Stand Up and Be Counted

There are times in one’s life when it is important to stand up and be counted. This is a view expressed neatly in a recent blogpost by Hilda Bastian about 7 Tips for Women at Science Conferences  with her sub-heading ‘Holding back for yourself is fine – but solidarity for others is non-negotiable.‘ In other words, if you don’t want to make a fuss when someone talks over or otherwise ignores you, that’s fine; nevertheless you shouldn’t let other people suffer that same fate without drawing attention to it. This isn’t just about women, many people are treated badly for one reason or another, although it is in the context of gender that Hilda writes. But, as she says, We all need to complain – at the very least on the conference evaluation form – when we see, hear, or experience unfairness.‘ And most of us aren’t very good at it. It is, after all, so much easier to look the other way rather than play the role of the Good Samaritan.

This applies far more broadly than simply to shenanigans at conferences. As the Thesis Whisperer wrote memorably, there are far too many academic assholes around. The trouble is not simply that these people exist, but our structures make it too easy for these people to thrive at the expense of the less unpleasant. Yet it really doesn’t need to be so since there is no law that says being an asshole leads to better science. Indeed the only way I think that might be true is if nastiness leads to more resources which in turn enables more to be done; but that still doesn’t necessarily mean that a lot of not-very-good science outweighs less science done by thoughtful, quiet and brilliant people.

If you are a young researcher just setting out, you may think that these words do not apply to you. But you’d be wrong. Within a research group there may be a fellow student whose behaviour to a third party seems out of line. Say so. If someone is hogging the apparatus or talking over a new student, point it out. It isn’t only professors who behave badly, and if no one tells the miscreants to pull their socks up they will only feel that bad behaviour comes with advantages but no penalties. As one goes up the ladder ­- be it in academia or any other profession – the scope one has to draw attention to unreasonable behaviour increases. Additionally, as one’s influence grows there are more people who are likely to be sensitive to your criticism if used wisely.

Criticism should of course be used sparingly, in which case it is likely to have all the more impact. But of course, this isn’t just about explicit criticism. It may be that what is required is setting a good example to encourage younger researchers to copy your own way of doing things. If those setting out on their research careers can see that being a good departmental citizen and treating your students like humans not as bench monkeys creates a productive environment from which top-class papers emanate, then they are more likely to follow suit. If the only PIs they see around them are arrogant and selfish it may not occur to them that any other type of behaviour is likely to lead to success. Role models matter.

In all of this departmental – and university – leadership matters hugely. And only too often it may be less than perfect. Those of us who’ve reached such heady heights have yet more responsibility for leading by example. But sometimes the influence one has can also be much more subtle. It may be more along the lines of a word of advice behind the scenes, or pointing out to others what they need to do. I well recall one time some years ago when I was aware someone – not in my department– was being hung out to dry with no support being offered to them when they found themselves negotiating tricky waters. Mulling things over on a Sunday morning run, I realised that I was not prepared not to do anything and I fired off a series of emails to those I thought were key people, ranging from the relevant PVC down (this was much more complicated than a line-management issue; in many ways I had no business sticking my nose into the matter although, as it happened to be a woman in this case, I could dress it up wearing my Gender Equality hat as a legitimate concern). I had replies from several of them within a couple of hours, replies signifying chest-beating along the lines of ‘I should have thought of this myself‘. One of them even arranged to ring me from the USA. (All of this on a Sunday, but I’ll leave aside the question of whether any of us should have been reading emails at the time.) Decent people all of them; people who hadn’t been consciously turning their backs on the problem, they had nevertheless failed to spot they had an implicit duty of care.

That made me realise just how powerful a word in someone’s ear can be and that sometimes there are situations where any of us can step in to help someone else. As Hilda Bastian said, you can choose not to stand up for yourself but you should always stand up for others being put through a hard time. Indeed, it may be easier to stand up for someone other than yourself because it is easier to be objective. You can see much more clearly whether the person on the receiving end has in fact brought vitriol on themselves because they’ve taken a wrong course of action when it’s not you as the person in question.

