Saturday, 6 February 2016

Committees: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly



(Reflections on a life in science: #7 making things work – discussion, consensus and decision?)

Being a member of a small body of people who have been ‘set aside’ to consider a themed set of issues on behalf of the wider group is ubiquitous in professional life, and beyond. If they are established and then led well, and comprise people of outgoing vision, they can be invaluable. I have been involved in more committees, working parties, advisory bodies, consultative groups, etc. than I would now have any hope of enumerating. To the best of my recollection, this activity began whilst a teenager at school (e.g. helping the local manifestation of BAYS – the British Association of Young Scientists, which no longer exists; a contemporary manifestation may be found here however). In the four decades that followed, there has been next-to-no period of time in which I haven’t been involved in this sort of activity in one guise or another. In my circle of academic colleagues I think it is true to say that I have had at least as wide a set of experiences as anyone, more than most. On the basis of these experiences I feel entitled to state, emphatically, that all committees are most decidedly not ‘equal’.

As an undergraduate in the ’70s I found myself responsible, as secretary to the student Physics Society, for identifying, inviting and hosting visiting speakers – which was a lot of fun as I not only got a ‘free’ dinner once a month but also got to eat it in the company of some of the big names of the day. This was, I suppose, an early example of being able to take enjoyment from the work: this still seems to me to be an entirely laudable approach since everyone tends to benefit more in the longer term. Similarly, as a postgraduate research student I discovered another benefit of getting involved in decision-making bodies – this time as the representative of my peers on the committee that oversaw space and other infrastructure allocations (called the House Committee for reasons I never did fully understand): it provided a vehicle for learning in detail about how the place ‘ticked’. These two early lessons have coloured my subsequent approach to committee involvement: if possible, learn and have fun.

This is inserted simply to raise a smile, hopefully, before I spend a paragraph on the bad and the ugly.

Sadly, in the intervening period, I have also been obliged to join bodies which, although bearing the same title, caused a great deal of frustration, even anger, and stress as they wallowed ineffectually through swamps often of their own making. Perhaps one might call these ill-formed creatures the ugly face of committees, in which a lack of cogently defined purpose or terms-of-reference – or an unwillingness to adhere to them – leads to … well, to nowhere of much significance. (See here for a chuckle – just to lighten the mood a little.) These bodies are a ‘black hole’ for time and energy and are best avoided if one’s not willing and able to help to sort them out; oftentimes the only practicable way forward is to disband the committee altogether and take stock of whether a replacement is truly needed. I’ve also had to suffer my share of committees which have been chaired either by ‘tyrants’ or by those unwilling or unable to curb other members who themselves behave like tyrants or bullies. These are the bad ones, in which, for instance, it’s often hard for early-career people to have a voice or to grow in their professionalism; prejudice of various forms will often lurk in its undergrowth (e.g. the sort of sexist comments noted in an earlier post, here). I still remember keenly an occasion early in my career when a chair had, in essence, cynically set me up in order to ‘draw fire’ so that he could step in as the apparent hero of the hour; I didn’t fall for that one again. Committees which are over-powered by a small number of dominant self-serving people are best avoided if one has the choice – or, better, if one is strong or determined enough, the intimidation might be reformed or its effects mitigated through measured challenge. I make no claims to be a perfect committee chair, or indeed committee member, but I can honestly say that I regard it as important that we all try to learn, not only from our mistakes but also from those we perceive arising from others. My impression, for what it’s worth, is that things are not as ugly or bad as they used to be in these regards – perhaps people are indeed trying to learn from the mistakes of a more deferential and hierarchical past. Having said that, it’s clear to me that analogues of these problems do still exist; they are visible to those who have eyes to see.

However, I would much rather focus on the good. Thankfully, there’s a lot of it about. I have often been able to meet and to work alongside talented and creative people, the chance to learn, and the promise of being able to make a positive contribution to the wider good. The irony is that the latter benefit is often paired with the need to share in the burden of making difficult decisions that will inevitably upset some, even as the community as a whole hopefully gains. The ‘higher’ the committee, the more potential for professional reward and the more likely it is that someone will be upset. Without question, the pinnacle for me – in both senses – has been the work undertaken for the UK’s Research Councils and the facilities they are responsible for. I have written before about the neutron and x-ray research facilities that have played such a major role in my working life (see here, here and here for example) and it has been a privilege to contribute to their development. Although my principal contribution has been through the science published from results obtained through them, I have also contributed directly to their capabilities and their management. The former arose from the often leading roles I played in the provision of new instrumentation – about which I hope to write at some time in the future – and the latter, of more relevance to this post, through one committee or another. Whether through the tactical committees/panels that decide which of the many high-quality bids from research groups for access are successful, or via committees that seek to provide more strategic science-focused advice to facility managers, these activities have definitely ticked all three of the ‘boxes’ I defined at the start of the paragraph. Positive though these experiences were, I have been given the chance to practice this approach at a higher level still …

The whole of science research depends on funding. We need equipment, chemicals and so on, we need to be able to fund PhD research students and postdoctoral associates to do much of the work, and in my case there’s a need for those larger-scale facilities that must of necessity be provided nationally or internationally. Only the best can be funded from the finite budgets made available, and that means someone has to decide which projects go ahead and which are set aside or closed down. In the UK it’s the Research Councils that have that responsibility. I have had the privilege of contributing to the work of the Science & Engineering Research Council (EPSRC) since the 1990s through several standing, and some less satisfactory ad hoc, committees deciding on the allocation of many millions of pounds across a spectrum of research groups in the physical sciences. However, it’s my more recent committee work for the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC) I want especially to write about. Quite why I was invited initially to join their Physical & Life Sciences committee (known as PALS to its friends) I couldn’t say, and at this level the scope for ‘Imposter Syndrome’ to cripple me was extensive. Setting those (very real) reservations aside, my time as a member and then as chair of PALS, and the subsequent years I spent on their highest-level scientific body – Science Board – ticked the boxes ‘big time’. To put it into perspective, the STFC has responsibility for all the neutron and x-ray facilities I alluded to above, but also for the UK’s major laser facilities, for our share of CERN and a suite radio and optical telescopes around the world. To be a part of strategic debate and decision-making at this level provided an astonishing array of opportunities to learn new things across a broad spectrum, to observe and work with some of the most talented and constructive people I have ever come across, and to share in the attempt to make a positive and constructive contribution to science in the UK. I remain grateful for these opportunities. I ought to add for completeness that these years were very far from the proverbial ‘walk in the park’. Prioritising excellent scientific projects and areas isn’t easy at the best of times, especially when such a wide range is involved, but if one adds to that the need to do so in the run-up to a government Comprehensive Spending Review (e.g. here) and at a time when budgets are under severe threat and it becomes all too clear that the potential for discomfort is high. Despite all the late nights and long days, the soul-searching and anxiety, the frustrations and annoyances, I wouldn’t have missed it. Here, although far from perfect, I found the best examples of leadership and well-prepared and selfless discussion, inclusive consensus and decision.

And then I retired ...


Earlier posts in this series:
1) The Girt Pike – beginnings and transitions.
2) Do Labels Last a Lifetime? – people and other influences.
3) Nomadic Research: random walk or purposeful journey? – a timeline in research.
4) Tools of the Tradeinstruments and gadgets.
5) Suitcase Science: travelling in hope – tales from a travelling scientist.
6) Why so many? - gender balance in the research team

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