How Do you Spend your Time?

Those of us academics working in UK universities will be familiar with the requirement to fill in forms every so often, accounting for how we spend our working week. Somehow we are supposed to account for every minute of that (ha ha) 37.5 hour week the Research Councils believe we work. When I attempt to do this I always feel defeated by the categorisation. I was reminded of this thankless task recently when I spent the late May Bank Holiday (Cambridge does not take heed of the May Bank Holidays, as the days are too precious as exams approach) tackling a reference request for a US university.

Writing references is of course a regular task for academics, writing letters in appropriately glowing terms for students, past and present, for former postdocs or even long-departed colleagues. (I keep meaning to get hold of the much-praised book, Dear Committee Member by Julie Schumacher, an epistolary novel entirely made up of imaginary reference letters, for some light entertainment.) The reference on this occasion fitted into the latter category. What appalled me most about this task was the voluminous literature I was expected to study when writing a reference for promotion for this person through the higher echelons of the professoriat. 862 pages I received via an inconvenient website, which didn’t even enable me to get hold of a merged pdf at first time of asking! Now of course most of it I didn’t read; indeed the vast majority of it consisted of student evaluations of taught courses. I read a few; I gathered an overwhelming impression of the excellence of the teaching given. I didn’t need to know more than that.

But what absolutely shook me was the amount of verbiage that had to be entered personally into a system that required a listing of all talks given, committees served on, courses given etc etc over the entire life time of the applicant. I wouldn’t be able to do that at all. I have no idea what talks I gave 30 years ago to whom, let alone the committees on which I sat; and, although I probably do recall the major courses I gave, that wouldn’t include the one off lectures to graduates on some specific topic. One has to ask does it really matter if someone served on the departmental student liaison committee in 1990 when it comes to promotion in 2015? If this poor benighted professor were asked to fill in a TRAC (Transparent Approach to Costing) form, although as far as I know there are no such requirements in the USA, how would he have accounted for the weeks spent filling in the form? And I know we’re talking about weeks here, because it was stated in fury by the applicant in their personal statement that the university’s IT system had swallowed their first attempt at form filling so that the whole thing had had to be done again. What a massive waste of time.

For myself, I find it hard enough to cope with trying to work out how to allocate time spent on emails. If I have a request from someone asking me for advice, a student in another university perhaps with whom I have no relationship, what does that count as? How do I account for time spent deleting spam from my inbox? What about declining invitations to speak at one event or another – does that count as outreach or public engagement even though I’m not going to do it? Or, away from email, the time spent travelling from one end of Cambridge to another for meetings?  My life and the TRAC form do not mesh easily. I am sure I am not alone.

Although, apparently unlike many of my academic colleagues I do understand the need to have large numbers of administrators to fulfill the tasks imposed on us by an ever-more-demanding central bureaucracy (all hail the proposed Teaching Excellence Framework for providing further forms to be pored over and sleep to be lost), I am baffled as to how to fill in my timesheets in a way that genuinely has any meaning. Academics, particularly senior ones who have moved on with regret from a life of pure research and teaching, do many important but practically intangible tasks and yet we have to assign them to categories.

Even if I ignore the measly number of hours that I am alleged to work, if I just deal in percentages of my total working week, it is horrifying to think how much of this time I spend on email. That is how communication has to be done: about diary dates, about requests, committee papers, departmental strategy or safety or meetings, let alone about reference ­– or refereeing – requests. If I attempted to carve up this time into different headings I would go mad. OK, you could argue that reading the committee papers is not email, even if that’s the mode of delivery, but it would be hard to pull that chunk of time out of total time spent staring at an inbox.

Letting academics get on with what they do best and trusting them to use their time wisely was something that Thatcher had no time for. She wanted us to be accountable. That in itself shouldn’t be a bad thing, but some of its manifestations clearly have many drawbacks and we have been increasingly ‘measured’ in all kinds of ways. Checking how academics spend their time sounds sensible in concept; in practice I suspect many of us make wild guesstimates since precision is impossible to come by. Each year I earnestly start the week I’m allocated by jotting timings down, but my good intentions tend to slip quite rapidly. Hard evidence, transparent costings are both self-evidently a good thing. The practical implications are quite another.

