Academic meetings: what are they good for?

This is my cross-cultural take on academic meetings based on years of participant observation. The cultural differences in the nature and purpose of academic meetings in France versus the UK are often a source of puzzlement and frustration for visitors in both settings. I describe here a generic form of academic meeting typically experienced in the French academic world. Obviously a number of different types exist.

The pre-meetingboring-meeting-consensus

The purpose of the meeting will be discussed between relevant actors (determined by formal/ informal hierarchy) beforehand, in one-to-one conversations, or perhaps in a small group setting. This is a sort of lobbying phase where the desired outcomes of the meeting are pleaded for, and allegiances are sought. At this point many of the meeting related decisions are actually made.

 Kick-off

The meeting will only start when ‘relevant’ people have arrived. These are the hierarchically senior people – even if their presence is irrelevant to the purpose of the meeting. The meeting will be delayed until they show up, or until it is discovered that they are not coming.

Conferences are special. More often than not in France they are opened by a minor political figure, like a mayor or a senior administrator of an institute or university. These people will be late, and will usually give a generic speech that is off-topic. All the subsequent scientific speakers, often pre-selected by peer review, have to make-up the lost time.

The chair

Meeting chairs are not usually predetermined, except for at conferences. If no one has been appointed as chair, some assertive person present from the senior staff will lead the meeting. Often, they will not know what the timing of the meeting or seminar is, and how much time to give to the speaker or to the discussion.

Coffee

This is an essential feature of academic meetings, often found in thermos flasks that have been sitting on a table for an undetermined amount of time. The coffee usually tastes of brown crayon (to quote David Foster Wallace). If you’re in luck there might be an expresso machine available for a more aromatic experience.

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Great conferences and why they’re so important to researchers

Last month I attended an inspiring academic event that was put together and organised by PhD students and early career researchers. It was the Frontiers in Population Health 2014 conference in London funded by the ESRC and organised by students from UCL including: Gemma Archer, Joshua Bell, Bianca Serwinski and Ahmed Elhakeem. The event was also supported by UCL researchers Noriko Cable and Anne McMunn from the International Centre for Lifecourse Studies in Society and Healthfrontiers pop health 2014

What struck me most about the conference was that at no point did I find myself bored. Usually, when you attend academic conferences you expect to see some great presentations and to hear about work you would otherwise miss – but you also expect to spend some time feeling a bit sleepy or bored by a few sessions – sneaking off to refuel on coffee to stay awake – or using the time to sort through your to-do list… But here that did not happen.

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Research & budgets: why is it so bloody hard?

This may seem a rather un-titillating subject matter. But I cannot be alone in being utterly baffled, bamboozled and flummoxed by the way budgets are calculated and managed in research. one million dollars

Some questions that come screaming to mind:

 

-Why do we never get the amount we actually calculated?

I discovered that institutions have hidden undisclosed fees, so as well as the % you always factor into your calculations, they cream some more off project budgets here and there, so you never get the full amount. This means, very basically, that our research budgets are always underfunded. No, I have not mistakenly asked for too little on ALL my projects – I just didn’t know about these extra hidden fees. In terms of salaries, this means you may only get a 10 month contract instead of the 12 month one you requested.

 

-Why do we have to spend money unnecessarily by some artificial deadline?

In all the institutions I’ve worked in there comes a time each year when the same call goes out: The spending deadline is approaching! So find stuff to spend money on – no matter how needless – otherwise we will lose the cash forever… As well as leading to ridiculous behaviour, this is inefficient and wasteful. Why can’t we have more time and spend more wisely? And anyway, where does the money go (I asked and no one knows)?

 

-Why is there no flexibility factored into project timing?

Hurray, your project’s been funded! So now all participants must drop everything they’ve been doing previously and start this new project that may never have been funded at all… The contracts and budgets must start spending straight away, and if you ask for any extra time (because, maybe someone had to finish-up their contract, or move from another country) a long administrative rigmarole awaits you.

