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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One Response to Moving On from a Victorian Ideal

  1. Cecilia Fenech Brincat says:

    You might be interested to know that the Research on Research Institute are actually looking into Narrative CVs ( in a project they are working on. I am not linked to them in any way, but as a Research Manager within HE I have similar concerns about ‘advantaging the already advantaged’ and the impact narrative CVs have on some groups, particularly those for whom English is not a first language.

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