Science Funding

My last blog gave reasons why women might be at a psychological disadvantage when applying for scientific grants. I didn’t have any evidence that they were disproportionately unsuccessful, it just seemed likely from my observations.

Yesterday’s Guardian confirmed that in 2016-17 women were principal investigators on 7% of grants awarded by EPSRC, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, and the average amount awarded to women was less than 40% that awarded to men. This came out following a Freedom of Information request from Michaela Kendall, whose experiences ring some alarm bells:

In 2017 she applied for seven government science grants from the EPSRC, Innovate UK and Local Enterprise Partnership. All seven proposals were rejected though highly scored. Her father, Prof Kevin Kendall, made one proposal based on the same business case and that proposal was accepted.

I should admit a personal stake in this argument: I left UCL after failing to establish myself as an independent researcher due to a series of unsuccessful grant applications. Some were highly rated by the peer reviewers, but the funding panels still said no. The final straw was when a senior male colleague was rejected in the same round as me: he contested the decision and was awarded the money after all. As a young female postdoc, it felt like that option was not open to me.

To some extent it may be fair for funding councils to take into account the personal track record of a scientist not only the proposed programme of work itself. A high-profile full professor probably has a better chance of delivering an ambitious piece of research than a more junior colleague. And yet… if one wanted to design a glass ceiling this is exactly how to do it: anonymous funding panels with no challenge to any unconscious bias they might have.


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Science, gender, and transgressive personality

portrait-albert-einstein-16My theme this week is transgressive personality and how it relates to success in science and other fields. When I googled ‘transgressive personality’, revealingly the vast majority of hits were about Donald Trump. The consensus seems to be that his transgressiveness is a large part of his appeal to supporters. Although the instances may be vanishingly rare where his behaviour is truly helpful in breaking through convention and telling it like it is (usually he is just being a jerk), still, people respond to a renegade.

So do scientific funding panels. Nobody wants to finance work which builds slowly and incrementally on previous investigations. They want to fund the next Einstein. They want a bold new direction, even if 99% of the time it leads nowhere. In many ways that is fair enough, and clever scientists know how to sell their research as a blend of high-risk high-impact work and more incremental advances they can actually deliver.

However, I think women often have a hard time in adopting this approach, because we are raised to be more cautious than men. Reshma Saujani makes a lot of good points in her TED talk about how boys are taught to be brave while girls are taught to be perfect:

But childhood conditioning isn’t the end of the story. There can also be differences in how employers react toward transgression when it comes from a man or a woman. In my institute, people who are not in academic posts are not supposed to apply for grants. A woman broke this rule, and all the academics were up in arms about how pushy she was, how she was trying to establish herself as a group leader by default. A man broke the same rule and they reacted by saying, well done.

We don’t only need to teach girls to be more ambitious, take more risks and break more rules, we also need to teach society not to punish them for doing it.

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My Worst (and Best) Jobs

At the weekend we saw the very funny comedian Rachel Parris, whose show Keynote was about how silly and counterproductive advice to children often is. We shouldn’t tell them to live their dreams, we should tell them to try out different jobs and lifestyles to help them find out who they are and what they’re good at. I’m not sure that always works, but it would probably be better for most people than a ‘Hollywood or bust’ approach. This is also the theme of a children’s book I recently drafted.

She asked the audience about bad jobs we had had, in the hopes we would admit we had learned from them. I couldn’t really chip in, because I’ve never done hard labour picking crops or dealing with livestock like other audience members. (Actually that’s not true, I have done both those things, but I haven’t been paid for them). The worst job I ever had was as a postdoctoral research scientist at Imperial College London working for an emeritus professor doing the dotty outdated experiments he thought up. It was mostly boring and pointless, but I doubt many people would pity me: there were some interesting bits here and there, I was paid enough to live on, and I had some fun colleagues (and some other monstrous ones we could enjoy mocking).

