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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Embedding the People in our Labs

Scientists are people, they have emotions and they interact with their peers, their students, their professors….and indeed the public. Sometimes, however, scientists are represented as interacting with little more than glassware or white lab coats. We can be perceived as living in a hermetically sealed bubble of our own construction occasionally churning out papers which are too abstract for others to appreciate, and are presumed to be always devoid of emotion. This representation is a travesty of what life as a scientist is like.

Perhaps it is for this reason that Hope Jahren’s book Lab Girl is being received so positively: she is open and frank about her life as a scientist. Her passion for the world of plants (ancient and modern) shines through, alongside the extraordinary lengths she has gone to in order to make her science count, the hours she has slaved away and the challenges she faced en route. Challenges which include bipolar disorder, dropped in half way through the book so lightly one could almost miss it, despite its extreme effects upon her from time to time. Sexism is only mentioned in passing, but lurks just beneath the surface. Chasing after grants is described much more explicitly, as is her excitement as she dreams up new experiments to test her hypotheses out. You don’t have to be a (paleo)botanist to appreciate her descriptions, which are wonderfully evocative.

However, this isn’t meant to be a book review. I have come across three already in my casual reading; there are bound to be more out of there if you look. First up was the New York Times  which gave it such a rave review I instantly went out and bought the book. Subsequently I came across both the Guardian’s write up by Helen Pearson and fellow OT blogger Jenny Rohn’s review in Nature.  All three are very positive, stressing different elements of this engaging and original book. However, I want to highlight a slight niggle I had when reading it, which comes back to my opening sentences.

Jahren writes movingly about her science, her passion (a word I use with caution for reasons I have described before) for it and about how it shapes her every day. She describes feelings and situations most scientists would recognize in their generalities, though the specifics may differ for every discipline and individual. For the non-scientists, who one hopes will read the book, our way of life may look extreme but that is part of the book’s power. But what is missing is the flesh and blood of the people around her. ‘Bill’ is a central character: her long-serving technician of many years’ standing features prominently. Yet he is a cypher, for all his name crops up with great frequency. The book is centred around Jahren; the others are mere shadows. Yet that is not how science is done. We thrive by discussion, by argument, by doing and listening. These are not lone activities. Science is not done in an interpersonal vacuum, yet when such a central character as Bill has little solidity (other than that he solidly, unquestioningly supports Jahren)and is painted so faintly, we can’t understand – or indeed convey –  the complexity of the reality of ‘doing’ science.

Following on from my last post, it seems to me that for all the revealing personal touches Jahren makes about herself, without the web of her collaborators taking shape the dialogue is incomplete. I wrote something similar when I described another plant scientist’s book: Seed to Seed by Nicholas Harberd. In this earlier post I noted the absence of his group of students as a source of ideas, inspiration or challenge. In other words, he too seemed to exist in a solipsistic world that I think is not an accurate reflection of how most of us proceed.

What I think makes both these otherwise illuminating and intriguing accounts of how scientists operate somewhat disappointing (and I suspect it is mere coincidence that both these books are written by individuals in similar disciplines, though asking very different questions) is that they can feed the view that scientists are egotistical folk for whom other people don’t really matter very much. The Frankenstein myth is alive and well and it is unfortunate if books that are in so many ways stimulating and refreshing nevertheless convey the message that other people either aren’t important or are only there to serve the master brain. A key role for a group leader to adopt is that of nurturing future talent. Not just take them to a conference and feed them pizza (as Jahren describes), but challenge them, stretch them, advise them and encourage them to enable the next generation to work out who they are. Our contribution can be as much about this nurturing as about our own high profile papers or the conferences we speak at.

Maybe it’s that I’m nosey, but having read Jahren’s book and been carried away by her wonderful prose and neat analogies, I wanted to know more about her helpmeet Bill and what made him tick. If reviews of a book about doing science are going to make it into mainstream papers, I want that book to represent the full richness of doing science. I don’t want it to feed the idea that we are lone geniuses whom lesser talents should be proud to serve. It is absolutely clear that Jahren does not think like this (as her appendix on how she approached the generation of some of the more mind-blowing numbers in the course of her teaching made clear), but the book lets the opportunity to spell this out slip. Let us not leave the humanity of what we do be left out; let us not feed the fears of so many of the public who think we are cold, unfeeling  machines who don’t care about the consequences of our actions. Collectively we aren’t like that, but perhaps we could do more to overcome such public anxieties.

