Why Can’t a Woman be more like a Man?

Last autumn there were some shocking figures released by the Royal Society regarding the new cohort of University Research Fellows (URFs): only two out of 43 were women. Many of us were very disappointed and depressed by these figures. I wrote about them at the time , as did the Royal Society’s President Paul Nurse on his own blog. But I’m pleased to say shock and depression translated into action. The Royal Society has conducted a thorough review of last year’s process. The review team consisted of 3 Council members, two women and a man. I was not involved but as a Council member myself I have followed the analysis and outcomes with great interest; they were presented at various times so that Council could properly discuss them and make their own input into how things could be moved forward. Their report was published yesterday, along with a further blogpost from the President.

The short answer is no smoking gun was found. There is absolutely no evidence that anyone behaved improperly or that panels did anything other than what they thought was the best they could. Nevertheless, the outcomes clearly indicate that all is not necessarily well in the URF ecosystem. Perhaps this should not surprise us.

The first issue is that the numbers of women applying are too low. We could blame the women for being too timid. Why aren’t the women more like (some) men, bumptious and always willing to put themselves forward? This must surely be the wrong way to think about things, a way that amounts to a deficit model of gender. If women aren’t putting themselves forward in proportion to the numbers in the potential pool we have a problem, and the women aren’t the problem. The onus must be on the mentors, sponsors, heads of department, colleagues and friends to tap bright young researchers – of whichever gender ­­– and encourage them to apply. Clearly at the moment this isn’t happening effectively enough. Women should not be put off by applying by their biological clocks either: the URF scheme has for a number of years offered great flexibility in terms of taking maternity (and now parental) leave and working part-time. I do hope potential applicants read the smallprint if they need convincing on this front.

I have described this as the first problem. In many ways this is the absolute fundamental problem and, for all the President in his blog is calling on Fellows to do their bit in encouraging young female researchers to apply, it really is up to the entire community. There must be many excellent potential applicants who do not have an FRS within range who could do this encouraging. Maybe the community doesn’t know what the standard/ typical CV of a successful applicant looks like; how can they judge whether their junior colleague stands a chance of success and are reluctant to encourage in case this leads to failure? The Royal Society is committing to putting some examples of successful applicants on to their website to resolve this issue. It can only be an indicator but it may help individuals to work out whether they should throw their hat into the ring – or encourage others so to do.

Finally, I am sure there are those who are deeply suspicious that, since the Royal Society has always been a pale and male (if not stale) institution the fault must surely lie in the predominantly pale and male panels. It is quite possible that the panels do indeed judge women harder than men. All the evidence points to this tending to happen quite unconsciously in many different situations, regardless of whether it is men or women who are doing the judging. But there is nothing to indicate anything conscious or deliberate going on. Every Royal Society committee I have sat on in the last few years has taken gender seriously and, although I haven’t sat on an URF panel, I see no reason to believe they will not have done so too. That doesn’t alter the fact that letters of reference for shortlisted candidates may have been gendered; again the evidence is clear this tends to happen across the board. (So another plea to the wider community: think how you write letters of reference, for URF positions or anything else.) For all these reasons the Royal Society is also committing itself to providing training for Chairs and panels to remind them of the issues and to be aware of others who may be less conscious of the concerns. As I proposed before, I would still like to see observers attending panels who may also act as neutral consciences, a matter that is still under consideration. In particular I believe this might make it easier to interweave results from different panels.

I have, as I say, watched the debate going on within the Royal Society and I have discussed it with the President and other senior figures. I am, as readers of this blog will no doubt have concluded for themselves, anxious about gender issues and I don’t believe I am easily hoodwinked. Everything I have seen occurring in the months since the story first broke in September indicates to me that this genuinely is a matter of huge concern to the Society and one they are determined to do all they can to crack. There is not the slightest hint they wish to sweep the problem under the carpet. It is important to reflect (as the report spells out very clearly) on average over the years the success rate has been broadly comparable for male and female applicants. 2014 may have been appalling in one sense, but it is also completely out of line with prior results; it remains the case that a small(ish) statistical blip could account for the poor outcome for women without needing any conspiracy theories.

