The ‘Mine’s Bigger’ School of Science

I didn’t watch the second Trump-Clinton debate, but it is clear from all I’ve read that one of the former’s tactics to attempt to disconcert Clinton was to try to intimidate her physically – by sheer bulk and position on the stage. It doesn’t seem to have been a very successful strategy in this case, but it seems all of a piece with the man. Intimidation is of course known in other non-political sectors, indeed just about everywhere. Science is not immune to it, although it isn’t likely to be anything quite as explicitly tangible as simply physical size.

I think of this as the ‘mine’s bigger’ school of science, and it could cover anything from grant income to h index. Unfortunately, these easy metrics are not just used by one individual against another – although such implicit one-upmanship may turn up in pub ‘banter’ as well as over the lab bench – but also in recruitment, promotion and grant panels. I’ve forcibly been reminded of this in two recent committee meetings, both concerning – unsurprisingly – the issues around gender in science. Ultimately both discussions revolved around how we measure success and excellence. One was in the UK (the BEIS Diversity Steering Group), the other covering European science (the ERC’s Gender Balance Working Group). Are we, as a sector, too hung up not only on metrics of dubious worth, but also on an out-of-date set of criteria overall?

After the BEIS meeting I went back and read what I wrote when my University released its Meaning of Success book in 2014. I believe that what I wrote then still holds true. That success should cover much more than mere figures and some of the interviewees included ‘building teams, seeing their students thrive and progress, working with people who sparked them off intellectually and seizing opportunities to try out new things and make new discoveries.’ How do you measure such things? And if they aren’t measurable in a quantitative manner, how can an appropriate narrative or qualitative presentation be evaluated?

Equally importantly, if one is using narrative as a determination, can this be made objective? The ERC (both the Gender Balance Working Group and the full Scientific Council) were shown a video about unconscious bias which very concretely demonstrates the dangers of using ‘gut feelings’ and subjective measures. Recognizing that there is a danger of falling between the Scylla of slavish metrics – where bigger means better but it is at least an objective measure – and the Charybdis of personal likes and dislikes – where there may be nothing objective concerned at all – what should panels do?

Firstly, it is clear that there are some absolute no-noes. A discussion of caring responsibilities, for instance, should not be admissible (see the video I give above for a concrete example of how such ‘information’ can sneak into discussions). It is true that there is no reason why men should not be asked how they are to manage with a newborn or elderly parent just as much as women, but the reality is even if they were I doubt their answers would be treated similarly. Secondly if the size of grant income cannot be used as a ‘pure’ number, the question is how can it be handled. In interviews it is probably possible to interrogate what it means, to discover whether a mega-grant income simply means a huge number of slaves in the lab in whom the PI takes no personal interest or alternatively a vibrant community who are individually supported. Reading a standard CV it is hard to see how an equivalent dissection of what underlies the metric of income could be carried out, but cover letters could be required specifically to include support and training of group members as a topic to be discussed.

The metric of h index or citation profile has been much more widely critiqued and is probably already being treated with caution by at least some panels. It is of course a number which is not totally irrelevant. Without believing that publication in a high impact journal like Nature necessarily means the peak of academe, I do believe if all publications are in the Journal of Neverbeenheardof one might question the quality of outputs. But to me that is the point. To decide, based on one or two papers in high impact factor journals that the output is first class begs two questions: firstly, whether a high impact factor journal necessarily always publishes truly excellent science; and secondly, that in some disciplines results may be much better written up in a series of papers in good journals rather than in one single stellar paper (for some fields they are not even well-covered by one of the nominally Superstar journals). The difference between disciplines, even sub-disciplines, in publishing and citation behaviour is also why the h index has to be used with an enormous pinch of salt as a comparator if it is to be used at all.

