This blog post was written by James Lush, the Biochemical Society’s Policy Officer
I attended ESOF (the Euroscience Open Forum) on Friday, in the fair city of Dublin. I took a lot away from it (not least that riding a Vespa to Gatwick isn’t a very good idea). As I’m shortly to take the best part of three weeks off for the Olympics, I will have plenty of food for thought, particularly on careers, on which I attended a number of sessions.
ESOF is a huge, biennial behemoth (the next one will be held in Copenhagen) but in a good way – I was very impressed. On Friday, the sessions ran from 8:00 to 18:30, with around ten parallel sessions at a time and no designated breaks (I took the opportunity of a Bob Geldof keynote to duck out and get a sandwich). The UK is perhaps not as engaged in the European science ideal as other countries, but on first reflection, I noted that many of the discussions were similar to those going on in the UK. Here are my scribbles from Máire Geoghegan-Quinn’s keynote speech, the current European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science (excuse the roughness):
- Politicians should deploy the scientific method whenever possible, need to remind of that
- Science vital for future – and intellectual inquiry will always explore most profound ideas
- Higgs – excitement across all ages, groups and countries
- Challenge-driven research important, but curiosity-driven research leads to great discoveries – silicon chips (Bohr), WWW
- Challenge-driven research also brings fundamental benefits – e.g. aero wings and fluid dynamics
- Horizon 2020 – not everyone happy with large settlement, so keep making the case
- ERA – single market for ideas in Europe – increased competition and cooperation between member states (existing example of CERN). Goes live soon. Another important strand is Open Access. Need everyone to line up behind ERA – will deliver science excellence for Europe. Will rely on political will and trust
- March of progress will rely on centrality of science and public trust – must communicate well e.g. on synthetic biology (the same day, ‘A synthetic biology roadmap for the UK‘ was published)
- Thriving intersectoral ecosystem is necessary for solving problems
- Already examples of successful collaborations and things going on in background – Grand Challenges a good and relatively cheap way of stimulating it
- DARPA – $1m for driverless car. Led to many partnerships
- Human Genome Project – for each $ spent, $140 generated
- Open access will help collaboration. People cannot always be co-located, but could be huge enabling factor – individuals, poorer countries, SMEs – which then pump money back into local community – more tax – more research funding…
- Should we be aiming to get tangible outputs back from publicly funded research?
- We must support both forms of research. This is where ideal spin-off situation arises
- Can’t aim to capitalise on specific things before know what outcomes will be.
Elsewhere, I heard some interesting tips from Dr Silvia Giordani from Trinity College Dublin on careers:
- “Change is good… Being crazy is rewarded in the end.”
- “Learn as much as you can early, and you can put it together later.”
- “Network, network, network!”
Peer review guide launched
The previous day, Sense About Science launched their ‘Peer Review: The nuts and bolts’ guide at the conference. Despite the quickening evolution of the publishing landscape, peer review – as I heard at a recent(ish) meeting of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee – remains the gold standard for determining the soundness of scientific papers, and misconceptions (particularly about open access journals) can be damaging.
The guide was produced by Sense About Science’s Voice of Young Science network, and provides a quick reference how peer-review works and how to do it. Helpfully, it features guidance from both sides of the fence – both editors and scientists at different stages of their careers, as well as other observers such as James Randerson from the Guardian. It is definitely recommended reading, although it acknowledges that formal training in the art of reviewing is variable in amount and availability.
If you were at ESOF too, let me know!
Peer Review: The nuts and bolts (PDF):
Further reading (Science Careers blog): Become a Reviewer: Advancing and Contributing in the Scientific Establishment
This post first appeared at the Society of Biology’s blog and was written by James Lush, the Biochemical Society’s Policy Officer
I recently stumbled upon an article from the February 9th, 1952 edition (guess why?) of Nature, in which the Vice Chancellor of the University of Leeds was reported holding forth on ‘Postgraduate Studies in the Universities’. Said VC, Mr C.R. Morris, was reportedly adamant that “young men and women do not… sufficiently realise the importance, or the significance, of the fundamental scientific inquiries proceeding in… university departments.” He also said that “the future of Britain as a great nation, and its future eminence in the sciences themselves, depend upon the maintenance of the high tradition of a university in which all the great fields of human knowledge and speculation are represented in strength.”
