Not Knowing Where You Are Going

One of the initiatives I started when I became Master of Churchill College was a series of public conversations with eminent women, many – but by no means all – academics. To start with I was quite nervous: would I run out of questions? Would my interviewee just answer in monosyllables (none of them ever did)? Would I put my foot in it accidentally by asking a question that felt too intrusive? Would I just fall over all my words and mumble? You can imagine the sorts of things that troubled me, but by and large none of them came to pass and I have enjoyed the interactions enormously. You can find the series of interviews on the Churchill website here. It may not have fulfilled my original objective of reaching out to students – sadly few of them ever found the time to come – but it has certainly been immensely satisfying for me!

Sharon PeacockMy last conversation, rather a bittersweet one given it was the last one now I am stepping down, was with my successor at the College, Sharon Peacock (pictured). Whereas many of the women I’ve talked to have had what one might call ‘typical’ careers, in that they went to university straight after school and then followed a fairly logical path, this cannot be said of Sharon. Here was a woman (the recording will be up on the Churchill website soon) who left school at 16 with no qualifications. Although, like her, both Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Sally Davies of my previous interviewees had failed that largely historic hurdle, the 11-plus, Sharon did not have the family know-how and backing to find ways round the setback so straightforwardedly as they did. Sharon went to a school that had low expectations and did not offer a route to the exam successes she would have needed to go on to A Levels and university in a straight path.

As a result, Sharon had to study both O-Levels (GCSE’s predecessor) and A-Levels in her evenings, while working in full time employment, starting with work in a dental surgery, and only finally got to university much later in her 20’s. It is interesting to note that my very first interviewee, Carol Robinson, had also not gone straight to university from school, but worked as a technician at a company that encouraged her to take qualifications and progress so in due course she could study for a PhD at Cambridge. Carol went on to become the first female professor in Chemistry at Cambridge and then at Oxford, where she still is, and will be receiving an Honorary Degree from Cambridge this summer. Sharon, meanwhile, has had a successful career in infectious diseases, before coming into the public limelight as the leader of the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium, something that was fantastically important as the world tried to combat the disease.

The point I want to make is that not all careers go in straight lines, including the highly successful ones. Luck – good or bad – plays a part in progression. Cultural capital arising from one’s family background is incredibly helpful to have, but neither Sharon nor Carol had the background to start off with it. This week, two activities I’m involved in will be confronting the issues of what happens if you didn’t have the best start in life.

Firstly, I am off to a school in the Fens, as part of the Speakers in Schools Programme, to talk to some Y12 students. I have been asked to give a ‘motivational and aspirational’ talk to a group who perhaps are coming from backgrounds thin on cultural capital, with little awareness of what a university education can and cannot do for them, but who have already made their post-16 exam choices.  These may be A-Levels or BTECs and they certainly won’t necessarily be in the sciences, so a fairly generic talk is required. I will certainly be ending up with a potted history of Sharon, to demonstrate that ‘not all those who wander are lost’ as Tolkien put it in a different context, a subject I have written about before, but as applied to postdocs.

Secondly, as part of the Royal Society’s Science 2040 project looking at what an ideal system for science should look like in 2040, I am leading a working group exploring ‘Future Careers’. We cannot and should not assume things ought to go on in the same way as now. What needs to change? We also importantly need to consider the overall needs of the entire science ecosystem and not just for those who may be the FRS’s of tomorrow. In this vein, I wrote recently about Ottoline Leyser’s comments regarding just how many different people contribute to an overall outcome to make a fully functioning science and innovation system. Our organisations – whether universities or not – need to recognize this in their incentives and progression systems. I suspect industry, for instance, is already much better at rewarding team work than our universities currently are.

At the end of the day, our education system and our society need to realise that A-Levels may not be the gold standard that everyone needs to work their way through if they are going to contribute to a fully functioning science system, although I doubt that T-Levels are the answer either. (In the Fens, for instance, how are schools going to find sufficient local businesses to provide 45 days useful and relevant work experience?) Equally, students setting out on their educational and career journeys need to understand that a beginning that does not fit the norm does not mean all doors are closed to them for ever more. It takes determination – as Sharon clearly demonstrated – luck and supporters within the family and far beyond, but nevertheless a great deal can be accomplished even with a shaky start.