I applaud the genuine soul-searching that the President and others have gone through rather than some superficial mock hand-wringing by the collective organisation the usual detractors might have expected. Of crucial concern will be what happens next. So, if you know a bright female early career researcher, what are you going to do? Will you be tapping them on the shoulder, drawing the URF competition to their attention and saying ‘go for it’. Or will you instead say, ‘oh don’t bother the Royal Society doesn’t usually appoint women so go and bury your head in the sand?’ I know what I hope senior researchers will do. Unless they do take the former course of action not the latter we will never see an improvement in the application pool. And without larger numbers applying women will continue to be awarded these fellowships in depressingly small numbers absolutely irrespective of anything the Royal Society may attempt to do internally.



Posted in Equality, Women in Science | Tagged , , | 24 Comments

Contemplating Education Matters

This past week it was announced that I would be assuming the Presidency of the British Science Association (the BSA, formerly simply the British Association or the BA). It is a great honour to be asked to follow in the footsteps of so many of the most illustrious scientists of the last 170 odd years. The list of previous incumbents is truly humbling. My immediate past predecessors are Lisa Jardine and Paul Nurse, the present holder, both amazing people with myriad claims to fame. When the news ‘broke’ on Twitter (of course I’ve known for months) I was touched by people’s positive responses and good wishes. Thanks all!

I was also pleased to get an email on Friday evening inviting me to write a piece for this week’s Observer on the back of this. Of course the timescale was tight – the more so as I was hosting a rather important dinner that night in College for the Moving Mountains Conference run during the day, with special guest Stephen Hawking. This fascinating conference was about overcoming chronic health problems (physical or mental) with exercise and the Friday night Hall was full of around 400 people, mainly students, come to listen to Hawking’s pre-recorded words. If I had ever been uncertain about the meaning of celebrity, watching around half of these students leap to their feet clutching their smart phones, cameras flashing, as Hawking started to speak would have made all plain. The emotion in the Hall was tangible. It was very moving. Such an evening was not the time to mull over what I should write for the media in the wake of my new role!

The main duty as BSA President is to give the Address at this year’s BSA meeting in Bradford in September. I have six months to think about what to say, so what I wrote for today’s Observer may or may not form the focus of my address all those months hence; I have no idea….time will tell. But, asked to write an opinion piece at short notice it seemed obvious to me that a logical place to start is our education system. It is, shall we say, far from ideal. When I was involved with the production of the Royal Society’s Vision report for science and maths education over the next 20 years, published last summer, we were all sure that we wanted to see education cease to be treated as a political football. We were equally sure that England’s system of requiring children to decide, essentially at 14, where their futures lay in disciplinary terms was bad for everyone. It is bad for aspiring scientists and it is bad for those who don’t think science is for them. We need to make sure that everyone can write and analyse a text, but that they also understand the meaning of the technical words they are bombarded with day by day and know when the evidence points one way rather than another.

Democracy requires scientific literacy, not just familiarity with Shakespeare. It requires everyone to know when politicians are trying to bamboozle them or cherry pick the evidence. If 99% of scientists believe in climate change, balance does not mean producing the 1% who don’t in equal numbers on a panel or broadcast. But equally it does require scientists to be able to string their arguments together cogently and have some grasp of subjects beyond their own. Why in England do we have an education system that makes this so difficult? This is of course nothing new. The gold standard, so-called, of A-levels has been around for more than 50 years. Back in my own schooldays I suffered from the fact that I couldn’t do A-level German to accompany my standard science A-levels of double maths, physics and chemistry because of timetabling problems. The school, far-sighted as it was, would have permitted it but after a term when I could only get to one lesson out of however many there were each week because of timetable clashes, I gave up with regret.

I was also the generation that had to take the rather incomprehensible subject Use of English. I say incomprehensible because I, for one, never worked out what the point of these lessons was. Not that I didn’t think there was a point in learning how to use English better, but what our lessons were meant to be about escaped me. If we had been better trained in précis (a subject we had been exposed to at O-Level, and a very useful skill it was and is), or technical essay writing – as opposed to ‘creative writing’ – I would have appreciated it. But, as it was, it seemed a fairly shapeless and aimless sort of class.