Now many people who have sat on panels of different sorts may be throwing their hands up and saying of course their panel doesn’t use slavish metrics in decision-making. At interview stage that may indeed be correct. But what about what happens before the panel meets the applicants, at the long- and short-listing stages? Faced with a large pile of papers to whittle down to some manageable number, it is all too easy to resort to the shorthand of metrics to choose the ‘top ten’ of CVs to consider in more detail. I was once told by a Faculty Dean how he had instructed all the departments in his remit, if uncertain whether to include a woman in a longlist or not, to keep them in for further consideration. After this edict he discovered how suddenly the number of women appointed across the Faculty shot up. Nothing about positive discrimination here, just thinking a little more carefully about CVs that might not have satisfied the ‘mine’s bigger’ school and been eliminated without proper consideration before the final stages. This anecdote demonstrates how small actions can have a big impact.

Trying to tease out the reality behind crude numbers is important. Expanding the range of what elements are considered at each stage of decision-making will ensure a more diverse range of candidates make it through. Identifying some more qualitative skills that are used as criteria and which are expected to be touched on in a CV or covering letter will facilitate the process; attitude towards training research students, general contribution to departmental citizenry, outreach in schools and more general science communication could all be explicitly asked for – add your own favourite additional skill to this list. At the very least asking for this information indicates that these are activities that are valued.

We need to do better to ensure we genuinely appoint, promote and retain the best, not just those who can jump through hoops and sell themselves hard. As in business, I believe diverse teams – at whatever level – are likely to be more successful. The issues raised in The Meaning of Success are as important today as two years ago. Unfortunately I suspect these ideas have made little inroad into thinking across the sector, despite our aspirations at the time of publication.

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With Regret

It is always difficult to know when to say no, or enough is enough. Turning down or walking away from opportunities is a difficult thing to do, particularly when they are things you’d really like to do. But there comes a point when the scales tip too far one way, when health, family, the day job or general equilibrium are clearly suffering and it is time to act decisively. It isn’t always obvious till too late that that balance has gone badly awry, and there is always the feeling that by saying no you are letting someone down (including yourself). There is also the embarrassment of knowing how to frame the ‘no’, as I’ve written about before.

This summer brought me to a point where I have had to put these thoughts into action and, with great reluctance and sadness I have stood down as a Trustee of the Science Museum. I took up this role almost exactly five years ago, with great enthusiasm. It has been a pleasure to work with all the committed and enthusiastic teams and hear about their exciting plans for the future as they have been being developed. The museums in the Science Museum Group seem to be going from strength to strength, with recent exhibitions of an extraordinarily high calibre in Cosmonauts and Collider. At Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry Wonder Materials is equally a stellar production currently. More exhibitions of the same breadth of ambition are in the pipeline I promise you.

Imminently, there will be the opening of the new space for children (and their families) at the Science Museum, Wonderlab on October 12th. I’ve had a sneak preview – courtesy of being a member of the Science Museum Advisory Board, a role I’ve been persuaded not to relinquish along with my Trusteeship – and it looks fantastic. As a taster, here is the Trustee Chair Mary Archer smiling after trying out one of the slides designed to illustrate how different surfaces have different friction properties. The scale of the whole set-up is probably better illustrated by the (rather blurry, apologies for my poor photography) shot of Museum Director Ian Blatchford trying out the same exhibit.
Mary ArcherIan Blatchford

More mysteriously, I also leave you with an image of another exhibit: is this smoke, or a cloud, or dry ice or……? You’ll have to go and explore for yourself.


Formally I stepped down this week at our Strategy Away Day held in Durham, which followed a visit to Locomotion in Shildon – the one site of the Science Museum Group I had never previously visited (I wrote about my visit to the National Railway Museum in York previously). There we were treated to a brief ride pulled along by the 150 year old steam engine Furness 20 (the oldest working standard gauge steam locomotive in the UK) to get us from one side of the site to the other. I’m just about old enough to remember the smell of steam trains so there was an undoubted sense of childhood recovered as we were delivered to our Board meeting (though attending that, of course, would not have been something my childhood self would have dreamed of).