More general thoughts on metrics will have to wait for another post, as we await the HEFCE Metrics Report.


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

What Next after Tim Hunt? (#just1action4WIS)

Last week the world erupted into a storm of outrage over remarks Sir Tim Hunt, Nobel Prize winner, made in Korea. Unacceptable, indefensible remarks. He has been made to resign from positions and committees for which he has worked so hard. An extraordinary number of column inches (virtual and real) have been devoted to demonising the man. As someone who has expended much of my energy recently to working to improve the lot of women in science I was naturally appalled by his remarks, but I think it is worth asking what damage they have caused and whether the response actually helps the situation. Now a little time has passed, perhaps it is possible to have a more nuanced and reflective conversation than was had in the first days of outrage.

Scientists should be looking at the evidence, and I fear there has been too little of that done around this distressing episode. I have seen reports from attendees at that infamous Korean lunch which paint a rather different picture of how the remarks (which appear to have been in an impromptu welcome speech rather than something meticulously prepared) were received than the one doing the rounds. Laughter, for instance. But much more important is to analyse the bigger picture. So I would like to ask some rather different questions, to try to move the debate on.

1 Do these remarks prove Tim Hunt is sexist?

I believe we should judge the man not by the stupid, offensive remarks made in bad taste on the fly but the totality of his contributions, not just to science, but also to furthering the careers of the young. He has spent much of the last 15 years since his Nobel Prize win, travelling the world to speak to young audiences encouraging them, inspiring them. Not, please note, gender-segregated audiences! He has freely given of the Nobel mystique to all. Speaking personally – and I have sat on a variety of committees with Tim over the past 5-6 years and got to know him quite well – I have seen no evidence to suggest that at any previous point in his career has he done or said anything to indicate a sexist man at heart, certainly not in my hearing or in any actions taken at any committee I have been on with him. Other people have said the same (e.g. here) He is, as has been said, a man of his generation who undoubtedly was educated in different times and can say outrageous things on many topics, often with a twinkle in his eye. But my impression is firmly of a man who genuinely supports people, whatever their gender, background or specific interests.

It is worth remembering what happened a while back about Bora Zivkovic, in a rather different situation. In that case, once one woman spoke out others quickly followed. I have yet to see women stepping forward to say how Tim Hunt blighted their career by refusing to promote them, support them, actively behaving inappropriately or demeaning them. We should remember to look at the evidence and I for one have not seen any about such behaviour. However I have seen remarks implying that surely such people exist and that is the justification for stripping Tim of everything. That begins to smack of witch-hunting in the absence of evidence, particularly as I would imagine journalists have been digging around looking for it. Perhaps he really is just a man with foot-in-mouth syndrome but with enormous goodwill to support those setting out on their careers. Goodwill I suspect he will no longer be able to exercise in the way he has done through globe-trotting over the past decade.

2 Do these remarks prove the Royal Society is sexist?

There have been some wild extrapolations from this single set of offensive remarks to the idea that the Royal Society is endemically sexist. Even if you totally believe what happened proves Tim is sexist, it is not good science to extrapolate from one data point to a whole organisation. Calling for the Royal Society to do X or Y to eliminate Tim Hunt’s apparently pernicious influence, sounds more like baying hounds than evidence-based policy. However, he has resigned from the only committee he sat on, just in case people worry.

Worse, I have seen it suggested that because one FRS has made some awful remarks, women will be actively discouraged from applying for fellowships and research fellowships. This strikes me as inverted logic. If you believe what is wrong is that the Royal Society has insufficient women associated with it, then everyone should be doing all they can to change that. Early career women should be encouraged even more vigorously to apply for all the research fellowship schemes; senior women should be nominated with even more determination. The Royal Society cannot move towards the equality it itself seeks if women aren’t nominated. To change the situation there is an onus on others to act as well as the Society itself. (And, it should be noted, supporting women’s nominations to the Royal Society is exactly what Tim, to my certain knowledge, has been doing.)