For non-scientists there are ways to teach ‘the scientific method’ (leaving aside the question of whether there is such a single thing) that should encourage critical thinking. Ben Goldacre’s book Bad Science is an excellent way to present analysis of over-hyped and unsupported claims encouraging appropriate scepticism or even cynicism. It does not require detailed knowledge of mathematical formulations or the ability to label all the internal organs of the human body to appreciate the arguments he puts forward for evidence. This sort of literacy would be an invaluable life skill our students are not taught. There is some movement towards further teaching of basic mathematical skills for all post-16, something undoubtedly to be valued, but no talk of extending breadth any further than this.

Some years ago when researching useful quotes for a talk I was giving, I came across the following by the novelist Lucy Ellmann

The purpose of artists is to ask the right questions, even if we don’t find the answers, whereas the aim of science is to prove some dumb point.

From this I deduce that she thinks that working out why antibiotics are ceasing to work, or why autism is not linked to the MMR vaccination are no more than just ‘dumb points’, a terrifying thought for someone to have. It is because the science-humanities world is so divided that someone can publicly stand up and make a remark like this with honest conviction and yet be so hopelessly naïve. Why do we continue to allow our schoolchildren to be forced into this?

As a final point one might look at the Civil Service. We have moved on from a culture in which an Oxbridge Classics education was what it took for easy admission, but perhaps not as far as one would like. I have recently agreed to chair the Scientific Advisory Council at the Department of Culture, Media and Sports, a committee that is being revived after a period of non-existence. This is a department (possibly now the only Government department) which does not have a Chief Scientific Advisor. They have a scientific team that seems to consist of, wait for it, one person (although maybe I’ve got that wrong; there is certainly only one relatively senior scientist in the, admittedly rather small by government standards, department). Yet this is the department responsible for many technical matters. I feel this situation is a legacy of our education system. I look forward to the challenge of working out where STEM matters for them and how they can use advice better. No doubt I will be writing more about science policy matters based on my experience in this role in the future.

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Music and Disease

When one is the parent of a small child it is well-known one catches every bug going, as their own uninitiated immune systems succumb to one cold after another which they can transmit, often with more serious diseases mixed in. In my case it was chickenpox that got me unexpectedly in my 30’s during a Cambridge epidemic, having escaped it throughout my childhood. I was given the interesting instruction to invite any students in my lectures who hadn’t had the disease to move to the back of the lecture theatre to reduce the chance of infection but the medical view was that I should just lecture through. I feel as if moving into a College has had rather the same effect on me as parenting a small child. It would appear that I’m being exposed to a greater density of germs than my body is able to cope with. This winter I’ve had more colds than in the last several years put together.

The trouble is that the last one has hit me really hard. Apologies to the poor first year students (400+ of them) who have had to cope with a lecturer with very sub-standard energy lectures who spluttered and coughed through teaching them elementary quantum mechanics. I have never previously succumbed to having to take a taxi across Cambridge to lecture because cycling was beyond me, or lectured sitting down, both of which I had to resort to in the last couple of weeks. Even worse, when not obliged to be doing something actively it has been really hard to focus on the email mountain, read thesis chapters, write references or respond to referee comments. The more I failed to do, the worse I felt; post-viral depression – of a mild kind – has set in.

This weekend, when I should have been writing an uplifting and inspiring after-dinner speech, I was instead staring fruitlessly at the computer screen and listening to Radio 3 when I heard something that caught me unawares and which made a big impact on me in my slightly fragile state. It was a performance of Bach’s double violin concerto played by Simon Standage and Michaela Comberti. Micaela, always known as Mica, was a brilliant violinist at my school who died tragically young of cancer at 50 a decade ago. As soon as she turned up at the school she stood out as exceptional and was a key part in the revival of music that flourished at the school while I was there and I believe long after. Listening to this recording it all came flooding back.

