USS Strike

I want to tell you why I have chosen to join my fellow members of the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) in industrial action from the 28th February.

I consider myself incredibly lucky in my career.

I am lucky, because I only signed on once after my PhD, for a short period of time. Many sign on for longer.

I am lucky because I knew that signing on would contribute to my National Insurance payments, which had been on hold, or only partially fulfilled, for the eight years of higher education I took part in.

I am lucky, because I finished my PhD at 26, and entered full time employment at 26. Many people do not finish their PhDs until their thirties.

I am lucky, because I was earmarked for a PhD on day one of my undergraduate degree, and I received exceptional support.

I am lucky, because I have been given fixed term contracts. Many academics are given guaranteed hours, or hours to be notified, and don’t even have the luxury of knowing how much they will bring home every month.

I am lucky, because my fixed term contracts ranged from three weeks, to three years, and so I have felt largely safe in my employment, as much as academics ever can . . .

I am lucky, because the bank decided to bend the rules on my mortgage, even though my contract did not qualify me for one.

I am lucky, because I’m coping with the mental health problems that accompany working in academia.

I am lucky because I am not juggling academia with a young family, because I genuinely love both teaching and research, because I am not stuck with one of the bullies as my boss, because my visa is not threatened by Brexit, because I happen to work in a field that is strong in the UK, because I’m publishing papers that happen to REFable, I’m lucky because I don’t want to quit . . . unlike them, them, them and them.

Yes, we have a good pension. An expensive pension. It is what the universities give us to make up for the fact that on average we earn less than we would elsewhere. We think that the creation, dissemination and curation of knowledge is vitally important for our students, and for our society, and so we put up with the challenges. One of our conditions of employment is that our employers take some of our money, and give it to us after our hard working life is done.

I am an experienced researcher, I’m an interdisciplinary researcher, and at the age of 32 I will be one of the youngest people to age out of the ‘six years post PhD’ definition of an early career academic. I am managing to keep my head above water, and my career going, and I just about feel safe now. The proposed cuts will take £12,000+ per year away from my pension.

 

I am what it looks like to be lucky in academia. Take our pensions, and academia will be lucky to have any of us left.

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The Academic Place

Have you been watching The Good Place? For UK viewers, it’s on Netflix, and it’s a very funny and sharp comedy based on exploring ethical points of view about what ‘goodness’ really is. I love it. The latest episode focussed on the Trolley Problem, which I have a particular soft spot for.

I’m a utilitarian, as I’ve said many times on this blog, and for me the trolley problem has limited discussion value. It’s also one of my favourite examples of a flipped classroom (you can use my flipped classroom here on TES Blendspace).

I was really lucky with this classroom that I had great engagement from my students, and there are a few elements of this that have really stuck with me. One of them was one of my students who flatly said no, she could not pull the lever to move the trolley. She could not bear the thought of causing a person’s death. The class had a brilliant discussion, and a truly equal one as well, where I walked away from the class feeling as though I’d stretched my understanding of ethics as well.

The trolley problem hinges, in my opinion, on the fact you know your inaction will result in five deaths. When you know the outcomes, does inaction hold equal culpability as action? I firmly believe that it does, and this is partly an outcome of my atheism. I don’t believe there is a final tally of good acts or evil acts, and the only ‘worth’ is how much you helped other people. It’s my ethical position, and informs my actions, and how I value other peoples’ actions as well.

This brings me to a less happy topic. The #MeToo hashtag has been spreading over social media, a visible way for people to say they had experienced sexual harassment or assault. Eventually, I posted too.

There was so many feelings swirling around before I made that post, but in fact it was walking away from a student engagement event that made me think about it. I have said in our Digital Footprint MOOC that I believe my Twitter (and indeed this blog) are a way for me to widen participation in academia, to help engage the public and students with the kinds of science I do. The fact is, I have been sexually harassed in my role as ‘student’, more than once. My feelings on this are very mixed. I feel ashamed. I feel guilty that I ‘brought it upon myself’. I feel relief, and a sense of fraudulence, that these incidences of harassment only made me uncomfortable and shaky, and didn’t physically harm me.

