A Bad Week to be in Brussels

Historians of the future will no doubt make much of the UK’s political ramifications of the moment. This week has seen a particularly strange spectacle as the Tory party tears itself apart and the Labour party seems unable to sort itself out and step into the breach of political leadership. I happened to be in Brussels during the excitement of the no-confidence vote against Theresa May. That was not the city I would have chosen to pass such critical and fevered (if ultimately pointless) days, but the trip for my final plenary session with the European Research Council’s Scientific Council had long been in my diary, and so go I had to. It was a depressing experience all in all.

First of all, readers will know, because I have written about it before, that I am a great fan of the ERC. Loss of access to it, if Brexit happens (at least in the months if not years until an agreement over Associated Country status can be agreed, assuming it can be agreed) is just one of the many blows the academic sector will be hit by. For universities like my own, the loss of research funding will be very significant. UKRI and BEIS will be hard pressed to make up the shortfall, at least at speed, even if the money is made available by the Government (but what will a pound be worth by then?).

It isn’t just the money of course that is at stake. The ERC is a prestigious source of funding because of its approach. It has excellence as its sole criterion, its panels are international and their membership is regularly considered to make sure that everyone is playing their full part. As I said in my farewell speech to my fellow Scientific Council members, the rigour and scrutiny with which all parts of their work is carried out far exceeds the processes I am familiar with in the UK. The ERC worried about their gender statistics long before UK Research Councils published such data, possibly before they even collected the information. The care with which every single panel (75+ a year across all domains) is examined every year, again has no parallel that I am aware of in our domestic processes. I would be happy to be corrected on this point if I am simply ill-informed.  Success rates at every stage against variables such as host country, gender, scientific age and so on are compiled and examined for clues about what might be done better. Through widening participation efforts there is a constant push to encourage and facilitate applications from EU13 countries, without diluting the excellence criterion in the face of the challenges they face in terms of infrastructure etc.

So, I am a fan of the ERC but I am not sorry to be leaving the Scientific Council. Ever since our fateful referendum it has been a sad experience to attend the meetings and, yet again, be reminded of what we have voluntarily given up; to recognize that there is a Europe out there which is full of scientists (at least) who don’t want to see us go. They know what UK institutions have brought to the health of scientific research across the continent and they know that our absence will hurt everyone. The first meeting I attended after the referendum was the week following that fateful vote. Everyone pressed me to try to explain what had happened; of course I had no answer, no rationalisation. It is well known that by and large the academic community are committed remainers.

Over the dinners the two nights we were all present, conversation did seem to come back to politics. Not just the UK’s current shambles but many other countries were discussed, with representatives from other parts of the continent sharing feelings of gloom about their own country’s political strife and unease. The dinner on my final evening, when I and the three other members all of whom started at the same time as me six years ago were being celebrated, saw many phones on the table – not just mine – while we kept an eye on the no-confidence vote. And when it became clear May had survived, again all those embarrassing and impossible questions to answer: what does this mean and what happens next? I tried to smile rather than weep, but I came away from these days immensely depressed.

It isn’t, of course, all about science, nor do I think the Remain campaign in the run up to the referendum was wisely run in terms of reaching out to those who do not feel the benefits of an improving quality of life. Unfortunately, as so many have written and said over the last couple of years, those who voted leave because they felt short-changed by society are not going to see any improvement if we crash out. Even more jobs will be lost, the NHS will lack doctors and nurses, and the short respite of a trip to some sun on the continent will be both more expensive and more difficult to undertake.

Universities will suffer, our science and our education never mind our reputations and prestige, but other sectors and other workers will suffer more. It does not cheer me up to recognize that.

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Loading the Women – or Not?

