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Postdocs of Cambridge Society

Welcome to the Postdocs of Cambridge Society Blog!

This blog features highlights and information from the PdOC society and it's members, from postdoc representation in University committees, to providing social activities and networking events.

Blog Posts:

The Royal Society Conference Attendee Report: "Research Culture: Changing Expectations"

The Royal Society Conference Attendee Report:

"Research Culture: Changing Expectations"

 

“Research Culture: Changing Expectations” is a conference that crowns the Royal Society's two year programme on research culture. It stimulated kinetic conversations and debates around researcher development and career progression, research assessment and dissemination, as well as research integrity and inclusion. It aims to start a dialogue for sharing and building on best practice across the sector, and find ways to create a thriving cultural environment for research and researchers.

Across two days attendees explored how individuals can catalyse change in the academic system and its current norms. I was there as an astrophysicist, science communicator, gender equality advocate and Representation & Policy Officer at PdOC. Here are some highlights.

The first plenary talk was Changing research culture by Dame Julia Slingo, who started with the definition of research as being a creative systematic process that aims to increase the stock of knowledge of humans, culture and society, and the use of that knowledge to devise new applications. She was behind the MET office Science Profession Continuing Professional Development handbook which highlights important aspects such as internal and external secondments, mentoring and progression, personal learning and development, as well as diversity and inclusion. She highlighted the importance of accounting for the time off carers take and the tough decisions women face which may affect their career progression. According to Slingo, it’s important to have sympathetic and flexible work styles, and promotion must be merit-based but assessment of merit should take into account personal circumstances. She emphasised the importance of providing creative, innovative and flexible working environments that encourage collaboration and partnerships. She also emphasised supporting the parent, scientist and carer, enabling mobility and cross-disciplinary thinking as well as recognising and championing diversity.

This was followed by a panel discussion on “What are the key features of a future ideal research culture?” which presented “revolutionary” solutions.

Richard Massey from University of Durham started by mentioning the lack of a universal definition for “Early-Career researcher”. He believes that because ECRs do most of the research work, any research culture should value these postdocs and encourage them to take risks and think radically. They should be given space and time for creative ideas. It was mentioned how applying for jobs every six months is counter-creative.

Louise Heathwaite emphasised the importance of fostering an interdisciplinary research culture that allows investing in risky ventures. She also highlighted the disconnect between scientists and civil-servants and the good model Cambridge Centre Science and Policy CSAP presents as an immersive route for exposing policymakers to science.

Adam Rutherford, a BBC Broadcaster and scientific writer, called for doubling the GDP spending on science. He also called to end journal publishing and thinks that commercial journals ineffectively curate research. He advocated interdisciplinarity, science communication and the social role of scientists.

Eugenia Cheng, a Scientist in Residence at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, capitalised on the importance of inclusivity and creating a welcoming culture. She strongly believes in removing competition, focusing on collaboration and science communication, and removing the dichotomy between scientists and teachers. She questions the need to validate our research  by putting a stamp of “grown-up” journals on it.

Then Susan Wessler, Home Secretary at the National Academy of Science highlighted the importance of diversifying the faculty and student body. She discussed her work on the Dynamic Genome Program at UC Riverside. The programme involves young students in authentic research projects early on through intensive lab experiments that attempt to answer a question. Her experience shows that by doing live research, undergrads learn how the facts thay read in textbooks came to be, and more students stay in biology and science in general in grad school (and even later).

A series of lightening talks were then presented on open science (open data, open source, open protocol, open access) which improves scrutiny and transparency. Raising the visibility of women in science and the value of teamwork were also highlighted as key principles.

Sir Mark Walport, Chief Executive at UK Research and Innovation, capitalised  in his plenary talk that research culture is a fundamental issue for the UK research and innovation. He is of the opinion that the current hyper-competitive environment, the pressure to publish in prestige journals, and the current rewards system are all geared towards individuals rather than teams. He also highlighted the insufficient focus on breadth of talent and diversity and the need for a system to tackle that.
 
This was followed by another panel session on the role attitudes and beliefs of individuals play in a research culture. Robert-Jan Smits from Open Access Envoy of the European Commission talked about the current drivers of change being big data, the technologies to mine the data, growth of research communities, and the increasing societal demand for better communication and higher accountability. He emphasised the need to provide full immediate access to open science, getting rid of our obsession with impact factor, involving the citizen in setting the research agenda, providing financial incentives to drive change and break through established cultures.

