Picture a Scientist – Who Do You See?

I am often asked who inspired me. I feel embarrassed to admit the answer is no one, it seems like the wrong answer. Certainly there was no female scientist who triggered my love of science at an early age; I was far more inspired by my reading matter. In this category I would single out The New Science of Strong Materials by JE Gordon, I’ve written about the significance of this book at length before. I am not alone in recognizing the importance of this one book in triggering a desire to understand the behaviour of materials; friends and colleagues in my field have said the same. But inspiration by personality – no, not for me.

However, having watched a striking film about women in science, Picture a Scientist, perhaps I feel, had I known about Nancy Hopkins a long time ago, I’d have felt differently. It was not the research she did – or at least not in the conventional meaning of the word, though that was impressive enough to get her elected to the National Academy of Sciences – that has (indirectly) had lasting impact on me, as no doubt on many others. Nancy Hopkins is a molecular biologist at MIT, whose efforts to establish the evidence demonstrating systemic disadvantage at her institution in the 1990s led to a seminal report A Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT. Hopkins was the woman who – as the film makes clear during extended clips of interviews with her – crept around the buildings at night with a tape measure, establishing just what the differential between the lab space allotted to male and female faculty was. Evidence matters in science, and her work provided this. Having compiled this data, when she shared it with other women on the faculty, they all wanted to add their signatures when she took it to MIT’s leadership. And, impressively they, the leadership, responded with the full study which led to the 1999 report I mention.

I touched on this study, when a follow-on was published just over a decade later in 2011, in one of my early blogposts. The original study made me reconsider my own situation, even if realising the problems I faced weren’t necessarily of my own making did not cheer me up. Rereading that early post I note how many of the issues that struck me as significant and perhaps even unexpected are now so mainstream: gendered reference letters, the dangers of positive discrimination (legal in the US) or even positive action, expectations of stereotypical feminine behaviour such as sweetness, and the overwhelming burden of good citizenship. Interestingly, Hopkins’ name does not feature in my write-up of the time. It has only been slowly over the years that her remarkable tenacity and determination to seek out evidence and not let future generations of women suffer from the disadvantage she felt she had laboured under, dawn on me.

I learned more about her from reading the late Ben BarresThe Autobiography of a transgender scientist (for which she wrote the foreword), and more again from Rita Colwell’s book A lab of one’s own: one woman’s journey through sexism in science (both books I have written about on this blog, here and here). Finally, seeing her ‘in person’ as it were in this film, I was overpowered by her modesty, generosity, fun and strength. The recognition, at around the age of 50, that if she didn’t do something about the slights and disadvantage she was operating under at MIT she would have to quit science completely, resonated with me. At around the same age I had felt I either had to quit Cambridge (for another university) or fight on to make things better for those women who came after me. Like her, I chose to fight.

Clearly Hopkins didn’t inspire me at any point in my career, but she is an inspiration now and I hope many early career researchers will be able to access the film and admire everything she’s done and the warmth of character and commitment she exudes. However, she is not the only star of the film. Also included centre stage are the geologist Jane Willenbring (Boston University at the time of the filming, now at Stanford) and the chemist Raychelle Burks (St Edward’s University, Austin then, now at American University, Washington DC). Their stories are differently striking, their testimony equally moving. The former describes the foul sexual harassment she suffered during fieldwork in Antarctica while researching for her PhD under the ‘guidance’ of David Marchant. She sat on this corrosive experience for 17 years before filing a Title IX complaint against him, with the support of a male colleague who had watched her during this fieldwork. The trigger for this was a comment from her three year-old daughter that ‘she wanted to be a scientist’ like her mum. Willenbring realised she did not want her daughter, and those like her, to suffer as she had. Anger is a powerful driver of action.