 

-Why can we not have a capped rolling discretionary fund?

Can researchers not accumulate some small amount of cash in their name that doesn’t disappear into the money-ether at a certain date? This could help us fund small unexpected costs like an open-access paper, or flying a colleague over for a meeting. Guess what, it might make our working lives easier…

 

-Has this never happened before?

It seems, when dealing with finance, budgets and administration, that the world came into existence yesterday: ‘Apparently, this particular contract/ invoice has never been requested before’. We must repeatedly invent the process from the start.

 

Maybe it’s worse where I work (ahem, France does not exactly have a reputation for easy administrative processes). But I think these ridiculous rules that prevail within institutions impede research & science all over the world in the name of accounting. Obviously, I am all for checking that money is being spent as it should, but with the current system research is less efficient. I do think that it wouldn’t take much to simplify processes and add flexibility.

It really shouldn’t be so hard to: a) receive the money we asked for when it’s awarded; b) spend it on the things we requested it for and c) take into account that people do research, not robots (usually), so some flexibility is necessary. It’s not rocket science or brain surgery…

I am sure that other daft examples of this exist, but there may also be places where things are much better. Maybe you have suggestions we could request or campaign for to improve things? Or maybe I’m just completely naive… Either way, let me know and I’ll update the post!

Historical cohorts: shedding light on today’s birth practices

A few weeks ago my colleagues and I published a paper in the BMJ Open on mode of delivery at birth and the metabolic syndrome in adulthood. Like many research papers, a bigger research story lies behind the 3500 words of the classic ‘scientific’ paper.

Initially we were interested in the works that were showing links between: a) mode of delivery and obesity; b) microbiota in the gut and obesity; c) mode of delivery and microbiota in the gut. These three associations have been linked into a biologically plausible hypothesis explaining the exponential rise in obesity and metabolic diseases in countries with elevated rates of caesarean births.

The research story here is that vaginal births expose babies to the vaginal flora, which initiates the bacterial colonization of their gut. This, by consequence favours the development of their immune/ inflammatory systems for their given environment. Babies who are born by caesarean section and therefore who are not exposed to the vaginal flora are likely to have a delayed/ different development of their immune/ inflammatory systems which has been linked with higher rates of obesity. Continue reading

Galvanizing cultural constructs: childhoods

Not long ago in a research meeting, there was some discussion around how to define phases of life to facilitate quantitative analyses. As far as the medical and biological researchers were concerned, this was a no-brainer. To them, terms like infancy – early childhood – adolescence were obviously determined by biologically defined developmental phases. You won’t be surprised to hear that the social scientists did not agree.

The subject of childhood, and the nature of relationships between adults and children have struck me as particularly galvanizing cultural notions. The unquestioned assumptions created by these cultural constructs affect how research is carried out, the hypotheses scientists are willing and likely to explore, and public policies set in place.

One example I have observed relates to the different assumptions about early child education in France and Britain. In France, there is a strong emphasis on infants and very young children being sent as early as possible to a child care setting, like a crèche or childminder. Furthermore, the French education system has a well developed nationwide public kindergarten program, where children start school at the age of three, and sometimes even earlier. In conversation, certainly among the white middle class, exposing children to these institutions is considered to be of great benefit to their socialisation and important for optimal child development. By contrast, in the UK, the idea of sending a three year old to school and then to after-school care from 8am till 6pm (completely ‘normal’ in France) is greeted with horror by the white middle class. Instead, the home and the nurturing familial contact with a parent (inevitably a mother) is seen as the best environment for small children, and for as long as possible. It seems important to start involving children in group activities but just a little at a time. These differences are highlighted by the policies in each country. In France, child care is heavily subsidised, with a network of crèches and childminders endorsed and supervised by the local authority, and a school curriculum from the age of three. In the UK, nurseries are often privately run, with some subsidies, and many children will have only attended part-time child care until school starts at around four to five years of age. Continue reading

Childhood and gender stereotyping

Michelle Kelly-Irving:

Post By Jess Day

Originally posted on Chwarae Teg Blog:

Guest blog by Jess Day, Let Toys Be Toys campaign:

Gender stereotyping starts young. So if you want to challenge it, where better to start than toys?

