Archive for April, 2012

The week in numbers


Last week a series of events brought home to me the enormity of the SCALES project. Luckily, I’ve had some help to get through it all. Here are a few examples, in numbers:

10,000: the number of parent information leaflets delivered in 25 boxes. The RHUL Communications team has done a fantastic job and they look great, but Debbie and I realise it is going to take rather a long time to divide 10,000 leaflets into school packets.

144: the number of schools currently enrolled in the project, just over 50% of all schools with reception classes in Surrey (and more than 6,000 children). We are aiming for 80% so have a way to go, but this week we are concentrating on getting the packets together. That means 144+ envelopes, labels, invoices, return envelopes, and screening instructions. We persuade some undergraduate and PhD students to come and help us in exchange for chocolate and wine. With these supplies and cheesy music in the background, we have a very pleasant Friday afternoon counting leaflets and stuffing envelopes. One small room of the lab has now been taken over by school packs ready for posting and the remaining boxes of leaflets.

219: the number of applications we had for our 12 month graduate research assistant post. Once again, I seriously underestimated the scale of SCALES! We want to interview this week and needed to give a week’s notice to the candidates. I had expected about 70 applications and Debbie and I had blocked out Thursday morning to read through them and come up with a shortlist. What actually happened was that after a few minutes of shock and horror passed as seven batches of applications arrived, we both spent all day reading applications, stopping only for lunch and tea. We missed running club. I got home at 7.30 and started applications again after I put the baby to bed at 8. I finally stopped at midnight after falling asleep in front of the computer for the second time. I was up at 5.30 because we had a staff meeting all morning on Friday and I had to have my shortlist ready before that meeting started. Debbie too put in a massive effort and by 3pm we had it whittled down to seven. Sadly, not many applicants had read Dorothy Bishop’s useful guide to applying for RA positions making it an extremely challenging task indeed! Instead of elation I think we felt a bit deflated – we are hopeful the right person is in the final seven, but we also know that many bright and talented young people will be disappointed.

8: the number of undergraduate research projects I’ve got left to mark

6: the number of consecutive screens Debbie entered before she found the bug in the programme! The teacher screen is web-based; teachers will be able to log on remotely and fill in a short on-line questionnaire for each child in the class. This has been in development for some time now and we’ve done lots of practicing and proof-reading, getting nice teacher friends to give us feedback, filling out 2 or 3 at a time to make sure transitions between questionnaires worked and to find out exactly how the data were saved. It all seemed to be fine, but then genius Debbie decided to plough through 30, as if she were a participating teacher. I would not have had the patience to do this, but thank goodness she did – after six questionnaires it stopped saving the data in columns and put it all in endless rows! IT have now sorted the problem, but it did increase our anxieties about screening 10,000 children. Our next mission is to get a large number of people to log on at once to ensure the system doesn’t crash…

3: the number of reviewer comments I’ve got to address. Obviously the paper is not about SCALES, but some of the comments are relevant. The sticking point seems to be the fact that, try as we might, the group of children we’ve included with language impairments have lower non-verbal ability scores than their typically developing peers. There are at least two reasons why I think this is the case. One is that it seems unlikely that language will be selectively impaired in the developing brain. In essence this is what we are trying to test in SCALES –children will be selected for concerns about language and communication and then we will assess other aspects of development systematically to see what (if any) other deficits go hand-in-hand with language problems. The other reason is that language is a fantastic problem solving tool. You can hear typical kids use their language to figure out ‘non-verbal’ tasks (i.e. ‘it can’t be that piece, the lines are too thick.’ ‘oh, I need the piece with red on this side’). Children with language impairments are less likely to use language in this way because it is not always helpful to them. Over time then, children with language impairment will not do as well as their peers on non-verbal tasks.

Still, the notion of ‘specific’ language impairment persists and the reviewer wants us to either exclude children with lower non-verbal reasoning scores or ‘control’ for non-verbal ability. This makes no sense: excluding children will result in an unusual group that is less representative of the population as a whole.  And because non-verbal and verbal ability are so intimately linked, ‘controlling’ for non-verbal ability will have the effect of controlling for the variable we are most interested in. This is what I’ve said to the reviewers – hopefully they will listen this time! I am more hopeful that SCALES will provide much needed evidence about the impact of language impairment on non-verbal cognitive development and vice versa.

