Academia is intrinsically competitive, full of the need to win grants – which necessarily implies winning out over nameless others – gaining promotion and trying to beat others to a hot result at the expense of colleagues in the game. Does that mean the best science gets done? Almost certainly not. Being competitive can lead to a race to publication involving errors if not downright fraud; it can lead to one research student losing out to another due to small matters of luck or timing, regardless of intrinsic skill; and it can induce severe loss of confidence without due cause if things do start going wrong.
But competition can mean more than just legitimate criticism of another’s experimental (or indeed theoretical) data. It can turn into a war of attrition, of malice and of aggression. Post-publication peer review can seem like such a good idea, until nay-sayers hide behind the anonymity of some sites to pursue an active policy of something that can start to look very like harassment. Philip Moriarty has talked about this in his own blogpost if you’re unclear about this particular manifestation. I have known colleagues who have found such anonymous viciousness deeply distressing, making them question their own future even though externally they may look extremely successful.
I was struck by a blogpost I came across recently, entitled ‘On the need for empathy and kindness in academia‘ by Raul Pacheco-Vega, making a plea for individuals not to ‘spew[ing] vitriol on other academics’. That seems to me to be a reasonable request. Robust criticism, if something looks dodgy, unclear or unsupported seems fair enough. Personal, persistent attacks are not. We are, as Pacheco-Vega says, only humans.
Being kind takes many forms. It isn’t only a case of not being unpleasant; there are many active forms of support directed at those junior to you that can take up but a little time but make significant impact on those to whom this support is proffered. People often talk of the importance of mentoring. It is only recently that I have come across the related, but distinctly different act of sponsorship. It might not be seen as kindness as such, since it is a purely professional activity, but its impact may be significant and, I would suggest, particularly important for women who may not naturally be at the receiving end of what is historically known as the old boy’s network.
So what is sponsorship? It differs from mentoring in that it doesn’t need to be a long-term relationship, or even have much of a personal dimension to it at all. But it does require individuals actively to have a mind for those who might otherwise be forgotten when it comes to job opportunities, prizes or invited speaker slots – all those things that really matter to an up-and-coming researcher who needs something to differentiate their CV from others. Sponsors need to keep in mind, not just the obvious names, but the slightly less in-your-face individuals whose actual work may be just as excellent as those highly visible (and audible) people who tend to get the low-hanging fruit. When it comes to conference organisation, such sponsorship in making sure that a truly representative group of speakers are invited is important, but it is within HEI’s themselves that I think such people are particularly crucial.
Of course I have in mind that this is important to improve diversity, but it goes further than this. It means, in the particular context of conferences you might not have to listen to the same old, same old time and time again. Fresh faces being invited is likely to lead to a more stimulating meeting, although the odd one might be an unexpected dud at a major meeting. But then, it surprises me how often the really well-known speakers also can mess up a platform performance, probably due to lack of preparation /lack of time with the research team because they are constantly jet-setting from one conference venue to another.
Why does it matter in HEI’s so particularly? Because it is here that the early career researchers might be expected to get a helping hand from senior colleagues and, if they don’t, their careers are likely to falter. Take the case of Royal Society University Research Fellows. As I wrote previously, are women (and some men too) being handicapped in their applications either because they don’t get the encouragement to apply in the first place, or because no one casts an eye over their application and CV to check they are as strong as they might be? To read a junior colleague’s case for support needn’t take very long but it can be immensely helpful. If you can point out that they’ve forgotten to mention in their application an early career prize they won, or that they had already supervised some student projects, it could make their CV look much stronger. Not everyone knows how to make the most of themselves and it shouldn’t be down to a lottery of who you work with as to whether you get such advice or not.
Of course, to revert to the point of being kind, there is no point in reading an application and then remarking that you’ve never seen such an unconvincing load of twaddle. If the application is irretrievably weak then try to find constructive ways of saying so that might enable the researcher both to learn from your advice and also to walk away not feeling half an inch tall. Otherwise that is neither an act of sponsorship or kindness.