3 Why do people attack in a way reminiscent of a lynch mob?

This question is at the heart of what disturbs me about this whole sorry affair. A speech on the other side of the world has let loose a torrent of invective. Those engaging in it may feel they are furthering the cause of women in science, something close to my heart as regular readers of this blog will be aware. But I feel they are in danger of doing the complete opposite, for instance by implying women shouldn’t bother to get involved with the Royal Society. Can each and every one of those who have engaged in this debate swear that they have themselves always spoken out about any and every issue of sexism they have encountered in their daily lives?

I believe the problems of sexism, the problems for women in society collectively and not just women in science, arise because people look the other way when they see bullying going on; when a woman is talked over at a committee; when a young student is picked on by a male colleague and laughed at if they try to pick up a soldering iron; when the male students in the group go off to the pub on a Friday evening making it clear the women are not welcome because they get in the way of lads’ talk; when women are not encouraged to aspire; when no one taps them on the shoulder to apply for jobs……The list goes on and on. Can everyone reading this honestly say they have never thought ‘I don’t want to get involved’ or ‘it’s not my responsibility’?

Curing the issues of women in science needs each and every one of us to be vigilant and to speak out about the everyday sexism that is all around us, not just wait to bay at a celebrity (which of course Nobel Prize winners are) who says something crass, suggesting he holds views that most of us think are Victorian. If watching this sorry affair unfold provoked people to act locally to eradicate all the microinequities that abound, then some good would have come out of it.

The ‘#distractinglysexy images, like the recent #girlswiththeirtoys photos that circulated on Twitter, are lighthearted ways of demonstrating just how much women are successfully embedded in scientific laboratories. But women will not rise to the top of the ranks if unconscious bias continues to rein. It would be wonderful if everyone who has posted some horrified comment about #huntgate or who has read some of the outpouring of media articles, committed to taking one action, just one, in their local organisation to counter the local brand of disadvantage that women may be facing. We should all be pro-active, not look the other way. Here’s an easy list to help people make that commitment. Everyone should be able to find one they are in a position to carry out.

  • Call out bad behaviour whenever and wherever you see it – in committees or in the street. Don’t leave women to be victimised;
  • Encourage women to dare, to take risks;
  • Act as a sponsor or mentor (if you are just setting out there will still always be people younger than you, including school children, for whom you can act);
  • Don’t let team members get away with demeaning behaviour, objectifying women or acting to exclude anyone;
  • Seek out and remove microinequities wherever you spot them;
  • Refuse to serve on single sex panels or at conferences without an appropriate level of female invited speakers;
  • Consider the imagery in your department and ensure it represents a diverse group of individuals;
  • Consider the daily working environment to see if anything inappropriate is lurking. If so, do something about it.
  • Demand/require mandatory unconscious bias training, in particular for appointment and promotion panels;
  • Call out teachers who tell girls they can’t/shouldn’t do maths, physics etc;
  • Don’t let the bold (male or female) monopolise the conversation in the classroom or the apparatus in the laboratory, at the expense of the timid (female or male);
  • Ask schools about their progression rates for girls into the traditionally male subjects at A level (or indeed, the traditionally female subjects for boys);
  • Nominate women for prizes, fellowships etc;
  • Tap women on the shoulder to encourage them to apply for opportunities they otherwise would be unaware of or feel they were not qualified for;
  • Move the dialogue on from part-time working equates to ‘isn’t serious’ to part-time working means balancing different demands;
  • Recognize the importance of family (and even love) for men and women;
  • Be prepared to be a visible role model;
  • Gather evidence, data and anecdote, to provide ammunition for management to change;
  • Listen and act if a woman starts hinting there are problems, don’t be dismissive because it makes you uncomfortable;
  • Think broadly when asked to make suggestions of names for any position or role.

If every reader signed up to #just1action4WIS (or came up with another one to add to that list and acted upon it) that would be much more appropriate than pouring all the vitriol onto one man but doing nothing about the bigger picture.

Please make that pledge to do your part. Let’s get something positive out of this debacle: remember #just1action4WIS.


For readers interested in my previous posts on related subjects, here’s a quick reprise to some particularly relevant ones:

Whose responsibility? It’s too easy to say ‘not mine’

Time to eradicate the academic jerk

Leadership strategies to deal with jerks

Stand up and be counted

Why can’t a woman be more like a man

The myth of the myth of women in science

On sponsorship and kindness

Is the Royal Society treating women fairly?

