Some sporadic insights into academia.
Science is Fascinating.
Scientists are slightly peculiar.
Here are the views of one of them.

Monday, 14 December 2015

Brace for impact: making the most of your research

This article first appeared on the 18/11/2015 on Times Higher Education 

Given the impending doom of the spending review, academics are becoming more mindful of what is expected of them by their political paymasters. A recurring piece of rhetoric around universities is that research should have “impact”. But what does impact really mean, is it a valid metric and should you be chasing it?

Impact is the new translation

Impact, defined on the Research Councils UK web pages as “positive impact in our society and economy…through knowledge exchange, new products…and so on”, is the potential of the research to make changes in the real world outside the university gates. It is different from “high-impact” papers – another different kind of evil, another gripe, another blog. Making research quantifiable and beneficial is a noble-sounding ideal and much/some/a little (delete as applicable) of the research performed has a clear and quantifiable impact – eventually.

Lost in translation

I have two concerns with using impact as a metric. First, I believe it is difficult, if not impossible, to predict which new avenues of basic research will have the most impact. Second, I believe too great a focus on impact can harm innovation, leading to shorter-term thinking and a narrowing of the horizon. A clinical trial of a drug is clearly closer to impact than understanding the crystal structure of a molecule, but the drug may have been designed based on crystal structures generated decades ago. If we cut the root of research today, we won’t be able to deliver the fruit of clinical trials tomorrow. Think of the laser, green fluorescent protein, the structure of DNA and monoclonal antibodies. All of these were discovered and developed with minimal consideration of impact or their possible industrial applications but now underpin vast industries.

Blue-sky impact

Ideally, we would get rid of impact as a metric altogether. University research labs should be viewed as feeder blue-sky labs. Owing to financial pressures, many companies no longer sustain pure-science basic-research facilities. Universities can fill this gap, playing to the strengths of both partners – academics have time to develop random thoughts; industry has the cash and the experience to see things to market. Yes, that does mean that publicly funded research supports private industry, but since we are told that one of our major functions should be to spark economic growth, this is a good thing.

Past performance equals future impact (maybe)

Sadly, in this age of metrics for everything, vaguely asserting that research has downstream benefits is probably insufficient. So how should impact be measured? I would argue that at an individual level, past performance is an ineffective metric, biasing towards more established groups, when historically disruptive innovation comes from outsiders, new starters and people with less to lose. However, assessing the impact of previous work at an institutional level is effective. Although time-consuming (and costly), the impact studies in the 2014 research excellence framework (REF) did clearly show how universities add value. Institutions with a history of impactful work over a longer time period are, I believe, more likely to deliver it again in the future. In academia, the larger institutions have the reputation to pull in the best thinkers, the resources to support them and the infrastructure to enable researchers to research.

Game it

Sadly, my saying that impact is an inappropriate metric is not going to change the system (although I am happy for Jo Johnson, the minister for universities and science, to prove me wrong). We are stuck with impact and therefore need to play the game by writing awe-inspiring impact statements. In these times of slender research budgets, grants have been won or lost on the perceived quality of the impact. Read the advice on the RCUK pages and get tips from academic mentors. But to take it a step further, be inventive. This is the one part of the grant where you can just make stuff up* – it is hard enough quantifying impact objectively after the work is done, it is impossible to quantify impact before the work is done. So say that your research can cure cancer, cancel Third World debt and fix the ozone layer, because you know what, some of it will.
* This is for comic effect to emphasise a point – I would never make anything up. My work WILL cure the common cold (in the space of a three-year project).

Academic failure: four more ways to deal with it

I had intended to focus on some of the many core skills needed in an academic career: selling your science, the importance of brand and how to collaborate. But I got derailed.
It turns out you can come up with all the carefully phrased advice, witty but apposite anecdotes and strategies for coping with failure. You can think outside the box and look on the bright side, but occasionally the wheels come off.

Twenty-four hours ago, I was sitting at my desk working on the third draft of a grant proposal that I have been tortuously pulling together for many months when I had an unshakeable feeling that “this is unfundable garbage; what am I doing here, my career is in tatters”. I slowly sank into despair.*
That I had recently written upbeat pieces about failure and building resilience, combined with my inability to listen to my own advice, only added to my frustration.
You may wonder why I am sharing this in a blog purportedly about academic career development. Mainly, it is to (re)emphasise a key point: we all struggle with the ups and downs of academic life, and anyone who says they don’t is lying, not trying hard enough...or emeritus.
It is also to emphasise that every glowing opportunity is accompanied by a kick in the bum. Failure is rife and disappointment common.
I also wanted to share what worked for me in order to compress my time in the doldrums and accelerate a return to productivity. The route back up involved support, distraction and time.


