Month: July 2023

In conversation: Professor Mary Ryan and Dr Stephen Webster on ‘research culture’

Professor Mary Ryan (Vice-Provost Research and Enterprise) and Dr Stephen Webster (Director of The Good Science Project) in conversation on ‘research culture’…

Stephen Webster: Why do you think research culture is rising up the agenda at British universities?

Mary Ryan: Two reasons. Firstly, we have finally found our voice and are saying that things need to change! But there is also a recognition that we face huge societal challenges that need to be addressed. We need good people from a whole range of backgrounds working on these problems in an inclusive organisation – ideally together!

If we think about EDI it is quite easy to talk about policy, legislation and frameworks. These have a role but I think other factors are more important. For example, we should keep exploring, and reminding ourselves, of the key moral arguments that urge equality of opportunity and equality. So here is an ‘ought’ that should guide us. But apart from the moral argument, we know as scientists (and there is lots of evidence), that diverse teams deliver better outcomes.  If we really care about having the most impact then the best teams will also be the most cognitively diverse teams.

So how do we get there?  Everyone in a team needs to feel respected, valued, and able to develop their authentic self. That’s how I see my job. I’m here to create a positive research environment at the heart of Imperial College, so that its research and its enterprise achieve the best it can for the benefit of society.

SW: Every institution is different. What are the particular challenges and opportunities for Imperial, as regards research culture?

MR: Imperial is an amazing place – it is full of people who are brilliant at what they do and driven to make a difference.  This gives us a head start as we are all working to a common purpose with (hopefully) a shared set of values and goals. We are unusual too in our emphasis on STEMB. That’s our ‘flavour’: we are a remarkable community that cares about evidence and hard-won data.  This emphasis on progress gives me hope that we will continue to improve the research environment to deliver better outcomes.

There are of course challenges. In our core disciplines many demographics are historically under-represented and we need to work hard to increase the diversity of our staff and student population. We need to be more open to challenging the ‘way of doing’ and accept that as our community changes we should look to be more open and inclusive, better at valuing differences and the benefits that difference brings. We need to value team-based working, not simply applaud the ‘individual genius’ (individual genii still welcome!)

I often hear that our focus on ‘excellence’ is unhelpful; I disagree, but I see we need to be careful how we define and measure the work that is carried out here, reflecting our interest in impact and quality, and not being swayed by volume and external metrics. We need to support people so that they deliver their best. This is the goal of our strategy for inclusive excellence. In fact that is what I mean by ‘excellence’. Excellence is not some agreed standard, or the mark of the ‘winner’. For me, simply, it is people delivering their best. I know we still have some behaviours that are not appropriate, and these need to be dealt with and become the unacceptable exception. I know that the faculty and department leadership are all working hard to make this the case.

SW: With research culture, there is a sense in which responsibility lies both with the individual and the institution. How do you see the balance?

MR: I do believe every individual is responsible for their own ethics and their own actions. But the institution needs to provide the right education, training, frameworks and structures that set expectations of behaviour and align benefits that incentivise that behaviour (and actively discourage individuals that create non-inclusive environments). All this relates to everything we do and it touches everything: from apparently routine day-to-day interactions, to the ethics of how teams organise authorship ethics, to the way we make sure we think about the impact of our work in different sectors and communities.

All this will depend on more than decisions and programmes: we need to talk openly about culture and ethics in the broadest sense and to challenge each other in a constructive way (which is why I am so happy that we are doing this work!). It’s not easy, exposing and looking at these questions but we know we must do this work. This way we can better understand the challenges both within the institution and in the wider community.

SW: When I attended your inaugural lecture to mark your appointment as the Armourers and Brasiers’ Chair for Materials Science, I noticed you discussed at length your experiments and your laboratory work. You really conveyed a sense of enthusiasm! What is it you like about life in the laboratory?

MR: I can go on at length about how brilliant it is to be in the lab. It’s something I rarely get to do nowadays so I live vicariously through my research group. There is something quite magical about starting with a hypothesis and finding out if you’re right! I work a lot with nanoscale materials – phenomena invisible to the human eye even though their effects happen at the macroscale. I’m still in awe of the fact that we can image down to atoms and see fundamental physics and chemistry in action. I also have spent far too many nights at synchrotrons: 24/7 experiments bring a different perspective to teamwork (sleep deprivation means you get to know people really well!). And the sheer engineering magnificence that delivers a beam of monochromated X-rays at 20 nm focus never ceases to amaze me.

The other thing that I love is learning how to do something ‘hands-on’ from others who have spent time perfecting their craft (and it often is a craft!). Things you would never work out yourself because you wouldn’t think like that.  Oh – and the added impact of knowing you’re the first (well, now second) person to see this!

And now I’ve got some questions for you…!