The question of what should the composition of any team ‘look’ like remains one I feel uncertain about. Whereas a list of a dozen invited speakers who are all males smacks of bias or incompetence rather than a true reflection of those whose work is outstanding, if a senior executive team is small enough, say 4, but is all male can one say the same thing? There was the year my College was run by a predominantly female team (Bursar, Domestic Bursar and Senior Tutor were all female, for instance, as well as myself as Master but the Vice Master was male). Should I have been concerned about the imbalance in the other direction and done something differently?

If a senior executive team is overwhelmingly of one gender how does this distort the issues that get addressed? It shouldn’t of course, but almost certainly it will. In my last post I referred to the fact that no one had stopped the barracking of Jocelyn Bell Burnell when, as the only female student, she entered her Physics lectures. If there had been a female lecturer would that have made a difference? Did the male lecturers just have an extreme lack of imagination about how threatening the atmosphere might feel for that solitary woman, or did they (worse) feel it served her right for entering into male terrain? Would a female lecturer have had the courage to take on the male audience in the hall? At least, one hopes, that that specific situation will never arise again in any lecture theatre around the world.

This week fellow Occam’s Typewriter blogger Stephen Curry tweeted

More power to Stephen for doing this, walking the walk as Imperial College’s Assistant Provost for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion and not just talking the talk.

The next part of his story was less public. The organisers are obviously quite thick-skinned, since they approached yet another UK male when Stephen said no! He too declined but presumably the organisers will keep ignoring the issue and eventually find some man who has a gap in his diary and does agree to turn up and talk. It is clear – because the next man approached said so privately – that the gender composition of the group was not mentioned when this follow-up invitation was issued. The organisers must be pretty impervious not to feel some compunction at the make-up of their list of invitees.

I must admit my first reaction when asked to participate in some event is not, but perhaps should be, to enquire the make-up of the speaker/panel list. It is often the case you can’t find out anyhow, if many people are being asked in parallel. Perhaps embarrassment later in the day when it becomes apparent that there is a massive imbalance often stops people from then saying they will drop out to allow the introduction of someone of the minority gender to participate. But surely, surely, by now there have been enough examples of ridiculously imbalanced lists for organisers to grasp the fundamental point: an all male (or all female) line-up is not fit for the 21st century. Since invitations mean exactly that, it should not be beyond any group’s capability to find a good balance (and not just by gender) of those to invite.

However, it does seem to be the case that women are more likely than men to turn down speaker invitations. There is evidence from different studies to this effect: some years ago I wrote about one particular study in the field of Evolutionary Biology. Women decline for all kinds of reasons ranging from the much-cited and challenging childcare problem to the fact that they get asked to do so many things, sit on so many committees and so on, that they simply can’t fit a trip into their diary. The childcare problem should of course apply to fathers too, and I believe increasingly does, but it has not yet made a visible dent in the number of male speakers accepting invitations. The problem of women, when in a minority in a field, getting lumbered with more of the ‘we must have a woman on this committee’ is not likely to go away any time soon – until there is a better gender balance across the board.

We do need, as a society, to be careful not to put the onus on the women always to accept invitations. Feeling that one is letting the side down because you can’t face another trip, or another committee can be insidious. Refusing to be an ‘expert’ with local or national media just so that there finally is a woman’s voice on the radio is sometimes the right thing to do but (I know, I’ve been there) can lead to a nasty feeling of guilt. Most men, I suspect, don’t have to battle these negative emotions just for trying to preserve some semblance of sanity and work-life balance.

The answer in the long term is of course to try to ensure that children get plenty of opportunity to see careers in a non-stereotyped way essentially from birth. Then perhaps our children and grandchildren will not still be battling away at the same gendered problems, calling out manels for the stupidity they are or worrying about whether the executive team is appropriately balanced. The best people will simply fill the roles, regardless of their sex (or colour of skin, or sexual orientation or….). We have a long way to go, but that should not deter us from trying.

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Being Resilient

Have a setback, bounce back. That is what all the self-help books would proclaim loud and clear. It applies as much in science as anywhere else, perhaps more so since the setback need not be in one’s career or personal dealings with others as in the experiments that go wrong again and again and again. It is, you may think, easy for the self-help books to trumpet such resilience but who really manages it in practice?

