On the Need for Shiny New Facilities

I’m off to open a new block at Brighton and Hove Sixth Form College tomorrow. A shiny new building to provide fresh classrooms and additional study space, something many schools would dearly love to have. A decent working environment is undoubtedly contributory to children finding it easier to learn – rather like Virginia Woolf’s Room of her Own. Dark, dingy classrooms with poor ventilation can only hinder concentration. Too many schools have to operate under such conditions.

When considering the future of the science base through the students being educated, an important consideration needs to be the quality of the laboratory facilities provided to permit appropriate practical work to be carried out at every level. At primary school a lack of teachers feeling well-qualified and/or confident to teach such work does not help, although the actual cost of required equipment may be relatively modest. Things get worse at secondary school where there may be teachers with the right skills but who lack the requisite apparatus. A 2013 SCORE study of the school budgets assigned to practical work highlighted the dire state many teachers have to operate in. How can you carry out exciting work in a lab to stoke the curiosity of a child if only 75p pa per capita is assigned to practical work (this was the lowest figure quoted in the SCORE analysis)? The average in the state school sector was around £10 pa per capita to be contrasted with an average of £27 in private schools. That’s a big difference in money which can’t be expected to have zero impact when it comes to the enthusiasm with which a child approaches the school laboratory.

Practical work may not be going to count in assessments under the new regime, or at least in the way it traditionally has, an outcome many organisations have complained about. But that does not mean it has no worth – which is why its obliteration has been so fiercely contested. There is no doubt for many children it is precisely this practical element of work, getting their hands dirty as it were, which sparks curiosity. Finding out how things work (or how they don’t work, even why they don’t work) is an important part of getting to grips with science, whether or not the child has aspirations to further scientific study. More money into school buildings and school resources more generally are desperately needed. I hope the politicians have this firmly in their sights as they speechify up and down the country this month.

Of course the other part of my role tomorrow is not just to celebrate the clean walls and pleasing architecture, but to act as a catalyst for thought in the children who attend. I am still unclear (as I believe is the evidence in the literature) of the specific importance of role models. In particular it isn’t obvious to me that some woman nearly half a century older than the pupils is likely to inspire any particular excitement or positive identification. Sometimes it worries me that I could have a negative effect of making the future as a grown up merely seem inconceivably remote. I can’t help feeling that someone closer in age to them is more likely to enable them to believe that their career is a path they might wish to emulate.

On the other hand, experience counts for something. The kind of messages I like to give in such pep talks include:

  • Don’t be fooled successful people have never had setbacks;
  • Or that they’ve always known exactly what they want to do.
  • Don’t believe confidence is necessarily more than skin deep.
  • Realise that opportunities are there to be seized
  • And that missed opportunities often leave a worse taste in the mouth than trying something new and failing at it.

I am sure that some mixture of these bullet points will feature in what I have to say before I unveil the plaque. I hope I do this more successfully than a previous ceremony I attended, carried out by a junior minister and which used to show up on Auntie’s Bloomers. I leave you with this image forever burned into my mind, featuring Edward Leigh as he opened the new laboratory I was presiding over at the Cavendish at the time (1992).
edward leigh 92

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Leadership (Churchillian style) and Policy

Churchill is often seen as the supreme leader, a man whose very voice inspired a nation and who held the country’s nerve during the Battle of Britain. Less often discussed is his leadership and behaviour at other times, although increasingly there are biographies that are far from hagiographic, one notable example being by a Churchill College Fellow, Nigel Knight. The title of his book – Churchill: The greatest Briton unmasked – gives his thesis away. There were many periods of Churchill’s life when his behaviour was not quite so heroic or successful as during those crucial 2nd World War years. My own grandfather, a clerk in the House of Commons after the 1st World War, could not forgive him for ‘crossing the floor’ by switching parties (twice in fact).