Even having had the bravery to file her complaint, resolution did not come swiftly. The complaint did not lead to instant action. Initially, after an investigation, Marchant was simply put on leave for three years, a decision that was overruled by the President of Boston University, Robert Brown, who fired him – a man who had been Provost at MIT when the 1999 report was published and who also appears in the film discussing the conditions for women. Willenbring’s testimony is powerful and moving; she relives many of the emotions as she speaks about her ordeal and subsequent ongoing feelings, often with her daughter in the background. As we know, speaking out about harassment – sexual or otherwise – often leads to bad outcomes for the complainant, while the alleged perpetrator continues essentially untouched on their path and, often, with their harassment. The UK is certainly no further on, and possibly less advanced, than the US, as women like Emma Chapman can testify from their own experience.

The third ‘star’ is Raychelle Burks. She is a black chemist, growing up in classrooms and labs where there was no one who looked like her, and who was dismissed as unprofessional because her hair ‘was not straight’, along with other remarks stimulated by her appearance and heritage. Although I don’t recall her mentioning anger, clearly for her the way she coped with this barrage of negativity was to speak up; to use her difference as a platform to reach out to wider audiences, so that she is now recognized as a gifted communicator, both in terms of her science and also on the subject of diversity. Listening to her speak, it was easy to see why she was so appreciated by audiences, with a fluency and sense of humour that was bound to attract favourable attention. She was determined not to allow people to categorise her simply by the colour of her skin, or allow that difference to diminish her.

Three brave women, whose stories are powerful and moving and, one also hopes, transformative in their different spheres. I was able to watch this film through the work of the Cavendish Inspiring Womxn group, who run regular events to inspire and encourage womxn in STEM. In the end I was unable to attend the discussion they held to discuss the film, but I am really glad they made that film available for a few days. If you get a chance to watch it, I thoroughly recommend it. It will make you think, make you appreciative of the bravery of those who came before you and help you recognize that inspiration may come in many guises. Think about this, even if you can’t get access to the film, and think about how to make your lab a better place for everyone. Be an ally if you can; don’t let the bullies and harassers win.

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The Imperative of Skills

Whereas academic scientists too often only think in terms of producing the next generation of academic scientists like them, the reality is many would-be PIs would be lost without the technicians who keep the equipment running, train newcomers and generally make sure the lab is in a fit condition for work. They aren’t always visible, but they are crucial in many areas. Last week an article appeared in the THE by Mike Hughes, the teaching laboratories manager in the department of chemistry at the University of Manchester, challenging universities to do more to hire technicians from their local area. I am all in favour of this, and I know Cambridge does use the apprenticeship route to facilitate this, but all the issues I mentioned recently about the challenges of the overheating economy definitely acts in opposition to this desire: Manchester may have reasonable transport infrastructure to bring a technical workforce into the university, but Cambridge is less fortunate in this respect, and the places a technician can afford to live may be those from which it is impossibly hard to travel to the University.

The importance of technicians – in universities or, equally, in many branches of industry – is not going to go away, yet the supply is falling, as a recent Royal Society report highlighted. The TALENT project is currently looking in much more detail specifically at the technical workforce in universities. Sadly, there is a lack of awareness in schools, not least due to the somewhat patchy careers advice teenagers are able to access following cutbacks in provision, about what a technician role looks like, or what qualifications might be useful for those not contemplating a degree. As the Government considers its funding decisions around FE and HE, it would be helpful if they would consider a joined-up approach instead of pitting the one against the other when money is being carved up. However, this would require different government departments to talk to each other more than all the evidence indicates is likely to occur.

As we face a post-Brexit world and, hopefully, a post-pandemic world, the UK still faces the ‘productivity paradox’ it has been facing since the 2008 crash. We need to think hard about adult upskilling as well as school leavers. The Government’s plans for lifelong learning are all very well, but they need cash and they need to be coherent. That BEIS and the Department of Education don’t comfortably work together – something I saw for myself ten years ago, something that still applies, as two recent conversations with those at the sharp end have confirmed – is a major worry. The education system needs to run smoothly from early years education (which sets the scene for so much of what happens to the individual in later life and is anyhow underfunded), through secondary school and on to whatever comes next, be it a degree or not.