Attacks on the Royal Society miss the point

10 things you should know about election to the Royal Society

On being feisty and unconventional

Changing the departmental mindset

Incompetence at the top?


Posted in Equality, Science Culture, Women in Science | Tagged , , | 223 Comments

Faking It

I seem to have given a lot of talks recently in which the phrase ‘faking it’ sat at their heart. You will realise I am not referring to talks about protein aggregation, microscopy or other scientific subjects when the use of such words might imply some decidedly dodgy and unethical practice. Rather, my talks have been about career progression, confidence building and moments of transition to independence. In such talks, what I am talking about is not so much dodginess, more expediency when trying to cope with areas in which discomfort is liable to be the primary emotion.

So what do I mean? I mean exuding a confidence you don’t feel until (eventually) it becomes deep-seated. All of us, throughout our lives, find ourselves being asked to do something for the first time. Perhaps it is your first conference presentation, your first committee meeting or your first visit to talk to school children; what then? It is bound to feel a bit unnerving to do anything for the first time and, as a result, there is the danger that you will ‘freeze’ or, at the very least, perform less well than you feel you’re capable of. How to beat that? In my view, the only way to do it is to ‘pretend’ that you know what you’re doing and slowly you’ll find that perhaps you really do. Of course, there are some things you may never be very good at; that is also true for everyone and in time you can work out what your own weaknesses are and avoid the wrong kind of situations and tasks. But, if you avoid everything just in case….you’ll never find out your strengths.

There are additional tricks of the trade to help beyond merely refusing to give in to your doubts which can help you on your way. I’m a great believer in grasping the wrist holding the laser pointer with your other hand to stop those irritating nerves causing the highly magnified image of the laser beam to bob up and down embarrassingly as you quietly shake while delivering that conference talk. I’m sure every experienced speaker could pass on similar tips to help get you through and one should always be willing to seek out advice from more experienced colleagues and friends. But, whatever useful tips are passed on, some of the ‘oomph’ you need to perform has to come from within, a fact that I believe remains true throughout life.

The recent talks I gave included ones to postdocs aiming to make the move to their first independent position (e.g. fellowships or lectureships) and to some of Cambridge’s stunningly smart and dedicated international research students. Both cohorts knew full well they were at a critical point where they were moving from ground they already saw as familiar to arenas they were much less well acquainted with. I think it is important to remind such folk that no one finds things easy the first time around but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it. If you allow yourself to feel unconfident so that you mutter as you sit around a committee meeting table or when attempting to answer questions after a conference presentation, then you are likely to continue to feel unconfident. On the other hand, if you answer in a strong voice the facts you want to convey will be no more or less true but they will come across with conviction. Saying something along the lines of ‘that’s a very interesting question but I don’t know the answer/my data can’t address it’ in a firm voice is infinitely preferable to muttering something which makes you look merely as if you’re not on top of the game. Facts may be the same, outcome likely to be very different.

For those who’ve just made the transition to PI – and I had a conversation with 4 people about their recent experiences doing just this as part of this ‘transitioning’ workshop – it was interesting to hear what they thought were the most challenging things they’d had to face. None of them mentioned explicitly what I recall with alarm, the student who turns up with results they (and you) can’t explain and they look to you to tell them why they’ve got them and/or what the next experiment they should do is. It’s tough. You may have no idea but you can’t sit there and witter. You are responsible for them.

I remember the first time this happened to me and my internal voice said ‘help, what do I do?’ With hindsight I think I used the method exemplified by Elle in Legally Blonde. If you haven’t see the film it goes something like this (she was cross-examining a witness at the time). You ask a question and get an unhelpful answer; you have no idea what to do next so you ask it in a slightly different way; you ask again embroidering the question and seeking more information about the context. The witness (for which read student) may start to get annoyed by what seems a fruitless line of enquiry but as a result they too start embroidering their answer. Hey presto, they let slip something that they hadn’t realised was important. And suddenly there is some light at the end of the tunnel; a new angle presents itself suggesting what to do next, be it another experiment or a reanalysis of the data or whatever. (Of course in the film this very quickly led to a confession of murder, an outcome not likely to be relevant to a research student’s apparent ‘dead end’.)