One man with whom Churchill dealt with a great deal during the years of the 2nd World War was General de Gaulle, from 1940 the leader of the Free French in London, operating out of a house commemorated now by a plaque in Carlton Gardens, a mere 100m or so from the Royal Society. As part of the events marking the 50th anniversary of Churchill’s death, the Musée de L’Armée in Paris in has put on an exhibition simply entitled ‘Churchill – de Gaulle‘. It charts their individual lives and how these became inextricably linked during the 1940s and ’50s.

I was fortunate enough to attend the inauguration last week at a formal event at the museum , an event well supplied with champagne courtesy of Churchill’s favourite supplier Pol Roger. At the associated formal lunch I had the pleasure of meeting members of de Gaulle’s family as well as a trio of Churchill’s own descendants: Randolph Churchill, Emma Soames and Celia Sandys (good friends all to Churchill College). I also had a tour of the exhibition courtesy of the College’s archivist Allen Packwood. The College Archives had supplied many (I believe around 60) of the exhibits on show and Allen and his team have been heavily involved in the curation and catalogue preparation. He gave us a fascinating insight into their lives and times. I would encourage others who find themselves in Paris to pay a visit to the exhibition.

Churchill and de Gaulle did not have an easy relationship. Churchill said of him

“He felt it was essential to his position before the French people that he should maintain a proud and haughty demeanour towards “perfidious Albion”, although in exile, dependent upon our protection and dwelling in our midst. He had to be rude to the British to prove to French eyes that he was not a British puppet. He certainly carried out this policy with perseverance”.

This suspicion cut both ways and there was much tension and disagreement between them, De Gaulle remarking

“When I am right, I get angry. Churchill gets angry when he is wrong. We are angry at each other much of the time.”

The suspicion on de Gaulle’s part was well-founded, as Churchill had indeed wanted de Gaulle removed from his leadership of the Free French. In the iconic image, below, of the pair of them walking up the Champs Elysées in 1944, their body language says a lot about their relationship. Curiously, this is the image used to front the exhibition!
Churchill de Gaulle2

Continuing with the theme of Churchill and leadership, as its own part of the Churchill 2015 festivities, the College has been working with CSaP (Cambridge University’s Centre for Science and Policy) on a theme of scientific leadership and policy. This is a topic close to my heart that I initiated as the College’s contribution to the compendium of Churchill 2015 panels running during this year. This coming week will see CSaP’s annual conference, actually focussing on what the Humanities have to offer Government policy-making, followed by a panel discussion I will chair regarding the role of evidence and analysis in effective policy making. We are lucky to have Lord Peter Hennessy setting the scene with a keynote address and he will be joined by former Home Secretary Charles Clarke, Lord Richard Wilson (former Cabinet Secretary and Master of Emmanuel College) and Sir Richard Mottram (former Chairman, DSTL). Daunting company for me to be keeping but it should make for a fascinating discussion.

The second day will involve early-career civil servants and researchers in a policy professional development workshop led by senior researchers and policy specialists including James Wilsdon from SPRU and Churchill Fellow David Spiegelhalter. The latter has an enviable reputation in making sense of badly-reported statistics and has recently been much in the news regarding his new book on statistics as related to our sexual habits. My role is again at the end of the day, when we try to pull things together to consider road blocks in linking scientific advice to policy making and how things could be improved.

As my inner impostor reminds me, my track record in anything looking like science policy is relatively short in duration. But these matters are really important. Just last week I wrote over at the Making Science Public blog

‘Some scientists, some of the time, most certainly should [worry about political science communication] or our government will have an even weaker evidence base on which to build when it comes to key decisions.’

It is important that junior researchers and civil servants have a chance to learn from each other so that there is some hope this science-policy interface will improve. But our House of Commons is a sad reflection of our education system with its absence of scientifically-trained MP’s, who are too often also scientifically illiterate (not the same thing) and so may not be well-placed to receive and understand good advice if and when it comes from their civil servants.