Furness 20
In Durham itself we were also treated to the sight of rare treasures in the Palace Green Library, incorporating some of their ancient manuscripts and more recent documents, including the 1895 Charter allowing women to proceed to Durham degrees – a good 50 years ahead of my own University. Principia, Micrographia and more were on show but, given my admitted interest in birds I will illustrate our visit with a page from Willoughby and Ray’s seminal book Ornithologia libri tres.

willoughby and ray

The Science Museum group collectively has influenced many a child’s decision to engage with science to A level and beyond. The numbers of school parties they host each year is impressive, with more than half a million children visiting one of their museums annually. Their website is the most ‘googled’ museum in the world.  I look forward to watching them proceed from strength to strength, even if now I will mainly simply be standing on the side-lines cheering them on.


Posted in Communicating Science, Science Culture | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Warts and All

Are role models useful? What should they look like (metaphorically rather than literally; I’m not channelling dizzy blond here)? And how should they describe themselves? A recent article entitled ‘Successful women do not always make the best role models’ in the Financial Times on this subject – written more about city women than scientists, but I believe the same points would apply – stated

‘The experience of much-written-about “superwomen”, such as fund managers Nicola Horlick and Helena Morrissey in the UK, or Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook in the US, can sometimes discourage as much as encourage those attempting to imitate their success.’

This makes a lot of sense to me. To be much help, a role model has to be someone you can identify with, a person who you could imagine aspiring to be, not someone who you envisage as having been born into some advantage you lack, or having had the good – but improbable – fortune of being sponsored by a CEO from an early stage in their career. Aiming high is one thing, but for most of us there is no point trying to get from the bottom to the top in one fell swoop. Furthermore, if you are a minority ethnic, these women named are unlikely to look plausible characters to model yourself upon for the very obvious reason of the colour of their skin and all the concomitant complications that intersectionality may bring.

I was embarrassed once to participate in a well-intentioned evening consisting of a panel of women from many spheres, all of whom would have been seen as successful, and then to be told by a young attendee it was just dispiriting because how could she hope to become like one of us? That had not at all been the aim of the evening but I couldn’t help wondering how many of those listening to the panel discussion would have been similarly discouraged. For them, we clearly weren’t role models. We were the sorts of people they couldn’t imagine turning into, and so we were simply a turn off of the kind the Financial Times article identifies.

The solution to this, according to Brenda Trenowden, chair of the 30% Club is that more senior women need to be encouraged “to talk authentically and frankly, warts and all” about their rise to top positions. But I’m not sure that’s enough. I can’t remember enough about the specific panel I mention above to be sure I talked about the challenges along the way to becoming a professor but, as on this blog, I usually do. I think it only does the audience a disservice if, as I have heard other women occasionally do, they imply they have never had any setbacks. No one gets to the top (unless, perhaps, by literal family nepotism) without struggling at some time or the other. No one achieves success without occasionally falling flat on their face, feeling out of their depth, or royally screwing up. I just don’t believe the world works like that.

Metaphorical warts matter because the young will be only too familiar with their own flaws and, if someone is to be a role model, then they must look sufficiently similar. This might be in the colour of their skin, their gender or their background, but it must also include some sort of human frailty. If I tried to pretend – as I definitely don’t – that I had always known exactly what I wanted to do and how I was going to get there, how would that help a fresh graduate who knew perfectly well they didn’t have a clue? Here on my blog, and in my talks to early career researchers – and indeed to school children too – I freely admit to many glitches, hiccoughs not to mention failures along my path.

To some extent it is easier for me to do this now I am senior; I have less to lose. For a mid-career scientist (probably also for a mid-career worker in any sector) that may be a much harder thing to do. Both because they are still struggling with their own confidence and aspirations, but also because they may fear that someone listening might subsequently stick the knife in during a promotion decision. However, in general I believe that role models to be useful should actually be not that far ahead of the person listening/watching.