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Stupid Chemists (perhaps)

I’ve recently returned from my annual visit to the High Polymer Research Group Conference, held at the picturesquely named village of Pott Shrigley at the Western edge of the Peak District. This is a conference about which I have written before, following its evolution from the scarey place full of established and unwelcoming male chemists I encountered as a young researcher back in the mid-1980’s, to a much more diverse and inclusive group of people working across the polymer domain. If you want to know about the science discussed under the theme of Polymers in the Age of Data, I refer you to Richard Jones’ excellent summary on his own blog. My take on the conference will be more focussed on the human aspects.

Over the years I’ve been going, my own years have clearly advanced. Now, I have reached the heady heights of chairing the committee that oversees this annual event. One consequence of this is that I am expected to produce an after-dinner speech on the final evening. For any international readers, this idea may be somewhat alien, but it is a standard activity at more formal dinners in the UK. I have, in my capacity as Master of a Cambridge college, had plenty of experience of exhorting students in the college to better things, and reminiscing about the College’s activities (and why donations are so important to support our students) at alumni dinners. Neither of those sorts of speeches would fit the bill very well at this conference, as I discussed in my speech last year. (I may say my predecessor as chair was Andy Cooper. He gave an excellent talk this year about his robot-based synthetic chemistry lab, on which more later, but as chair for three years he managed to get away with only giving one after-dinner speech, due to two years of cancellation because of the pandemic.)

The challenge is, at least in part, because this is not a speech that can be written in advance, as it needs to take into account what the different presentations covered. So, the afternoon before the conference dinner may need to be set aside for dreaming up amusing anecdotes to include. The strategy I have taken, both last year and this, is to make notes, at the time, of the particular bon mots I want to include and then weave them together. It works for me, but probably wouldn’t for everyone. This year, speakers seemed to cover much about the skills needed, and the skills that perhaps robots lack. As Andy put it in his own talk, his ‘robots are the world’s stupidest chemists. We need humans in the loop.’ However, it is also the case, as Tanja Junckers said, that ‘robots are much more consistent than graduate students.’ Hence, using them (the robots that is) for repetitive grunt work absolutely makes sense, with the added advantage that they can work 24/7 without complaint.

Given that the whole theme of the conference was what can and can’t be automated, what data we do or don’t have, and how we’re going to tackle the gaps in knowhow and robust data, it isn’t surprising that much was said about how the average researcher fits into this evolving landscape. Michael Meier, who was obviously pushing the limits both of the chemistry and of his students, remarked that he had ‘some students very frustrated with the Chemistry he was requiring of them’ and that often there were various routes to some end point, but ‘all of them were crap’. However, whatever his students might have felt, he himself remained excited about his research, including one project that he called his James Bond project; you can imagine the sort of flavour that had.

One of the major problems in this area is that there are data on only a subset of all the possibilities – be it in molecular structure, or a particular property over a specific if narrow range of parameters. How do you construct a database under these circumstances? Jacqui Cole has been working hard at scraping the literature to build a huge dataset, but up till now she has concentrated on small molecules, often inorganic. To move into the polymer world is hard, as she admitted, saying not only that ‘polymers are messy and difficult’ but that overall ‘polymer science is really hard.’ I suspect those words will have resonated with everyone in the room, even if not applying all of the time. Polymer science is, of course, endlessly fascinating as well, or we wouldn’t all be doing it.

But careers do not go in a straight line – something I frequently tell the Churchill students (particularly at the Freshers’ and Graduates’ Dinners) as well as writing about here over many years – and that sentiment turned up too in the presentations, when Adam Gormley said flatly ‘I didn’t design my career to get here.’ Who does ‘design’ a career, even if synthetic chemists may try to design a macromolecule? Our final speaker, Filip du Prez, was perhaps being flippant, or cynical, when he praised those students who ‘boost their supervisors career’ – he was after all the only thing standing between the delegates and the conference dinner, so perhaps a little lightheartedness was in order.

It was an incredibly stimulating conference. I have picked out the comments I have, because I noted how many people addressed some quasi-social aspects of the area. I’m not sure that this is so common in conference presentations, but perhaps this field particularly lends itself to rueful remarks about human/machine-learning/robot/data interactions in ways that other parts of the discipline do not. I’ll be watching out next year to see if the theme continues.