2: the number of PhD applications we made in connection with SCALES and the number of disappointments we’ve had about those PhD applications. One was not funded, one was funded (ranked 3rd in the Doctoral Training Centre) but the candidate has decided to go elsewhere. Both decisions are bewildering to me. The latter is particularly annoying as the studentships are not transferable, so we lose the money and the project. A quick straw poll suggests that I am not alone – people much more senior and amazing than me have been let down. But the small comfort I get from this is quickly replaced by frustration at the amount of time and energy that goes into supporting these applications. Of course there is so much uncertainty and competition in funding that great candidates will have to apply to multiply places. But few things are more painful to an academic than having to give money back (and this is the second time this has happened to me in the last year). Not to mention the time taken to work on the proposals and the number of potential students I turned away to support this one. There must be a better way – why not link studentships to grants? This would guarantee a motivated supervisor and that the student could work as part of a larger team. Or the CASE model, in which the project is funded and the supervisor advertises the studentship and awards to the most suitable candidate. As it is, I am loathe to put another application into the DTC. So I mope about for a few days and then start thinking about how to fund the projects…

The final number has nothing to do with SCALES, but is relevant to my last post:

44: the number of new Fellows elected to the Royal Society last week. Of which 2 were women.

I wonder if they ever had to stuff 10,000 leaflets into 144 envelopes in one afternoon…

Women in Science


More than 80 years ago Virginia Woolf published an extended essay entitled ‘A Room of One’s Own’ in which she asked ‘where are all the women in history of English literature?’ She concluded that for the most part they were too busy scrubbing floors and caring for children, husbands and others to have the opportunity to contribute. The solution? A room of one’s own and a £500 annual allowance – in other words, time, space and enough money to be free of domestic responsibility.

You may think women have come a long way since 1929, but sometimes I wonder. The last episode of Stephen Fry’s otherwise wonderful series Planet Word was all about the written word and there was not a woman in sight. No women interviewed about the role of literature in our society and no women featured as outstanding contributions to the canon of English literature. Not even Virginia Woolf. If we replace ‘in literature’ with ‘in Science’ the question ‘where are all the women?’ is perhaps even more acute. Only 5% of the Royal Society Fellowship is female and last year, only 12% of ERC senior research grants were awarded to women. Thankfully concerted efforts are being made to improve the situation, but we clearly have a long way to go.

So why am I telling you this and what does it have to do with SCALES? Well last week I was asked to take the lead on our Department’s submission for an Athena Swan award. The Athena Swan charter outlines good employment practices for promoting the careers of women in science. Departments can be recognised for identifying barriers to gender equality and rewarded for taking active steps to remove those barriers. Preparing the submission is no trivial task and so in one sense it is yet another thing for me to juggle in an already packed workload. But as a woman in science, with a young daughter, who would one day like to be a Professor, I am intrinsically interested in improving the situation for women. I do wonder though if my conclusions will differ drastically from Virginia Woolf’s.

Take for instance an interview with Steven Pinker published last year as he was promoting his latest book, The better angels of our nature (which I confess I haven’t read – I don’t have time to read anything that goes on for more than 800 pages). When asked how he managed to produce such a scholarly tome, he replied something along the lines of Well, I took a sabbatical from Harvard and went to my second home in Cape Cod where I wrote 24/7, stopping only to eat and get some exercise. In other words, Steven Pinker has time, money and few tedious domestic chores. Should anyone ask me about my more modest contribution to knowledge (the SCALES project) I shall respond, ‘Well, I wrote it up on Fridays in my tiny loft room at the top of the house, stopping only to collect my daughter from nursery, run to the shops, put the washing out and cook the evening meal.’