Churchill himself relied very heavily on a single man, Frederick Lindemann (Lord Cherwell), but he had many other senior scientists working around him during the war years including this College’s first master Sir John Cockcroft. This group surrounding him certainly often did not agree with each other (take Lindemann and Henry Tizard as a case in point) but at least they were there, tossing ideas around and formulating crucial policies. We have little that is equivalent to that now. One consequence of this is that, whatever sound bites politicians may utter about the excellence of UK science, they do not believe in it enough to commit to keeping the science ringfence or provide any uplift in the budget. As I write in today’s Observer, fine words butter no parsnips when it comes to funding.

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Borrowing an Objective

Maybe it’s because I’m relaxed as it’s the Easter break, but when I received an email with ‘Borrowing an Objective‘ as its subject this week, my mind went into overdrive. I assumed someone was short of a goal, an aspiration or a target hypothesis for their grant – or even for their departmental mission statement. Much more boringly in fact it was because someone in the group wanted to borrow an actual optical component (viz. an objective) for a light microscope.

Nevertheless, my mind in meandering mode, I mentally developed the theme a bit further by wasting time reading objectives provided by different universities up and down the country. Many, I’m pleased to say, did not have them at university level (although they may well have had mission statements or equivalent). Frequently they had objectives which appeared under the Equality section; this is something I can understand and I’ll come back to this at the end. And of course, individual PI’s and larger collaborations often listed them but mainly in the context of their grant applications; also something that is perfectly logical. After all, this is typically required by funders when the application is put together.

What worried me was what I found under headline information about university structures and aims. If I give some examples (anonymised) maybe you’ll see why I found the statements so disconcerting.

  • Objectives for the ‘student experience’ (in itself that phrase sounds like a visit to a theme park, but let’s ignore that).
  1. Enhanced our student experience, working in partnership with our students;
  2. Reformed and developed our already high quality research-led and practice-driven teaching and curriculum;
  3. Increased the proportion of our graduates who get a first or upper second class degree;
  4. Increased the proportion of our graduates in graduate employment;
  5. Further enhanced participation and outcomes for students from low participation backgrounds.

I find it interesting these are all written in the past tense: have they already achieved all these objectives? However this bunch of ‘objectives’ is sadly lacking in useful content. They equate variously to motherhood statements, indicate what might come across as a desire to dumb down quite consciously (e.g. point 3) or need so many verbal contortions to put across the idea that, however wonderful things are already they are somehow going to get even more spectacularly wonderful (point 2). However point 5 does look like a genuinely worthwhile and, one would like to think, achievable aspiration.

A statement, this time from a Russell Group university, is at least as meaningless (because so obviously this is what a university should be aspiring to) as a set of objectives:

XXX’s Research and Innovation’s objectives are to support the University in achieving two of its strategic goals: excellence in research and excellence in commercialisation and knowledge exchange. Our particular focus is on engaging with our wider community, building strategic partnerships and collaborations, and advancing internationalisation.

I suppose one could argue that some institutions might not be quite so positive about commercialisation (excellent or otherwise), but given the current drivers within HE, notably REF, impact and so on, these sentences look completely self-evident. Another Russell Group institution has a very similar framework for its primary objective:

To deliver research in every discipline that addresses questions and issues with the potential to make significant impact on knowledge, people or the economy, or to enhance or change society for the better.

This is perhaps a little less-obviously money-grabbing than the earlier example and using ‘impact’ as no doubt research funders would like us to use it. Whereas another (non-Russell group) institution is more succinct and prefers the use of bullet points:

  • Creating a better future … going beyond.
  • Growing in stature and reputation.
  • Competing on quality through innovation.
  • Ensuring sustainability.

although what is beyond the future I am not entirely sure! (To infinity and beyond springs to mind).