Ultimately, I feel that if a student under my care came up to me and told me they had had a similar experience, I would be furious. I would not be asking them what they’d done to bring it on themselves, even though I ask myself that. I would support them.

Saying #MeToo was deeply uncomfortable. It was frightening. I know other scientists who chose to disclose, and others who didn’t. No one owes someone their disclosure. For me, I wanted to say something because I knew it had happened, and staying silent felt a little like not throwing the lever and changing the trolley’s tracks. As uncomfortable as it made me, staying quiet was worse. It’s my personal ethical stance, and I don’t demand that everyone follows me.

But there’s still more. With the news that Oxbridge is less diverse than it was seven years ago, and the mental health challenges associated with postgraduate study are a terrifying read. I fundamentally think that we are all in this together, and we have to talk about the things that go wrong. We also have to help the people who contribute to harassment, to the stressful culture, who make the choices about who comes in. We’re them too.

Changing an individual person’s behaviour is hard, trust me, I know. Changing a workplace culture is even harder. But it’s worth it. By having the conversations, we might just be able to make the Academic Place . . . the Good Place.

The Finnish Lesson

For the record, I managed two whole plenaries in AMEE before I was overcome with opinions and had to blog about it.

First things first, AMEE 2017, an International Association for Medical Education, has been a bit of a revelation for me. Sitting in a crowd of 3800 medical educators, when you’ve only been on the job for fourteen months, is a bit overwhelming. But this has been one of the friendliest, most accessible conferences I’ve ever attended. It’s been a delight so far.

But I want to talk about the Finnish Education system here. Our second plenary of the conference was by Pasi Sahlberg, whose talk was titled “What can medical education learn from the Finnish experience of educational change?

First off, it’s important to talk about the conference crush. It’s a thing that happens when you hear another researcher talk and their passion and excitement, and their insight into a topic, just sets your heart racing and before you know it you’re having idle fantasies of working in another research group. It happens to me about ten times a conference. I got a case of it listening to Sahlberg talk about the Finnish education experience. In about 15 years they managed to make massive improvements, and top the global league tables in many arenas of literacy. They improved so much they surprised themselves.

I think Sahlberg will be posting his slides on his website, but I quite enjoy taking my own things away a talk. The highlights to me were:

  • Teaching must be respected (in Finland you need an Masters degree to do any kind of teaching)
  • School systems should not be competitive with one another for ‘clients’
  • Value play and failure
  • The society you teach in needs to have high equity

 

Whether or not this is what Sahlberg intended to communicate, this is what I walked away with. There are so many questions that come tumbling out when I think about this. For us in Scotland, I really worry about the equity in our educational society. Any three students in my lecture could have paid three different fees to hear the same material. That worries me greatly. With the changing politics of the UK, we risk losing many of our hard-earned gains in society.

Sahlberg presented a slide which talked about ‘Global Educational Reform Movement’, and how it had spread (like a g.e.r.m.) from the UK in the eighties, and moved forward. I can’t be the only person in the room who was thinking about dear old Maggie Thatcher. Whether education must always be political is an interesting question (one opinion, one more). I have always been a political creature, and I believe there is politics in all we do. I found Sahlberg’s slides very convincing that we must create certain kind of systems in order to promote better educational outcomes.

Sahlberg also highlighted the value of play, briefly, and the value of what he called ‘small data’. These are subjects close to my heart. As someone with a big-data PhD, I now spend a lot of time on small data, and explore qualitative ways to evaluate what we do, because sometimes that’s the best method you can use to answer the question you’re interested in. I like these two elements because they are both things that are sometimes frowned upon in the environments I work. When I did my M.Sci, I had this feeling that I wasn’t allowed to get emotional about the animals, I wasn’t allowed to have fun in my job. Where did this come from? No one ever told me this, but it was part of my culture nonetheless. I still struggle a little with this.