There are times when you need to draw on your network of friends, family and colleagues to hold your hand (literally and figuratively), to send you friendly emojis and reassure you that your idea is OK (or at least has salvageable parts). But make sure you are available to return the favour when the positions are reversed.

Step outside the moment

For me, exercise resets the balance. For you it might be music, drawing, playing Grand Theft Auto or cooking. I said this in my last blog but will stress it again, if only for my own benefit: if one aspect of the job gets too much, do something else. Defrost a -80°C freezer, order lab consumables or clean the incubators. Find your stress relief valve and make sure it is accessible at work.
In an attempt to manage myself better, I have now got running kit in a drawer in my office, to be deployed in emergency.


The simplest factor is time: time away from the desk, time to reflect on the good bits and time to refocus.

Lessons learned

The moment passes, there will be bits you can salvage and, if not, you have learned what doesn’t work.
My problem is fear of failure, but you can’t win the lottery unless you buy a ticket, and you can’t get a grant unless you submit a proposal. I’d like to hope that having reflected on the stresses of failing (again) I won’t get into the same state (again). However, I am sure I will – but maybe next time I will be self-aware enough to break out the running shoes earlier.
* Note to my funders and employers: this was unfounded. My grant proposal is amazing. In fact you should fund it without even reading it.
This first appeared on 13/10/2015 on the Times Higher Education

Failure is an option: six ways to deal with it

Are you ready to fail, because as an academic you will, repeatedly.
We all do. Failure is part and parcel of academia. The two repeat offenders are grants and papers and, of the two, grant failure feels more brutal (to me at least). If you are like me, you will take each failure really badly, and it will ruin numerous evenings and weekends (and on one occasion, a child’s birthday party).
To avoid this, it is  important to develop coping strategies, a lot of them grounded in approaches to build mental resilience. Here are six that might help:


I cannot recommend strongly enough the brilliant book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck, Lewis and Virginia Eaton professor of psychology at Stanford University. In brief, don’t take failure as a blow to your self-esteem; look at it as a learning opportunity. There may be a good reason why the grant or paper failed. Don’t think: “stupid reviewers, why don’t they understand me”; do think: “how can I write that better so it makes sense to even the most stupid reviewer”.

There are other opportunities

Failure is very rarely the end of the line. Grants are on a rolling cycle and many applications only get accepted on the 2nd or 3rd submission. That journal you were striving for is probably not as great as you thought, and there are more journals than ever, so your paper will find a home. Convince yourself that impact factor is an artificial construct. Successful academics are determined (bloody minded). Think how many job applications and interviews you had in order to get here and apply that same spirit now you have the job.

It’s nothing personal

Unless you ran off with the reviewer’s partner, killed their grant or ran over their dog, the critique of your work is about your work and not about you. Taking it to heart, memorising key lines and writing “you are an idiot” in red pen on the comments is satisfying but doesn’t get the grant funded. Look at it from the reviewer’s point of view: they have limited time to make decisions on a large number of grants from a range of subjects. Bear in mind that we are all called to be reviewers and through negligence, weakness or our own deliberate fault we sometimes get it wrong.

You’re not unique

Look up the success rate of your grant scheme, then take the inverse – that is how many people you are in company with. More applicants fail than succeed. Find them, commiserate and move on.

What would Alan Sugar say? 

Remember, you are selling, they are buying. You have to make sure the fit is right and the sales pitch correct.

Learn from what goes well

While failure may seem bad, success has its downsides too. You’ve actually got to do the work that sounded so good on paper. You’ve then got to think of bigger and better new ideas. At least if you are unsuccessful, you can recycle the good parts of the application.

Remember, academia is just a job. It may take up all your time, intellectual capacity and emotional energy, but it is still just a job.

Take a step back, do something unrelated – garden, run, swim, paint, sing. Apologise to the child whose birthday you ruined, and then on Monday morning pick up your pen and start again.

This first appeared 19/09/2015 on the Times Higher Education