Forgetting Compassion

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

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

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

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

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

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In Memoriam

In Memoriam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

What’s Missing from the White Paper?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





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The Competitive Streak in Academia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Putting a Value on the Intangible

Does being around trees make you less stressed? A recent study claims it does and, for many of us, green spaces undoubtedly confer a sense of peace and a place to sit and relax. Do trees confer benefits that can be measured? Economists want to do this since they want to weigh up the pros and cons of planting trees in urban areas (versus, presumably, loss of space and the cost of maintaining them) and there are a variety of formal routes  to do this.  (As an aside, I am not sure exactly what these calculations factor in – trees’ ability to take up greenhouse gases; reduce pollution and hence reduce hospital admissions for asthma; in hot countries reducing air conditioning bills….- any or all of those may be taken into account although I’m not convinced they are.) The sums accredited to trees are large. Close to where I used to live there was a long-running legal battle about chopping down some beautiful plane trees that were, correctly or not, identified as culprits in local residential housing subsidence. The battle was only partially won (the trees were lopped rather than felled) but during the battle the local Councillor produced a statement with the request that

‘The Council should undertake a full assessment of the CAVAT values equating to £345,000 – £420,000 for the three trees (plus uncalculated collective amenity value).’

(CAVAT is one of the formal ways to do the sums.)

Economists like to measure everything, it seems to me, even if a measurement as fundamental as GDP can be endlessly argued about with the result the numbers are remarkably uncertain . I am not infrequently left wondering how useful any of their numbers may be; at the very least the error bars are huge. Nevertheless, despite our groans it isn’t just the HE sector that has to be quantified by governments, so do our open spaces. But, to come back to my opening sentences, how does one evaluate the benefit of mental well-being per tree? Although I have read a variety of articles on this recently, the prompt for this post actually comes from moving office (in my department, finally, after being threatened with it three years ago) and reflecting on the new view I have from it, which includes some young trees. And also from showing a friend round my home in the Master’s Lodge recently and observiing her delight in the setting.  I realise just how much I have benefited in a completely incalculable way from the view (see the picture) that my office in the Lodge now offers. It is fantastic, peaceful, green, lush and ever-changing. I am far more likely to work in my home office now than I ever was when I lived elsewhere with a Velux window as the only window in the loft conversion that was my ‘home office’, accordingly with no view whatsoever from my desk.

fellows gardenA recent view at dusk from my ‘home office’ in the Master’s Lodge.

I know it. I am spoiled. But that brings me to the much more serious point about widening participation and equal opportunities for all our children. Virginia Woolf stressed the challenges for women writing when, like Jane Austen they had to hide their writing whenever visitors turned up; the mathematician Mary Somerville had the same problems. In A Room of her Own Woolf spelled out the long history of the impossibility of a woman being able boldly to hide herself away to think and write. Few women – perhaps Emilie de Chatelet in her mansion, maybe George Elliot who was ‘professionally’ a writer and anyhow so far beyond the social pale in her living arrangements perhaps a little ink on her fingers didn’t matter – could indulge themselves.

It applies also to schoolchildren who have no private space where they can go to think without interruption. As a teenager I remember visiting a friend’s family who lived in Council housing and everything and everyone was crammed into a tiny space. How my friend managed to find peace enough to complete her work to get her to university I cannot imagine (no noise-correcting headphones then to drown out the shrill noises of a large family), but she did succeed in being the first of her family to do so.

Children who have no quiet space to work indoors, and increasingly no public libraries to escape to either, will be put at huge disadvantage when it comes to getting through their exams with flying colours whatever their inherent intellectual abilities. And children who are brought up in concrete jungles, the sorts of housing estates that were mistakenly built in the ‘60’s and are frequently being torn down now, and who lack the peace brought by trees, by lawns or streams, will also suffer. Children’s mental health is very visibly suffering from many of the challenges of modern life, as the sacking of Natasha Devon for speaking out on the issue this week brings into sharp focus.

This intangible benefit is something that having moved from one perfectly civilised space to another even better one really has brought home to me. I don’t need an economist to evaluate the value per square metre of the lawn outside my window, or the precise – or even imprecise – value of the stunning dawn sequoia I can admire every time I look up from my desk. (This impressive tree, centre stage in my photo, was probably the first in the UK, given I think to the first Master Sir John Cockcroft as a gift for the College brought back from the Himalayas.) I don’t need an economist because I can feel it in my very being and am deeply grateful.

However, as we in the College work on widening participation, we can go into schools, we can attempt to raise aspirations from an early age, we can inform, demystify Oxbridge and the college system and do all we can to encourage students from the broadest range of backgrounds to apply. But we cannot overcome social disadvantage brought about by bad housing estates or unemployment and lack of cash. The Government loves to berate Oxbridge for doing insufficient on the widening participation front, but doesn’t want to face up to generations of lost opportunities and dwindling social support. We all must continue to fight, wherever we live, for trees, for libraries, for better housing estates as well as simply raising aspirations. With austerity as the Government’s watchword this is more important than ever.


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