I am convinced my own science is all the richer and better for the personal interactions I have had. I have tried to touch upon such human connections when I have written tributes to two of my own late mentors (Ed Kramer and Sir Sam Edwards).  If ever I write an autobiographical book – which is definitely not currently on my to-do list – it will need to encompass the web of people who have inspired me, driven me on (or driven me mad) because that is how science is done. Not in splendid isolation.

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Culture and Science

Culture arguably sits at the centre of our society, but what it means isn’t always clear. To many, too many I would say, it only refers to the ‘arty’ stuff: literature, films, art and music perhaps. That science could be part of culture, whilst rarely explicitly stated as impossible, generally seems to be regarded as not being the case. But then, what is science? What is included in science and what is not? These questions that have long bothered me have been brought into sharper relief by my stint as chair of the (pilot) Science Advisory Council  (SAC) for the Department of Culture, Media and Sports (DCMS). One of the first questions posed, by SAC member Geoff Crossick, was ‘what do we mean by science?’. Within the SAC we are taking it to mean ‘everything covered by one of the research councils’, so a pretty catholic description. It would certainly include much of the heritage industry (clearly relevant to DCMS’s activities), as well as the more obvious laboratory and social sciences as well as health (up to a point; no need to clash with the Department of Health’s remit).

Questions about culture are close to Geoff Crossick’s heart. He is a former head of the AHRC and co-author of a recent AHRC report discussing the importance of culture for our society. Understanding the value of arts & culture it represents the outcome of the Cultural Value Project and was published last month. This week a meeting is being held to reflect on its findings. By its very nature it seeks to define what ‘culture’ is, and then explore what impact it has on our society, including our well-being. As such it is highly relevant to the work the SAC does and I was honoured that Geoff invited me to participate in this week’s meeting (although I have been away and so unable to accept). It implies that through our work on the SAC and more broadly he believes that I, as a scientist, have something to offer the cultural debate, and I hope I do. But first we have to get past what ‘culture’ is and here I still think the debate has been too narrowly framed. Or rather, I think using the word culture to exclude science simply highlights the limitations of our language. In turn, this deficiency in language hinders our broader thinking (this is in no way meant as a criticism of the report’s content).

The report itself specifically aims to broaden the coverage compared with previous discussions and states

‘It is interested not just in publicly-funded concert halls, art galleries, theatres and museums, important as these are; but also commercial film, music and literature; young people getting together in a band, amateur choirs, local art clubs and reading groups, and people crafting at home or in local clubs; as well as those engaging in prisons, hospitals and care homes.’

Implicitly from this it is clear that the scope will restrict itself to those things that are ‘arty’ in a broad but not merely professional sense. Nevertheless, there is no sense that attending a science festival or participating in a citizen science project might count as ‘culture’

Our language does not have a suitable word to cover this broader sense of culture. Nor do we have a word that encompasses science in all its manifestations. In German, Wissenschaft has conveys this broad sense of knowledge, and if the Germans want to be more specific they can use Naturwissenschaft to indicate they are referring to the Natural Sciences. The English vocabulary is lacking any such single word. As a result we end up splitting our world into culture and science as if there is a neat dividing line. Paul Nurse, in his 2012 Dimbleby Lecture  said

‘I am passionate about science because it has shaped the world and made it a better place, and I want to see science placed more centre stage in our culture and economy.’

I quite agree, but as long as we explicitly and implicitly identify this sharp division between the two parts of our rich world we are failing.

The absence of a suitable word drives us to keeping the different parts of our knowledge-based activities (a horrid phrase, but I can’t use culture for obvious reasons) compartmentalised. A while ago I took exception to Stephan Collini’s distinction between ‘scientists’ and ‘scholars’ for exactly the same reason. It divides us when we should be sharing what each of us can bring to this particular party. It encourages pitting science against the humanities (as I’ve also written about before). Such splitting can only be damaging to the way we, collectively, approach the world and bring up the next generation. I wish there was an easy solution but I think it is a dialogue we should not be wary of facilitating.