I believe we are muddling up two different concepts in the term ‘role model’. There is the person providing the existence proof that someone like them can progress up the ladder and that someone needs to be only a few rungs higher up and so still an ‘imaginable’ self. And then there is a second category of person, the Sheryl Sandberg’s of this world, who can be ‘inspirational’ without being seen as necessarily similar. They indicate that for some people there is a way to the top. It doesn’t mean that it has to be someone like them, but those dizzy heights are attainable in the abstract. For me, role model should be applied to the former group, since they are the people occupying a role the listener can relate to, someone who could indeed act as a model for the future. The latter group are more about dreams, perhaps, than reality. I still find it startling that people place me in the latter category, and I say this in all humility. But that makes it all the more important for me to speak up about my own flaws so that I can still seem human rather than some fantasy superwoman. Since I lack the power to fly or to climb buildings with my bare hands and feet, I am better off being honest.

We certainly need more women prepared to speak up, not just about the moral imperative of equality, not just about their science, but about what advice helped them on their way, even if it is just about getting through their PhD or first postdoc. Everyone can profit from the clear-sightedness of someone just that bit ahead of them in the game. Everyone should be able to believe that the obstacles they currently face, be it settling down to writing that PhD or dealing with an aggressive fellow worker, do actually have a solution and that other people’s experience can (but may not) be helpful.

Role models do not have to be superwomen; they merely have to be people who’ve cracked your current stumbling block and found a way forward. Additionally, people need to recognize that all the successful people have similarly stumbled, perhaps even staggered backwards; that they will have embarrassing red-face moments to recount over a glass of wine and plenty of rejections to list on their CVs if they choose to do so. Warts can take many forms from impostor syndrome to the knowledge that their PhD thesis was riddled with errors.

In my College speeches I frequently quote our Founder Sir Winston Churchill, who tends to have an apt bon mot for every occasion. This one seems apposite here: ‘even [man’s] greatest neglects or failures may bring him good’. Role models, fantasy super(wo)men and those starting out should all bear that in mind.


Posted in Science Culture, Women in Science | Tagged , , | 4 Comments


Nature this week published its annual (and international) survey on salaries. As the article points out, many respondents use the survey as a means of venting, so the survey also provides a snapshot of (self-selecting and therefore not necessarily representative) attitudes towards jobs and careers from around the world. Many people are happy. A considerable number are not, for well-rehearsed reasons. Nevertheless I do think it is dangerous to look back through rose-tinted glasses to some mythical time when all was easy for those attempting to join the academic ladder. I don’t believe there was ever a time when it was ‘easy’ in the UK, except possibly during the rapid university expansion of the 1960’s; it was just different. Furthermore, academia is not a monolithic structure and the challenges vary from subject to subject, let alone from region to region around the world.

When I was contemplating doing a PhD, I recall my then Director of Studies Christine Mckie (or Kelsey as she was known in the department to distinguish her from her husband Duncan McKie) telling me how well nigh impossible it had been for her generation to get permanent jobs. As a woman in 1950’s Cambridge it was particularly difficult. Nevertheless, somehow she managed. The demands on her time would probably have been very different back then, with less emphasis on research than teaching I believe, although that may just be my student brain not appreciating what she really did at the time. Certainly, she was co-author – with her husband – of a definitive 1st year text book on crystallography.

Around the time that I was entering the academic profession, the situation had got so dire in permanent positions, that even the Government recognized this. Back in 1982 (I hope I’ve got the year right, Google isn’t immediately helping me), running for about 5 years, there was a scheme for creating lectureships called the ‘New Blood’ scheme. It was recognized that the universities created in the 1960’s were clogged up with staff who had been taken on at their opening but wouldn’t retire for a long time, and elsewhere there was also little movement. However, universities don’t thrive on an increasingly ageing cohort of lecturers and hence the Government put several million pounds on the table to create these New Blood posts, with funding for 5 years after which the University was required to pick up the tab. Interestingly, googling that phrase throws up many individual bios which proudly lay claim to having had such a way into the profession. It was also around that time, as a result of the scarcity of posts, that the Royal Society created the University Research Fellows scheme in 1983, of which I was one of the first beneficiaries. That scheme kept me in the UK and stopped me brain-draining to the US, where I had a faculty position waiting for me.