I believe the Thesis Whisperer’s Circle of Niceness that she discusses in her blogpost on academic assholes can start at the most junior level. The situations you can deal with will vary with your degree of seniority and corresponding sphere of influence, but if those at the start of their careers practice challenging bad behaviour in their own small way, maybe by the time they and their peers reach the heady heights they will both have more confidence about speaking out regarding the big problems and also have eradicated/undermined those who would play the bully. If that makes me sound an optimistic, well sometimes I can be one!

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Am I a Lady?

I am of a generation that was brought up with (though most certainly not to laugh at) the joke ‘That’s no lady, that’s my wife’. Classist overtones? Undoubtedly, as well as inherent sexism: the word ‘lady’ to me is not one with which I want to be associated. Let us leave aside the question of whether a knight’s wife should be deemed a Lady, though that also contains inherent sexism: my husband has no title deriving merely from the fact that I am a dame, the female equivalent of a knight, as such a Lady does. However, use of the word ‘lady’ continues to be used in ways I regard as sexist and demeaning: as in ‘here is top lady scientist Professor X’. And yes, I have been introduced essentially in that cringe-inducing way. As far as I’m concerned, either I should be introduced as a top scientist or just call me Professor without any adjectival qualifier (I will return to the idea of ‘adjectival’ below).

So when the Buzzfeed Life section ran a listing on what women at the top would offer by way of advice to young women setting out I felt a little put off by its headline referring to ‘lady bosses’, albeit I am well aware of the honour I should feel at the sight of my own words appearing in such a list (and if I hadn’t known beforehand, my Twitter feed soon spelled this out ). My own tweet expressed slight unease about the title (poorly reproduced below) and the next time I looked the offending word had been removed (so thank you Rachel if you’re reading this). Now the title simply reads ‘ 21 Tips For Slaying At Work From Top Bosses’  which seems positive enough.


However let me return to the adjectival use of the word lady which I so dislike. It has always jarred on me although I’d never stopped to wonder why; the word ‘woman’ as a prefix would annoy me almost as much if used in this way. Then I read an article in the Guardian during the autumn and all was made plain. I was reacting against the bad English as much as against the highlighting of gender. I am not a woman scientist – any more than I am a lady scientist. If it is felt necessary to point out that I am a woman, the correct usage is that I am a female scientist. Woman and lady are nouns and should not be used to qualify another noun. This is not a new complaint. Dorothy Sayers in her 1935 novel Gaudy Night about a fictitious Oxford women’s college and speaking through the voice of her quasi-heroine Harriet Vane, objected to the head of the college being referred to as a ‘Lady Head’. I suppose in that language I would be a Lady Master. It’s just wrong, as well as distasteful.

Now by and large I see no reason why my gender should be relevant when I am introduced as a speaker; after all it’s pretty obvious once I’m standing there that I am indeed a woman. I am a scientist who happens to be a woman, however, not someone who is doing womanly science. Nevertheless, if my profession has to have a gendered tag attached to it to satisfy someone’s sense of – well what? Old-fashioned chivalry? – let’s say propriety, I wish they could get their grammar right.

But one should ask – although the moment of a public introduction hardly seems the right moment to do this – why is it necessary to identify my gender at all? I find it hard to imagine introducing a man as ‘here is male Professor X’, let alone as ‘gentleman Professor X’. I’m afraid it comes down to the quote of Samuel Johnson

woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all

Since it still seems surprising to some to find, for example, a female physicist giving a seminar, such people appear to feel obliged to refer to it. I can’t help feeling that those who choose to stress my gender in introductions probably think, misguidedly, they are somehow complimenting me because of my rarity value.  From where I stand, it doesn’t feel that way.


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Science Policy and Impact: Lessons from History

REF, the Science and Innovation Strategy document (S+I) and the Nurse Review of the Research Councils  collectively mean that the UK HE world of science is stuffed full of current policy issues that matter to us all – never mind the concentration of minds arising from an upcoming election followed by a Comprehensive Spending Review of unknown political complexion. It is easy to think that this period is both uncomfortably full of political masters making decisions based on shaky evidence and that scientists now are uniquely pressed to discover the ‘impact’ of their work, indeed to make such impact a primary driver. Of course this latter point simply isn’t true. Any cursory reading around the history of science will demonstrate that scientists have been buffeted by political (or, if you go back far enough, Royal) power and inclination. Patronage is a word rarely heard now (although pork barrel may be its more modern translation) but historically it definitely determined the fate of many careers.