In my public ‘conversation’ with Jocelyn Bell Burnell last week there was a masterclass in how to overcome personal and professional hurdles provided by her. The recording of the conversation will be online soon*, but in the meantime let me tease out from the narrative a few key and remarkable aspects. Jocelyn has such a high public profile, and the outline of her life story in which she was ‘deprived’ of the Nobel Prize by shadowy male establishment figures simply as a result of sexism is well known. But the reality is, unsurprisingly, more complex and interesting and, seen through her eyes, much less clear cut and wicked.

Leaving aside the early years, which had their own challenges as Jocelyn failed the 11+ that long gone exam that separated the academic goats from the sheep who were destined for more practical or vocational education. Or the fact that the school she attended thereafter corralled the boys into science lessons and the girls into domestic science. (Yes really; this must have been in the 1950s. Certainly my own primary school days of those years had the boys doing wood- and metal-work while the girls attempted to learn to sew a fine seam.) Overcoming both those obstacles, Jocelyn went on to Glasgow to read physics, with a very clear eye on becoming a radioastronomer because, as she said, she liked her bed and didn’t think conventional observational astronomy would suit her.

Glasgow Physics sounds like an ordeal by fire. A lecture theatre full of male students who barracked her as she, the only female student attending, walked in each day. Many a student would have turned tail and decided to study something else instead (or just stayed in that comfortable bed). Jocelyn’s response was simply to excel. I wonder if other universities shared this obnoxious practice and why lecturers thought it was acceptable not to intervene, simply on the grounds of humanity if nothing else.

The critical period of her PhD in Cambridge was when she spotted the small and unexpected signal that ultimately led to the identification of pulsars. That she noticed this signal (10 parts in a million I think was how she described it) she attributed to her impostor syndrome. Feeling like an interloper in the establishment-setting of Cambridge meant she thought she had to be extra thorough to be sure of her ground. However, these observations were not part of her thesis, and Martin Ryle and Tony Hewish took forward the discussions and interpretations without involving her very much. She did, however, get her name on the paper. One might say ‘but of course’ but it would seem it perhaps wasn’t quite as obvious as that.

That story is well known, but I think what happened thereafter is less so. And it is here that resilience was needed over many years. During her PhD, Jocelyn got engaged. She said how much the mere existence of that ring on her finger changed people’s attitudes. Back then, in the late ‘60s, it was presumed immediately by those around her that meant not only that she was going to get married but that she would quit science. A woman in such a position did not need be taken seriously. (I am pleased to report that for me, less than 10 years later and in the same department in Cambridge, I suffered none of that attitudinal change once I started sporting an engagement ring – and then got married – during my PhD.)  Once she was married the expectation, on everyone’s part, was that she would simply follow her husband around. And so she did. She managed to keep working, but in a variety of non-independent non-research roles, including working part-time after the birth of her son. She could not build on her PhD work but mastered a range of different technical skills in different sorts of astronomy but in support roles. This, she claimed, gave her a great breadth and understanding. She did not express frustration or anger in her conversation with me that this was what her life turned into. It is hard to believe she did not feel those emotions, at least some of the time, and I wish I had allowed myself more time in the conversation to probe further.

It was only once her marriage ended in divorce, and her son was at university (studying physics at Cambridge as it happens), that she was free to do what she wanted. She took up a role at the Open University and finally – at the age of 50 – found herself in a position to speak up and, consequently, become a very visible role model for women in science (whether she wanted to or not).  Since then she has held a variety of key roles (at Bath and Oxford) and increasingly been in the public eye. Most recently she was awarded the 2018 Breakthrough Prize of $3M – which she has given all away to support minority students studying physics, a statement that led to a spontaneous round of applause from the audience to our conversation.