Music was such an integral part of my later school years; Mica was at the heart of it. I was a bad but much-needed viola player and got exposed to brilliant opportunities. She was the star violinist, the leader of a fairly thin orchestra with a random collection of instruments mainly wind and strings. Having been learning viola for a mere five terms I was roped into the Chamber Orchestra to play in Bach’s 5th Brandenburg Concerto so that she had a platform for her gifts. I remember being dazzled by the music, although what seemed to me to be most amazing of all was the harpsichord cadenza in the first movement played by a young teacher (Jenny Purvis). Later I played Schubert’s stunning String Quintet; all the other four musicians (including Mica) went on to professional musical careers of one sort or another and we were coached by a professional double bass player as I recall. I kept trying to walk away because I felt I let them down; they wouldn’t let me leave because I was better than nothing, literally. Mica played a leading role in the National Youth Orchestra, whereas my mark was the (not inconsiderable but nevertheless much smaller fry) London Schools’ Symphony Orchestra – they were also short of viola players – where I got to know her brother Sebastian, a cellist a couple of years younger than me who also moved on to a professional career.

I often wonder why music mattered so much to me then and why, still, getting on for 50 years on those experiences continue to feel so precious and valuable. I think in part it was because I was exposed to such musical excellence and wonderful opportunities (playing in both the Royal Festival Hall and the Berliner Philharmonie with the LSSO , as well as the less exalted Harwich Pier Pavilion and other random venues) but also because it was the counterpart to the cerebral physics and maths that otherwise absorbed me during those years. Music – both orchestral and choral, there was always something of a stand-off with the wonderful music master Peter Morgan because I wanted to sing the great choral works we did and not lurk in the orchestra­ – provided me with companionship and a sense of shared goals that was lacking in science A levels. Perhaps also it gave me a chance to appreciate my limits in a field where I was so much not the best but tolerated because of the unusual instrument I played.

All this flashed through my mind as I listened to Mica once again, her brilliance cut off by disease at an intolerably early age. Music has remained with me for much of my life, albeit it must be many years since I picked up my viola or opened my mouth to sing more than a Christmas carol or a hymn at a funeral. I still feel, though, that those few years when I was originally exposed to the classical canon at first hand and could participate in the living organism that is a full-scale choir or orchestra, were hugely important for my future well-being. The impressions music made on me have endured far more viscerally than just about any other activity in my teens or early adult life. Perhaps it is because, as with listening to Mica play, it is easy to recall the excitement a performance engendered when the music is encountered again: Mozart’s Requiem in a massed choir of around 500 schoolgirls and a handful of boys (or so it seemed) under David Willcock‘s baton; or the exhaustion one felt upon reaching the end of Tchaikowsky’s 6th symphony, knowing his death was just round the corner, as it were.

So much of this world is lost to our current school children, where music is a luxury for the well-heeled middle class not something provided for free for the many (the kind State paid for me to have lessons on viola, piano and ultimately in harmony too as I moved up through the instrumental grades.) No more. I may never for one moment regret I did not choose to pursue a musical career with my minimal talent, but it is a tragedy that the joy I was offered on a plate in state schools in the 1960’s is gone, apparently forever.



Posted in Academia, Camden School for Girls | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

I Wish I’d Known Then What I Know Now

There are many questions which are easily posed, to which I don’t find answers come easily. One of these is ‘who inspired you?’ (answer: no one very obviously); or ‘why did you decide you wanted to study physics?‘ to which the feeble answer that I liked it doesn’t seem nearly meaty enough. But there are other questions and issues which I should have thought about much earlier in life but which with hindsight perhaps I do have some answers to, or at least reflections. So here’s a brief list of things I wish I’d known when I was a student or an early career researcher.

1 Confidence is often only skin deep.

Those people you observe and admire because they are so sure of themselves, scratch a little deeper and you may find they are as confused and uncertain as yourself. Perhaps the only difference is that they have decided to fake it in the hopes that the imaginary will become the reality. It is all too easy to be intimidated by other people’s apparent self-assurance; don’t be fooled by appearances.

2 Confidence can be dangerous.

By which I don’t mean that if you’re confident you’re necessarily wrong, but that sometimes some suitable uncertainty can be a better platform on which to build. Those of us who do a lot of interviewing (for whatever type of position) will have seen only too often the person who walks into the room oozing confidence and then failing to answer the simplest questions. Confidence can lead to a lack of preparation in a situation like that with outcomes that can shake the confidence – and they certainly should. This really amounts to pride comes before a fall.

