I have been, briefly, in Brussels observing some ERC panels far from my area of expertise. It’s a very interesting experience, approaching topics one knows nothing about (including not having read the proposals) but watching how proceedings unfold. As a Scientific Council member my role is to see that all is going smoothly, that there are no bureaucratic hiccoughs that need to be ironed out and that people are behaving appropriately and responsibly. It is a chance to find out whether the forms are fit-for-purpose and whether panels have enough information to do their jobs properly. And I have to say that everything I have seen has been very reassuring on all those fronts. The panels work incredibly hard but my understanding is people also find them very satisfying and that indeed some new collaborations have grown, accidentally as it were, from contacts made at such panels.
However, it isn’t about the ERC that I want to write today. Going over to Brussels regularly on ERC-business means I am frequently there for quite short stays which are full of intense work. As I lay in bed failing to go to sleep one night (because my body clock said it was an hour earlier than the local time suggested) I reflected on the improvement in my life that would transpire if I could go to sleep on demand. If I could ignore the fact that my body thought it was 10pm when I switched off the light at ’11pm’, and similarly if it would instantly readjust the next morning so that I wasn’t turning up at meetings still bleary-eyed from having got up at what felt like a ridiculously early hour. Or even, if I could more closely resemble those individuals like Maggie Thatcher who can get by with a lot less sleep than I can cope with. So, when the genie pops out of its bottle that would be my first request.
The second is also prompted by my time in Brussels (and other trips to EU centres: now I am off to Zagreb for an ERC Plenary session of the Scientific Council). I wish I could speak other languages in a competent manner. Not so that I can merely say please and thank you in two or three languages – essentially the limit of my capability – but ones whereby I could hold a conversation, contribute to a panel discussion, enjoy watching TV and complain in the local tongue when the bathroom door handle came off. I watched the grant applicants fluently present their research plans and answer all the questions thrown at them by a panel, the vast majority of whom were also not speaking in their native tongue. It is very convenient for me that English has become the lingua franca of science, but I feel ashamed by my ineptitude that I can do so little myself in any other tongue. How is it that the UK doesn’t do even better when it comes to ERC funding (and I know we do well), when every other country’s scientists have had to expend such huge amounts of time and energy mastering English, time that we – presumably – were free to use in studying our science? And I know perfectly well that many of the scientists that I saw being interviewed were probably fluent in more than just their native language and English; they probably had two or three other ones up their sleeve.
My third wish for the genie regarding my travels relates to my appearance. I have been brought up by a delightful mother who doesn’t believe in being impressed by what I’ve got up to in life. So, as I heave my rucksack (as I described here, always full of the most essential things) on my back she is prone to say cuttingly that I don’t look like a serious professor. I hope I don’t look like an itinerant backpacker either, but it is true that I tend not be exactly soignée. I wish that I could get on my bike (in this case cycling to the railway station) without ending up covered in oil. I have no idea how it is that so often I get to the end of a journey and find my fingers or my clothes are the worse for wear. Occasionally I know perfectly well that the chain came off and I had to struggle with it. Then it is fair enough that I end up looking like a garage mechanic, but more often than not I have no idea how the end of my nose or my chin is black when I next look in a mirror. It doesn’t help the air of gravitas to turn up at a meeting looking somewhat disreputable in such a manner. So my third request to the genie would be a behavioural shift to enable me to avoid oily (or other) mishaps en route to my destination.
So, one short trip and three key wishes for any passing friendly genie in a bottle. All three would have made this and many another trip more relaxing and enjoyable. None of them are completely handicapping, all of them cause me irritation. What would your three wishes be?