The thing to realise is you don’t need to be omniscient to be helpful, you merely need to use your experience to look at things multidimensionally and then you and the student together can create a better understanding to allow progress to be made. Faking it, in acting like more senior colleagues who have had to sort out students like this previously, is no reason why you can’t facilitate your student’s research. Indeed such action is not only useful but in a situation like this absolutely vital. There will come that moment as a supervisor when you think ‘[insert suitable expletive], I don’t know what to do’ but you’ve still got to do something. Even if all it amounts to is, let me think about this and I’ll meet you at the coffee machine tomorrow with some suggestions. Buying time is not a bad tactic and can convey a sense of calm and knowledge of where to look next which in itself can be reassuring to the student facing their brick wall. Of course, this tactic only works if you can, in the next 24 hours, find a suitable reference/colleague or idea to move things along, but given that time you can at least probably find some further questions to ask. And then go back to the Elle tactic described above. The one thing a supervisor should never do is say ‘No idea, go away and work it out for yourself’ – unless you are quite deliberately trying to develop the student’s own confidence and problem-solving skills.

So, faking experience and faking confidence are all good ways of coping with uncertainty and lack of knowledge. You will know you’re doing it, but by practicing sounding calm and certain, over time when you find – with luck – that the world has not crashed around your shoulders and that you are indeed moving forward rather than back each time you do it, the fake will become the real thing. And then you are ready for the next challenge, and the next.



Posted in Science Culture | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Science, Culture and All That Jazz

People seem to think that science and culture are two different things. Just as Stefan Collini, in his 2012 book ‘What are Universities for? ’ constantly referred to scientists and scholars, as if scientists were unable to join the (implied elite) club of scholars, culture as usually considered consists of things like music, art, poetry and literature– but not science. Why? Why this artificial distinction (which I highlighted before) which, if you go down the well-worked Two Cultures route suggests that science/technology may have its own culture but it is ‘other’. It really is time that we recognized learning is learning, with many hues, styles and flavours, but that all academics are in the business of scholarship, of making the world a better place and being creative together.

How is culture defined? Having just read Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy I wouldn’t turn there for a helpful definition in the modern world, however ground-breaking the book may have been upon its appearance in 1869. Arnold was determined to prove that the classical Hellenic world had it all right and those of us steeped in what he calls ‘machinery’ have it all wrong, although by machinery he doesn’t mean a vacuum cleaner or car, or even – to be less anachronistic – a powerloom or steam engine. He means the machinery of doing something, be it challenging the law (he was very worked up about the disestablishment of the Irish Church and that ‘annual blister, marriage with deceased wife’s sister) or improving the lot of the poor (The Populace in his language). But let me not dwell on this seminal but, at least to my mind, outmoded and ill-argued book to make sense of culture.

It was Melvyn Bragg, on his Radio 4 programme In Our Time, who introduced Arnold’s book to me, through his series about Culture broadcast in 2012. And Melvyn Bragg it is who has indirectly just brought back to my mind the artificial division between culture and science by inviting me back onto that wonderful, broad, intellectual programme he chairs. Along with the historian of science, Jim Bennett, and the UCL chemist Paul McMillan, we discussed the Science of Glass this week. This was a programme that I would like to think I had stimulated in some small part when I previously took part in the programme covering the topic of States of Matter. After that earlier programme I mourned the fact the topic was too large to do justice to all the intriguing but less than conventional states and, in particular, that we had never touched on glasses at all. Indeed I wrote to the producer to say this. So in this programme we did. What I really liked about the line-up was that this time, unlike on my previous two appearances, we were not three scientists. Jim’s presence meant we had a broader view of things, particularly with regard to the historical context in which glass has been developed and utilised.

Such public dialogue between those with very different takes on a specific subject, are all too rare. Indeed, space and opportunity for such a public dialogue to occur are also all too rare. There is a tendency to ghetto-ise disciplines: Science Festivals and Literary Festivals do not usually co-mingle (although the Hay Festival does include a good line up of scientists) and speakers from one background may either lack confidence to speak in other arenas and/or may not get invited. This is not healthy.