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Moving On from a Victorian Ideal

I’ve recently been reading How the Victorians took us to the Moon by Iwan Rhys Morus. It’s an interesting book, but what particularly struck me was the Epilogue, which has reflections on how the Victorian way of doing science in many ways persists to the modern day. Back then it was individualistic and imperialistic (one hopes there is less of that today), requiring self-discipline and charisma as well as innovation. As Morus puts it

‘Men of science of the right sort could be trusted with nature because they exhibited the right kind of qualities for the job. Increasingly, they were the products of rigorous regimes of training…..Accuracy and precision were not just attributes of the measurements they took, they were meant to be moral attributes of the men who took the measurements. They were exemplary individuals….The Victorians had very clear ideas, by the end of the nineteenth century, of what men of science and their institutions should look like, and what they were for. It was a view we have inherited.’

In case any readers take exception to the use of the word man in that paragraph, as he also points out ‘The possession of disciplined minds was what was supposed to be the difference between men and women. Men could be trusted to keep themselves under control while women were at the mercy of their uncontrollable bodies.’ Sadly, there are those who still seem implicitly to believe something along those lines about who should be allowed to do science. However, the point I want to make is that, as Morus points out, how science was done was seen as part of the larger narrative of society.

A long time ago I wrote here about the dangers associated with believing science is done by lone geniuses. It’s bad for children in the classroom to be fed that as a current descriptor, since it’s far from the modern truth, and it’s bad for the public solely to be fed stories of this type: science these days is almost invariably a team sport, however convenient the hero narrative may be to convey great ideas. However, as Morus points out, it isn’t only in communicating with the public we have a problem. Incentives still tend to reward the individual. In this context, think of the science Nobel Prizes, which can only be awarded to a maximum of three people although many more will have fed into any ultimate ‘discovery’. (The Peace prize is different with, for instance, the IPCC grouping being awarded the 2007 Peace Nobel Prize.) It is good to see other organisations moving towards the idea that teams should be rewarded, as with the award of the most prestigious medal from the Royal Society, the Copley Medal, which in 2022 was awarded to the Astra Zeneca vaccine team.

However, have our universities caught up with this in their promotions criteria? Has the REF factored this appropriately in to their criteria? With the concerns expressed in some quarters about the move to increased emphasis in REF2029 on People, Culture and the Environment, are the tentative steps to think more widely about how labs should be configured to achieve that catch-all phrase ‘excellence’ going to be diluted? Is the Narrative CV having the effect desired, in encouraging people to discuss what they have done that goes beyond papers in Nature or PNAS and their ilk and which might include mentoring or work around EDI?

I will admit I was an initial fan of the narrative CV, now expected by UKRI (and very much a creation of Ottoline Leyser’s during a project at the Royal Society, and implemented by her when she became UKRI’s CEO), which looked as if it might be a step in the right direction. But I am less sure, from all I’ve heard, it’s having the desired effect. As ever, some people know how to jump through hoops whatever hoops are put in place, but having good support from those around you makes it much easier and therefore is likely to advantage the already advantaged. Additionally, it may not necessarily be being taken very seriously by grant-awarding panels. I hope evidence is being collected to see what difference it is actually making in practice.

Moving away from the Victorian vision of the ideal ‘man of science’, with man substituted by person, seems to me long overdue. In this vein it was interesting to hear Ottoline talk recently at a Royal Society event about the importance of the science and (importantly) innovation system as a whole, with many different people contributing to an overall outcome. This is obvious when talking about team science at CERN, for instance, where clearly the people who design the experiments, who build the equipment with great precision, who collect the data and then interpret it represent a huge and diverse group of people with no one person ‘doing’ the experiment. It is perhaps less obvious in many other situations, but is likely to apply in almost all areas.

How can our whole science ecosystem recognize everyone who contributes appropriately? Be it in recruitment or promotion, be it in prizes or grants? Isn’t it time we moved beyond the great man of science, not just in how we talk about science and scientists, but in how we configure our labs and universities? The 2021 R+D People and Culture White Paper – again something Ottoline was substantially involved with during its gestation, along with the then (if relatively short-lived, moving on a mere two months after the White Paper appeared) Minister for Science, Research and Innovation Amanda Solloway – tried to address this. Although many of the recommendations of this white paper have been implemented (such as the Young Academy, New Deal for post-graduate research students and a pilot scheme for interdisciplinary science) sadly many others have not. In the context of this post, I would highlight

Recognition and reward of all the people and activities that lead to excellent research and innovation.