I am quite sure these organisations could, as in my title, borrow each other’s objectives and practically no one would notice the difference. Enough. I’ve made my point although I pulled out many more similar examples of meaningless blather. And having done so I realise I am really reprising a previous blogpost by Philip Moriarty on the vacuity of excellence written a year or so ago. His take is very much the same as mine here, that many of the statements that universities so proudly proclaim on their websites are pretty meaningless. Either just about everyone would subscribe to the views expressed or they have very little genuine useful content. What makes this slightly ironic is that over at Physics Focus where Phil’s ‘excellence’ post was, he and I have recently been disagreeing about the importance of ‘leadership’ in universities. He says:

I didn’t become an academic in order to be led. Nor did I become an academic to lead others. I’m an academic because I want to contest, argue, debate, explore, and challenge the received wisdom.

Which is fair enough as far as it goes, but his tirade was specifically written after he had attended the meeting in Cambridge following on from the University’s book The Meaning of Success. I wrote about the aim of the meeting in advance of the actual day itself. Phil writes after the event, fretting there were too many vapid presentations (I didn’t notice them but we didn’t attend the same parallel sessions; perhaps I struck lucky). But, whereas I am content to let Phil rant about leadership from above not being needed to get your research heading off in a healthy direction I am not convinced by his arguments when it comes to progressing the equalities agenda.

Why? Because too many people have too many bad habits – as all the evidence shows, men and women alike are prone to unconscious (aka implicit) bias – which we need our faces rubbed in pretty often. We need those with the power to put cash on the table or change the criteria we use when recruiting and promoting to take the lead and do so. We need those leaders to lead by example (maybe we’ll see – male – VCs starting to share parental leave?). This isn’t the same thing as imposing targets, rules or payscales without regard to the views of others. I am all in favour of debate and challenge to make sure any ‘solutions’ proposed by the leadership genuinely solve the underlying problem. If you want to see my full reply to Phil it is also over at Physics Focus here. But, I do believe leadership matters when it comes to equality and diversity and setting some objectives in this domain really is a good, if not necessary, thing to do. Here are a couple of possible objectives to illustrate the kinds of statements I mean:

  • we will increase the number of women in senior leadership positions to XX%;
  • we will require all recruitment panels for faculty positions to demonstrate they have actively sought out a diverse field.

With examples like these, as long as the objectives are both concrete and challenging yet achievable, I’d be happy for some institution to borrow them.


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Is there a Point in Travel?

As my last post makes clear, I have been busy travelling recently. My trip encompassed visits to both New York and Boston, cities which in years past I have visited quite frequently. Boston is delightfully non-American: its streets are not on a grid but resemble a British city much more than any other US city I have ever visited. It has had a hard winter this year and remnants of the mounds of snow were still to be seen between the road and the sidewalk, but they were clearly but a pale imitation of what they had looked like earlier in the month.

In the past one of the main reasons for my presence in Boston has been the annual MRS meeting held in the Hynes Conference Centre and local hotels. When I first went – and 15 years or ago or so I was even a session organiser for a symposium at one of these meetings on the Materials Science of Food – I found these meetings incredibly stimulating. With multiple parallel sessions it was always something of a challenge to nip between one meeting room and another to catch the talks one really wanted. There was a rich diet of excellent speakers, be they the most senior or those just setting out, as well as well-attended poster sessions.

However the last MRS meeting I attended, five or more years ago, I found deeply depressing. The buzz had gone. The multiple sessions were still running, but even when a speaker had an audience too often half of them were lurking at the back of the room reading their emails. Wifi was available throughout the conference space and consequently everywhere people were using it to stay online. Coffee breaks merely meant people moved out into the corridors and sat around still glued to their laptops. Conversation was severely limited, little discussion occurred and it was hard to interact with those one really wanted to catch. I have not been back since that disheartening experience.