If culture is to mean anything it should mean ‘the best that has been thought and known’ as Arnold would have it, but without taking a large part of our knowledge and implicitly saying that since it’s science it can’t count as culture, even if it has been ‘thought and known’. Why do we artificially divide the world so that it isn’t common to wish to be competent (I’m not aiming for a higher goal of expertise) in more than one sphere? Of course there are notable and visible exceptions, someone like Jonathan Miller, for instance. But scientists too often are diffident ( admittedly sometimes with good reason) about expressing their views about topics beyond their own specific fields. Yet why shouldn’t scientists express interest and knowledge about books or music, at least in a lay sense? Scientists are not Philistines (a word that, in this context, is also down to Arnold I believe) and their opinions are worth hearing. If music (jazz, perhaps, hence the title of this post) inspires them to be creative in their science, can they articulate why? And if science inspires artists, that too should be a cause for celebration. As examples of this latter I would cite the dress Matthew Hubble designed for the Nobel Prize winner May Britt Moser, or the Wonderland collaboration between fashion designer Helen Storey and chemist Tony Ryan .

The media doesn’t do much to facilitate such dialogue across this apparent divide. I fear this is because by and large the media is dominated by non-scientists who seem to feel science is ‘difficult’ and can’t be incorporated into programmes in general, but has to be hived off into programmes labelled SCIENCE in metaphorically large letters, so that people who don’t want accidentally to be introduced to any can safely avoid being tainted by this dangerous concept. I exaggerate, but nevertheless we have programming on TV and then we have science programmes. However excellent these programmes may be there is the danger of reinforcing the prejudice that science is ‘other’ by operating in this way.

Some of the problem may lie in the distinction that isn’t always made between Public Engagement with Science and Public Understanding of Science. The latter – perhaps involving talking heads standing up at a science festival expounding excitedly about some gee-whizz discovery, probably their own – is important. Facts are sacred and should be transmitted. But the engagement side is also important; not in the sense of getting one’s hands dirty with demos, but in the sense of actively finding out about developing ideas and, if need be, then questioning what is going on. Hilary Sutcliffe, for one (and I’m sure there are many others) gets exercised when someone implies that only scientists should be allowed to comment on science. And she is right. When it comes to issues such as the ever-bubbling discussion over GMO’s or the recent exemplary consultations over ‘3 parent babies’, the voice of more than just scientists must be heard in a democracy. But if the only time such interactions occur are when there is a danger of polarisation of views (e.g. implicitly assuming that scientists are pro some new technology, the rest of the world against) then it won’t be helpful. The dialogue should be ongoing and properly integrated so that it is just people talking about things that interest or affect them.

Culture needs to incorporate all the best things that have been thought and written, including science. Not what Arnold meant, but it should be our aspiration.

Posted in Communicating Science, Science Culture | Tagged , , | 16 Comments

How Broad is Broad?

Most conferences provide food for thought and my participation this week in the Global Scholars Symposium in Cambridge certainly fulfilled my expectations in this respect. Although I was meant to be the one doing the talking, there was also time for Q+A and general discussion with the students under the broad theme of Building Impact: Listen, Learn and Act. My day fell under the Listen theme and I gave a keynote talk, was involved in a panel discussion on the impact of science as well as participated in a more informal ‘fireside chat’ with around 20 students (but sans fire).

I want to pick out two strands that we kept coming back to and that the collected scholars (mainly PhD students, but some doing Masters and some who had recently completed their studies) seemed keen to discuss: policy and breadth. They are not unconnected.

A quick look through my publication list would demonstrate I have not spent all my life working in one small field of physics. My lines of research have had abrupt transitions between fields, meandered, had false starts which went nowhere, been kick-started in new directions due to funding opportunities and once or twice I have deliberately stopped a research topic when I felt I’d worked something to the point of loss of interest (for me). In other words, it has evolved in unpredictable ways. With hindsight I can come up with a post hoc logic for the whole trajectory but at the time it was probably less calculatingly thought through than a historical narrative might imply. After all, who believes in a Whiggish history of one’s research career any more than in any sort of endeavour?

