A green chemist’s interest in responsible research and innovation

In the past few months, I have been involved in a project on responsible research and innovation (RRI). What is RRI? Well, it’s concerned with the “nature and trajectory of new technologies and fields of enquiry” and asks at a fundamental level what research can do for society and who gets to make those decisions. These questions have been formulated into a framework (a freely accessible version is available at the EPSRC website) which obliges researchers to be anticipatory, reflective, inclusive and responsive about their research. RRI is already on the agenda of policy-makers and funders in the UK and the European Union, which means researchers “on the ground” need to start considering the implications it has for their work.

When I was asked to be involved in a project on RRI, I had only read a little about the topic and my understanding was hazy. (I won’t go into more details about the research project I am involved but a summary is available here).  As readers of my blog will be aware, I have a background in “green chemistry” and I immediately felt there were some similarities between the two philosophies.

RRI takes a holistic approach, asking researchers to anticipate the potential impacts of a new technology or innovation and to reflect upon their motivations. This was something I immediately recognised. Green chemistry has been called chemistry that is “benign by design”, and anticipating potential risks or problems should start before the first experiment. Studying green chemistry certainly gave me the tools to consider some of the wider implications of the research I was carrying out, but can it go further?

Green chemistry is narrower in its scope than RRI, unsurprisingly focusing on the chemical industry only. It was developed by chemists themselves to respond to the problems they perceived to exist within their own field (whereas RRI has grown out of the social science discipline “science and technology studies”). Like many fields of sustainability, green chemistry seeks to balance the often conflicting demands of the environment, society and economics.  Who represents these three groupings in green chemistry is where adopting an RRI philosophy could have its biggest influence on the field.

One of the key drivers for RRI is a desire to engage publics with scientific decision making as early as possible in the emergence of a new technical field. The promise of RRI is that by doing so, it will lead to more socially desirable outcomes and by allowing the public to shape the direction of research it will prevent downstream controversies and opposition. In contrast, green chemistry is focused on technical development and the input of the public remains limited, despite intentions to benefit society as a whole. This attitude is reflected in green chemistry’s twelve guiding principles and the limited range of stakeholders engaged (industry, regulators, policy-makers). This is not to say that green chemistry is ignorant of public attitudes; after all, it emerged as a response to the concerns of the environmental movement. However, the types of engagement and inclusiveness expected by RRI are outside the scope of the green chemistry movement. This needn’t be the case- sustainability places responsibility on everyone, from researchers to the public “end-users”. Green chemists can’t assume that it is only they alone who can assume the role of responsible guardians.

This situation might be about to change. Green chemistry is increasingly coming into contact with research fields where conflicts and controversies exist, e.g. the use of synthetic biology/genetic modification of organisms to synthesise chemicals, 3D printing, nanotechnology and carbon capture and storage. Funders such as the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme are already demanding that RRI approaches are embedded into research areas like synthetic biology and nanotechnology. As world-leading chemistry professor Peter Wassercheid proclaimed in 2013, green chemists must broaden their frame of reference and not just limit their influence to the traditional chemical industries.

There are already attempts to engage green chemistry with a broader range of disciplines and stakeholders. One of the best examples I have heard about was the Green Product Design Network at the University of Oregon, which integrated green chemistry teaching into courses on architectural design, business and journalism. Where exposure to different kinds of thinking is reciprocated between chemists and other students, the exchange of ideas built new problem solving tools. With the scheme being extended to local business, community and policy leaders, it is this type of approach that can allow green chemistry to expand its narrow industrial-scientific focus.

The new Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in Sustainable Chemistry at the University of Nottingham will provide an interesting opportunity to see if RRI and green chemistry do indeed complement each other. Graduate students enrolled in the CDT will take a broad range of taught courses alongside their research, including on RRI. As RRI goes deeper and broader than green chemistry, young green chemists will have to consider the wider social and political issues related to their work, not just how to transfer into the commercial sphere. They will need to think about engaging with and listening to new stakeholders, proactively seeking other viewpoints and bring them into the process of technology development and innovation.

The dichotomy of chemistry is that while it provides the materials basis for our modern lifestyle, it will forever be associated with acute risks to the environment and people’s health. We chemists often bemoan the the public perception of our discipline, but to avoid the controversies of the past we must try to anticipate the outcomes of our work and continually reflect on why we are doing what we are doing. Green chemistry can and will improve the chemical industry, but in my opinion there is still a lot more to be done. Adopting some of RRI’s framework might be a good place to start.

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Power to the post-doc: the role of Research Staff Associations

Post-doc life can be a strange existence. Tied to short, fixed-term contracts and those with academic ambitions expected to move from place-to-place, post-docs are by very nature a transitory species. For those who are happy to shoulder the uncertainty in employment, it can be an exciting opportunity to travel and broaden one’s research expertise. For others, including myself, it has always felt like an imperfect career path that can, and does, discourage many talented individuals from remaining in research.

Within an academic department, post-docs come and go: only a small number stick around for more than a couple of years. As a result, they can be something of an invisible group of employees who have little say in the running of the departments and institutions they work for. Falling between post-grads, who still have access to all the offers, opportunities and organisations available to students, and full-time academic staff, post-docs are left with little representation and support.  They are expected to get their heads down and get on with it.

Things are changing, though. When I started my first post-doc position in 2010, the department I was working in had just created its first “post-doc forum”.  Its aims were, and are, to improve communication between senior management and research staff, give post-docs a chance to ask questions and air complaints and to provide opportunities for professional development and socialising. I went on to chair the forum for a few months towards the end of my post-doc and have worked with it in other roles over the past two years.

As my involvement in the post-doc forum grew I became more aware of other such organisations across the University of Nottingham and elsewhere. Known as Research Staff Associations (RSAs), these committees vary in size and exist everywhere from small departments through to University and national, even international, level. Some are structured formally and have enough authority to influence management and policy-makers, while others are looser, less formal and focus on organising social and career events. Whatever their structure or aims, all try and support post-docs through this potentially tricky period of their career.

Sounds great, but what has the Post-Doc Forum actually done?

I was recently asked by the University’s RSA to write a short summary of our post-doc forum’s activities and successes. When I thought back and did a bit of research, I was surprised to find it was actually quite a lot.

Typically RSAs will only have limited power to influence change, but that doesn’t mean they can’t make small but important contributions. For example, our forum has been responsible for helping write induction packages for new staff and suggesting improvements to performance review processes. The chairs have been able to represent post-doc staff on management meetings, while senior academics regularly attend forum meetings to communicate policies and decisions that directly affect researchers.

As a dedicated entity to support the post-doc community within the School, the Forum is able to organise events that educate and inform. Career support is often limited or hard to find for research staff and tends to narrowly focus on academic careers only (even if the data suggests only a small percentage will stay on that path).  To counter this, the Forum has helped organise career events and disseminate information on opportunities, such as fellowship schemes. It also helps post-docs get their heads out of their fumehoods and network with each other through social events and “coffee mornings.”

As a now established part of the School, the forum is beginning to gain more respect from academic staff. One of the chairs was an integral part of our recent AthenaSWAN self-assessment team and the Forum is often called up to help organise or promote major events.  

Are they really needed? Apathy and antipathy      

Several years ago, Vitae wrote a guide to research staff associations, outlining their benefits and the challenges that chairs and organisers faced. Apathy is a perennial problem. At a Vitae meeting I attended, one post-doc moaned that only seven colleagues turned up to the first meeting of her RSA, to which others replied “Wow! Seven? We’re lucky if we get four!” Apathy is understandable. The aforementioned transitory nature of post-doc life means that many just won’t have the time or interest to engage in an RSA. Others may see them as mere talking shops with little power to change things, or even question why they need a representative association. RSAs can be viewed negatively by academic staff that don’t see the point of their existence and would rather their researchers spend their time doing the research they’re paid for. There is also a feeling that RSAs are running against the hierarchy of academic life.

As I’ve outlined, however, there are benefits to RSAs, both for the post-doc community and the Chairs themselves, who can gain important professional experience. It is very possible that they will grow in number, particularly as UK universities going through the Athena SWAN process wish to improve the working culture in their departments. They shouldn’t, however, just be an instrumental means to an end for management. The best RSAs will be those that grow from the ground up and sustain themselves through the involvement of committed chairs and members.

If anyone wishes to share their experiences of organising an RSA or are interested in setting one up and want more information, please respond below. 

N.B. RSAs do not always just represent post-doctoral researchers but other staff who work in a research-only capacity, including on permanent contracts.

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Carbon Neutral Laboratory: fire update

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View of the University of Nottingham’s Carbon Neutral Laboratory construction site, early June 2014.

Over the past year I written several posts here and on other sites about our new Carbon Neutral Laboratory (CNL), which was due to open in mid-2015. As many of you may be aware, a dramatic fire at the construction site on Friday, 12th September destroyed most of the building.  The fire started about 8.30pm that evening and soon spread to consume the whole building; by the next morning little of the structure was left. Nottingham Fire and Rescue, who did a sterling job of managing the blaze and keeping everyone safe, reported that the fire was one of the largest they’ve had to deal with in recent years. I could see the glow from my own bedroom window 5 miles away.
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Has the Square been Circled?

Last week, I was at the “Circling the Square” conference organised by the University of Nottingham’s Science, Technology and Society research group.  The meeting’s purpose was to bring together and start a dialogue between natural and social scientists, policy makers, science communicators and the media and public.

Did it help bridge the gap between these at times disparate communities? Perhaps not as much as hoped, but if the debates during the sessions and subsequent blogs were anything to go by, it did start (or at least reinvigorate) dialogue.  The metaphor of circling a square may have been intended to imply smoothing relationships, but at this stage it might be better applied to simply drawing a ring around the issues. We are probably still some way from resolving them.
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The peril of the press release

In a famous piece of media analysis, the average length of a soundbite in a US presidential election was found to have collapsed from 43 seconds in 1968 to just nine by 1988. Although the discovery led to plenty of head-scratching and fears about the “dumbing down” of political discourse, in the end it changed very little.

After the first day of the Circling the Square conference, it would be easy to conclude that the communication of science by the media is heading in the same direction.
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Sustainable chemistry thriving at the University of Nottingham

This post is a copy of a press release I wrote for a recent event on green and sustainable chemistry held at The University of Nottingham in April 2014. 

Researchers from across the University of Nottingham came together to talk about how their research could lead to the greener and more sustainable production of chemicals and materials.
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20p for every pound: the value of the UK’s science base

Where’s the evidence? A common challenge laid down by scientists and skeptics to politicians who open their mouths and proclaim the latest ill thought out policy.

But the same challenge can also be made to those of us in the science community who call on the government to increase research funding because of our belief that it is critical for the economy. Aware of the need to back up claims with hard evidence, the Campaign for Science & Engineering (CaSE) and several learned societies have commissioned a report to investigate what economic benefits research funding leads to.
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Inverting the hierarchy? Blogging and social media in academia

Academic blogging has snowballed over the past few years and huge numbers of researchers from across all disciplines are now writing about their experiences online. The reasons for doing it are many, and the potential benefits overwhelming. Blogging obviously provides a great opportunity to engage in two-way communications about your work with new groups, from your community of peers to the wider public.  On a more personal level, writing online allows you to grow your professional network, hone your communication skills and raise your profile.
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Our Broken Science Career Path: Something Needs to Change

The career path for scientists and engineers in UK academia is broken.  But we knew that already. The recent House of Commons’ Science and Technology Committee’s report on women in STEMM careers (science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine) is just the latest to find issue with the structure of research careers.
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Screwing the Planet

My second article on Medium’s Futures Exchange collection looks at how sustainable our sex lives are. An excerpt is below with the full article here.

But sex isn’t just about making babies; there’s also a fun side. The sexual revolution of the 1960s has given rise to a rapidly expanding sex industry, worth $15 billion globally, which aims to satiate all our carnal needs. From latex to lube, this industry supplies a wide and diverse range of products to help spice things up in the bedroom. Like all chemicals, how these products are manufactured, used and disposed of will have an effect on the environment. As a chemist myself, I’m not suggesting we start to worry about the planet mid-coitus — I certainly don’t (honest!) — but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a growing awareness of some environmental issues associated with our modern sex lives.

Thanks to Frank Swain (@sciencepunk) for his help cleaning up my writing and publishing the article on his collection.

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