Why only Fridays? Believe me when I say I could work on the SCALES project full time and still be an extremely busy woman. But like most academics, research is only one component of my job. Academics usually have at least three roles: research, teaching and administration (things like preparing for Athena Swan). Our university also has a fourth role important for Professorial banding which has to do with external engagement and impact. I hope this covers what I think of as my own ‘other’ category, which is less frequently included in workload models. This includes stuff like ‘good citizenship’ (reviewing other people’s grants, journal editorship), ‘public engagement’ (science open day, this blog), and ‘impact’ (LiLac meetings, talks to schools and parent groups, liaising with policy makers). The time I spend on each of these four roles varies somewhat throughout the year – during term time my week can easily be filled with teaching and student related matters. But in general, I try to block two days a week for research and split the rest of the week across the other three roles. Two days a week to run the SCALES project (and the other research projects that are currently running) – that includes the recruitment, testing, supervision of research staff, analysis, writing and rewriting papers and preparing the next round of grants.

And herein lies the problem – no one can really do first class, high impact, internationally renowned research in two days a week. And because the other roles are usually time specific (a lecture at 11 on Thursday has to be ready by 11 on Thursday), academia runs on the assumption that highly motivated, passionate people will pick up research in their ‘spare’ time, i.e. at evenings and weekends. Most academics I know do this, but it becomes a little bit more challenging when there are young children at home. Sure, the flexibility of when you work is one of the attractions of academia, but frankly I haven’t got the mental or physical energy to start writing papers at 9.00pm after the girl is in bed and the house is in order. And there have been times when I have seriously considered throwing in the towel because I realise I can’t compete with other academics who can and do work 24/7.

So what is the solution? I might have a few more ideas when I finish the Athena Swan process, but a couple of thoughts spring to mind immediately. One is acknowledgement that good research takes time and money. Some funding bodies do this: the ERC pays a contribution to salary so that researchers can ‘buy out’ of teaching and administrative duties. But I’m not sure this will be great for women in the longer term. First, they are hard to get and far fewer women apply in the first place, hence the low percentage of awards to women. Second, I’m not entirely sure it is a good idea to remove our stellar female scientists from undergraduate teaching. If we do that, who will inspire the next generation of young women (or young men)?

So if we continue to ask academics to fulfil multiple roles, perhaps our reward systems could reflect this. The man who does all of his admin so badly that he stops being asked to contribute, who puts the minimal effort into teaching and locks himself away night and day to produce his 4* papers while his partner looks after home and kids does not impress me in the slightest, but this is the profile that continues to be rewarded by systems like the REF, with a heavy focus on publication and specifically publication in top tier journals. Why not look at everybody’s total publication output in relation to other duties? I know lots of women who are lacking 4* outputs, but who do consistently high quality research, win teaching awards, do exceptional outreach and public engagement activities and are great colleagues. To do all of this and continue to pursue ever more publications in ever higher impact journals requires an investment of time that is not open to all women.

 Which brings me to the most radical proposal, ironically inspired by a Tory minister describing the disasters that lie in wait should the fuel tanker strike go ahead. He warned, ‘teachers won’t be able to drive, schools will close and working mums will have to take a day off work to look after their children.’ Working mums? Why not working dads? Why can’t dads take a day off work to look after their children?

So in addition to fantastic women in science initiatives such as Athena Swan, I think we need some Men at Home initiatives. We could convene working groups, led largely by men, to identify the barriers at work that prevent them from achieving equality in the home. We could then identify ways to remove these barriers so that men could reach their full potential as husbands and fathers. Two weeks of paternity leave? Rubbish! Why not shared parental leave that both parents are required to take? Brownie points for staying in the office past 6pm? NO! Ensure that men leave work in time to collect the children from school at least three times a week. Catch up with work on a Saturday? Don’t do it – take the kids to the park, do the shopping, make your hard working partner breakfast in bed. Too many papers are published these days anyway and life is short, so switch the computer off and join the family.

Looking at my own situation, I do have a room of my own (though the scalextric is threatening to take over), I earn more than £500 per annum, though certainly not enough to employ a cook or a cleaner once the nursery fees go out. But I am very lucky to have a partner who does his fair share (probably more) of the housework and childcare (thanks Ray!). If that were the norm, and in fact the expectation, I bet in another 80 years time we won’t need to ask ‘where are all the women?’ They’ll be shining for all to see.