May 1st 2016 For those interested in seeing these ideas taken further, Brigitte Nerlich has published her own blogpost exploring linguistic distinctions in other languages. There is further debate in her comment stream too.

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Unravelling Grant Success Rates by Gender

I first realised that the problems I was facing might just, possibly, not be down to my own shortcomings when I read the 1999 MIT report on the Status of Women. For the first time it occurred to me that my failure to be persuasive in committee meetings, or to convince the head of department of the importance of my research area, or to be treated with the respect that seemed to be accorded to other professors and FRSs…..maybe it wasn’t simply because I was incompetent. I was not pleased to work this out. It is easier, perhaps more comfortable, to believe that if you just try harder you might improve your skill base; that it lies in your hands to develop and succeed. To appreciate that the odds are systemically stacked against you is painful because it tells you there is nothing you can apparently do to improve your lot.

However, that is probably too negative a view. I am talking about nearly 20 years ago and at least the inbuilt biases are now laid bare for everyone to observe. Many committees I sit on are more than willing to discuss possible unconscious bias. People appreciate that references can be subtly (or indeed not so subtly) devaluing contributions from women. But if you are dealing, for instance, with an analysis of research grant success rates, how can you tell where any problems reside? As I’ve written before this is an issue the European Research Council constantly faces. Why is it that the Life Sciences domain is apparently less likely to award a grant to a woman than a man, whereas the other two domains are seemingly gender blind with essentially parity when it comes to success rates between the genders? The trouble is, we don’t know the answer.

For any funder it is possible to draw up a list of possible sources of inequity, and then to try to work out the steps that are needed for a remedy. Factors could include any (combination) of the following:

  • Women being less competent (I’m including this for completeness rather than because I accept it!);
  • Women being judged to be less competent;
  • Women receiving less benefit from mentoring;
  • Women underselling their track record;
  • Women sounding less confident about their plans and hyping less in what they write;
  • Women not having time to apply because they are overloaded with other tasks in their institutions;
  • Women receiving less encouragement – or even active discouragement – to apply;
  • Women spending comparatively more time on childcare or other household responsibilities;
  • Women being given less opportunity to lead teams and develop independence;
  • Women publishing less.

Others can probably expand this list, which is certainly not meant to sound like victim-blaming. I am simply trying to identify factors that may impact on women and thereby highlight whose task – which won’t necessarily be the funder’s – it might be to resolve it. However, maybe it is time to rewrite this list to make it clear where responsibilities should sit or how we might change the narrative.

Perceived issue

Women being judged to be less competent Unconscious bias training is getting more common and panels are more aware of the issues. Funders’ responsibility
Women receiving less benefit from mentoring


Employer’s responsibility to ensure all who need it receive mentoring and it doesn’t rely on the old boys’ network to deliver.
Women underselling their track record;


Or is this a case of men overselling their track record? Funders can try to standardise how track records are to be presented and employers can provide mentoring, oversight and guidance for how to write this up. Panels should try not to be blinded by fancy words or self-important egos, wherever found.
Women sounding less confident about their plans and hyping less in what they write


Are panels rewarding the bullshit factor? Should panels be trained in hyperbole detection? Should employers provide support for grant writers to ensure applicants neither over- or undersell their ideas?
Women not having time to apply because they are overloaded with other tasks in their institutions


Departments should look critically at workload models and ensure fair treatment of all. Bad departmental citizens should not be tolerated, let alone rewarded.
Women receiving less encouragement – or even active discouragement – to apply


This needs unconscious bias training at departmental level, particularly but not exclusively of the leadership team. Mentoring also has a role to play.
Women spending comparatively more time on childcare or other household responsibilities


This, unfortunately, is a societal issue that we should all speak up about, but cannot be resolved by funder or employer.
Women being given less opportunity to lead teams and develop independence


Employers need to think hard about this, an effect probably down to implicit bias and lack of mentoring procedures. We live too much by ‘to him [sic] that hath shall be given’.
Women publishing less Whoever said we should be judging on quantity? Funders should reconsider if they are implicitly doing this. We should make sure criteria of excellence are appropriate and not based on outdated concepts.