I am not trying to suggest that things aren’t difficult for those seeking permanent positions now, but the challenge is not that no such posts exist but that there are far more people chasing them than positions available. That is a slightly different problem. A small group of people chasing close-to-zero posts probably feels very different from a huge number chasing a relatively small number of openings, even if the odds per person may not be very different (and I’m not going to speculate about how the numbers directly compare as I don’t have any relevant statistics). And it does depend so much on discipline. In engineering, the profession itself pays well and is seen as attractive by many so – certainly in some branches such as chemical engineering – there have been periods when competition has not been particularly stiff. In the biomedical sciences currently, as various reports in the UK and the US have consistently spelled out, there is a vast oversupply of well qualified postgraduates wanting to make research their career. The Crick, recently opened in all its glory, highlights the desirability of such group leader posts but there simply aren’t enough such openings to satisfy demand.

In the sciences we are beginning to see creeping in the sort of fixed term, teaching-only posts that have long been the fate of the arts and humanities. When feeling optimistic, I can look at these and think they are a good staging post on to permanency. When feeling negative, I think people taking these positions may be on a hiding to nothing because of the challenge of completing research when occupied so heavily with teaching, yet simultaneously being required to demonstrate research outputs and experience when looking for the next step on the ladder.

Fundamentally we have a mismatch between supply and demand in the academic sector. Creating permanent post-doc appointments, although attractive to those who get such posts, is not a solution as it just moves the point at which the logjam occurs a few years earlier in the career trajectory. If all postdoc posts are filled for life then what happens to fresh PhD students looking for the next position? So, as an academic, I should take responsibility for making sure those ECRs who cross my path know both about the challenges of finding a job, but also of all the opportunities beyond academia for which their skills are well-suited. And perhaps equally importantly, for which their skills are so eagerly sought. Scientists should consider everything from politics – and we surely need more scientifically well-informed MPs than ever – to the media; from the obvious situations in industry to the civil service. Working as I now do with the Department of Culture, Media and Sports, I am astonished to discover how few civil servants there have scientific training, although there are many economists. Yet DCMS has responsibility for many technical areas, most notably digital.

As a professor, it is my responsibility to make sure I never convey the message, even subliminally, that I think a PhD student who wishes to move outside academia has ‘failed’. (More general expectations on all parties are laid out in this 2014 Royal Society document I helped to write.) I should on the contrary view the diversification of the general workforce, one PhD at a time, as something to be welcomed. Perhaps if the BBC had more scientists who reported on day to day affairs we would have fewer errors and hype promulgated, a situation to be desired. If our MPs understood the tides better maybe they would make fewer daft remarks (or maybe not). Everyone needs to make sure that the message is given loud and clear that academia is just one of many possible, exciting and important paths that could be taken. Academics need individually to recognize that the skills imparted during undergraduate and postgraduate work are transferable and spell out explicitly what that means to their teams. Communication skills (written and oral), analytical and critical reading of texts, quantitative appreciation of information – all these are relevant in just about every sphere and are part of the scientist’s bread and butter training. Many of the EPSRC Doctoral Training Centres have such a widening of expectations explicitly included in their training programmes, as do the PhD programmes of some of the other Research Councils. Yet still many ECRs do not seem to appreciate the hurdles until they hit them smack in the face as they start applying for independent researcher positions, perhaps because they have always assumed they are the exception to the rule (and of course they may be).

Early career researchers may legitimately believe they are being led up the garden path with nowhere to go, or feel they are being treated as little more than unappreciated slave labour.  Again I have a responsibility for being honest about job prospects and never failing to treat each person working with me as an individual with their own hopes and fears. Academics cannot solve the funding issues by themselves, nor resolve or alter the structure of the funding landscape without input from many others, but they can and should be be honest with all ECRs they come into contact with and do their bit to help them on their way, whatever way that may be.

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

Withdrawal Symptoms

As a new PI what advice is likely to be of assistance? Eight of us old hands were recently asked by the THE to write some words of wisdom, which newly-minted PI’s may or may not have found useful. Their tenor varied. There was ‘Don’t worry: we are all just making it up as we go along’ from Cambridge colleague Ottoline Leyser – which sounds quite encouraging. Alternatively, readers were told ‘Conflict within the lab will be a given, and you should read up on interest-based conflict resolution’ from US-based Kathy Barker, which I found slightly terrifying and not particularly close to my own experience.  And, I should add, I have never read up on conflict resolution, interest-based or otherwise. Perhaps I should have done. I did once attend a university staff development course on ‘Dealing with Difficult People’ which I found entirely useless and when I asked the course leader privately for some specific advice I was told that there are simply some people you will never be able to work with.