Times change. If we consider Morris’ statement as intended to recognise the value of interdisciplinarity, these views still echo true. But on the students themselves, most would agree that today’s cohorts are highly aware of university science and its high quality. In the current climate though, the channelling of students towards academia alone looks increasingly less sensible.
This is one of the issues currently being looked at by the Higher Education Commission (HEC), who are running an inquiry into Postgraduate Education. With the recent criticism of the government for seemingly neglecting this important policy area, there has been much interest in this inquiry. I worked with the Society of Biology to respond to their initial consultation, raising our concerns but also highlighting important strengths and opportunities, in consultation with our memberships. You can read the full submission here (PDF), with key points highlighted in bold. Subsequently, we were invited to take part in a roundtable discussion focussing on the life sciences. This provided an opportunity to discuss some of the issues further with members of the commission and a number of postgraduates from around the UK.
At the session, hosted by the Wellcome Trust, we heard from Professor Julia Buckingham (Pro-Rector (Education & Academic Affairs) at Imperial College London), Dr Malcolm Skingle, (Director of Academic Liaison at GlaxoSmithKline) and Harriet Dickinson (a PhD student and Biochemical Society member from the University of Cambridge), before the floor was opened up for discussion. Some of the key points raised by the speakers, myself and the rest of the group were:
- The priorities of undergraduates are gearing more and more towards gaining internships and contact with employers. More students are looking ‘away from the bench’ as they see limited opportunities, particularly with fewer individuals able to get funding from e.g. the Wellcome Trust.
- MSc qualifications are becoming increasingly requisite for entry to PhD programmes, but there are significant financial disincentives for both the individuals and the universities (who, Professor Buckingham said, are “at the end of the day, a business”).
- There are a variety of ways further study could be made more attractive; financially e.g. no interest charged on student loans whilst still in further education (for current new entrants to the system, interest is inflation-linked even when repayments are not being made) and career-wise e.g. creating clearer career progression pathways.
- We need to increase fluidity between industry and academia at all levels (Dr Skingle said that the CASE Studentships programme is “amazing” and expressed support for the Doctoral Training Centre model) but that student experience is vital if individuals are to become the institute leaders of the future.
- Students no longer ‘look down’ on industry, but it can be unclear how to get a clear idea of the opportunities. There is significant concern that if you leave academia you are seen to have ‘jumped ship’, and there are real and perceived difficulties regarding hiring processes in any return to academia.
- The necessity for postgraduate mobility creates problems for access; there need to be more supportive programmes to provide support.
Professor Buckingham raised the important point that to develop the ‘leaders of tomorrow’ we need to let students “get out” – not be a clone of their principle investigator (PI) – as well as open their eyes to careers outside science and help them to succeed. Harriet made the point that it is difficult even to get PI/institutional support for gaining transferrable skills such as learning foreign languages, and one of the other delegates expressed frustration that his North American collaborators are facilitated to develop entrepreneurial and business skills; opportunities he felt were closed to him in his UK programme. The criticism of ‘funnelling’ to pure academia has been growing recently and was echoed by Dr Skingle, who outlined the essential skills required for graduates and postgraduates to be hired. Amongst them were the traditional areas that are often lamented as being lacking, such as skills in numeracy and communications, but he also stated:
- subject knowledge
- ability to solve real problems
- ability speak the language of different scientific disciplines
- knowledge of how different industries work; being a good team worker
- ability to network outside own area of science
- computer-based systems ability (e.g. smart data mining)
- ability to change and adapt.
However, his view was that GSK does generally get what it needs from graduates and that UK students match up well internationally.
Regarding the next steps, the HEC are running a number of roundtable events like the one outlined above, the outcomes of which will be combined with the written evidence received and reported to David Willetts (Minister for Universities and Science). We were informed that they intend to take a strategic view to Mr Willetts to present a clear picture. We’ll be following this with interest, as the issues surrounding postgraduate education in STEM have been overlooked for too long.
The original version of this post appeared on the British Ecological Society’s Ecology and Policy Blog.
The Biochemical Society, together with the British Ecological Society, hosted another successful Policy Lunchbox at Charles Darwin House yesterday. The guest speaker was Dr David Bott, Director of Innovation Programmes at the Technology Strategy Board (TSB), who delivered an engaging talk on the process of turning innovative ideas into real products and services. David identified a number of barriers to this progression and outlined how the TSB is working to address them. His presentation (MS Powerpoint) can be downloaded from the Policy Lunchbox listings page.