Ironically, the job I did for the lowest pay, while I was still in high school, is the one most people envy. I spent 2 summers working at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre outside Washington DC (where I grew up). The tasks were routine, doing daily backups and relaying commands to the Solar Maximum Mission satellite, but my colleagues were kind and interesting people who taught me computer programming and treated me with respect. And there was a full-scale model of the space shuttle for payload testing right inside my building – how cool is that? I still miss it sometimes.

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Don’t worry, this isn’t a harrowing tale of sexual assault, only minor sexual harassment. But part of the message of #metoo is that nearly every woman has these stories, so with reluctance I am sharing mine. Only a small percentage of men behave badly at work, but one man can affect many women, and even if it were only 1% of men it would still be millions of jerks on this planet.

I signed up for a summer lab project during my Bachelor’s degree in biochemistry at Penn State when I was 19. To be honest, my main interest was in getting my scholarship to pay my expenses for a summer at the lovely State College, where I planned also to study sailing and fiction writing. But I did want to start getting some proper lab experience too. I found a supervisor who was happy to take me on and he told me to meet up with his current mature student who was about to graduate, so I could take over where he left off. I honestly don’t remember the guy’s name: let’s call him Mike.

Mike suggested I meet him in the lab at 10PM one night. I agreed, maybe stupidly but some labs are still quite busy that time in the evening: scientists work long hours. This one was deserted, and as Mike showed me around (stressing what a huge favourite of the boss he was), he came on pretty strong to me and asked me on a date. He didn’t touch more than my hair and the fabric of my blouse, but I still found it pretty creepy behaviour and I politely declined to go to the movie with him.

Mike then punished me by taking all his lab books and every other record of the project with him when he left town. And he probably bad-mouthed me to the boss as well – certainly the boss didn’t show much eagerness to sort out the problem or assign me to a different project. To be fair, I didn’t tell him the full story either, partly because I was unsure of being believed if Mike was indeed such a favourite.

So I wasted a summer in the lab, but it was a pretty minor setback. I enjoyed my sailing and fiction classes very much, and when I graduated I still ended up winning an award as the top scholar in my year. But even so it angers me that someone would try to use his influence on my career to seduce me. I don’t want to foster an atmosphere where people are afraid to express interest in colleagues, and there are many cases of mutual attraction that are not motivated in any way by desire for advancement or fear of punishment. But as soon as a power imbalance at work is used as a tool to further a relationship, that is deeply wrong, and it’s time to start calling out such behaviour.

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Quality Filters

Wendy Cope said in a Q&A a few years ago that she now only writes a handful of poems a year. These days she can tell at the start of an idea whether it will make a really good poem or not. She seems to be jealously guarding her reputation from accusations of diminution in quality in old age. I sympathized, but felt sorry for the rejects I would never get to read.

All writers have an internal quality filter, though mine used to be pretty nonselective: I wrote for my own amusement and that of my acquaintances, and I let online editors decide if any of it was worth showing on a screen. But now I face a quandary, because I’ve broken into a prominent print literary journal, The Dark Horse While these poems will probably be read by more people than usual whom I have heard of, they will probably be read by fewer people I actually know. They would need to get a physical copy of the journal, either from the website, from a library, or borrowed from me or another subscriber. It isn’t on Amazon and I doubt many bookstores carry it. Almost everything else I have published is available onscreen at the click of a mouse.

Don Marquis said, “Publishing a volume of verse is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo.” But what sort of echo am I even looking for? Do I want to establish a serious literary reputation or do I want to entertain my friends?  Things written for the latter can be counter-productive for the former. The only things I have written that were good enough for serious print journals were the product of unusual flashes of inspiration. Do I wait for those, as Wendy Cope now seems to? Or do I plod away at exercises and follow prompts from The Spectator in the hopes that something can be eventually be polished to be good enough?