This blog is called ‘Fluffy Sciences’ because I want to kick back against the ideas that ‘soft’ things, play, small data, feelings, are less valuable. What we do is massively complicated, asking questions like “how do we change a whole community in order to improve our education”, and not recognising how valuable that is results in any old person doing teaching, being given no support, and students who are treated as commodities, not people.

Here at AMEE, it’s incredibly empowering to be around so many people who recognise the importance of education research. Let’s hope that we can all take that confidence back with us to our schools as a beacon.

Reasons Why Twister Is The Most Pro-Science Blockbuster

Twister is one of my top five films of all time. If it’s not in yours you need to rethink your priorities. Now it’s not necessarily the most scientifically accurate movie of all time, but I think it’s one the most positive depictions of science, and one of the best depictions of science community I’ve ever seen.

Here are the main points of my thesis:

  • The research group fights about what music they listen to when they drive, with one group favouring showtunes and the other favouring rock.
  • Dustin (Seymour Hopkins‘ character) is the the token “good at emotions” character, always rushing to make sure everyone’s okay
  • There are (repeated) arguments about how to store equipment
  • There is one who is always on the phone fixing problems (Jami Gertz’s character). Every research group has one of these people.
  • Someone in the team has a family member really good at cooking and the whole team adopts them.
  • There’s a lot of bitterness about that one person who went after the money instead of the science.
  • Nobody has a particularly good work-life balance.
  • No one can decide whose responsibility it is to write up the papers.

 

And to conclude, the true reason Twister is the best depiction of science culture ever:

Academics Supporting Academics

How can we support each other in science?

If you hang out in the academic circles of Twitter or the blogosphere[1] you’ll find many frightening stories about the cutthroat and ruthless nature of the world’s self-appointed thinkers. Bullying in academia has its own Wiki page (don’t be too shocked, academia is also an industry that hosts regular edit-a-thons of Wikipedia), and is frequently the topic of thinkpieces in your favourite left-leaning media (again, don’t be too surprised, we’re also an industry that writes for a living).

Bullying in academia is a problem, and early career researchers are frequently left unsupported. But this is not the only story. I’ve heard tales from my own university that make my skin crawl, but I think it’s equally important to highlight when things work well. I have always been incredibly lucky to work in supportive teams, and I’d like to think I help to support my colleagues, so if you want to change the culture of your academic workplace, here are the things that work for me:

1. Ask for help

SRUC recently hosted Temple Grandin for a series of talks, and I was invited to talk about my research as part of an early career day. I’m not the kind of person who gets nervous about talking, but presenting your research, that you’ve just written a book on, to one of science’s biggest characters is not a normal kind of talk.

I asked for help.

My colleague, Jess Martin, pictured to my left in this Tweet, sat with me as we flicked through my slides. She gave me some brilliant advice on my slides, and then she gave me some tips for coping with nerves during presentations. I think it’s important to point out that these are skills I have, I win competitions (and book deals) on these skills, but that doesn’t mean I don’t need help sometimes. As academics we like to  believe we are experts, that we have irreplaceable skills. If we don’t believe this then everyone is our competition . . .

Here’s the thing, every woman in that photo could do my job better than me if they put their mind to it. We are a strong team, not when we scrabble for funding scraps, but when we sit down together to see where we can learn from one another.

 

2. Acknowledge your colleagues

She won’t thank me but I want to call Jess out specifically here. Jess is one of these people who will always have time to help you if you ask for it. Jess also uses peoples names.

In a meeting, when Jess wants to echo someone’s idea she says “Jill’s point was a good one…”. I’ve started trying to do the same. “I agree with Bob”, “I missed what Alice said, can you say it again?”

I often find myself in meetings where there is a spread of paygrades around the table. You and your fellow early career researchers will not be on the radar until you all start speaking about your achievements. Don’t push your own agenda at the expense of others. When Bob makes a good point, tell people it was Bob’s idea.