MR: When we first discussed a project on research culture, we agreed that this was ‘an ethical issue’. What is the link between research culture and ethics?

SW: Ethics is about the difference between right and wrong, how we know that difference, and why we might disagree about the direction we take. The word ‘good’ is interesting in relation to science, because it so obviously points to a possible tension. We might see an example of science as ‘good’ because of some technical virtuosity, or because, for example, it promises some much-sought solution. But it easy to see also that ‘good science’ has a broader meaning, to do with the general attitude of the scientific effort. ‘Good science’ might be to do with care of others, or perhaps a disinclination to aggressive ambition. It might be to do with the attentiveness a scientist brings to their daily, ordinary and unsung work. It might include some reticence over the rush to publish; it might include some generosity of attitude to students. It might well include a glorious accelerative moment too, a moment of ‘excellence’. It is in this sense that ethics in science moves beyond concerns over the future implications of an innovation (CRISPR, for example, or AI), or over which rules to follow (with vivisection, for example). Instead, ‘good science’ concerns our daily, ordinary practice as we go about our laboratory life: the intimate and the hidden rather than the extraordinary and the triumphant. The Good Science Project asks: how can a place like Imperial College, an institution with so many pressures, and where the stakes are so high, support best the ordinary, daily ‘internal goods’ of science?

MR: You are organising a series of lunchtime discussion events, the Friday Forums, open to all. What is their purpose? How do they help us understand research culture?

SW: When I asked you why interest in research culture has been rising up the agenda, you answered very persuasively. You said we are aware now that we must make the scientific mindset much broader – in a sense more welcoming. As you say, better science will be the result, and this surely is the motive behind EDI policies in a place like Imperial. I would add too that for many scientists the search for a link between their work and social justice, and between their work and sustainability, is becoming more pressing. You could say they are developing their ‘outward gaze’. That might have implications for research culture. Perhaps that is one reason why public engagement is taken so seriously by the College: we know that scientists see engagement with a lay audience as part of their professional identity. And other matters too might be feeding into an anxiety about research culture. Everywhere in the university sector there are worries about job security, career progression, remuneration, workload, and, judging by the headlines right now, the university financial model in its entirety. A host of issues, and surely too many to be easily resolved!

The Friday Forums are really a recognition that we must debate these issues as colleagues, openly and judiciously, just as much as we look to College leaders to propose solutions. As for the ‘internal goods’ – those ordinary but important moments of care and generosity – well,  if we don’t talk about them, it will be harder to notice them, encourage them, and celebrate them. So the first Friday Forum, which was fascinating and moving, concerned the role of technicians in the Imperial ecosystem.  For technicians, in their daily care for experiments and for people, are a source of constancy in a hectic and reactive environment. And constancy, as embodied by our technicians, is important to ‘good science’, and possesses therefore ethical significance.

MR: And what is the purpose of September’s ‘Day of Doubt’?

SW: It is an unusual title for an Imperial conference! But I have yet to meet a scientist, engineer, mathematician or business scholar who doesn’t understand immediately the force of the term. For there is something about our life at Imperial – whatever the field of work – that is shaped by unknowing, uncertainty, and doubt. It really is the nature of science: we use our senses and we use our instruments but we cannot read nature directly. Even if we like to think we are getting closer to the truth always, a moment’s reflection tells us that, at least in relation to the true map of nature, our knowledge is extremely fragile. But there is much more to scientific doubt than this particular philosophical heartache. Honest scientists sometimes have doubts about their work: its technical progress, its significance, its societal value, its professional esteem. These existential doubts are always there, and rarely discussed. The problem partly is that with 400 years of staggering success, modern science seems entitled to preen its feathers. There was that phrase of C.P. Snow, in his Two Cultures lectures, where he said that scientists ‘have the future in their bones’. And when he grumbled about traditional literary culture, his beef was that people like T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and D.H. Lawrence were gloomy to their socks.

The Day of Doubt won’t be gloomy. Rather the opposite. It will be an unusual exploration of the way that the critical questions applied to our work, the doubts about what we do, and the disappointments and frustrations of laboratory life, are all part of good science. Rather than being signs of failure, they are better seen as a resource and the route to eventual success.  But for that vision to be possible, you need a supportive, ‘sheltering’, research culture. It’s great then that the conference will have as its first session a conversation between our provost, Professor Ian Walmsley, and the CEO of the Crick Institute, Sir Paul Nurse. Between them they know a lot about what makes science tick, and why sometimes the clock stops. Others, working in science, in the arts, and in policy, will help us think about these matters, so that we can make better creative use of the gaps and pauses that underpin the scientific effort. The day will have great input from people who think a lot about these things. And because, really, that is all of us, the Day of Doubt will involve huge amounts of discussion. See you there!