She has had to demonstrate resilience in spades. Coming back from the disadvantages of her schooling, the challenges of her male peers during her degree, the attitudes of those senior males around her during her PhD plus the long years of being the trailing spouse never able to take a job that would have been her first choice, she has nevertheless emerged as cheerful (and not bitter) and always encouraging to those behind her. The Breakthrough Prize was a remarkable tribute to a remarkable woman. She stands as a beacon of keeping firm to her tenets and making the best of whatever life has thrown at her. For anyone wanting encouragement that survival against the odds is possible, there is no need to look further.

I will post the link to the recording as soon as it is live on the Churchill College website.

*4-12-18 Full recording can be found here.

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We Need to Work at Breaking the Barriers

Leaders in science are generally those who are excellent at their science, but no one may have checked their leadership credentials. Someone like Lord Rutherford may have got away with barking instructions at his underlings (for which loud voiced behaviour Peter Kapitza nicknamed him ‘crocodile’), but such behaviour is frowned upon now. The trouble is, it may still happen. Whether barking equates to bullying may be hard to determine; to one person the answer may be yes and to another it’s of no matter. However the topic of bullying and harassment, closely linked to poor management practices, is becoming something of a hot potato in academic science. Now, a report from the Royal Society of Chemistry entitled Breaking the Barriers highlights the problem, using its work with focus groups and individual interviews to tease out anecdotal information that should give us all pause for thought. Their solution? To set up a helpline.

With all due respect I do wonder how helpful this will be. If you want to let off steam and hear a friendly voice at the end of the phone, maybe it will console some people. But I don’t see how the RSC can effect the systemic change needed to eradicate the problem. Every person who reports bullying (or harassment) will have a slightly different set of circumstances. Is it a PhD student complaining about their supervisor, or a lecturer complaining about the head of department? Does it involve, as it so often does, a power imbalance or is it peer-to-peer, as in the case of one student who acts dog-in-the-manger about some vital piece of equipment? And, each institution will have different procedures for handling although, I fear, too often they are woefully inadequate. Science may be no better or worse than most other sectors, but it certainly is not good.

One only has to follow the story of Andrew Neil and Carole Cadwalladr to see how the powerful can attempt to silence others, in this case in the world of media. Neil’s actions seemed a crude attempt to bully a brave investigative journalist into silence. And the BBC is hardly demonstrating the shining face of intolerance in the face of such bad behaviour. Deleting a tweet is apparently sufficient to get Neil off the hook. Yet, in a startlingly different response in the wake of the Carrie Grace equal pay story

“BBC staff were told afterwards that use of the Twitter hashtag [#I Stand With Carrie] would bar people from doing interviews on the subject. So people had to pull back…”

according to her recent speech on Equal Pay to the Fawcett Society.

For science and scientists, anything – such as this recent report – that teases some of these murky practices into the open has to be beneficial, Anything that gives confidence to those suffering under a barrage of insults or daily petty humiliations from those around them, should feel there is somewhere to go to permit them to speak up. But systemic change will not come about from a few brave people speaking up. To quote the RSC report

Significant change does not happen when one group acts in isolation. It is essential that every part of our community – academic funders, academic employers, societies and you as individuals – works together to drive momentum and promote further change.

How can the word be spread to those who don’t want to hear? I’ve recently been reading Catherine Fox’s Stop Fixing Women. She describes, for instance, how the Australian Army has attempted to redress gender imbalance, and to eradicate generations of male-only-thinking by strong leadership from the top. Or you might want to read about Ireland’s new action plan around Gender, described briefly here, an ambitious programme to get progress to move forward at more than the existing glacial process in terms of numbers. Bullying does not simply relate to gender and slow progress on seeing more women rise up through the system is not only handicapped by bullying. Although the two may go hand in hand they do not have to. But undoubtedly leadership from the top – and at every successive layer too – is imperative if change is to occur, be it around bullying or gender imbalances. But it has to be cascaded down to leaders at every level if it is to make a difference in every nook and cranny. The head honcho alone will not change the culture although equally if they take no interest it will be hard for those below in the hierarchy to transform the workplace.  The RSC Report makes very clear, working together is vital.

