Endings and Beginnings

New Year’s Eve is almost upon us, so here we are again at the close of one long year and the start of another. Personally, it has been a year of endings and beginnings. Readers of this blog would be forgiven for thinking that it is one of the things that I have wound down in 2018, but in fact I am hoping to stir it to new life.

https://farm5.staticflickr.com/4909/44343935960_82f2a119b7_z.jpgSunrise or sunset? Black Sea coast near Sozopol.

The things that have ended for me this year include Science is Vital, which closed its doors in the autumn because the busyness of the lives of too many of us on the executive committee made the commitment to the organisation impossible to sustain. We shared a certain sense of satisfaction at having helped to move the debate about public investment in research and development to a point where all three political parties made substantial commitments in the general election of 2017, which, for its part, the present government is attempting to deliver. But the darkness of uncertainty in which Brexit has shrouded the future of the UK made it an uneasy termination.

My six-year term as a member of the board of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) also came to an end. CaSE, established as Save British Science in 1986, was very much a forerunner to Science is Vital though it has matured professionally over the decades. It was a privilege to play a small part in supporting the organisation and to see it grow more prominent and influential than ever in the UK science policy landscape, thanks in no small part to the sure-footed leadership of Executive Director Dr Sarah Main and Chair Professor Graeme Reid. I will continue to support CaSE as a member and would encourage you (and your university, if you work at one) to do the same.

In the summer the Guardian closed the Science Blog Network where I had had been writing, as part of the Occam’s Corner crew, since 2012. It had been from the very start a bold experiment, since the Guardian effectively gave the keys to their publishing platform to a bunch of scientists and science historians and, apart from asking us to check any potentially libellous materials their legal team, left us to our own devices. But financial pressures eventually came to bear. In the last couple of years we were increasingly expected to achieve a minimum number of page-view with each post. That was hardly an unreasonable demand given the Guardian’s dependency on advertising income but it did curtail the freedom to explore some of the more niche areas, which seemed to be part of the point of starting a blog network in the first place. I guess those financial pressures became overwhelming this year. In my own case I can’t entirely blame the Guardian (though it would have been nice to have a clearer explanation of their decision), since changes in my day job had reduced my output to a trickle. I’ll always be grateful for an opportunity that was both terrifying and empowering.

That change in my day-job was becoming Assistant Provost for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) at Imperial College. Strictly, this new role had started in October 2017 but 2018 was the year in which it really began to take shape. After an extensive consultation, drafting and re-drafting process involving a great many people, I published the university’s first EDI Strategy. This has a substantial action plan attached which means that we have set quite a few balls rolling, including revision of our policies on sexual harassment, signing up to the Race Equality Charter, re-vamping our approach to supporting LGBTQ+ staff and students, and trying to ensure that support for disabled staff and students is as consistent and mainstreamed as possible. These are still rolling and several of them threatened to outrun me. In combination with teaching and departmental duties, this made the final third of the year a lot more stressful than I would have liked.

Stress is life’s way of telling you you’ve reached your limits. You might think someone well into middle age would know his limits, but I’m still triangulating. The problem is partly that the challenges of EDI are numerous and incompletely defined – we are talking about culture change after all, and the dismantling of often contentious barriers to inclusion. But it also arise partly because I have an over-developed tendency to under-estimate how long it takes to get things done. For the sake of my sanity I aim (with the help of some management coaching) to discipline myself and my work-schedule for the coming year. But even as I write this I can hear the faint sound of laughter in the distant reaches of my mind. Wish me luck.

The final new beginning for me in 2018 was becoming chair of the steering group of the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA), a six-year-old initiative aiming to eliminate the dependency on crude metrics that has taken hold within academia. DORA, which has long been close to my heart, was granted a new lease of life this year thanks to support from a number of funders and publishers. We launched a new web-site in February, published a roadmap in June outlining our immediate priorities, and convened the first meeting of our new international advisory board in October. The initiative is gathering momentum alongside other moves to reform research evaluation by funders, learned societies, and research institutions (many of them highlighted on the DORA Good Practices page).

DORA got a significant boost in the announcement of Plan S, the radical and controversial European project to accelerate the uptake of open access publishing. Plan S recognises that academic obsession with journal prestige is an impediment to the development of cost-effective open access outlets for publicly-funded scholarship and is insisting that implementation of DORA or DORA-like principles has to go hand in hand with publishing innovations designed to increase the accessibility of new research findings. Much discussed and argued about here and elsewhere (and currently under consultation), you can expect Plan S to feature on this blog in 2019, though I will be treading a careful line, since DORA is a wholly independent organisation and has no official position on the initiative.

I can still feel the grip of these endings and beginnings. There is more to say on each but that will do for now. As well as being a pause for thought at the year’s end, this post was an attempt to get a writing muscle that had been idle too long back into action. The idea of the blog being a place to think out loud in public retains it appeal and although this one had been in danger of falling dormant, I hope to clear the time in 2019 for a re-awakening and a new beginning.

Assuming of course that the dreadful mess that is Brexit doesn’t become all-consuming.

Wishing you all a happy and hopeful new year.

This entry was posted in Blogging, Scientific Life. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Endings and Beginnings

  1. Terrific achievements. You are performing great service to Imperial and to the whole academic world.
    But, ahem, what about crystallography?

    • Stephen says:

      Thanks David. I’m afraid I’m in the process of closing my lab. That was a decision I took a year or so ago in order to be able to focus on other things. I realised I’m more interested in the business and culture of science than in running my own lab. I had a good run for nearly 30 years but I don’t have the fire in the belly that you need to sustain a frontline research team.

  2. Lovely post, Stephen. I hope you manage to keep the stress at bay. Maybe we can even find the time to share a pint sometime this century.

Comments are closed.