Jenny Rohn, University College London, talked about the pyramid scheme of academic research with PhD students feeding its base, then postdocs trying to find their way up, then professors on the top. She presented statistics that 80% of postdocs want permanent positions but only 3-10% actually get them. She thinks this presents a need to find alternative job options. She also called for more transparency, engagement and openness.

Andrea Brand from Cambridge University pondered the narrow idea of success in our culture and the stereotypical image of what a successful scientist looks like in the public eye. She called to remove science from behind paywalls and reward scientists for teaching not just publishing. Tom McLeish, University of York, shares the sentiment and thinks that the detachment of the public from scientific research is unfortunate because of shutting science behind laboratory doors.

Margaret Heffernan, entrepreneur, Chief Executive and author then gave a talk on how a sink-or-swim culture fosters perverse outcomes. She thinks that high achieving teams are those that score high on empathy and connectedness, are diverse and have more women (probably because those score more highly on the empathy quotient). She thinks this motivates us to get to know each other as human beings and work collaboratively. She called for making science a social activity not just an intellectual activity that is characterised by generosity, reciprocity and respect. This would create a culture of hopefulness for high creativity and innovation.

The conference included working groups on what changes individuals can make to improve the research culture. We drew on positive examples from industry such as team work and the existing structure of 360 degree evaluation which assesses the personality of applicants not just their academic kudos. Others suggested that collaborations should grow organically rather than be forced so they can add value. Other group members think that reducing PhDs is not an ideal option as the PhD period provides training and essential transferable skills that are valuable to society. Some called for severe sanctions against bullies.

The conference also featured a pitching competition as part of their 'Improving Research Culture'. Alex Freeman won both the public vote and the judges' for her idea “Octopus”, a free open publication platform for all scientific research.

Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society, shared what he thought of the proposed ideas, some being worthy, some are well-intentioned, others are idealistic. He thinks that the individual spark of creativity is still important, and competition and collaboration should both exist. He emphasised that journals should be used as form of validation and getting kudos not as a definition of success. He mentioned that recommendations present a power differential that gives rise to unchecked bullying, and thus we need more accountability and transparent reporting. He also thinks that “money talks” and so funders can influence policy. We can act against bullying and other types misconduct by requesting certain structures to be in place at the institutes they fund (Wellcome Trust being one such example).

The event provided a creative space for innovative and consolidated thinking across the breadth and depth of the UK research community. We hope this PdOC report documents to some extent the insights, aspirations and challenges collected across the two days. It can hopefully also serve as a record of some of the current challenges and concerns, areas where agility and urgent change are needed, and some emerging ideas about how we can catalyse this change in our own institutions across the UK.

 


Dr. Ghina Halabi is an astrophysicist, science communicator and gender equality advocate at the Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge. She is a Junior Research Fellow of Wolfson College and currently serves as University Representation & Policy Officer at the Postdocs of Cambridge Society (PdOC). She acknowledges the support from Wolfson College to attend the conference.
www.ghina.co.uk
@Dr_GhinaHalabi

Disclaimer: This is a non-partisan report of the proceedings of the conference. The views expressed are those of the attendees and not necessarily endorsed by PdOC or any college or institution the author is part of.


 

PdOC Report on Visa/NHS Costs for Non-EU Postdocs

PdOC Report on Visa / NHS Costs for Non-EU Postdocs

 

A major concern for the PdOC society and its members is the high cost of visa and NHS expenses for non-EU postdocs who are offered jobs at the University of Cambridge. These expenses add to the pressure of the job and of moving to a new country at a period that usually coincides with the time when they are hoping to settle down, take out a mortgage or start a family.

 

The aim of this initiative is to provide a quantitative assessment of the size of the problem and its implications, to help the University develop an evidence-based policy to alleviate this pressing financial burden, and therefore sustain its attractiveness to outstanding researchers internationally. This report sheds light on this major issue by providing figures and facts related to these expenses, the financial and social situation of the concerned postdocs, including their backgrounds, funding agencies and departments.

 

In order to collect data, postdocs from departments and institutes across the University were surveyed. We asked about the visa/NHS expenses they incurred, the frequency of these expenses, whether the costs were reimbursed and their number of dependents. Seventy postdocs filled the survey. They come from diverse geographical backgrounds and are distributed across the various University departments and partner institutions. They are funded by a wide range of agencies and have different situations with regards to their personal life (single, with partners, with dependants, etc).

 

Two forms of data were collected:

  •  Quantitative data include citizenship, departments, funding agencies, expenses, their frequency and number of dependents.
  • Qualitative data include implications of such expenses on their decision-making regarding jobs offers, and how this affects their general well-being.

 

Clear evidence is presented, collected from a substantial sample size of 70 postdocs across departments and University partner institutions, that these expenses are a financial burden affecting early-career researchers, their families (34% have at least 1 dependant) and their well-being. This also has implications on their efficacy, research potential and professional decisions as we find that almost 50% of the postdocs consider it a factor in accepting a job offer. In fact, given the current situation regarding Brexit, the impact of this analysis may go beyond non-EU postdocs.

 

The importance of addressing this issue and implementing a unified university-wide policy that supports early-career researchers by alleviating these expenses, as well as the associated financial and social burdens, is emphasized. We note that this should not only have a positive effect on postdocs’ individual performance, but should also contribute to the continuous improvement of research excellence that characterizes this university.

 

The report concludes with a set of recommendations.

 

The full report can be downloaded from here.

 

A huge thank you to all those postdocs who took part in the survey!

 

Please let us know any comments by emailing membership @ pdoc.cam.ac.uk

 Ghina Halabi & Matias Acosta, University Representation & Policy Officers at PdOC

 



 

PdOC Report on the Postdoc Experience for the Vice-Chancellor

PdOC Report on the Postdoc Experience for the Vice-Chancellor

 

In November 2016 the PdOC President and Vice-President met with the Vice-Chancellor of the University, Prof Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, to talk about the situation for postdocs. We were asked to write a briefing paper that described the current experience of being a postdoc in Cambridge, similar to a paper that PdOC had written for the VC in 2012.

 

To inform the report we gathered information from postdocs using a survey with open-ended questions on "Arriving and settling in", "Career development", and "Life as researcher in Cambridge". The survey was disseminated primarily through our newsletter in February 2017 and it received over 60 responses from across the University.

 

We analysed the responses and identified several themes that are described and presented in the report with anonymised quotes from the participants. These were the conclusions:

 

"Postdoctoral researchers place immense value on being a part of the University of Cambridge, and endeavour to make the most of their time here knowing that it will likely only be for a limited period. There are challenges specific to Cambridge such as housing costs, college affiliations and access to independent funding. Researchers can feel invisible amongst the wider Cambridge community, but are aware and appreciate that the University is strongly committed to its postdocs and is taking steps to improve matters for research staff at Cambridge."

 

The report was delivered to the Vice-Chancellor in March 2017, and you can read it here.

 

A huge thank you to all those postdocs who took part in the online survey!

 

Please let us know any comments by emailing contact @ pdoc.cam.ac.uk.

Adina L. Feldman, President of the PdOC Society.

 



 

Focus on the North West Cambridge Development - Postdoc Accommodation Update

Focus on the North West Cambridge Development - Postdoc Accommodation Update

 

As construction work on the University's North West Cambridge Development continues, and an initial release of University 'Key Worker' accommodation is expected in July 2017, this blog post takes a closer look at how the North West Cambridge Development is progressing and what accommodation is available to postdocs.

 

The North West Cambridge Development

The construction of the North West Cambridge Development is divided into 8 distinct 'phases', as outlined in the site-wide phasing plan. Phase 1, which is currently underway, is concerned with the development of the initial site infrastructure and the construction of mixed use community facilities and accommodation. The final layout of the North West Cambridge site, following the completion of phase 8 can be found here.

 

The local centre at the heart of this development, named 'Eddington' after University Alumnus Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, includes the University of Cambridge Primary School (which opened in September 2015), the new Postdoc Centre (available for room bookings by postdocs from October 2017), a community centre, nursery, doctors’ surgery, supermarket, retail units, hotel, as well as sports pitches and public green space.

 

Postdoc Accommodation:

As part of phase one, 700 'key worker' homes are being developed for rent at a subsidized rate. These homes are the first instalment of a planned 1500 homes for University and College staff being developed on the North West Cambridge Development, in addition to 375 post-graduate homes and 450 market homes.

The 700 'key worker' homes, with discounted rent, are available for postdocs and other University and College staff that are eligible and who qualify for the subsidized rent. The monthly rent charge will not exceed the market value of the properties, which is currently based at £1000 for a 1-bedroom and £1250 for a 2-bedroom apartment.

 

For more information:

  • Further information on key worker eligibility and discounted accommodation is available here.
  • A clear guide to applying for accommodation on the North West Cambridge site, including eligibility, prioritisation and the application process, is available on the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs (OPdA) website, here.
  • Applications are made through the University Accommodation Service website.
  • Frequently asked questions about the North West Cambridge Accommodation can be found here.

 

The accommodation available to rent by postdocs includes one bedroom apartments, for single people or couples. These consist of one double bedroom, an open plan dining/living room, and a bathroom. Two bedroom apartments are also available. These consist of one double bedroom, one single bedroom, an open plan dining/living room, and a bathroom. These are intended for couples and families with up to one child only.

 

What is the Accommodation Likely to Look Like?

To give potential tenants an idea of what the new accommodation will look like, photographs have been released of the exterior of the accommodation within Eddington. In addition, interior photographs have been released from a dummy arrangement of a typical apartment in one of the first lots of properties that are due to be ready in July (lot 8).

 

The location of lot 8 within Eddington and the North West Cambridge Development is shown in the picture on the right. For reference, the current Madingley Park & Ride is shown at the bottom of the picture, the M11 is shown on the left and Huntingdon Road runs along the top of the picture. Eddington is approximately a ten minute cycle ride from the city centre. An explanation of how the site facilities are divided into the 'lots' shown in this picture is available here.

 

 

 

Accommodation Photographs:

 

External views of the lot 8 accommodation:

 

 

Internal views showing the open plan dining/living room and the utility room:

 

The double and single bedrooms:

 

Finally, the bathroom:

 

For further information, contact the University Accommodation Service.

 


Text by Paul Bennett.

Pictures courtesy of Ruth Mann - Area Housing Manager (NW Cambridge) & http://www.nwcambridge.co.uk/


 

The Future of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) – UKRSA Consultation Response

 The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is the evaluation with which the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) assesses quality of research institutions and the results of the REF inform government funding allocation in higher education. Many people will remember the previous REF to which UK Universities made their submissions at the end of 2013 and which was published in December 2014. Briefly, each institution is broken down into Units of Assessment (UOA) which may be departments or faculties, etc. Each UOA then submits a list of their employed researchers and a number of outputs (most often published peer-reviewed papers) for each researcher which are then assessed for quality by an independent panel. There are also measures for impact and environment.

In 2016 an independent review of the REF conducted by Lord Stern was published. There were several recommendations for changes to future REFs proposed, including changes to the definition of research active staff and that outputs would not be portable when researchers move to a new institution. As a follow-up to this review, HEFCE conducted a public consultation of the recommendations proposed to which the UK Research Staff Association (UKRSA) submitted a response. To inform the UKRSA consultation response a survey was sent out to research staff across the UK, disseminated through the UKRSA network of regional representatives (see PdOC newsletter, 15th February 2017). The survey received 50 responses.

The UKRSA consultation response focused on recommendations that were most relevant to research staff, the full response can be read here. We expressed our concern that the recommendations would lead to early career researchers being reclassified into non-research active staff categories which are not REF returnable with potentially detrimental consequences for job security and career development. There was also concern about the proposed inclusion of a measure of independence in the definition of research active staff as this is very hard to capture and again may unfairly impact research staff. While it is widely acknowledged that the fact that outputs were portable in the previous REF led to an unintentional hiring window in the two years before submission that allowed research institutions to “game” the system by recruiting successful researchers who brought their outputs with them, it is not clear that non-portability of outputs is the answer. It was considered that this proposal could potentially have a negative impact on, one hand the mobility for research staff within the research sector, and on the other hand the opportunities to build a career at a research institution while on a fixed-term contract. Furthermore, it is often challenging to attribute outputs to institutions in a straight-forward way. We included proposals about exceptions for research staff and weighted double counting of outputs as possible ways to mitigate the impact of non-portability of outputs.

The next REF is planned for 2021 and we now wait to see how the recommendations from the Stern Review and the consultation responses will be implemented.

Dr Adina L. Feldman, PdOC Society President, on behalf of the UKRSA committee


Text: Dr Adina Feldman (PdOC President)