So, in totality, I look broad and pretty interdisciplinary. If you are in your early-to-mid 20’s contemplating your next move how is that narrative to be handled? Should it be embraced or rejected? That was the question in essence that was posed to me and the only answer I can give is ‘It depends’. I believe that if you have done your first and second degrees in one place then perhaps it is good to move on to somewhere else to broaden your horizons, cultural as much as scientific. However….….for some people a move may be impossible for all kinds of reasons, often personal. I still believe breadth can be obtained even then and, for future fellowship applications for instance, probably should be sought. Working with a new collaborator, perhaps in a different department or sub-discipline, will provide evidence that you are not a one trick pony. It will also provide a means for differentiating yourself from your PI, perhaps an even more important distinction to make.

To me, reading an application, I am more concerned by what a candidate uniquely brings, than how many grand old (wo)men they have worked with in different hemispheres. But too often breadth is portrayed as the requirement to have globe-trotted. I fear this is another area where a crude metric of number of departments worked in is used in place of a more nuanced version of breadth. Nevertheless, the fundamental question of how broad is too broad remains. It is a question I have heard muttered by someone who has failed to make election to the Royal Society as well as by the disappointed, more junior URF candidates. There can be no simple, right answer (since in this case there aren’t even insane metrics to aim at) so ultimately it is a personal choice. What interests you and how can you find your own niche? For some people a lifetime spent studying every facet of a well-defined problem may be the right way to go, but personally I think that person is a rarity, probably increasingly so. New insight comes from joining dots in novel ways, be it by utilising a new technique on an old problem, or applying the well-established tools and approaches of one field to the questions in another. Maybe even by ‘just’ tearing up an old paradigm by approaching a well-worked problem with new eyes when not steeped in a half century of dogma.

‘How broad’ is equally applicable as a question when contemplating what to do beyond one’s actual research. I was asked how I thought opportunities for students to get stuck into policy compared now with when I set out, a question I found embarrassing. Embarrassing, because I have come to thinking about policy so late in life. As a student I was completely oblivious of the issues; indeed that not very happy state of affairs persisted until recently so I am definitely a late if enthusiastic convert. Having said that, there are obviously wonderful opportunities to be seized now. In Cambridge we have the luxury of all the activities provided by CSaP (the Centre for Science and Policy) and, specifically for students, by CUSPE (Cambridge University Science and Policy Exchange): I am, for instance, taking part in a CUSPE event on the ‘STEM skills gap’ in a couple of weeks, discussing the loss of women entering the STEM professions. Students in Cambridge have no excuse for not dipping their toes into policy waters if it takes their fancy, even without doing anything substantial such as seeking an internship through POST (the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology) or elsewhere.

But should they? My answer must be yes if they feel that inclination. It is such an important issue and, if we bemoan the lack of scientifically-trained policy makers as I for one do, then the only solution is for science-trained students to engage and contemplate making policy their subsequent career, be it as civil servants or MPs, in think-tanks or in NGO’s. The challenge for research students must be to find an appropriate balance so as not to let their research get derailed (or at least not until after they have their PhD successfully under their belt). I was encouraged by the interest and enthusiasm the students at this conference evinced, wanting to know more about how they can get involved. This was a bunch of students who cared passionately about wanting to make their world a better place and ensuring that sensible policy decisions are made has to be part of that.

There is, as any old fogey will tell you, something exhilarating about talking to those setting out on their lives. It is one of the reasons that working in academia is such a privilege and it is definitely one of the perks of the job of being Master of a Cambridge college. I certainly came away from my half day’s intense interrogation by this bright bunch of students mentally weary but excited. So, as ever, I turn to my blog to put down my half-digested thoughts on the ideas the debates have stimulated.

How broad is too broad? It is an impossible question to answer. Spreading one’s wings into (mixed metaphor) pastures new has to be good for all kinds of reasons beyond simply the CV and the next job application. But, go too far and it is of course possible that glib superficiality will set in. It’s a fine line, but one that every individual has to work out for themselves. And then, no doubt like me, they can write a sensible narrative late in life with the benefit of 20:20 hindsight.

Posted in Research, Science Culture, Science Policy | Tagged , | 2 Comments