Yet, when it comes to adult upskilling, what is needed is also likely to be somewhat regionally dependent, according to what industries once were present or are currently trying to bed in. Clearly that makes it harder for top-down, one-size-fits-all policies from Whitehall to be effective, but the promise of new funds to allow more people to access higher level technical skills is to be welcome.  Throwing away the impossibility of accessing funding for an equivalent or higher level qualification (ELQ) would be an important measure too. It ought to be possible to retrain in these areas if one’s first foray led nowhere, for whatever reason.

However, the gulf between the rhetoric of white papers and government pronouncements and what works on the ground in any given area, can be huge. Trying to bring together employers, funding and those who might deliver the skills’ training, is no mean challenge. It is interesting to note that in the USA, since these matters are left to individual states, there is the possibility of many experiments in different localities, each still with large populations, still potentially very heterogeneous. Experimentation is clearly proceeding apace.  This is a point underlying the recent webinar involving the University’s Institute for Manufacturing and the authors of the book Workforce Education: A New Roadmap, William B Bonvillian and Sanjay E Sarma, two MIT professors. There are potentially 51 states which can try (at least) 51 experiments to suit their particular structures and local issues, something not quite so easy to do with England’s educational oversight and funding arrangements. Nevertheless, a state is still a huge and disparate region to find a single solution for.

If I turn specifically to the East of England’s challenges, I discussed a couple of posts ago, it is worth pulling out the 2018 Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Independent Economic Report. This report highlights the actions of a Chatteris based manufacturing company, Stainless Metalcraft Ltd, an old established manufacturing company, that now specialises in metal-working for advanced technologies, such as the Large Hadron Collider. It has succeeded as a hi-tech manufacturing firm in the middle of the fens, absolutely not in a cluster of similar firms or a science park. The answer, according to the report,

“lies in the strength of the company’s training programmes. Just under half of the company’s 150 employees have been through its apprenticeship training programme, which has been recognised as one of the top 100 apprenticeships on offer in the UK.”

This particular company may be thought of as comparable to the successful suite of, often family-run and German-based, Mittelstand companies, which also invest heavily in training and have survived over decades despite remaining relatively small. An interesting comparison between such companies and some UK counterparts can be found in the book by Tom Brown, Tragedy and Challenge, based on his experiences as a senior manager of engineering companies in different countries. Of one in the Tyrol he says

“Although it was a small company there was a full-time trainer, and so not only were raw recruits trained rigorously, but also the experienced press setters and other skilled employees were regularly retrained and had their skills updated.”

I fear that would not be common in the UK.

Stainless Metalcraft may be a successful ‘experiment’ of one – and key questions about the experiment must be where are some of the classroom-based activities for these apprenticeships occurring, and how much interplay is there between company and educational establishment in ensuring these activities are effective – but it is worth thinking what it may indicate for other places outside knowledge-intensive clusters. Education should be as evidence- and data-driven as any other sphere of activity. If it works for them in Chatteris, why not something similar in Cromer or Skegness, Wisbech or Dudley? Each will have their own specific and local issues to address, and with greater or smaller distances to cover to their nearest further education college. Nevertheless, so much will reside in the willingness of a firm to invest in training, and the ability to fund this. I would like to think the government may facilitate the funding aspect at least, through its new plans.

So, if we are to move forward towards the hyped ‘global Britain’, if our workforce – denuded of many skilled pairs of hands as Brexit bites – is to deliver enhanced productivity and economic growth, we need to join up many aspects of our education and training so much better than we manage currently. We need all relevant parts of government to speak to each other, to fund adult upskilling as well as training for those coming straight out of school, in straightforward ways that everyone can understand. And we need companies, whatever their size, to believe that  (re)training really can make a difference to their own bottom line and their locality.

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Getting the Design Right

This blogpost is stimulated by two bits of reading matter of very different sorts, but between them they have taken my thoughts in somewhat multifarious directions. Apologies if the net result is a slightly disorganised and diverse post.