Having a bad habit of reading multiple books simultaneously, it so happens there are three history of science books I started reading over Christmas that contain salutary messages as we face the current uncertain funding world (I should add, I have finished none of them yet). In terms of the period it covers, the earliest is The Fellowship by John Gribbin. Starting with Gilbert’s work on magnetism De Magnete published in 1600, it covers the times and aspirations of those who were involved with the foundation and early years of the Royal Society. Whatever challenges we face now, at least we aren’t ducking and diving between political masters on different sides who go to war with each other, or need explicitly to worry about our religious beliefs and observance. Nor do many of us have to accept the only way to get a university education is to become a ‘subsizar’ in a Cambridge College, willing to empty chamber pots to pay one’s keep, as Isaac Newton was alleged to have had to do. Some things do get better (though not all)!

Also amongst my current reading is Jon Agar’s Science in the Twentieth Century and Beyond. If these days we feel in thrall to political masters whose views we don’t necessarily share, his account of science under Stalin or the Nazis should make us realise things could be an awful lot worse. Although my physics, sitting as it does at the interface with biology, isn’t exactly mainstream nor likely to build a better weapon of mass destruction, at least I don’t fear I will be purged at any moment as a consequence. My political beliefs do not, to the best of my knowledge, determine whether I get funding (although there are those who note the increasing emphasis on ‘place’, as the S+I document puts it, on funding decisions, so perhaps the geography of where I work does. Are we getting a regional science policy by stealth?).

The third book isn’t precisely a history of science book, although that is in some senses its scope. It is a heavy tome (Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin). It is written by the trio of Tim Birkhead, Jo Wimpenny and Bob Montgomerie and covers the development of ornithology as a science, starting with a chapter on the discovery of Archaeopteryx. This book is as much about the people who moved the science forward and how they interacted – if you ever wondered how important science networks are, after 400 pages of this book you will be in no doubt – as the birds’ biology. It compellingly demonstrates how much chance and good luck play a part in even, perhaps particularly, the most successful scientists’ lives. Things such as whom you happen to meet, where you live, who lived just before you and kickstarted a field not to mention random job and funding opportunities that turn up at just the right time – or not. These all matter and are beyond one’s control.

But throughout these three books we see how science funding has come and gone and how motivations may vary from the intensely practical to the inherently curious but impractical. If you thought the Royal Society founders were all dilettante gentlemen who had more money than sense, dabbling in a little science to while away the hours, think again. Just as in the slightly later period that Richard Holmes discussed in The Age of Wonder, interest in ‘the heavens’ was driven as much by a need to improve navigation aids as by idle curiosity about those pinpricks of light in the sky. Hooke’s work on springs was part of the challenge of measuring longitude accurately. Newton was one of the early telescope builders: although that is hardly his main claim to fame it was relevant to Newton’s initial election to the Royal Society. These gentleman cared about impact, as we would define it now, a great deal. And that is equally true throughout the twentieth century, although as I pointed out previously,there was an intervening period when impact was seen as undesirable and ungentlemanly behaviour. David Egerton’s Warfare State discusses the way science, science funding and (military) policy-making were intertwined within UK science through most of the twentieth century; Agar makes the same point more generally as it applies around the world.

We may quibble over whether Willetts ‘Eight great technologies’ are the right eight, even whether this is too close to the ‘picking of winners’ that people tend to shudder at, but we cannot be surprised that politicians want to affect what gets done. Our job as scientists is to make sure we fight over what is fundamentally important. That most certainly includes, first and foremost, making a case for investment in science in a way that they can understand (and grasp as a vote-winner!); we need to encourage more serious thought about an ‘industrial policy’ (and that might include encouraging much more industrial R+D, which has been so savaged by our stockmarket’s obsession with short-termism); and we should not be frightened of continuing to defend that class of research that as yet seems to have no demonstrable use.