However, full of sensible words and recommendations as the report is, I fear I found it overall a little underwhelming and there are statements I found somewhat hard to digest. Take this from a senior chemist (male)

‘I went to a [university diversity] committee and I was the only man there, and a senior man. This demonstrated that chemistry was making a commitment [to diversity]. Several commented on it when I walked into the room. That was a sea change. It is important not to say ‘women, this is your problem’.

That statement worries me. The senior man should have been saying, ‘Where are all the other men? This isn’t good enough.’ He should not have been patting himself on the back because he showed up. (Once or regularly? We aren’t told.) Change needs the involvement of everyone and one man paying a token visit to a diversity committee is not an adequate response. I have been running workshops as part of the work of the Athena Swan Review listening exercise and have so far attended three universities. At two of them the gender balance was good. At the third it was, again, a case of a single man amongst around 20 women. I found the former experiences encouraging; not so the latter.

The buy in from some senior men was heartening. So often they are the ones with power or access to those with power, although obviously that need not be so. It is good to note that increasingly they are also leading on Athena Swan applications. I hope – although I know this won’t always be the case – they have the clout to change behaviours, policies and processes unlike the junior women so often tasked with doing all the hard work of compiling the Athena Swan paperwork thereby holding back their own career progression. No man should pat himself on the back, chemist or otherwise, because as a man he has actually set foot in an E+D committee. It requires us all to step forward, both to eradicate bullying and to encourage true inclusion.

The Breaking the Barriers Report is a good start but, as it shows, Chemistry as a discipline has a long way to go. The fall-off in numbers as women progress up the career structure seems particularly stark in this field. Much, much more needs to be done. But reading the report and acting on its recommendations can only be positive, even if there is a long way to go.

NB The RSC’s full pack of digital resources to accompany the report to share can be found here.


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Worrying about Deserts of Nothingness

Recently a website calling itself UKRI Observatory published two blogposts analysing information obtained by them under FoI regarding assessments of EPSRC Centres for Doctoral Training. The point the blogpost was making was that it appeared at first sight that many of these highly competitive and extremely financially valuable centres were not performing particularly well. Analysis of what the call-backs, mid-term reviews etc really mean is not easy given the information published. Perhaps EPSRC wanted to do some benchmarking rather than reprimand those running the centres? Or perhaps there genuinely were all kinds of problems which their processes were uncovering. Who knows? But the reality is there is a huge investment of money and resources in each centre and for the cohort of students enrolled in each, much hangs on their success.

However, the issue I want to highlight is slightly different and it is one that has been bothering me for a long time. The emergence of UKRI slightly shifts the framework but does not in the least alter my fundamental question. Who is keeping an eye on the spread of topics and the geographical distribution of the centres? We are producing a large number of students well-trained in, for instance, quantum technologies, a subject which was a particular focus of the 2013 call for centres. In this area three centres, each training ca 50 students over the full 5 year cycle, are to be produced. I would like to think that someone has worked out we really will need 150 students so trained for the workforce of ca 2020 and that the fact that these centres – UCL, IC and Bristol – are all in the south of England gives no one any pause for thought. Excellence of the original bids is all that matters I presume.

But is it? I do worry – and other topics could be chosen that equally are going to produce significant numbers of students in disciplinary and geographically tight areas: quantum technologies is just one specific example from the physics arena  – that no one is keeping an eye on the big picture. The comparatively new focus on the quality of training, important though that of course is, mean that we have ended up – in the EPSRC remit anyhow – with a very patchy landscape. Is that optimum? And who is considering it?