It started with an article in the Guardian about architecture, and how a group of women in the 1980s got fed up with the idea – originating with modernist Le Corbusier that “In English detective novels the good-looking men, such as policemen, are always 6ft tall!” – that a strapping, tall male was the default person living in modern buildings and hence used as the basis for design. Consequently, buildings were not planned for the average woman, certainly not one with a pram, let alone a wheelchair user. A woman’s collective – Matrix Open – was set up back then to try to counter this presumption about appropriate building design. Much more recently, Caroline Criado Perez, has spelled out in a huge variety of situations just how the default man still exists in designers’ and policy-makers’ thoughts, to the detriment of at least half the population, in her book Invisible Women. Stamford professor Londa Schiebinger, on the Gendered Innovations website she curates, looks at the damage such male-by-default assumptions cause in the STEM domains, research and design.

Thinking about that led me into thinking about my home department of the Cavendish Laboratory. The current building predates this push back against buildings designed for strong, muscular men, but of course nearly all the inhabitants at the time of its opening in 1974 would have been male. I was in the first cohort of final year undergraduates to be taught in the ‘New Cavendish’ as it has always been known (the original building in Free School Lane dates back to 1874 when James Clerk Maxwell was the first Cavendish Professor) in the academic year 1974-5.

Part II

The photograph shows part of my Part II (third year, in Cambridge parlance) cohort of students. In the centre sits Sir Brian Pippard, the Cavendish Professor of the day, who had masterminded the new building and who had a very firm grip on everything that went on in the building, including how the teaching should be done. A couple of rows behind, you can see a line of four young women, with a fifth in front of me (in case that helps to identify the young me). This group of four represent four of the five of us from Girton, all four staying close to physics during our careers; the fifth was obviously having a lie-in and can’t be seen anywhere. Us Girtonians (still a woman-only College at the time) are flanked by two men who both went on to become FRSs. There are two other FRSs visible in this image too; outside this field of view are a couple of other women out of a total class of around 80 but not, as far as I know, any more FRSs. (Feel free to guess who the four male FRSs are, if the image is not too grainy to make them out.) Additionally, also in the field of view, was someone I next met when we were both Trustees of the Science Museum (he’d gone on to do Part III maths). I like to think we were a strong cohort.

Cavendish 3

Whereas the first Cavendish building – the ‘Old Cavendish’ – is still standing, although not used for physics any more, the lifetime of the New Cavendish seems limited. Cavendish III – to be known as the Ray Dolby Centre – is currently under construction, as shown above, after which I think the New Cavendish will be knocked down and the site redeveloped. I doubt the new buildings have been designed with parents with prams in mind, but I hope the architects have factored in the wheelchair user and other people who may not possess a handsome policeman’s physique. The New Cavendish itself was built not to last. Pippard seems deliberately to have gone for a cheap (though not particularly cheerful) design, so that the square meterage could be as large as possible. White breeze block walls and wide corridors, for ease of moving equipment around, were the name of the game, along with a flat roof, asbestos all over the place as was typical of its day and – as I was always told – a design life of 25 years. I guess we should consider ourselves lucky that it lasted around twice that long, but it has been getting less and less satisfactory for a long time, with poor air circulation, asbestos being discovered in unforeseen places every time any modification was made, and endless leaks. I well remember a visit from William Waldegrave in the early 1990s, then in charge of science as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, when we were told we had to remove the buckets that caught the leaks. Whether this was so that he didn’t fall over them or because it made us look tatty, I’m not sure, but at least it wasn’t raining during the visit.

However, to the second piece of reading, and the real stimulus for this post…..There are other issues that I hope are factored in for the design of Cavendish III – and I write this from a position of ignorance, as I have deliberately kept well away from any discussions about the building as plans have evolved, given that I will not be working in it. Has enough money been set aside for running the programmes that the building will house, to maintain the boring infrastructure that is so critical for cutting edge science?