We should learn from history that we are not uniquely disadvantaged currently and work to make the most of the opportunities the enthusiasm the Treasury currently is expressing offer the scientific community. We should continue to make the case that innovation arises in unexpected ways, ways a Chancellor cannot control but can facilitate. We should also ensure that at every stage the commitment to openness that the Science and Innovation document refers to is constantly kept in mind. As that paper says, the vision it invokes can only be delivered ‘if it is owned and supported by the science and innovation communities in academia and business, and by all those who work alongside them.’ Throwing the evidence-base out of the window when making decisions would be a good way of losing that support. Whitehall should never forget that.

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We’ve Come a Long Way But…

When it comes to women in science, the Athena Swan ‘brand’ is well established. By now, universities up and down the country are signed up to the Athena Swan Charter and many departments are seriously engaged with the process. Nevertheless there are still many that are not, and even of those that apparently are there is the danger that some see it as no more than a tick-box exercise in order to get the necessary seal of approval. Now the Athena Swan process is being expanded to other disciplines we have to hope that the good work that the awards have engendered is not diluted or weakened by trying to create a ‘one size fits all’ process which ends up not addressing the fundamental issues in different disciplines.

The Athena awards grew out of what started as a very modest initiative, the Athena Project, funded by HEFCE back in 1999. The founding group of women – Julia Higgins, Nancy Lane and Caroline Fox – sought ways to make the money HEFCE granted them reach as far as possible. They started off trying to identify and encourage good practice around gender issues and induce culture change for women in academic science. This phase ran until 2002. The second phase ran until 2007, focussing more on the development of tools and methodologies. Out of this second phase grew the Athena Swan awards.

At the end of last year the Athena Forum* (which I chaired between 2009 and 2013), the group that took over the Athena legacy after 2008, held an event to celebrate the pioneering work of the Athena Project, to consider its successes and to discuss where future effort should be put to ensure progress does not let up: we have not yet reached a point where these matters no longer need to be considered and there undoubtedly is still work to be done. As part of the celebrations, and to ensure the hard work that went into the many different projects associated with the early years of Athena, a review has been prepared by Caroline Fox, bringing together reports of all the earlier work. This review will serve as a useful reminder of where the community stood not so very long ago and also identify approaches that were more or less successful. This report and the executive summary will shortly be found on the Athena Forum’s about-to-be-relaunched website.

As Ottoline Leyser, the current Forum Chair, says in the Introduction to the report, there is still a long way to go ‘The forces against which culture change must work mean that constant sustained pressure is essential’. And, as many individuals know to their cost, too many departments still think that Athena Swan means ‘high profile events, counting how many women professors you have, and trying to get a higher award than the next department’. The changes that many departments have enacted are encouraging but others have yet really to embrace the idea that diversity benefits everyone.

The Athena Forum will continue to build on the legacy of the Athena Project and to work with others, particularly research funders, to ensure that gender equality really is embedded in every academic science department and that all researchers encounter a genuinely level playing field. Equality requires not only the leadership talking the talk but putting cash on the table too. Funders need to do more to consider whether their own processes are unintentionally disadvantaging certain sections of the community. Universities need to consider whether the criteria they deploy when appointing and promoting individuals are still fit for purpose or whether they are reinforcing a culture that may have suited traditional, male career paths but no longer reflect the way many individuals live their lives. We’ve come a long way in the 15 years since the Athena Project was launched, but we have still much more to do.

*Updated 20-1-15 with correct weblink for newly launched Athena Forum website inserted.


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Resolving Your Way out of a Rut

I wonder how many of my readers have already broken their New Year’s resolutions, assuming they even bothered to dream them up in the first place. Daily visits to the gym and a diet excluding chocolate sound all very well on December 31st, but then look less enticing on January 1st. If you want to know what my resolutions are, I have put them publicly out there – along with eight other scientists – in Nature this week. Other resolutions may be less specific: how about resolving not to feel busy all the time, or to get yourself out of the rut you feel yourself in? Both of these were advocated by Oliver Burkeman in recent months, not specifically as ‘resolutions’, but as ways to make you feel better and happier (see here and here).