For some time I personally thought it was all down to the funders’ panels’ implicit bias. I have come to believe that this is probably only the origin of a small fraction of the problems. Other issues need to be tackled closer to home. However, we need constantly to revisit the barriers that may underlie uneven success rates and work out the how, who and what in order to resolve this issue. Levelling the playing field should be in everyone’s interests; employers should certainly take note of all that they could and should do. Nevertheless it is important to keep in mind that crude statistics of success rates can only take us so far and the qualitative insight that anecdote and experience feed in must also be taken into account.


Posted in Equality, Women in Science | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

RIP Sir David MacKay

Many people have been paying tribute to David MacKay, who died on Thursday, and I would like to add my own voice. He was an extraordinary man who contributed so much to physics and wider societal issues during his tragically short life. Although I never worked directly with him, nor even interacted with him much during the many years we worked in the same department (Cavendish Laboratory) in Cambridge, nevertheless somehow his character pervaded the world around him and made us all more aware of the importance of finding ways to communicate beyond our own communities.

David was appointed a lecturer at the Cavendish in 1995 having been in Cambridge for a while by then. I must have been involved with his appointment because I have a clear memory of the then head of department telling me how he was astonished by how many people, external to the department, had been telling him that we really must appoint David because he was so exceptional. At that point his main work was in computational studies for the analysis and transmission of information. But his applications were wide-ranging and touched on people working in a variety of different departments across Cambridge. We did indeed appoint him and he was quickly promoted, becoming a professor in 2003. He stood out always by his exceptional teaching (making Bayesian statistics – I think the title of the course was formally Inference – into one of the most popular option courses for our undergraduates was, I always felt, no mean feat.

He did many things on the side. I would highlight the development of some software he called ‘Dasher’, which enabled severely disabled people write text on a computer using their eyes alone. I saw him give a lecture demonstration once – and it was the kind of thing one never forgets. Added to which, when I chaired my department’s REF panel, it was one of the Impact Case studies we submitted. It was characteristic of the man that he absolutely refused to patent anything he did. The software he wrote was open source (and free), he was passionately determined about this, and it meant it was available for anyone to modify if they saw a need. I cannot now remember the quantitative data I must have had regarding the usage when this was being written up for the REF (and since I write this in an airport I cannot dig around to find it even I had retained such information). That wasn’t really the point in his eyes. The programme existed. For certain people it might have a transformative effect on their lives and that was sufficient.

Beyond the reasons he outlined in his own book, I don’t know what prompted him to start analysing energy production and consumption. But anyone who has read Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air, completed in 2008, will know what a totally original book it was. The book could be purchased through the usual channels, but it was (and is) also available to download freely, again entirely consistent with his ethos. This book reflected his determination to use simple physics ideas to perform order of magnitude calculations for many of the critical numbers we need if we are really to get to grips with our energy predicament. I saw him get a group of third year physicists to work out how much energy passengers waiting at Cambridge railway station could generate by pacing up and down while waiting for their trains. Maybe not a practical solution to our energy needs, but a striking illustration of the challenges we face without covering the whole of the United Kingdom’s land mass with solar farms. Looking at every type of renewable energy source in turn, in his book he guesstimated how much energy realistically we could hope to obtain. factoring in what humans are likely to be able to tolerate in terms of living conditions, land use etc. It was eye-opening yet also accessible. If you haven’t already read it I would urge you to do so!

It is no surprise that he was able to catch the imagination of politicians with his simple and easily comprehensible analyses. Nor was it in some ways a surprise that he was lured to work as Chief Scientific Advisor at the Department of Energy and Climate Change from 2009-14 (and so in two different complexions of Government). He even modified his style of dress to make him more persuasive. He clearly felt his accustomed garb of shorts and sandals (worn regardless of the weather) wouldn’t go down too well in Westminster and was seen to don a suit and tie in the interests of political persuasion. He still took his foldaway bike everywhere – one of the last times I talked to him was at Cambridge station where he stood, with his typical big grin, with his folding bike in his hands.

When he left DECC he took up the Regius Professorship in Engineering (still in Cambridge). It was a great loss to my department, but his loss to the entire community now stomach cancer has snatched him away is far, far greater. He was a visionary, with a young family and so much to live for. His fight with cancer was movingly described on his own blog. His memory will live on with all of us whose lives he touched, by his writing or in person. What a cruel blow. RIP Sir David MacKay (1967-2014). My thoughts are with your family.


Posted in Academia, energy production | Tagged , , | 2 Comments