3 Not knowing what you want to be doing in 5 years’ time isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

It’s probably a good idea to have a direction of travel, and a list of criteria you’ll factor into decisions about where to go next. But I feel those people who say they want to have made their first million by the time they’re 30, or to have got a URF or whatever it might be are possibly kidding themselves and also quite likely to be closing off some good options because they feel they’ve got their life mapped out. Chance may come knocking at their door and they won’t recognize it – and yet they may still fail to make their chosen goals.

4 Few skills or facts acquired won’t come in handy at some time or another.

As an undergraduate I remember being deeply disappointed that I was expected to study chemistry in my first year as one of my three chosen sciences in the Natural Sciences Tripos. I had hoped I had shaken the dust of the subject off my heels with A level. Yet, by the time I was researching polymers that additional year of chemistry was hugely helpful to me. Nor have I ever regretted my Latin O Level since it’s taught me a lot about the roots of words (and grammar), even though I’ve not read a line of Virgil since.

5 There is a rarely a single right way of doing anything.

It is all too easy to look at someone doing something you’d like to emulate – giving a talk, sounding persuasive on a committee, running their group meetings, writing reports or whatever – and think that since you would never have thought of doing it that way you must be wrong and useless. The reality is what works for the other person may have no bearing on what works for you. Persuasive arguments only work if you believe in them and you can find a style in which to deliver them that fits with who you are. Watching someone else tell amusing anecdotes by way of making a point may look very impressive, but if anecdote-telling isn’t your forte, don’t go that route. Find ways that work for you. I think this problem is particularly pernicious because it is all too easy to be frozen into immobility by thinking ‘I couldn’t do that‘. Maybe you couldn’t, but maybe you could do something else equally powerful and possibly even more so. Don’t be intimidated.

6 Some corners really can be cut.

If you have perfectionist tendencies, then this remark is really aimed at you. It can be tempting to think that nothing less than total control is adequate, and that all the i’s have to be dotted and the t’s crossed or the world will fall apart. Rarely is this true (unless perhaps you are an accountant balancing the books). The trick is to learn which are the corners no one will notice are missing. Get things wrong and you can end up looking silly, but often people are just glad that some of the work has been completed at all and are grateful to you. I suspect that with seniority comes, not only the knowledge that missing corners aren’t going to end your career, but a general feeling that one can wing things if someone does notice. This can still go horribly wrong – but with luck not too often.

7 Be willing to take on tasks you’re not sure you’re completely qualified to do.

If you never do this, not only will you not discover what your strengths are but you also won’t ever acquire these additional skills. Should I be apologetic that the first Research Council committee I chaired I didn’t know what a lot of the acronyms meant when I first sat down to read the applications? No, I don’t think so. I did my homework and took advice from those who could explain what MALDI-TOF and similar terms meant, so that by the time the committee meeting came around I was on top of the necessary material. If I had waited to accept such a role until such time as I knew the whole field of biological instrumentation back to front I would never have started chairing committees at all. The important thing is to be willing to put in the hours to acquire the knowledge you need. That requirement never goes away, however senior you are (subject to the comment above about ‘winging’ things occasionally).

8 Asking questions is not an admission of weakness but of strength.

Everyone will have encountered that mild-looking professor, possibly the one who looks like they’re asleep through most of the seminar, who at the end says ‘I may have missed something but…‘ and nails the speaker’s pretensions to the mast in a very obvious if non-aggressive way. These people have the confidence to admit that maybe they really did miss something, although they rather doubt it, but they are not going to let themselves be bamboozled by fancy words without any content behind them. In most situations asking questions is a perfectly reasonable thing to do — as in, what is MALDI-TOF, see above – although one should try to avoid asking the same questions multiple times.

No doubt other readers will have other ideas of things that should be added to this list. Please add them in the comments.