 

3. Think about wellbeing

I have another set of colleagues, Kirsty Hughes, Sharon Boyd and Jessie Paterson, who are very engaged with workplace wellbeing. They organise various sessions to get us thinking about things other than work. I’m going to be talking about video games for my team later this month. They’re not mandatory, but they’re there. Just before Christmas my boss was teasing me for me affection for glitter as we made some Christmas cards, and then we pondered our approach to one of my current projects.

Good bosses are very important here, and another place where I’ve always been incredibly fortunate. But even if you don’t have a supportive boss, think about how you and your colleagues interact. Working in Scotland my colleagues and I are big fans of the pub debrief, but there’s plenty to be said for walk-and-talks out in nature, for crafting sessions and opportunities to explore hobbies.

Hobbies teach skills you can bring into the workplace, my photography and videogaming are both things I can use in my role, but that’s not the real gain here. Work shouldn’t make you sick. It’s as simple as that.

 

4. Go home!

Don’t be part of the culture that normalises sleeping under your desk. Go home at a reasonable time. If you are sending an email to a colleague and you see their out of office is on, it’s very easy to delay an email so it gets sent when they’re back, and it takes very little extra effort on your part. Turn off email notifications on your phone, turn off your inbox’s ability to pop up every time a new email hits your inbox. If you have a short question why not visit your colleague’s office, instead of sending an email?

Don’t fall into the trap of saying “this is how it was for me, this is how it’ll be for my students”. I hope the future generation has a better life than ours.

 

5. Reflect on feedback

This is the one I find most challenging. I like to think of myself as amazing at all times, but I’m not. I do things wrong, I lack several skills, I have a long way to go. I found my Higher Education Academy application to be a revelation in this sense. I still struggle to take feedback on board, but I like to think I’m getting there.

Trying to hear feedback as about the work, and not about me, is not easy. On the whole academics are good at things and don’t like failing, but our work is always about failing. You’re never going to answer that question perfectly, you’re never going to be perfect. Let yourself be messy, let yourself fail, give yourself space to grow. How else will you know when you need to go to your colleagues for help, or when it’s time to stop bashing your head off the keyboard and go for a walk?

Self-reflection isn’t easy, but there needs to be a lot more of it in science.

Purity, Application and Function: The Real Problem in Science

 

Science is in crisis.

We’ve been hearing this from a wide range of fields, from students to professors, and perhaps most alarmingly, from two of the world’s largest democracies rejecting evidence based policy to elect anti-science policy makers. The culprit is claimed to be peer review, or badly understood statistics, scientists being too wrapped up in public engagement, scientists not doing enough public engagement, the terrible way we treat our science teachers, our devaluing of degrees . . .

I don’t think it’s any of these. I think the real cause of the scientific crisis is specialism.

Before going any further I want to point you towards two comics in the venerated xkcd. Purity and Degree Off. As an interdisciplinary scientist who named her blog ‘Fluffy Sciences’ I open many of my lectures with these concepts. I used to open with Purity long before Degree Off was posted because it makes such an important point. The culture of science has a deeply ingrained problem with application. The more applied a scientist is, the more we look down on them. A mathematician is worth a dozen engineers because at the end of the day, the mathematician can be taught to do anything the engineer can. As the mathematicians say, everything comes down to numbers eventually.

I am not immune to this belief. I’ve spent a lot of my scientific career fighting my own applied nature. When I was specialising in behavioural ecology I maintained that I was interested in the broader – and more serious – sphere of ecology. When I started working in ethology I clung to that behavioural ecology badge like a shield. When I realised I was getting deep into interdisciplinary territory I started reaching for the word ‘ethology’. If I had an ology I’d be fine. Interestingly, in my interview for my current role I was asked what attracted me to educational research. My answer was that I liked working at the coal face, I liked being able to quickly see the impact of a change.

My answer was honest, and applied, and reader? I have never been happier professionally than I am in my current role.

Recently I feel as though I’m hearing the same thing, over and over. Whether it’s what I have been writing in my application to the Higher Education Academy, whether it’s listening to how the Applied Animal Behaviour and Welfare MSc has changed over the years, or whether it’s listening to Dr Chatterjee’s SEFCE plenary on functional medicine, the problem that each person describes is the same: the specialists are only interested in teaching their subject, not the skills that the world desperately needs.

Chatterjee’s talk was interesting precisely because it set off many of my little professional bugbears. Chatterjee preaches Functional Medicine, a holistic approach to a medical problem that advocates multiple small harmless changes as a first line of treatment. In theory I love the sound of it, its very similar to the approaches I advocate for welfare assessment. But Chatterjee spoke of several case studies, he couldn’t evidence sustained behavioural change for his patients, and I was desperate to ask how such a change could be implemented in a health system which needs measurable metrics both for the assessment of new medics and the quality monitoring of existing medics. These are all serious questions for advocates of functional medicine.

During the talk I tweeted my thoughts, as I often do, and I tweeted that my quantitative heart and qualitative brain were at war when thinking about functional medicine. My heart, which truly loves the comfort of describing things mathematically, rejected functional medicine’s case-by-case approach. My logical brain, which sees the value of qualitative science, understood that the real goal was not making numbers perform on a chart, but changing the intangible and immeasurable experience of the patient.

We specialise early in life. Maths is separate from English in school. You can be better at one subject than the other. I think back to my early years at university. In first year I had three courses, biology, chemistry and archaeology. Learn the facts about biology, this fish does that, this dinosaur likely moved like this. Learn the facts about chemistry, hydrocarbons are stable, lab safety is important. Learn the facts about archaeology, these people lived then, this is the evidence they leave behind. Facts that can be regurgitated in multiple choice questions (a very efficient and useful method of assessing knowledge). Then in second year, 8 separate biology courses. In third year, four separate biology courses, in fourth year another four separate courses. All these courses that are set up independently, assessed independently, and brought together at the end with a dissertation project. 

This approach is a relic of university history where expert lecturers stood up to regurgitate everything they knew about their subject. We know that this is not the best way to teach (1, 2, 3) , and indeed even that it prevents students from making connections between subjects. Yet we persist in creating these divisions. Why?

In some respects it comes back to the need to measure success. It is always easier to measure something when you break it down into smaller chunks, and students need to be measured and to be told how well they’re doing. No student wants to study for four years and then have everything assessed at the end (well as a student that would have suited me perfectly but I don’t think I was normal). So there must be some break down of both the information and skills. The question to me is: what’s the most important thing you want every student to be able to do?

In the first year of your science degree what do you need to know? Do you need to be able to say that parrot fish are able to change sexes in single sex environments? Is it important for you to name every type of bridge structure? These may be reasonably interesting facts, but what is the application? In the last five years I have never been in a situation where that sort of knowledge wasn’t accessible via the small device in my pocket. We have out-brains now that deal with fact retention. Fact retention is the least important part of my role as a scientist.

Not only is fact retention not important for me, as an actual academic who works in research, but most of the students I teach are not going into the hallowed halls of academia. The zoologists are becoming bankers, the engineers becoming salespeople . . . regardless of what you think of it, the undergraduate science degree does not mean you will become a scientist. For those people, what’s the most important thing I could teach them? What’s the most useful thing for them to learn?

It is not the parrot fish.

 

Imagine a first year science degree where the first year looks like this:

Introduction to Science

By the end of this year you will be able to:

  • Identify an appropriate sample frame for a range of populations
  • Distinguish between interview and focus-group data
  • Discriminate between positive, negative and historical controls
  • Describe a manipulative study
  • Describe an observation study

Those learning outcomes are all assessable via variants of multiple choice questions, but also easy to evidence in class, providing excellent opportunities for both formative and summative feedback. This meets our need to measure and give feedback for our students. I would be delighted to even work with an MSc student who could do all of these, but they are still basic skills that any psychologist, chemist, physicist or biologist should really be able to do. Not only that but the banker and the salesperson, the people with the degrees who have no intention of ever doing research. These are skills that the world needs.

You could use examples from many different fields while teaching this subject. You could show how a focus-group responds to a new bread recipe, bring in some accessory knowledge from everything from agriculture to chemistry (Learning Outcome 2).  You could look at the testing of a bridge’s strength and compare that with observation of the bridge in use (Learning Outcomes 4 & 5). Even those students who do want to become scientists are interested in the how of the world, and all of these examples are interesting and worthwhile learning a little bit about.

Specialist knowledge is important, but specialists are by definition an expert in one thing. We need more people with more general knowledge. Science needs to get over its specialism fetish if it hopes to help the world move forward. Science needs to get over its specialism fetish if it hopes to help itself.

Being a physicist is not better than being a stamp collector. We shouldn’t be teaching students otherwise.

degree_off
“Degree Off”, XKCD – CC Attribution, Non Commercial

Animal Academia

There’s an interesting article in the Guardian criticising London Zoo for offering an unpaid job with an MSc as part of the requirements.

Unpaid work crops up repeatedly in academia, sometimes in terms of “pay your dues”, or “gaining valuable experience”. But I think it’s particularly prevalent in the animal sciences for a number of reasons, one of which being the huge number of people in the field, the cost of running animal projects, and the scarcity of available funding.

There are two other reasons I think unpaid work occurs so often in the animal sciences. First, there is a terrible assumption of class that pervades academia. Most of the ‘old guard’ have come from traditional animal-owning backgrounds. Their families can support them on unpaid volunteer work. If you need to bring money in to the house, then you cannot gain that experience. Whose CV is stronger? Well I remember scoffing when, late in my undergrad, a more privileged student had never written a CV before. And I remember how much more detailed hers was than mine.

And I worry that the feminisation of the animal sciences opens up the unpaid internship bias too. See Oschenfield 2014 and Constance 1996. As a field that is getting more attractive to women, but also has people saying that money is too tight to offer pay, we are going to see more and more of these unpaid jobs cropping up.

Would I say to one of my students “Don’t apply?” I’m not sure if I would. I did my own time, paid my own unpaid dues. They were immensely valuable to my career. No, I think this needs to be tackled from the top. Which is why I have an Athena Swan meeting tomorrow to prep for . . .

Fluffy Friday – This is How Girl Scientists Talk

I love group messages. Me and some of the other female scientists I work with have a longrunning chat going on about general life. It’s mostly talk about Orange is the New Black and Orphan Black because women. But our conversation took a sexist turn earlier this week, and we started discussing the Tim Hunt scandal.

So this is what some women scientists thought. Prepare yourselves for tears.

FluffyScience: Love me some of that dna

BustyLabWench: How do you know, jill? We are too busy in the lab knocking shit over with our boobs…no work is ever done
FluffyScience: Sorry I’m too busy falling in love with my professor
Feminist #3: Does anyone else feel a little bit bad for that guy? Like, he’s 72. It’s like your granddad saying something racist and getting yelled at for it. I know he definitely should have known better, but I feel the backlash has been a bit ott :grinning:
FluffyScience: Nah
FluffyScience: His apology was sorry but I meant it

BustyLabWench: Yeah I agree with jill. If the apology was sincere and he just thought it was a funny comment which he retracted, then fine.
BustyLabWench: But he be like “bitches were falling to their knees when I came into da lab”
Feminist#3: But how can you sincerely apologise if you don’t grasp what you’ve done? You can’t rewire an old man’s brain overnight
BustyLabWench: My grandad is a giant racist, but he would genuinely be sorry if he were to learn that he upset someone.
FluffyScience: Then the answer your give is “I’m sorry I don’t actually understand why this is wrong so I’m going to do some training”
FluffyScience: “Find out why I’ve upset people”
FluffyScience: The guy is a fucking genius. I’m sure he can comprehend some sensitivity training

SugarTits: I feel a bit like he got bashed for more than he meant but at the same time yeah agree with Jill about dealing with it in the right way and making the effort to learn why people thought it was wrong…
Feminist#3: Yeah definitely. But I also don’t believe you should be sorry just because you’ve offended someone. If I say ‘god damn’ I could genuinely offend millions of people, and I might apologise but I won’t be sincere. I’ve basically offended (in my opinion) an imaginary friend.
FluffyScience: The difference is you saying God damn isn’t going to reinforce a section of the population being systematically degraded
FluffyScience: His comments did damage.
FluffyScience: He is a respected leader of his field who promoted the idea women were too emotional to work with
FluffyScience: That’s not just offence it’s damaging

Feminist#3: In his mind he’s massively clever and he’s just been told his way of thinking is completely wrong. In his mind that is probably preposterous. Inconceivable He has to genuinely understand why it’s so wrong before he can sincerely apologise.

FluffyScience: And that is a supremely poor position to be in as a scientist
FluffyScience: You must always be open to being wrong
FluffyScience: I have no sympathy for old white straight men who don’t know how to be challenged

Feminist#3: Most of his life people have been hideously sexist, and then to make it worse everyone has probably kissed his ass for at least 20 years. And as for being wrong, we all know scientists with a small fraction of his fame who are totally opposed to the idea 😄

SugarTits: I just can’t comprehend why he doesn’t get it! Yes relationships can complicate things but this is something that comes with every single workplace, and it’s a drop in the ocean of all the other shit that can make life at work harder than it needs to be!
FluffyScience: But he is an honoured fellow who is supposed to represent his community (UCL) and he clearly doesn’t
FluffyScience: He is in no way doing his job
FluffyScience: They sent him there to support female scientists
FluffyScience: He did not fulfill that contract

Feminist#3: I totally agree that what he said was full on crazy train. I just didn’t find it surprising or very upsetting. I just accept that old men are often sexist and racist. Yeah he’s intelligent and should know better. He should never have been sent to talk to people. It’s more worrying if people knew what he was going to say and found it fine.

FluffyScience: I don’t accept that science ambassadors are too inflexible to even comprehend when they’re wrong

Feminist#3: Dawkins comes out with this shit all the time. On one hand says Muslims are shit and on the other says western women have no right to moan compared to what ‘Muslim women’ have to put up with. Man that guy’s a prick! It’s the typical old white, Oxbridge educated idiot view. They all think that because they’re so clever they can’t be wrong.

FluffyScience: And I think he should be publicly denounced too
Feminist#3: It’s weird, some sexist shit makes me want to really hurt whoever’s saying it, but I genuinely laughed when I read what this guy said. It felt too preposterous to get angry about.

FluffyScience: I think that’s what makes me so angry
FluffyScience: The complete normalcy of it
FluffyScience: I’m not angry at him. I’m angry at the system
FluffyScience: I consider him a people eater. Just minding his own business while I drive a war rig through his perceptions of the world

BustyLabWench: …this is deeper than our usual chat

FluffyScience: TITS!!!
FluffyScience: I actually want to transcribe this and put it in a blog

Feminist#3: Haha, you can as far as I’m concerned. I can be ‘Feminist number 3’ :innocent:
Feminist#3: Saying that, I can totally get behind mocking him. #Distractinglysexy might be my new favourite hashtag (yes I have favourites) http://mashable.com/2015/06/11/female-scientists-responses-tim-hunt-distractinglysexy/?utm_cid=mash-com-fb-main-link

Your Weekly Sexist Scientist

(Edit: See below for my response to Tim Hunt’s resignation)

Okay, it’s partly because I’m in marking hell right now and don’t have the time to write a big post, but it’s partly because this shit keeps happening.

Nobel prize winner, Tim Hunt, addresses a collection of female scientists and says:

“Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab. You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.”

Alleges the Guardian this morning.

And then of course, after reading this, you get the joy of reading below the line Guardian comments, including such gems as …

  • there is clearly something in what he says

  • In a world of open omnivorous sexuality, it’s all meant to shut down as you walk through the lab door. Hmm.

  • You must have a very low opinion of young women to believe that [this makes science less inclusive]

I don’t know about anyone else but I think I feel the tears happening already. It wasn’t like last week I was saying that each woman needs to decide for herself what she will or will not tolerate. It wasn’t that a few weeks before I was explaining why representation matters in all we do. It wasn’t that a few months ago we had reviewers saying a man should look over a manuscript, just assuming that the foolish women hadn’t already done so, even if it were a legitimate complaint. It’s not that even with the best of intentions, we can’t help but portray women in science as dangerous Eves, meddling just too far for mankind.

While it’s tempting to make a joke here, to leave off with a light hearted ‘see, I’m the fun kind of a feminist’ statement, something like “Who wants to come smuggle some scientists out of Hunt’s lab on a War Rig and paint their forehead black with me?” – I can’t.

I am tired of making the same argument over and over. I am tired of being told by older white men that I should be grateful for inclusion into a field I am damned good at. I am tired of having younger white men start to nod their heads. My beloved science needs to get over its representation problem.

And I bloody well hope that in forty three years time, when I’m advocating for separate human-AI labs, someone tells me to sit down and shut up. Because it won’t be my future I’m jeopardising then.

Tim Hunt has today resigned from his honourary professorship at UCL. Predictably, the radio this morning was full of old men bleating “political correctness gone mad!”.

A few misconceptions to clear up: the man’s contribution to science is not ‘lost’, nor is anyone throwing out what he’s achieved with his Nobel Prize winning innovations. This was an honourary position and so is supposed to reflect what the organisation wants to be. UCL prides themselves on being inclusive, and I think they’re absolutely right to say this resignation fits with their policies. Whether he jumped or was pushed is immaterial. Academic environments need and demand trust and faith in other scientists, you need to be able to evaluate one another on individual merits, not the makeup of your chromosomes.

And finally – no, I actually wish he hadn’t resigned. I wish he’d said “I have caused offense and I don’t understand why, so my employers are supporting me by sending me to equality and diversity training. I want to be open about this process, and we will review the situation after I have attended the requisite courses. I hope you can appreciate my openness and willingness to investigate opposing points of view”.

That, to me, would have illustrated a truly intelligent and incisive mind. And if, after, he maintained that he didn’t understand how he could have caused offence, then the UCL would be at liberty to open the door or push him out. Now he ends his career as a wounded beast, instead of one who is objectively more than clever enough to listen to what others have to say and feel.

Renewal Season

It’s February, and what I have come to think of as contract renewal season. I’m reasonably confident of continuing the work I’m doing, which is split between coordinating the online MSc (mostly student wrangling, as I think of it), teaching and coordinating my two undergrad modules, miscellaneous knowledge transfer activities, and any bits of research I can stick my fingers into.

There’s a part of me that’s afraid of losing out on the research forever, and wants to get a postdoc. But it’s time for a confession: I hate the postdoc lifestyle. The uncertainty and enforced nomadicity wreaks havoc on my anxiety. So on balance, I’m happier to take on student wrangling and get to foster other peoples’ research in the best way that I can.

But the big news being circulated among my colleagues this week has been the news of Bristol University veterinary lecturer who was fired for not bringing in enough research money. Now if there’s anything guaranteed to send chills down the spine of an academic, its actually being judged on the merit of your work.

I’m being facetious. I feel very sorry for the lecturer in question, and the Epigram (Bristol Uni’s student paper) has a more detailed account of the disciplinary process brought against this lecturer. It must be deeply unpleasant going through several rounds of being told you must get more money or else.

We were asked, on our MOOC, how animal behaviour and welfare research happens – it’s a constant fight for funding and the numbers of graduates wanting to go into academia far outstrips the monies available. It is a hard, hard place to be in.

Of the five animal behaviour PhD students who were around when I started, three of us are teaching, one of us supporting academic innovation and business, and the fifth has a postdoc further from her home than she would like. I think we all enjoy what we do, and I don’t know that any of us would do anything different, but there are eight behaviour PhD students I can name in our office. There are probably more I can’t name.

There is always the work, there just isn’t always the money.

I don’t know how universities are supposed to do this, but I wish they’d figure it out.