Given that ‘full economic costing’ means anything but that, it is important that sufficient money is in place to keep the building in a fit state over the decades, or at least the next five or ten years. For instance, to take a specific problem I remember featuring regularly in the days I chaired the department’s Finance Committee, a huge amount of liquid helium is used by the low temperature researchers, and maintaining a liquefier and piping helium around the building doesn’t come cheap, particularly if leaks appear after a while. It is very hard to work out how to charge equitably (including in intergenerational terms in the sense of putting money by for future needs) for maintaining this infrastructure. Many more examples could be given.

The Innovation Delusion by Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russell, argues strongly that shiny new things that aren’t maintained end up being a major problem. The authors’ focus is as much on civic infrastructure – drains, for instance – as on more high tech objects with which innovation is more commonly associated. Their message across the piece is the same: if you don’t maintain your latest large gizmo, car, infrastructure or whatever, you are storing up trouble. That, I fear, goes for buildings too. They are expensive to run and universities up and down the land – including Cambridge – have been too often caught out by obtaining money for a new building, but insufficient funds to provide the wherewithal to keep it, or the work inside, going for long. Maintenance, and those who do this, the ‘maintainers’, sit at the heart of this book, and it is a cautionary tale for academic administrators.

The Cavendish has very much been part of my past, even if the new building is not likely to be part of my future. However, I sincerely hope the designers have got it right for such a complex laboratory, and that the funds keep it in pristine shape for a long time to come.

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Levelling up for Whom?

A recent HEPI report, written by Sarah Chaytor, Grace Gottlieb and Graeme Reid, all from UCL, considered aspects of levelling up and regional policy. Amongst their conclusions was that, despite what other commentators have said, the UK is not particularly regionally concentrated in its research funding, and that what is meant by research concentration isn’t even particularly well-defined. Despite the authors disclaimer

‘This report is not a surreptitious attempt to get a better deal for Bloomsbury at the expense of the rest of the country’,

it was nevertheless hard not to feel that they were choosing their analysis in order to demonstrate that London was not unfairly advantaged. This suspicion was highlighted by what appeared at the very least to be confusion when it came to some of their figures. Were they talking about all research funding, public, charity and private, or were they simply talking about public funding? Kieron Flanagan first highlighted this confusion over Twitter, and it was stressed again by Andy Westwood in his response, on the HEPI blog. Clearly which is being discussed makes a significant difference.

If one turns to an earlier report from last summer on regional R+D funding imbalances by Tom Forth and Richard Jones (both Manchester based), The Missing Four Billion, they make a very clear distinction between public and private funding. Looking explicitly at the relative amounts of public (government, university and charity) and private research funding per head of population in NUTS1 regions, London – including Bloomsbury – is seen to be an outlier, with less business income than the West or East Midlands for instance, but around three times as much public funding as those regions. The East of England, including my home city of Cambridge, is an outlier in the other direction, with far more private research income than any other region (about twice as much as either area of the Midlands, nearly three times as much as London), but only about half the public income of London.

However, as Reid et al make plain, granularity matters. The East of England’s figures will be dominated by the Cambridge economy, with so many tech and life science companies thriving on the various science parks, and the recent arrival of Astra Zeneca from the North West. That single move will, as Tom Forth has further analysed, have led to a significant shift in the total private funding from the North West, where the company was historically based, to the East of England. Cambridge is, in terms of business research funding, thriving.

But for the people who live here, does it feel like that? No analysis would suggest the region needs to be levelled up, if the gross research income figures are considered, and yet there are extensive problems in the East of England. The reality is that the overheated Cambridge economy, the soaring house prices, mean that for many people life in the city is an impossible dream. It is, according to the Centre for Cities, the most unequal city in the UK as judged by the Gini Coefficient based on individual incomes. Having attended a webinar organised by the Bennett Institute for Public Policy during this spring’s University Cambridge Festival, I was struck, indeed horrified, by some of the stories told with respect to this inequality. As was said there are two very different worlds, which may barely overlap:

“the knowledge intensive businesses attracting global talent, and those who found it difficult to afford the bus fare into town.”