However, what struck me about these eight brief articles was that none of us discussed what we had felt as we moved on to leading our own group – other than a couple of contributors referring to angst (I think you can take that feeling as read). There is an awkward period of transition when you move from being an expert in your own, personal hands-on research to the person who gets stuck in the office and who is meant to know the answers to other people’s problems. I well remember the transition and my overwhelming feeling was of withdrawal symptoms. I missed doing my own thing, the joy of doing experiments and seeing my ideas blossom – or indeed bite the dust.

There was an interregnum, a period of a year or two when I still tried to fit in experiments in the gaps between lecturing (and writing lectures), thinking about – and penning – research proposals, trying to set up a functioning laboratory with the necessary equipment, talking to students and postdocs (and prospective students and interviewing postdocs), and all those other things that you don’t factor in when you land your first independent position but which eat up your time. I used to try to sneak into the lab for an hour or two….but an hour or two, for most sorts of experiments, just isn’t sufficient. Preparation of samples, for instance, might require a whole day of different steps which have to be fitted into that time-frame, not a series of two hour stints several days apart. Aligning the electron microscope might itself devour a large part of the time available before you ever get to look expectantly at your new specimen.

Above all I missed the excitement that looking at my new samples yielded and the feeling that something, anything, might be just around the corner which would illuminate and elucidate my thoughts. The work I had been doing at that time of transition involved looking at the deformation of thin polymer films in the electron microscope and the effect of different processing conditions on the structure within liquid crystalline polymers by light and electron microscopy. Progress depended on being familiar with the different possible textures and structures and hence required experience and what I always thought of as the skill of ‘pattern recognition’. Above all, it required a knowledge of the umpteen different kinds of artefact that could be introduced: by electron beam damage, by mishandling the sample or by misusing the microscope.

And then suddenly I wasn’t able to satisfy my own curiosity; I found myself having to attempt to get the same excitement from looking at someone else’s micrographs and to work out, from what they told me, whether or not I believed that what they were showing me was real and not just the product of yet another kind of meaningless glitch in preparation or handling. It simply didn’t fulfill me in the same way.

Of course in time you move on, the loss of the first person thrill fades and you get used to living your research through someone else’s hands. In time you learn how to quiz the students about their procedures so that time is not wasted on the worthless artefactual (even if beautiful) side-tracks The frustration that something that would have taken you an afternoon takes them a fortnight and it’s still not quite right begins to fade. At a later point the equipment will have changed so radically that you aren’t even capable of doing the experiment anyhow, and are regarded merely as a nuisance and possibly a danger if you stray into the laboratory. (Of course not all PIs completely stop doing hands-on stuff, different disciplines will make it easier or harder to keep your hand in. One of my professors even required me to (re)teach him sample preparation so he could do some consultancy work at the weekend.)

It is a sad fact that people get promoted to PI in large part because of their own first person skills in research, and then they have to stop working that way. Instead they are supposed to acquire a completely new set of skills, often with little training or even advice (points that the THE writers make clearly). Angst, panic and incompetence may all unfortunately ensue. A decent organisation should be able to rectify the lack of training, mentors and sponsors should supply advice to aid the unwary make the transition to full independence, but I am not sure there is any simple answer to the withdrawal symptoms I’m describing here. Instead, all the newly-crowned PI can do is to attempt to impart their own wisdom and experimental green fingers to the novices in their care. It isn’t the same, but in time it is possible to find a new enjoyment in watching the next generation flower and flourish. The memories of making personal discoveries down the microscope (NMR/ PCR/ Mass Spec/… insert instrument of choice) wither over time. The assistance offered to those who pass through the research team should not.

Posted in Research, Science Culture | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments