Research Leadership: Are we Getting it Right?

We are stuck in an academic world where the model of how science research is done appears not to have shifted much from that deemed appropriate fifty years ago. Back then (more or less when I set out, give or take a few years), there was – certainly in Cambridge – typically only one professor in a department, even quite large ones. This person was also usually also the head of the department, and often expected their name to go on any paper forthcoming from that department, a practice that was beginning to be phased out by my day. I doubt they had any training in leadership, or indeed in anything beyond science, but they expected others to fall into line with their beliefs. And they had a platform to make this happen.

HEPI have just published a report Research Leadership Matters: Agility, Alignment, Ambition, authored by Matthew Flinders. He argues that collectively we are not doing very well on leadership in academia. As Nick Hillman says in the introduction

‘Research leadership matters because without thinking seriously about the cultures and contexts in which researchers and research users can thrive, the massive investment in research and development funding that has been committed by the Government will not achieve its full potential and the chances of failure will increase.’

As the UK waits to see just how much alleged fat is being trimmed from budgets, potentially including recent uplifts in R+D funding, there will no doubt be much scrutiny in Whitehall about whether the community is able to deliver good returns on the public purse investment into research.

I think the concerns expressed in this HEPI report are well-founded and relevant. Leadership in academia is a bit of a hit and miss affair. Many people rise through the ranks due to their research excellence, regardless of their ability to work with large teams (even if they oversee such a team), to look beyond their personal silo or to value different perspectives. They may be ineffective in their interactions with others. Project management may not be a phrase they are particularly comfortable with. Perhaps they are still burying their head in the sands when it comes to EDI initiatives, letting bullying go by on the nod (or even be the perpetrators) or failing to make sure all who need it receive mentoring.

Reading the report prompted me to consider leaders of my own department over the years, and what leadership meant to them, and so I’ll start by briefly discussing the Cavendish Laboratory’s successes and failures on this front, before returning to the report. In the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, there has been a long tradition of strong men (of course) at the top. Ernest Rutherford was an interesting example. He was referred to as ‘the crocodile’ by his colleague, the Russian low temperature physicist Pyotr Kapitza. The nomenclature has been variously attributed to Kapitza’s alleged fear of Rutherford biting off his head, or alternatively ascribed to his booming voice which could be heard before his arrival, similar to the crocodile’s alarm clock in Peter Pan; or, yet again, that in Russia a crocodile represents the ‘father of the family, and it has a stiff neck and cannot turn back. It just goes forward with gaping jaws’. Whichever interpretation you choose to believe, you may want to consider whether that is the sort of person you want leading a major laboratory. Regardless, Rutherford certainly built a remarkable team around him who definitely got results, including Nobel Prizes for Kapitza, James Chadwick, John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton, to add to his own.

If you read the book by Brian Cathcart, The Fly in the Cathedral, it becomes very clear how much Rutherford controlled who did what in his laboratory. The same might be said, although with less success, of Lawrence Bragg, his successor as head of the Cavendish. Bragg tried to stop Francis Crick studying DNA so that he could finish his PhD, which was meant to be about the structures of polypeptides and proteins. Bragg saw Crick’s pairing with Jim Watson contemplating (theoretically) the DNA structure, as a distraction which would stop Crick ever finishing his thesis. On this occasion the word of the head of department did not cut any ice with the student. One can consider whether the ends justified Crick’s means.

By the time I was studying for my PhD, Neville Mott had succeeded Bragg and, in turn, he had been succeeded by Brian Pippard. Pippard had strong views on many things, be they people, research or how Physics should be taught. That last aspect I met first hand as, not only did he lecture me on thermodynamics (a lecture course of which my prevailing memory is the way his eyebrows bobbed up and down as he spoke; the physics went over my head, I suspect testament to his idiosyncratic attitudes towards teaching.) but I vividly remember one of the questions he set in my final exams. It wasn’t about facts, or equations. No bookwork, but a real test of physical insight provided by a drawing of some bizarre collection of charged plates, with the instruction to draw in the field lines. I hadn’t a clue what the answer was, and I certainly don’t remember what I drew, merely that I erased many versions as I scrabbled around for insight. In hindsight, it was a perfectly fair question but at the time I felt, this is unreasonable: we hadn’t been provided with guidelines for how to answer such a question. I’d like to think my scientific understanding has improved since then, even if my memory of key equations has got worse.

Turning to his attitude towards research, as a new researcher, holding one of the initial batch of Royal Society URF’s and attempting to get my first grant, I remember his comments to me over a cup of coffee (he had by now become emeritus), questioning why I needed research funding at all. Although it may be paraphrasing his remarks, the intent was very much ‘I did it all with string and sealing wax, why do you need cash?’. Even those remarks pale into insignificance with later words he uttered to me about my research (by which time I was well-established and starting to move towards biology) that ‘things have come to a sad pass when people at the Cavendish study starch.’ It was demoralising, but at least I had the enthusiastic support in what I did of the man who by then was head of department, Sam Edwards, to counter such negativity.

More damaging for others during the Pippard era was the way he did not appear to be supportive of more junior colleagues applying for promotion; a couple of lecturers were stuck at that pay grade for years because of this, even as the Cambridge system opened up promotions. He had his views and he was going to stick with them. Mentoring the pair if he really didn’t think they were up to scratch (as others most certainly did)? I don’t think that crossed his mind.

Returning to the HEPI report, there are many comments with which I wholeheartedly agree but which will need some very fundamental rethinking of the current research paradigm. This is probably well overdue, given that the system has, at its heart, changed little even as the numbers involved and the world around academe have changed so radically. I will just pick out three of the recommendations which particularly resonate with me:

  • Facilitate Mobility: A ‘Discipline Hopping’ funding scheme and ‘Research Re-Entry Fellowships’ (or ‘Returnships’) should be piloted to facilitate inter-disciplinary and inter-sectoral mobility.
  • Reconfigure Resources – The vast majority of research funding is distributed on a highly individualised basis with little explicit thought to the cultivation of collaborative skills or the creation of innovative teams. This should be reviewed.
  • Reassess What Counts – Reward structures within universities generally do little to incentivise research leadership. It is critical that reward systems are better able to assess contributions to collaborative ventures and engagement in non-academic but research-related environments.

The world in which researchers work now is not about a lone genius beavering away on their own (think Henry Cavendish or Albert Einstein); it may involve many disciplines and large teams (think about how we are going to make progress regarding the energy transition); and we do not want to reward those who have no care for their teams, however good their results. Thus it is particularly serious when someone who has been rewarded with success and risen to the top is found guilty of bullying behaviour, as was the case both for Alice Gast at Imperial and Fiona Watt at the MRC. I note these are both women, and I do worry if somehow they are being held to a higher standard than men, because statistically I find it surprising we don’t hear more about men being found guilty of the same offence. In anyone, it is pernicious.

We need to pay more attention to leadership, but also to the shape of the whole academic pyramid, the competitiveness provoked by the structures, the incentives we offer for good – and bad – behaviour and the career trajectories we recommend to ECRs. Paying attention to leadership has to be part of the incentive structures we create, as we move beyond the metaphorical weight of papers or length of citation lists when we judge others. All metrics are in danger of bias, as highlighted by the Metric Tide and increasing numbers of research papers since. We must not allow the numbers to be followed slavishly.

I hope many in the community read the HEPI report and digest its recommendations. We don’t expect to be amateurs when we’re let loose in a laboratory, and that should equally be true when we are let loose on running a group, a department or a university.

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