As an academic scientist I am all in favour of not being stuck in a rut. It seems to me that career structures don’t necessarily favour this, since if you become an expert it’s all too easy to feel obliged to stay in that same field to make your case look convincing when you apply for grants and to be sure that the invitations to speak at conferences keep coming. To tear that up, metaphorically, and say that you’re going to become an expert in something different might be thought to be a brave thing to do. Nevertheless for our mental stimulation it may well be the right thing to do and I would advocate taking time to consider whether you’ve milked the subject you’re currently working in as much as you genuinely want to do, or whether you’re actually staying put out of fear of the unknown and a suspicion it will be ‘difficult’.

It will be. I think that’s certain. My own experience of branching out into new fields is that when you first try to publish you may well have a hard time of it. Referees will, consciously or otherwise, be thinking if they’ve never heard of you it probably means you’re not up to much. It can be decidedly frustrating. If you have entered the field with different experience and a different mindset you may approach a problem, familiar in the field, in a totally novel way that can be hard to get accepted. It doesn’t mean you are wrong though!

Of course getting out of your rut may mean nothing as drastic as completely changing field. You can allow your research to ‘evolve’ into new areas, perhaps starting up a new avenue whilst still maintaining the primary one until such time as you have sufficient preliminary data to make a splash of a research grant application. But, leaving that sort of evolution aside (of the kind I describe my late mentor following in my previous post), you can also get an injection of stimulation simply by taking on some sideline activity to kickstart your brain cells and to introduce some novelty and unfamiliarity into the daily routine. That could be anything from starting a blog, becoming a STEMnet ambassador or joining a new committee within your departmen,t according to inclination and experience. Any of these may offer new opportunities for rekindling enthusiasm if you’re feeling jaded. Any would seem appropriate as a New Year’s resolution to contemplate. And, speaking personally, I know how much starting this blog 4 1/2 years ago refreshed me, releasing a voice I didn’t know I had and which unexpectedly has opened new doors for me.

What about the other suggestion from Burkeman I alluded to above? Can one resolve the daily ‘busyness’ crisis? His solution seemed to be to compartmentalise time – by which I understand he means things such as not reading emails in bed, or allowing exam-marking to encroach on time set aside for family evenings – and to accept that not everything will get done. That last point is an interesting one. I don’t think a department head would take it too kindly if the exam-marking never got done, but it is probably the case that some things (including some of the endless emails that turn up in one’s inbox) can be allowed to slip into oblivion. Perhaps on this front the correct answer is to construct a list of tasks that could be allowed to ‘softly and suddenly vanish away’ in order of priority i.e. put the absolutely inessential ones at the top and work down. And then stick to it. Unfortunately this is unlikely to be a list from which things will ever get crossed off, since when would you cross off a task you had merely successfully not even attempted to start? It might be, however, that thinking about what you regard as a low priority may be a useful exercise in itself: who are the people whose emails you don’t want to reply to and feel you can get away with ignoring? Not an easy question to answer honestly; often the most difficult emails to deal with really are rather essential. However, the old adage of don’t let the urgent crowd out the important is worth bearing in mind, although it’s easier said than done.

The final piece of advice I took away from the earlier Burkeman column was to make sure there is some space in one’s life when nothing else is happening. Perhaps that recommendation is the really important thing which needs to force its way into your consciousness over the urgent crises that batter us from day to day. Finding time to breathe, metaphorically, may be the only way it is possible to consider how to branch out from your cosy rut. Doing this when you lie in bed endeavouring to get some sleep is not likely to be conducive to a good night’s rest, so other times for thinking need to be identified. So, if your New Year’s resolution really was to spend more time in the gym, perhaps the optimum strategy is to use time on the treadmill to sink into a contemplative mood and find out what it is that you really want to do that is different from what you are doing. That way you could possibly achieve two goals simultaneously, and refresh body and mind.

Happy 2015!


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