I have always felt there were drawbacks to the big US style meeting. Whichever city they were held in, however wonderful the conference facilities, the quality of the air-conditioning (most important when I attended a conference in Atlanta in August) and the luxuriousness of spacious hotel rooms, the very extensiveness of them frustrates interaction. UK conferences held in dreary campus halls of residence mean that everyone turns up in the bar in the evening and perforce mingles. The food may be unexciting but if you are all there together you can far more easily find the person you’re really keen to toss ideas around with. This is probably even more important for junior researchers who can casually bump into their hero in the lunch queue. If everyone is staying in different hotels and you’re all heading off in different directions to find food, it requires much more bumptiousness and confidence to approach a professor to ask for time to discuss your work than if you can casually sit next to them at breakfast. So, whereas I still attend UK conferences the only US conferences I have been to in recent years have been Gordon conferences where New England prep schools’ functionality is more comparable to the UK hall of residence (although often the food is better).

However, is travelling an overrated academic pastime anyhow? Conferences can be – although I note above, not always – immensely stimulating as well as useful places to network, be inspired and be brought up to date with new developments and discoveries. However, too often the invited speakers are the same people delivering the same talks before rapidly disappearing to their next important engagement. Such people too rarely provide inspiration, insight or even opportunities for one-to-one interaction. That too often the slate of invited speakers is anything but diverse has been noted by many about conferences in many different fields. If added to this the opportunities to interact with the majority of attendees are limited by logistics and over-excessive availability of wifi then one has to wonder what benefit accrues beyond a tick on your CV from travelling thousands of miles at significant expense.

For students and for postdocs the very experience of presenting one’s work to a wider public can (and certainly should) be stimulating, even given those limitations, but once one progresses beyond the first few meetings, is the time away from one’s desk/lab bench/research group more than compensated by what one gets back? How many conferences a year do you really need on your CV to be convincing that you are making your mark when it comes to appointment and/or recruitment? I for one cut back on my travel when I had children and have never regretted the limit I imposed back then, one I have essentially never removed (even though my children have long since left home). I feel my productivity is greater for physically remaining close to home and department and restricting the days of inefficiency due to jet lag. I think as a sector we should be very careful of assuming someone who has accrued many airmiles in order to be seen in all continents in a given year, is more worthy of respect (or promotion) than someone whose travel itinerary is much more limited. In particular, if we slavishly expect everyone to attend some large number of conferences a year we are undoubtedly unwittingly disadvantaging those who do not choose to do so, perhaps due to caring responsibilities or health issues.

I wrote a long time ago about why I think travelling is overrated and nothing I have seen since makes me change my mind. It doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy my most recent trip which I concluded by giving the Geiringer Lecture at Harvard. I spent a fascinating day at the University meeting old friends and new acquaintances and catching up with what they had been doing. I also learned more about Hilda Geiringer, in whose honour the lecture was named, a remarkable applied mathematician who, both as a Jew and a woman had a frustrated academic life around the time of the Second World War. Her 93 year old daughter was present at the lecture. Overall I suspect I got all the more out of the trip because it was so long since I had last visited the USA.

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Reminiscing On my Travels

I am often asked, what do College Masters do? Some people seem to think it is similar to being Warden of a Hall of Residence (i.e. sorting out broken light bulbs or disputes between neighbouring students), but it isn’t like that at all. As one of my fellow female Masters told me, it is a case of ‘setting a tone’, but even that sounds – and is – very nebulous. It is perhaps akin to what is written in my contract with the University ‘such other duties as the Head of Department requires’, where for Head of Department read the collective Fellowship. In other words, it is what you make of it but if you fail to do it well it will be very publicly visible.

Of course part of the role involves frequent dining with alumni, senior visitors and potential donors as well as the wider College community and I am on something of a culinary tour currently in the USA, meeting up with distant alumni – of Churchill and many other colleges –and wider friends of the University plus giving talks around a variety of different subjects. The Meaning of Success event had a stimulating discussion on Saturday at the Waldorf Astoria in New York with a wide range of perspectives from senior female alumni of the University including two other heads of house (Firzwilliam’s Nicky Padfield  and Murray Edwards’ Barbara Stocking). A talk in Boston followed on Churchill and Science, along the lines of an earlier post and, I am finishing the trip off today with the original motivation for the visit, a science lecture at Harvard, in the other Cambridge of course.