I took and tweeted this photo in Next, Cardiff, in December 2012, infuriated to find that every single toy, from plastic jungle animals to dinosaurs, torches to pocket fans, was prominently labelled ‘Boys’ Stuff’. On the box.

Next_Before

The opposite unit was loaded with pink toiletries.

It turned out I wasn’t the only parent that Christmas who’d finally had enough of the tired old stereotypes being pushed at my kids by the toy industry. The Let Toys Be Toys campaign came together online, and grew quickly, tapping into a growing sense of frustration among many parents and educators at the casual sexism of labelling toys as ‘for girls’ or ‘for boys’.

Toys – what’s the big deal?

These labels, and the assumptions they…

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The HeLa cell line: embodiment and scientific facts

All the HeLa cells used in biological research all over the world since the 50s stemmed from one sample of cells collected from one woman in 1951. That fact totally stumped me when I heard it a couple of months ago. 

The book “The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot is a fascinating and painful read. I had absolutely no idea that an African-American woman in her 30s from a very modest social background in Baltimore, dying of cervical cancer, was the source photoof the first human cell line. The name ‘HeLa’ stands for her name: Henrietta Laks, and the cell line has led to countless biomedical advances.

Nor did I know that cells could be ‘immortal’….

The story of the HeLa cells leaves you questioning the emergence of scientific ‘facts’ like that of an immortal cell line. What are the consequences of using tissue collected from one person as the basis for an overarching scientific model? Can these issues be hashed-out by using concepts from lifecourse epidemiology?

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The F-word in academia: Moving beyond individual choices

fword_DSC_2930

Feminism. Not a rude word. To be equal on the basis of gender. As someone clever said, “it is the radical notion that women are people”.

Sorry to say it folks – but gender inequalities don’t just go away by avoiding explicit sexism. I’m afraid implicit sexism structured into everyday mundane activities prevails.

There are more women than ever obtaining undergraduate or postgraduate degrees – but when it comes to moving up further through academia, institutional sexism is pervasive. To avoid accusations of being anecdotal (and the tired eye-rolling we feminists are accustomed to), let’s start with a few statistics from two recently published studies.

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Writing as freedom

“Why do you blog?” a question I hear often since I started up. The bottom line answer to that is quite simple: because I can.

If a caged-bird finds the door of its cage left open, why would it not fly out? There are many reasons to explain why the bird may not fly free and another obvious reason why it would: because it can.

Writing offers freedom. Freedom of thought, of expression, of connection. Posting your writing on a blog gives that freedom increased potential. It’s about taking that offer of freedom and flying out the open door. Suddenly your possibilities are vast, you have a voice, and you can go where ever you chose, and say whatever you want.  Continue reading

Top posts from Notes from the research frontier

Happy New Year to all visitors and followers!

I’m having a break from posting this week. Instead, here’s a list of the top ten most visited posts since starting out in 2013 (I won’t share the stats to avoid embarrassment in the blogging world!):

1. I am a disposable academic

2. The global imperialism of English: impacts on science and knowledge

3. Where would Plato publish today?

4. Why journal impact factors are bad for science

5. Walking the line: the art of interdisciplinary research

6. A modest proposal: to rethink how and why cancer occurs

7. Curiosity, creativity, and aesthetics: The bridges between science and art

8. Essai sur le don: Altrusim in research

9. How to respond to reviewers’ comments

10. Should we guilt-trip the public?

I would love to have some more guest bloggers in 2014. If you have something to say related to research, science or academia in 500-1 000 words then get in touch!