Editors of print journals have always acted as a quality filter for the readers: available content was limited to what they thought was worth reading. Now everything is online so we can judge for ourselves – but where do we even start? This affects science and journalism as well as the arts: the whole publishing industry seems to be going through a crisis at the moment. If the audience for printed media is disappearing, then how can it survive? Gerry Cambridge, the editor of The Dark Horse, darkly advised me to cash my honorarium cheque quickly.


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Spaghetti Towers

A while back I attended a course on project management. Why can I never have a 30-minute lecture telling me what I need to know about a subject? No, if it’s to do with HR in any way then it has to be a full-day course filled with breaking into small groups to brainstorm over a flipchart, and doing a godawful team exercise.

This one was a classic: we had to build a tower out of spaghetti with a marshmallow on top, and it had to remain upright for 2 minutes: tallest wins. I immediately said I thought a tepee structure would be the most stable, with a thin bundle extending out the top to support the marshmallow. We all seemed agreed and started mocking out how to put it together. Then when we were told to move from the planning stage into execution, the senior manager sitting next to me said, “I know, let’s build an Eiffel tower!” and scooped up the spaghetti and started trying to tape a square together. I kept saying things like, “I really don’t think that will be stable,” and “I don’t see what is going to keep the sides from collapsing in,” while she ignored me, and her recently-hired assistant played along to humour her.

Then halfway through the moderator swapped her with someone from another group, and after a short period of continuing her nonsensical design we abandoned it and threw together a quick tripod. It held together well and was only an inch or two shorter than the winner (which was a tepee structure exactly as I had originally suggested).

In the post-mortem afterwards, the manager said the problem was that she had missed the criterion that it had to be the tallest. That’s right: one of the 2 requirements passed her by, and this was said as if it were the moderator’s fault for not communicating more clearly that the tallest structure won. No acknowledgement that she consistently ignored the advice of a physicist that her design was never going to stand.

So in the end the exercise was a poignant metaphor for the state of the world. Expert is a dirty word these days, and the towers are collapsing all around us. But never mind: at least we have strong leadership.

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Billy Goat Pie

Has anyone outside my family ever heard this phrase? (Referring not to a meat pie but a fable?) There’s no trace on the internet. Where did it come from, this story my Appalachian grandmother used to tell about Billy Goat Pie? As I remember, the story was that all the farm animals were sent out to pick fruit to make pies, but the greedy billy goat ate all the fruit he picked instead of putting it in the basket. So when the farmer’s wife brought out the pies, the others all got juicy fruit-filled ones and his was just crust with the inside empty. I guess it’s meant to teach delayed gratification.

I just read Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance, which is a tad hard on the undeserving poor of Appalachia, the South and the Rust Belt. He basically blames the lack of hillbilly grandmothers able to pass on these sorts of stories and provide tough love and moral guidance to young people. That’s what enabled him to pull himself up by his bootstraps and go to Yale Law School, so obviously anyone else could do the same if they were given the right support.

I can’t deny there is a problem in these communities with addiction and lack of motivation (as in many communities), but his conclusion that the churches should step in to take a more active part makes me shudder. Churches may teach delayed gratification, but they would have us delay it until we’re underground. He quotes a statistic which I found surprising that church attendance figures are lower in these hillbilly areas than in others, but according to Wikipedia, after Utah the top states are Tennessee, South Carolina, Virginia, Alabama, Mississippi, West Virginia and Louisiana, all with well over 50% of Christians attending church at least once a week. Sounds to me like Appalachia and the South go to church plenty, certainly more than places like Sweden where church attendance is closer to 5% but the social problems are fewer. The top 9 countries for church attendance, all with over 80%, are in Africa.

The difference seems obvious to me, that Sweden has less of a disaffected underclass because of less deprivation due to a more generous welfare safety net. Vance does mention income inequality, but to him economic deprivation seems a less significant factor than the predominance of single-parent families. FFS.

We all know that in reality some billy goats get more fruit than the rest of us in their pies, while for some dutiful animals the shell turns out to be empty. Hillbilly America has some serious problems to deal with, but I don’t see them being solved while we have the biggest billy goat of them all in the White House.


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