Other points I would say have hardly been touched upon and in particular the welcome idea that ‘bullying and harassment is no longer an issue in the sector’ feels a long way off. There is work to be done by our funders and our institutions to move on from the current reward system we typically have to recognize the 21st century reality.

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The (Damaging) Power of Silence

There are many strategies for dealing with an overfull inbox, not all of which are helpful to the person who sent the email. I have weeks where I feel more or less on top of things and other weeks where too many slip through the cracks. Then I find myself, weeks later, sending an email saying ‘I do apologise for not replying sooner but….’ After that beginning I can try to find some plausible excuse along the lines of the dog ate my homework. However, these days I tend just to say ‘I’m afraid it got lost in my inbox’, which is usually the truth. Along these lines, I was amused to read a decade-old post of mine about constantly living on the edge of chaos, along with all its comments, which was complemented by the next post about the importance of knowing when to say no.

However, there is another way to deal with an overfull inbox, particularly when some of the emails are tricky or embarrassing to answer. That is to do absolutely nothing. Silence. Ignore the email, either as a deliberate strategy or in the hopes that if you don’t reply the whole problem will go away. Although I can’t say I have never used this strategy occasionally (but I hope not often), when someone does this to me in reverse, I find it intensely annoying. There was the time when I wrote to a colleague in Cambridge pointing out that the way he kept patting me on the arm through a dinner wasn’t particularly a problem for me at my advanced age, but might be regarded as totally inappropriate by a student. When no response was received, I felt strongly enough to send it again, to which I eventually received the reply ‘Athene, I got your email the first time.’ That was all. A totally inadequate response, but of course my original email had fallen into the ‘tricky or embarrassing to answer’ category. At least I felt I’d tried, not been complicit in letting bad behaviour go unremarked.

However, there are persistent offenders who simply do not answer when a direct question is addressed to them. If a PhD student asks ‘can I have access to your equipment?’ and you choose not to reply, where does that leave the student (or indeed their supervisor, if it gets escalated to them)? If an administrator tries to convene a meeting to discuss space utilisation, and the key professorial (robber) baron doesn’t acknowledge the email, let alone confirm a possible time to meet, how can space be fairly allocated? In both these cases, there is a power imbalance implicit in the situation, and a senior professor can get a long way by ignoring emails they would prefer not to answer. It is a very difficult situation to resolve, particular when someone is a long-term offender who hogs equipment, space etc but is never prepared to engage in a dialogue. Sadly, I have seen this situation (appropriately modified to any particular departmental situation) more times than I care to recall.

It is, of course, a form of bullying. Bullying by default. In my experience this passive sort of bullying is just as damaging to the local culture as anything else. If someone lower in the food chain tries similar behaviour, there tends to be recourse. If a PhD student silently but implicitly refuses to let another student use equipment, in principle (although in my experience most reluctantly) escalation through their supervisor may resolve the issue. It may not, however, lead to any sort of sanction being applied to the student in question, who then learns they can get away with being obstructive. They may anyhow have learnt this bad behavioural trait from their supervisor.  There is no doubt that students learn ‘acceptable’ behaviour from those around them; badly behaved supervisors can perpetuate a pattern of poor behaviour indefinitely.

To me, silence in these sorts of situation, including email, is a form of passive-aggressive behaviour that can be hugely damaging to an individual and a community. The one-off ‘oops’ moment, the email that slipped through the net inadvertently, the one put off and off because a reply is tricky until ultimately it vanishes from consciousness, that’s one type of failure. (Sadly, I would guess most of us have sometimes fallen into that trap; most certainly I have and usually with deep embarrassment when I realise this has occurred.) But, the repeat offender who thinks this is a good way to get on in the world is destructive to those around them, even if sadly it appears to be a constructive way to get on for the guilty party. It is , however, just one of the multitude of ways that enables a toxic culture to be built up, and one that is extremely difficult to unpick.

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What (and How) Should We Teach our Children?

In the world of social media and ChatGPT, a post-Covid world and a world where climate change and war put everything and everyone under new strains and worse, what should our students – at school or university – be taught and (not necessarily quite the same thing) learn? Two recent papers raise these issues, with a looking-to-the-future slant.

“In the past 14 years of Conservative government, the focus of the education system has been on the narrow task of getting children through exams, with little thought as to whether it will adequately prepare children to navigate this transformed world.”…. Half (50%) of Britons think that schools are not preparing students for the world of work. 50% think that schools are failing to prepare children for life in general.”