So, after a gap of some 30 years I finally returned to spend some time in New York. It wasn’t that I was avoiding the place simply that it didn’t happen, except sitting in airports en route to somewhere else. I distinctly remember sitting in Newark, holed up somewhere as quiet as I could find, reading an entire thesis during a long and unanticipated layover. Five hours away from email, as that implied at the time, was very productive and good for the concentration.

Returning to New York now has felt distinctly strange. My first arrival – heading off to a postdoc position at Cornell University – was marred by the fact that I had lost my wallet at Victoria before take-off. So I turned up with no money, only travellers cheques, and by the time I got to the small airport at Ithaca had to be lent a dime or two so I could phone my husband (no mobiles back then; and I’d probably have lost that too anyhow). My return to the UK, four years later (I’d not returned once in between), was no less eventful. This time I’d managed to lose my passport. When I rang the British Embassy after I realised that this was missing and asked them what I should do they said it was absolutely no problem. I should just turn up at the Embassy with my birth and marriage certificates. Things got a bit hairier when I pointed out I had ‘lost’ these too. They weren’t lost of course. In the course of moving out of our apartment I had sorted all my belongings into careful piles and it is clear, with hindsight, that these valuable documents had got into the pile to throw away. At least, they have never been since!

I set off to New York and the Embassy just hoping that they would issue me with an emergency passport on the strength of me knowing the date and Office which had issued the lost passport to me; this was easy as the passport was dated on my marriage day since I had changed my name and travelled abroad for my honeymoon. It worked. They gave me one which enabled me to leave the USA and enter the UK. I wonder how I would fare in a similar situation today with the increased anxiety over security.

So, more than 30 years on, I returned to New York. Now operating in a very different style from the life-on-a-shoestring of a postdoc, my University and College have booked me into comfortable accommodation, including at the Waldorf Astoria where the Meaning of Success event was held. It is hard not to contrast life back then as a postdoc with limited funds and a head of house for whom cars are arranged to transport me to and from the airport and comfortable, cockroach-free rooms provided in upmarket hotels. I mention the cockroaches because my first experience of a hotel in Boston was full of them, rather disconcertingly. But then, so was our apartment in Ithaca. Tough little blighters to dispose of.

This contrast, made all the starker by the absence of intervening visits, exposes my inner impostor syndrome again. How did I get here from where I was: that incompetent person who seemed unable not to lose significant items as I travelled, that person who had no aspiration to an academic career or indeed any other sort of career. I just kind of kept muddling on, possibly gaining experience in how to avoid putting a passport in the rubbish in the meantime.

Nevertheless, the Meaning of Success event highlighted the fact that for many of us across different fields of employment aspiration does not mean a bigger office, car or salary. It is so often about nurturing the talent around one in one’s teams or staying true to one’s values. Ann Cotton of the charity CamFed gave a wonderful example of how she held her nerve for the organisation regarding the absolute sanctity of the privacy of the young people she was helping in Africa in the face of a newspaper who wanted to showcase her work – thereby gaining her much needed publicity – but for whom signing a piece of paper of the kind she required for her charity’s processes was unheard of. She didn’t blink, she stuck to her beliefs so that her internal values held firm and as a result of her steadfastness the newspaper found a workaround that suited all. Sticking to one’s core beliefs is, as the Cambridge book made clear, a key factor in the lives of many of the individuals interviewed. For them, success was not success unless this line was held.

Many of us will never be faced with the sort of stark choice Ann Cotton faced but, as a head of house, I’m sure one of my other duties may turn out to be holding some sort of line under external pressure. I haven’t had to deal with such a situation yet, but one might turn up during my tenure. In the meantime, I will continue to battle the inner voice that says ‘What are you doing swanning around in upmarket hotels when you’re so wet behind the ears you lose your passport?’ and move on to my next stimulating meeting with alumni.

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