Posted in Science Culture | Tagged , | 5 Comments

Style Matters

I was reading a reference recently and I noticed a sentence containing the word ‘responsible’ twice in the same sentence. I stopped reading and reached for the metaphorical red pen. It mattered not a whit in this context, but it certainly jarred on me and brought me up short. Using the same word twice (or more) in quick succession lacks style and should be discouraged. Such discouragement is what I would do when reading work from my students; hence the metaphorical red pen. Style in letters of reference is not particularly important, as long as the basic message gets across, but style in other bits of writing is of rather more significance. If someone is put off by careless punctuation, bad grammar and a lack of felicity in language use they may simply give up reading. If this is your thesis or the papers that emanate from it then you are unlikely to make much of an impact with your work and your citations may struggle.

When I was at primary school we were trained to tell an adjective from an adverb and a noun from a verb. Five years of Latin at my secondary school exposed me to more grammar than I ever learned in my English lessons. I was taken aback when learning the first declension to realise I had never before had to grapple with the difference between subject and object. As for verbs, I had had (pluperfect) no conception of all the different tenses that I was using (imperfect) in my writing. I am not saying I will have used (future perfect) all the possible tenses I could within this paragraph, but at least after a year or two of Latin I knew (past historic, as it is known in French) that they existed. Somewhere in there I suspect there was a subjunctive too.

Style does matter! One of the things I have most enjoyed since I started writing this blog is the ability to write in the first person using active verbs. It is a delight to get away from the standard scientific-paper-lingo of the passive third person, as in ‘It was shown that….’ . Such a phrase may be entirely clear but quite quickly becomes tedious. Passive verbs are no doubt intended to convey a suitable sense of gravitas and distance. Nothing too hot and hasty in such a style, nothing which suggests there is anything that hasn’t been weighed judiciously and suitable conclusions drawn. But it doesn’t make for thrilling reading.

When it comes to writing a thesis, though, there are many stylistic traps to fall into. Of course the worst failing of all is so to order things that their logic is unclear. Putting discussion before results is one such error that I have come across more than once. It is hard to follow pages detailing an interpretation of results as yet unseen. When the results do finally make an appearance my patience (or my brainpower) may have long since run out. If the writing itself is garbled in one way or another then the reader will be left confused. This problem is just as acute for a native English speaker as for an overseas student, in my experience.

There are many places to turn to for help. Pat Thomson operates # acwri (Academic Writing) and her blog (Patter) covers many important facets of the problem on a regular basis. More specifically for scientists, Susan Perkin has written some helpful notes for students challenged by their supervisors to write their first papers. In my view it is imperative that supervisors do let students loose on the act (or is it art?) of paper-writing, not do it oneself. If students are never allowed to try out their own scientific style how are they supposed to learn from their mistakes? If a student struggles with writing even after reading many papers from the literature, as surely they will have done, it doesn’t seem probable that reading their own results written up by their supervisor will suddenly make it transparently clear to them how such writing should be carried out. It is a case of practice makes perfect – or at least considerably better – and if it takes five or more drafts to achieve something approximately ready for submission the first time, it is to be hoped that next time around it will only be three. (I should add that supervisors may not themselves enjoy this iterative process.)

However, I think it is important to realise that there is no unique way to write a paper. By which I mean both that the way one plans the writing in advance may take various forms, ranging from bullet points to a list of figures to something totally pictorial by way of a flow chart; and also that there may be many ways in which to order the words, or to select between more or less florid ones, to convey the same clear message. It is the clarity that matters; style of language is secondary but often intimately tied up in that clarity.

I mentioned my own education at the beginning of this post because it does seem to me that current English education (and other parts of the UK may differ) does not put much of a premium on grammatical accuracy. I’ve had students express surprise when I correct grammar, spelling and punctuation. But these things really do matter. And they matter whether one intends to pursue an academic career or go into some other line of business. Everything we do is fundamentally about communication in some form or other. If we can’t express simply and clearly what we’ve done and what we intend to do next (as in proposal-writing) then we might as well be talking to ourselves. What’s the point – or indeed joy – in that? Whatever one may feel about that dreaded word ‘impact’, surely no one would say we should not share the outcomes of our research, even if only with the two other academic groups in the world who share the same interest.

So, students pull up your socks and accept that style matters! Supervisors – practice your own and make sure you pass on your knowledge to those who follow in your footsteps!



Posted in Communicating Science, Education, Research | Tagged , , | 8 Comments