Monday, July 26, 2010

Let's be innovative

Many awards and funding schemes in areas like women in STEM or STEM outreach include in their criteria that a project should be innovative. They will usually also require that the project should be evaluated in order to show that it is effective. Then, of course, it can no longer be funded, however effective it may have been shown to be, because it is no longer innovative. Unless, perhaps, adopting a practice because it has been shown to be effective is itself a novel idea and hence innovative. It makes sense to have funding that is targetted at innovative projects if mainstream funding favours projects which follow accepted or demonstrated best practice. It also makes sense to fund innovative projects if it is recognized that current best practice could be improved. If there is no source of mainstream funding in an area then it makes no sense at all to demand that projects be innovative and that they be evaluated to demonstrate their effectiveness and then have no way of continuing or building on the progress already achieved. I suppose from a funder's point of view having a pointless criterion helps reduce the number of proposals to consider. The downside is that much time and effort is expended by proposers on finding new angles so their proposals will be innovative that might have been better focussed on being effective. I suppose if you are making an award for outreach then 'We copied what they did in a neighbouring county because it seemed to work pretty well' might seem a bit feeble. When it comes to awards for improving the representation of women in STEM then I would prefer efficacy over innovation. For example, the 'Top Tips' [see the Athena SWAN website] for making an application for an Athena SWAN award contain the advice
'… make sure that you include policies and programmes that are innovative and different. That way, we are more likely to use them and publicise your achievements.'
I don't care whether policies and programmes are innovative and different and I care even less whether they can be used in SWAN Awards publicity. What does matter to me is whether or not they work

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


In one of the conversations I had last week one person mentioned that he had heard at least two people making comments along the lines of ‘Well, we wouldn’t employ her. She’ll just go off and have babies.’

Yes, it is discrimination and yes, it is illegal. Why do people feel that they can openly state that they are willing to break the law? I believe it is because there is a widespread culture that legislation relating to employment, equality, health and safety, copyright, freedom of information and data protection is just bureaucratic interference with the right to use whatever means one sees fit to advance knowledge, make a profit, or both.

The standard reaction is to suggest that what people need are courses educating them about their responsibilities under the legislation. Unfortunately, these courses are then regarded as bureaucratic interference with the right to use whatever means one sees fit to advance knowledge, make a profit, or both.

What then can we do? Advancing knowledge and making a profit are both legitimate aims. In fact, one or the other is usually the primary reason an organization exists. Safe, fair workplaces, respect for privacy, and respect for people’s right to know what publicly funded institutions are doing are also legitimate aims. Often, achieving those subsidiary aims entails costs in money or time. If organizations genuinely want to achieve those subsidiary aims then they need to make the resources required available. For example, there are costs when someone takes maternity leave. Should it be left up to individual managers to figure out how those costs are met? My fantasy for universities is that they should each have a ‘Flexibility Fund’ which would provide funding for costs associated with maternity leave and flexible working, including training or coaching for managers. At the very least, we need to recognize that there are costs.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Insecurity and Flexible Working

The New Zealand International Science Festival, held every two years in Dunedin, has just finished. Two of the themes that struck me from meetings and conversations during the week of the festival were insecurity in scientific careers and the importance of flexible working for women in science.

The theme of insecurity in scientific careers included not just insecurity of funding but also insecurity due to changes in priorities. Insecurity of funding affects almost everybody in science: post-docs on fixed-term contracts, researchers with open-ended contracts who will be paid only if they bring in sufficient funding, and group leaders with permanent positions who want to ensure continued employment for their group members. Insecurity due to changes in priorities includes insecurity due to funding being withdrawn from a particular area as distinct from a specific proposal failing to gain funding, re-structuring, and cuts to R&D to compensate for losses incurred as a result of disastrous decisions in other parts of a company. This type of insecurity is particularly difficult to deal with as high achievers are vulnerable as well as everyone else.

The festival included a ‘Women in Science Breakfast’, which aimed to give secondary school girls the chance to hear and meet women working in science. One of the speakers in her tips for a successful career in science stressed how important it is to take at least six months maternity leave and go back to work part time so you go to work refreshed and enthusiastic rather than depleted and exhausted.

Now, who is going to feel comfortable taking time off for maternity leave or working part time in a climate of insecurity? I once heard a talk in which the speaker advocated applying for every fellowship going. Afterwards one woman in the audience commented that she had been advised that she needed to strengthen her publication record, which should she do? The answer is both.

So, apply for all the funding going, keep producing publications, enhance your professional visibility, keep your options open in case funding for your speciality dries up and take at least six months off to have a baby and work part time when you go back to work. Is it really surprising that young women come to the conclusion that it is impossible to combine family life with a career in science?

We need funding policies that place as much emphasis on retaining good scientists as we have on attracting them in the first place.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Is correct interpretation of data important?

To a scientist this is an incomprehensible question. How can it not be important to interpret data correctly?

However, if your intention is to motivate people to take action then it does not matter whether your interpretation of the data is correct so long as people believe it.

A number of my posts over the six months have dealt with the interpretation of data. Why do I think it is so important to interpret data correctly?

  1. Incorrect data interpretation allows critics to discount your arguments.
  2. Incorrect data interpretation allows critics to re-focus the discussion as an argument about what the data mean.
  3. Incorrect data interpretation leaves you running the risk that scarce resources are directed at solving non-existent problems while leaving actual problems unaddressed.
  4. The examples of poor data interpretation I have discussed include:
Do we really make the argument for more women in science by demonstrating such basic errors in analysis?

5. I have a pedantic streak.