That is just the city, of course. To look at the wider region covered by the NUTS1 classification, reaching out into the agriculturally-dominated fens and beyond to the impoverished coastal towns, there isn’t even a thriving economy or plentiful jobs of any description. These are left-behind regions, whatever the gross R+D figures for the East of England might suggest. The reach of the economic success within Cambridge and its University do not extend significantly towards Wisbech, let alone Kings Lynn. How could the University do more? In fact, their sights are set on the Oxford-Cambridge Arc  which barely reaches east into the fens. In terms of pure productivity and growth, this no doubt makes sense. As the Government website put it earlier this year, it is

“An ambitious plan to unleash the economic and cultural potential of the Oxford-Cambridge Arc, to transform it into one of the world’s premier growth corridors and a world-leader in sustainability.”

Towns and cities like Kettering, Corby, Peterborough and Northampton certainly could benefit from major investment if this corridor goes ahead as proposed. But to the east of the city, the benefit may be very limited indeed.

From this single perspective I am left pondering is it ‘better’ to look westwards from the city to our friendly rivals in Oxford, or east towards the coast? How should one determine better? Just like my last blogpost with its hesitation about what excellence means, better is a word that sounds so promising but without qualification – better for whom, for how many, better in economic or social terms – it is hard to know where I might opt to put my money, were I in the position to put money anywhere. A recent article by Michael Kenny and Thomas Kelsey from the Bennett Institute highlights this conundrum about what better might mean if Johnson’s government pursues their levelling up agenda without any additional clarification. Kenny and Kelsey show that R+D income, introducing a new anchor industry or building improved large-scale infrastructure such as roads may be of far less interest to many living in disadvantaged areas than much smaller scale projects such as sports and leisure facilities and centres for young people. Such items may deliver better political capital from the electorate than economic growth for the region or the country. These are not the sort of thing that the promised £22bn funding for R+D is going to deliver, and perhaps are too small-scale to feature largely in the so-far ill-defined UK Shared Prosperity Fund (which replaces EU Structural Funds), but perhaps would be better able to deliver a country that felt less divided between the haves and have-nots.

Levelling up needs definition. What are we trying to level up – infrastructure, jobs, R+D or community life? Different funds for different purposes. But we should not let politicians get away with such glib phrases without qualifications nor muddle up different pots of money.

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Do you know Excellence when you see it?

Politicians toss around phrases like ‘levelling up’ and ‘build back better’, not to mention ‘freedom of speech’, with gay abandon. Such words sound so positive and authoritative, what could be the problem? As many people have pointed out, however, there tend to be internal inconsistencies, exemplified by the University Minister Michelle Donelan’s statements about holocaust deniers being acceptable under proposed free speech legislation, a position swiftly contradicted by the Prime Minister. As for ‘build back better’, one has to dig down into that to see who it’s better for (property developers or the environment, to take two perhaps extreme categories of ‘end users’) and levelling up seems to mean different things to politicians from local communities (see this recent article for a discussion about the politics of this).

Academics aren’t likely to fall into the same traps, are they? Well, I fear they are. To take two words often found on referees’ lips: excellence and impact. The ERC is well known for only using the former, and not the latter, unlike UKRI grants in general. No doubt referees feel they know excellence when they see it (Wikipedia’s first example of the use of this phrase interestingly refers to obscenity in a US Supreme Court decision in 1964) but, guilty though I’m sure I’ve been in that direction when I’ve sat on panels to judge grants, that somewhat subjective measure is of course exactly where bias can set in. As I’ve frequently written before, if not quite in those words, that has been one of the challenges for interdisciplinary research. Panel members tend to like what they know and have confidence in (see eg here). Interdisciplinary research may make them feel uncomfortable if only half the words make much sense to them; that makes it harder for them to recognize excellence even if it is there.

