Researchers need career support more today than ever before

A while since I wrote a blog post. I am currently involved in a project with the OECD Global Science Forum looking into the precarity of research careers and was asked to contribute a piece on career development. The blog has been copied from my LinkedIn profile.

When I completed my PhD ten years ago, I asked myself two big questions: where do I want to be in five years and how do I get there? These are the same questions that post-docs and research staff in the UK face today – and the answers aren’t always clear. There are few research-only careers in UK academia, and securing an academic post is highly competitive. The post-doc stage is ephemeral in nature – almost all post-docs will eventually transition into something new – which is why professional development so important.

Professional development involves developing an individual’s skills, knowledge, experience and aptitudes in order to advance in their career. For researchers in academia, it can encompass a range of activities:

–       formal qualifications, training, mentoring and placements

–       new responsibilities, such as supervision or managing a budget;

–       informal activity – networking, reading more widely or attending conferences, talks and seminars to gain new knowledge or insights.     

As most doctoral graduates and post-docs will not become academics, it is important that they are able to secure jobs in other sectors.

In the UK, the need to support early career researchers has been recognised for some time. Government reviews of STEM and research careers in the 1990s and 2000s highlighted the importance of training and career development for research staff, and in 1996, the representative associations of higher education institutions, the research councils, and the national academies launched a Concordat focusing on the careers of contract research staff. Even back then, it was clear that only a minority of research staff would follow exclusively academic careers, and that they needed better guidance and development to inform future career decisions. Now on its third iteration, the Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers places clear obligations on funders, institutions, research managers and researchers themselves to improve the working conditions and career progression of research staff.

Has support for the professional development of research staff in the UK improved over time? Surveys suggest a steady increase in the demand and uptake of professional development, and that researchers are devoting more time to career. University offices for researcher development are common in the UK, while the organisation Vitae provides national resources such as the Researcher Development Framework, which highlights how researchers’ skills may be applied to other careers. Funders such as UK Research and Innovation expect their grant recipients to embed the Concordat principles into practice: for example, by allowing research staff up to 6 hours a week away from their research projects to build wider expertise relevant for their future career. There are also more opportunities for early career researchers and students to gain professional experience in areas such as entrepreneurship and policy.

But there is still more to be done. A recent report from the Wellcome Trust showed that only a third of staff were offered training or career guidance by their supervisor in the past year. Uptake of training remains low in some cases, while pressure to complete research projects can push professional development and career planning to the side.  Such trends are particularly worrisome amid the COVID-19 crisis, which has fuelled warnings of a “lost generation” unless early career researchers are supported. In such uncertain times, providing researchers with a broad set of professional skills, knowledge and experience becomes increasingly important – not only for their own careers, but for the benefit of the research community as a whole.

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Meanings of RRI: The missing link between theory and practice – Making Science Public

Cross-posting this blog from Making Science Public. This blog post is based on the article I recently co-authored with Sarah Hartley and Warren Pearce, ‘Against the tide of depoliticisation: The politics of research governance’, published open access in Policy & Politics. Thanks to Brigitte Nerlich for letting me post on MSP. …

Source: Meanings of RRI: The missing link between theory and practice – Making Science Public

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They Cam and they went – Tory leadership double haiku

They Cam and they went,
BoJo no go; Fox chased off,
Crabb scuttled away.

Et tu Michael? Yes.
Andrea lead some, too few,
May the last one. Win.

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Moving on: 12 years at Nottingham

Its 12 years since I first arrived at the University of Nottingham as a fresh-faced undergraduate. I didn’t think back then I’d still be here 12 years later, having studied two degrees and worked in a number of  jobs across the university. Now it is time to move on (more on this in a later post perhaps), so I thought I’d look back on my time at Nottingham with a photoblog.

My first home in Nottingham was Willoughby Hall. I was a resident of the ground floor extension (bottom right), which I later found out had an infamous reputation around campus (not of my making, I hasten to add).


Willoughby Hall

Like most of my fellow undergrads, I moved into a house in Lenton, directly underneath the brooding blocks of Lenton flats. When I moved in Sainsbury’s Local was still Jacksons’ and the Dog n Topper (now Tesco’s Express) and Grove pubs (now nothing) were still open.

Will Ave

My house in Lenton

I was fortunate enough to be lectured by a certain Professor Martyn Poliakoff and his 1st year lecture course on Green Chemistry was influential in encouraging me to continue in chemistry after my first degree.

Polfest- Martyn's 60th birthday

Martyn talking at his 60th birthday celebrations- “PolFest” as it was dubbed

After four years, I graduated with an MSci (Hons) in Chemistry, then decided to return to study a PhD with Pete Licence.


The first graduation, MSci (Hons), in 2006

My PhD saw me grapple with pieces of kit a little bit different to what I’d been used to as I learnt a number of techniques in order to study ionic liquids at very low pressures.


The X-ray photoelectron spectrometer I worked on

XPS chamber

A picture of inside, showing the type of sample I was analysing.

From time to time, even the Professor (Rob Jones) was happy to get his hands dirty.

Distil kit

Distilling an ionic liquid (photo courtesy of Kevin Lovelock)

Four years later, I was graduating again.

PhD Grad

The Licence and Jones research groups, July 2010

Although I may lived and worked in one place for over a decade, there were chances to travel, especially to international conferences.


Mount Fuji; Japan, 2007


An Australian salt-water crocodile; Cairns, 2009


The Lincoln Memorial; Washington, 2011

It wasn’t all sight-seeing and tourism, work had to be done too!


At our exhibition stand in EcoChem; Basel, 2013

Beyond research, there were opportunities to do outreach,


At a science schools’ fayre

show an MP around the lab,

Chris Leslie Nick

Chris Leslie MP learns about metal-organic frameworks

and take part in games of tug-o-war.

Chem party tug of war

Chemistry Summer Party, 2014

Outside the lab, I enjoyed relaxing at the cricket,


Nuts the Squirrel, Trent Bridge

walking in the Peak District,

Grindsbrook Clough

Grindsbrook Clough, Edale

and sampling the local music, err, talent.


Surreal Panther, who we stumbled upon in the Canal House one evening

In case of a late night thirst, there was always one establishment that could be relied upon,

Bar Schnapps

although the University itself is well equipped for those seeking refreshment.


Local news crew films footage at the student union bar, Mooch

There were sporting successes


Inorganic Cricket XI win the post-grad league, 2013

and failures;

Broken tennis bat

some bad times

Chemlab fire

New “Carbon Neutral Laboratory” catches fire, September 2014

but plenty of times to celebrate.

Colloquia celebration

Celebrating after winning the “Barker Prize” for best final year PhD colloquium, 2009

So thanks to the city of Robin Hood

Robin Hood

The Robin Hood statue, Nottingham “Light Night”

and to all those I’ve met, worked with and befriended there over the years.

ensemble photo

Top row (l –> r): outside Willoughby Hall, 2003; Emma PhD graduation 2014; my graduation 2006. Middle row (l –> r): watching PolFest, 2007; the BPU team, early 2014; Larping in Derbyshire, 2011; a night out in Nottingham 2009. Bottom row (l –> r): in the caves under the Old Salutation, 2013; Pete in his robes, 2009; posing in the Peak District, 2005.

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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


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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