So says a Labour Together newsletter reporting on a recent polling of parents carried out in December, designed to go along with their new report Broad and Bold: Building a Modern Curriculum. The argument of this report comes firmly down on the side of “learning a broader range of knowledge and skills in different contexts is a better bet for the future. More, in this case, does indeed mean more. Breadth matters…”.

This is very much the line the Royal Society has been taking for a number of years, with its push for a ‘broad and balanced curriculum’. This philosophy, if not this phrase, certainly dates back to their Vision for Science and Mathematics Education project report from 2014 (a report I was associated with), when the overarching vision was described as ‘All young people study mathematics and science up to the age of 18’. The Government has indeed recently made a push for everyone to study maths to 18 although, as has been frequently pointed out, there aren’t the teachers to provide this. However, their concept of the Advanced British Standard, currently out for consultation, doesn’t really amount to significant broadening of education post-16, nor does it address anything that happens before that age. It really isn’t possible to introduce a meaningful post-16 baccalaureate style education without thinking about a child’s learning and progression throughout their school days from first entry. Sadly, that doesn’t seem to be on the agenda. For any Government, let alone one shortly to face a General Election, rethinking the entire education system is a big ask.

Simon Margison, in his lecture this month to the Centre for Global Education, highlighted a different problem within our education, specifically higher education, saying:

“education focused solely on productivity and employability, now dominates policy and public debate in many countries concerned about graduate under-employment…governments more confidently press for the remaking of higher education by pushing the sphere of work back into education and measuring education in vocational economic terms, installing extrinsic job preparation inside the intrinsic core of higher education….The bottom line is that neo-liberal policy does not see higher education as personal formation in knowledge as optimal for productivity and growth.”

So, we face a problem both at school and university, a tension between knowledge and skills, which the appearance of AI on the map, hallucinating or not, brings into sharp focus. Do we teach deep disciplinary knowledge, the memorising and regurgitating of facts in exams that have been standard for decades? Do we assume that is unnecessary because Google and ChatGPT have all the answers and simply teach life-skills such as team working and project management? Clearly that would be unwise. I am reminded of an exchange I had with Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education at the time, regarding careers advice at school, in which he told me that ‘any self-respecting 16 year old can find all they need to know on the web.’ I would have liked to dispute that then (but was swiftly shut up) and I would still dispute it now: the web is great if you know exactly what question to ask and can spot ‘fake news’ when it provides garbage. Otherwise, human intervention – about careers or so much else – is really necessary.

However, it is undoubtedly the case that we need to think harder about the content of our curricula, at school and university, to rebalance how we teach fact versus understanding, all coupled with a good dose of life-skills. Sadly, this debate is too often mired in political dogma as well as the genuinely massive challenge that a rethink would bring. England is a real outlier in terms of the breadth (or more accurately, narrowness) of its post-16 curriculum. The changes to Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence were intended to provide breadth (the Scottish system was anyhow broader than England’s) and, according to the Scottish Government at the time of introduction, ‘provide a holistic, competency-based curriculum for those aged 3-18 years aims to prepare children and young people for the workplace and citizenship in the 21st Century’. Instead, it seems to have led to a decline in standards and a narrowing not broadening of subject-study at the later years. According to a 2023 Nuffield Foundation report there is

“Significant evidence of the existence of a culture of performativity in many schools, encouraging the instrumental selection of content and/or organisation of curriculum provision to maximise attainment in the Senior Phase.”

English politicians can point to this as demonstrating the unwisdom of changing the ‘Gold Standard’ A-level system.

Nevertheless, perverse incentives imposed by any government, as in English league tables of schools, constant harping on about ‘mickey-mouse’ degrees and using salary post-degree as a measure of success, may all be defeating the purpose of educating, as opposed to training, students at both school and university. I have no confidence we are providing the education our future citizens need in science – or languages or even literacy and numeracy – to face the 21st century, but feel the debate is hardly started. It is to be hoped the next Government will take on this challenge. Starting with early years, as Bridget Philipson has made clear would be her own priority if she becomes the next Secretary of State for Education, is no bad thing. If children (many still badly affected by the pandemic) don’t learn the basics at primary school, it is all but impossible for them to thrive thereafter. The more so if they come from a less-than-privileged background. There is a lot of work to be done.

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