One of the biggest issues is the significant risk involved in pursuing innovative ideas, as well as a lack of long-term support for innovative projects due to a demand for immediate returns on investments. David highlighted that people need to be educated better about risk to help change these attitudes, and we also heard that there is also a lack of long-term political planning. The UK Government does not harness its considerable market influence, which has the potential to drive innovation in its suppliers through forward-thinking procurement and regulation, alongside tax breaks to encourage investment in certain technologies, he said. Since its creation, the TSB has developed a ‘toolbox’ of solutions to these barriers including providing coherent, long-term support to those involved in innovation and encouraging knowledge exchange, for example by hosting ‘Missions’ to introduce innovators to potential competitors, funders and collaborators. They have also created _connect, an online social network for innovators which aims to ‘match’ people with similar interests.
David set out how the TSB’s budget is worked out, highlighting sustainability as a specific, dedicated programme which underpins all of the board’s work, despite a proportionally small allocation. The TSB works across a huge range of different areas – see slide 5 of David’s presentation, which shows the proportion of the budget spent in each – with the recently monikered Catapults being allocated around 20% of this. These include the new Cell Therapy Catapult, as the TSB looks to take advantage of an industry which they expect to be worth £3.1billion by 2014. Of around 160 employees at the TSB, the core are made up of individuals who trained as scientists but also have business and industrial experience. This experience is essential as each industry advances at different speeds, which needs to be understood.
Whilst healthcare and the biosciences are strategically important areas for the TSB, one area that represents a key theme throughout their work is the environment. The need to double food production by 2050 will require significant innovation in agriculture, whilst increasing energy production without worsening damage to the environment will require novel design and planning. In response to this energy challenge, one of the Catapults will focus on Offshore Renewable Energy, and the TSB is already contributing to innovative environmental projects elsewhere. A Demonstrator Project (designed to encourage further innovation in the sector) tested consumer responses to newly introduced electric cars; measuring their habits, attitudes and opinions of the vehicles when using them for a year. Another scheme – Retrofit for the Future – used innovative technologies to adapt 118 social houses to reduce their carbon emissions by 80% and found significant energy and money savings for the residents.
With the Business Secretary Vince Cable MP announcing a further Catapult Centre yesterday and a range of funding opportunities and events planned for the new year, the TSB’s valuable work in driving innovation is set to continue. Importantly though, David acknowleged that without investment in the research base, there wouldn’t be anything to commercialise.
David Bott’s presentation at the Policy Lunchbox was well received by all the attendees and led to some very interesting discussion afterwards. We would like to thank David Bott for his participation, and everyone who attended. The TSB report ‘Concept to Commercialisation’, which discusses the work of the TSB further is available online.
The next Policy Lunchbox event on 6th March will see Beck Smith, Assistant Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, discuss ‘How can the Government incentivise private sector investment in research and development?’ This event is fully booked, but to join the waiting list you can contact me at the Biochemical Society.
This blog post was written by James Lush, the Biochemical Society’s Policy Officer
The Royal Society this week invited Professor Krishna Dronamraju, geneticist and former Nobel Peace Prize nominee, to give a talk on Professor J.B.S. Haldane (not to be confused with the politician Richard Haldane, he of the Haldane principle). J.B.S. Haldane was a great biochemist, holding a Readership in biochemistry at the University of Cambridge for ten years, but much more than that he was a polymath who “knew no boundaries”, in the words of Professor Dronamraju.
Haldane’s contributions to biochemistry, genetics and biochemistry are well documented. He also learnt German, French and other languages at a very young age, and was a very talented mathematician by the age of 10. Whilst an undergraduate at the University of Oxford he co-published papers on physiology with his father, before obtaining a degree… in Classics.
Professor Dronamraju was of the opinion that Haldane achieved so much, and contributed so many new theories, because he saw across the traditional scientific boundaries. Although we at the Biochemical Society would claim him as a biochemist, it was his diverse experimental and educational background – along with his talent and enquiring mind – which allowed him to elucidate links between evolution, biochemistry and mathematics, and other breakthroughs like the ‘malaria hypothesis’. If this unified view of science and mathematics was more widely understood, would more people appreciate these subjects as vital interdependent disciplines?