’s time, science and arts have been put in opposition by some otherwise wise people, formed part of my Presidential Address to the British Science Association this week. I have posted the full (if not necessarily completely precisely followed) text of this address up as a page on this blog, but let me tease out a minor theme that wasn’t particularly developed there but which underpins it: compartmentalisation. (The text is also up on the BSA’s website)

This post is really prompted by a passing comment exchanged after I had recorded Private Passions with Michael Berkeley for Radio 3 (to be broadcast at noon on October 4th). This is a programme about the influence of (usually classical) music on the interviewee’s life, a classical Desert Island Discs if you like. Not everyone might want to participate, however passionately they might be able to talk about their day job. Since I spent a lot of my teens playing in orchestras and singing in choirs I was willing to attempt to sound intelligent about my choice of music and, more importantly, to sneak some science unexpectedly into the listener’s sitting room. In fact, I enjoyed the experience: Michael was easy to talk to and only occasionally did I feel I was adrift with his professional musicological thoughts.

However, the throwaway remark that has given me pause for thought was when the team asked me to let them know if I could think of other people who might be willing to record a programme. Now, I’m sure I know many scientists who are deeply appreciative and knowledgeable of classical music but I don’t think I know who they are. I don’t go to concerts with them (or, indeed, go to concerts at all as life just seems too busy); I don’t exchange ideas about the music of Schubert or Bach over a cup of tea, raise the subject of Hindemith in the bar at a conference or discuss Monteverdi as I pass the wine around at a formal College dinner. I could, there’s no reason why not, but as it happens it rarely comes up. So, at that point in the conversation with the production team I could only think of one scientist I knew for sure was deeply into music (because I’d seen him tweeting during the Proms this year). Since then I’ve come up with a couple of other possible names.

This is sad. For all I’m proud that I’m not a complete literary or musical dunce, I am much more likely to discuss a novel or non-fiction book that’s taken my fancy with colleagues than to discuss music. I’m not sure why. Why have I formed this compartment around music that doesn’t apply to books? Do people think this a common experience and does such fragmentation apply more broadly or are some topics more likely to be hidden away than others?

I will continue to think about possible names to suggest to Private Passions. I will go on pondering what this means for me about how I view the strands of my life. In my College, once home to CP Snow who dreamt up the Two Cultures meme, I hope that we can continue to mix and match the (intellectual) passions of our students and fellowship to create a rich and thriving cultural environment. In the meantime, do read my full Presidential Address to see precisely why I think ‘Education Matters more than Ever’ – and listen to my musical choice in a couple of weeks.



Posted in Communicating Science, Science Culture | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments