Researchers can thrive whilst combining their career with life outside the lab, says Ottoline Leyser.
Guest contributor Ottoline Leyser.
Science needs diversity. Solving complex problems is more likely if there are diverse people, bringing diverse perspectives and diverse skills to bear on them. The imaginative and interesting people science needs find inspiration in the most unexpected places – both inside and outside the lab; in their personal and family lives and their other responsibilities and commitments.
Working environments that embrace diversity are exciting and creative. They can also be challenging and uncomfortable. While it may be reassuring to work with people who agree with you all day long, you’re much less likely to come up with anything new. It’s unfortunate that such a large part of science is done by a homogenous group of people who all look like each other. This state of affairs is maintained in part by the positive feedback that comes from unconscious bias, where appointments and promotion committees disproportionately select people similar to themselves.
This problem has been recognised for a long time, particularly in the context of gender diversity, but it is complicated. In the physical sciences, the major problem is getting a wider range of people in at undergraduate level. For the life sciences it is keeping a wider range of people in the subject beyond post-doctoral level. The choices people make at all career stages are influenced by many different factors, but one, as highlighted in a recent report for WISE, is their perception that particular roles are not for people like them. This further encourages positive feedback.
Many of the visitors to Naturejobs will be at the point of deciding whether to stay on an academic career path, or move into any one of a wide range of science or research-related roles, or to do something altogether unrelated. I have spoken with many people considering this over the years. It’s a difficult one, precisely because there are so many attractive options. However, many people seem to make their choice for negative rather than positive reasons. A career in academic science looks too insecure, too competitive, and too focused on narrow criteria for success. There’s the perception that you have to work long hours, know the right people and work on a fashionable topic.
In short, talented and imaginative people who were motivated to train in research because it is exciting and fulfilling are opting for other careers because a long-term career in research science looks unattractive. That leaves research science with people who like competition, long hours, and growing their h-index. I, for one, am very keen to break these feedback cycles.
In 2008 I put together a booklet, funded by a Royal Society Rosalind Franklin Award, called Mothers in Science, 64 ways to have it all. The idea was to illustrate that it was perfectly possible to combine a career in research with family life. That’s not to say that it’s easy, but it is certainly possible. Now, 8 years later, the Royal Society has produced an updated version of the book expanding the remit, entitled Parent, carer, scientist. The book is a celebration of diversity in science, with the same central goal of illustrating how scientists have knitted together the various strands of their complex and fulfilling lives. The book and accompanying web material is full of inspirational stories. Almost everyone will be able to find someone like them in the collection, because science is for everyone.
Ottoline Leyser FRS is professor of plant development and director of the Sainsbury Laboratory at Cambridge University. Her research uses the control of shoot branching in Arabidopsis as a model system to understand the role of plant hormones in developmental plasticity.
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