I will await the analysis of outputs marked up as interdisciplinary to the REF with some trepidation, given I’ve chaired the panel responsible for trying to devise appropriate guidance both for institutions to have confidence in submitting such outputs and for the sub-panels – containing their named interdisciplinary advisers – equally to have confidence they can judge such outputs fairly. However, it is not just when grant submissions are interdisciplinary that the challenge of comparing apples and oranges arises. How does one compare a project on spins of quantum dots versus nano-electronic insulation (to take two topics at random from my own department’s website)? Some grant applications can be thrown out swiftly, probably when a department hasn’t done a good enough sift beforehand, although who knows which excellent ones have been thrown out for political rather than scientific reasons. Perhaps they are seen as being flawed, incremental, lacking the equipment or done by someone else already. Straying into the territory of the excellence (or otherwise) of the PI certainly risks not only the Matthew Effect, but also bias. Maybe the referee or panel speaker has had a run in with said PI and bears a grudge….or (and I saw this once) the panel did not want to offend the person concerned – an overwhelming conflict of interest would be declared these days – so it was hard to be appropriately objective. Excellence is not quite as simple as we might all wish to believe.

What about excellence in a career? It’s a question on which I’m personally reflecting post-retirement, since I’m not sure (not least because of the Matthew Effect) that I should be judged by grant income, let alone by the letters after my name. Those criteria seem insufficient to define a life well-lived. Nor am I at all sure that phrase amounts to the same thing as excellence. When I was living in the USA, Jimmy Carter became President, with his implicit motto the title of his book Why Not the Best? published in 1976, the year before he took up the mantle. As a young idealist, it struck me at the time as a wonderful tagline (although I never read the book), but ‘best’ like ‘excellence’ is a hard word to capture.

So I’m left pondering, have I done enough for society, whether or not it is called impact? Does the fact I haven’t invented a wonderful widget outscore on the negative side any positive points I might have scored through my work as gender champion? Was it ‘better’ or ‘worse’ (for whom, one might ask) that my research career faded out somewhat accidentally when I became gender champion simultaneously with chairing the Royal Society’s Education Committee? Both those were immensely rewarding roles, if also frustrating upon occasion, but how should I have weighed up at the time the cessation of my research, particularly as I was so busy that I didn’t spot for a long time that I had failed to apply for further grants? One can torture oneself indefinitely along these lines!

Questions, questions, there are undoubtedly more questions in this blogpost than usual, because it seems to me these are all important if unanswerable questions. As we, in the UK, hope we are emerging from the worst of the pandemic, as vaccinations (now there’s some work no one needs doubt was excellent!) take hold and more and more of the adult population have some protection, there is much of which to take stock. Of the way our lives, teaching, meetings and so on have changed. I agree with all those who say we are working even harder now than ever. I may not have had the burden of recording lectures, for which I am duly grateful, but there have been far too many days of non-stop meetings, with barely time for mugs of coffee, lunch or the requisite comfort breaks.

My levels of exercise have plummeted now I no longer cycle into town for meetings (or dinners!) let alone further to the railway station on the other side of Cambridge once or twice a week. I am sure I am not alone in living a life apparently glued to my computer chair. Yet I seem to have no more time because of that travelling time I’m saving. On the contrary. Somehow, in this Covid life, intensity increases but well-being does not. What of this changed life should we carry over to the brave new world we may be lucky enough to face at the start of the new academic year. I sense everyone is hedging their bets about how much will be face-to-face. For instance, I do wonder if our colleagues much further from London will decide that getting on a train (let alone a plane) from the further flung parts of the UK to attend a two hour meeting just isn’t worth the effort. For them zoom may continue to be a major part of their life. Alternatively they may feel trains continue to offer – as I have regularly found – a great space away from other people to sit and read a thesis or thick wadge of committee papers.

Who knows how things will settle down in a year or two! And will that way of life be ‘excellent’, better than what we had before, or will it simply be another botched job as we move from crisis to crisis?

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