What about those CDTs with significant industrial input? How do they fare? In times past, CASE awards with industry – awarded by various different mechanisms – dealt with a situation where a single student worked on an identified and agreed project between a supervisor and a company providing a named industrial supervisor. I supervised many such projects. If the relationship worked well, sometimes a string of two or even three projects with the same company might be set up over a period of years. The industrial end of things got to see results early and influence the direction of travel, usually guided by some agreement that gave appropriate publication and IP protection etc. However, as I understand it, for many of the CDTs where multiple companies contribute to funding of the over-arching cohort, that specific relationship may no longer exist. Instead, there is a general area covered – say quantum technologies again – but companies do not forge a relationship with ‘their own’ identified student. That is a very different sort of interaction which may work well in some cases but certainly not in all. It does not provide the close-knit relationship that in my own experience often worked excellently (although occasionally it got grumpy and frustrating, particularly when companies got sensitive about whether results could or could not be published in the open literature, or when they were unhappy about the speed of progress to solve a specific industrial problem).

It’s not just the EPSRC; other research councils have similar programmes. In a few cases there are even cross-council CDTs. I would like to think that someone – and logically that someone might sit in UKRI although it’s early days yet for them to have done so – is keeping a watchful eye on the totality of training of the scientists of tomorrow. Not on whether each centre is value for money or whether the training is broad (or narrow) enough to equip them for the jobs that hopefully await them in the wider world (not all of them will stay in academia after all), important though those factors are. My concern is that the centres are so large that in between – by which I mean ‘between’ by discipline or location – there are great deserts of nothingness. This may also mean – even in these brave new days of UKRI – that interdisciplinary topics are missed out on too. After all this requires people to join up dots that may be hard to do; yes there are specific calls that cut across research council boundaries, but there are far more cross-cutting topics than these calls have so far covered. Who can make judgements on unanticipated applications that do so? Often the emphasis is being put on the areas that are already known to be exciting (or, more damningly, fashionable) whether mono-, multi- or inter-disciplinary, and this leaves little scope for serendipity and small beginnings. How do we know, with such long cycles and such large numbers of students involved, that we are not missing the nimbleness that used to be possible, to open up new areas in a low-key kind of way and to let a supervisor’s sense of excitement and nose for potential gold occasionally break into unexpected territories?

I was lucky enough to benefit massively from much easier routes to individual students in years gone by. In particular, in the days of BBSRC’s predecessor organisation the Agriculture and Food Research Council, there were studentships competitively awarded each year by each of its committees (standing committees) based on – if I remember rightly – a couple of pages of text describing the project. (EPSRC’s predecessor SERC may have done the same thing, but my memory is less clear on this front.) If a CASE award was sought this had to include the industrial link and financial contribution. As a young academic I could dream up some new departure, sketch out a research plan, and keep my fingers crossed. Regularly I was fortunate in this competition and could therefore head off in some new direction. It was a delightfully light touch method. Inconceivable in these days of accountability, not least because no one ever checked what happened to the project. If it careered off in some totally different direction there was, as I recall, complete unsanctioned freedom to do so. For me, this was how I got started in much of the work on food, notably starch. This was research that for many years played such a central part in my research programme and ultimately propelled me from food aspects of starch to working with plant biochemists and further into biological physics. If I had had to prove at the outset I had a track record in starch, that it contained excellent physics (it did, but that might have been hard for some of my peers to spot – as they tended to tell me) and knew my direction of travel, this could never have happened. My generation, in this respect at least, had it easy.

But it is not the ease per se I am regretting, so much as the opportunity to make small scale forays into the unknown. A decent project could be carried out even if it was not part of some massive large scale initiative, although there was no one vetting the quality of the education/training. I am worried that in trying to rectify what was clearly a potential failing on this last point, a lot else has been lost. I don’t see who is stepping back to look at the lumpiness of the CDT landscape that has evolved over the recent past and considering whether or not this is optimum for the UK as we set our sights on research expenditure of 2.4% of GDP.

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