Category Archives: Soapbox

An upside to lockdown

While pandemic lockdowns and travel bans are having a severe impact on spontaneity and creativity in research [see ‘Lacking creativity‘ on October 28th, 2020], they have induced a high level of ingenuity to achieve the final objective of the DIMES project, which is to conduct prototype demonstrations and evaluation tests of the DIMES integrated measurement system.  We have gone beyond the project brief by developing a remote installation system that allows local engineers at a test site to successfully set-up and run our measurement system. This has saved thousands of airmiles and several tonnes of CO2 emissions as well as hours waiting in airport terminals and sitting in planes.  These savings were made by members of our project team working remotely from their bases in Chesterfield, Liverpool, Ulm and Zurich instead of flying to the test site in Toulouse to perform the installation in a section of a fuselage, and then visiting a second time to conduct the evaluation tests.  For this first remote installation, we were fortunate to have our collaborator from Airbus available to support us [see ‘Most valued player on performs remote installation‘ on December 2nd, 2020].  We are about to stretch our capabilities further by conducting a remote installation and evaluation test during a full-scale aircraft test at the Aerospace Research Centre of the National Research Council Canada in Ottawa, Canada with a team who have never seen the DIMES system and knew nothing about it until about a month ago.  I could claim that this remote installation and test will save another couple of tonnes of CO2; but, in practice, we would probably not be performing a demonstration in Canada if we had not developed the remote installation capability. 

The University of Liverpool is the coordinator of the DIMES project and the other partners are Empa, Dantec Dynamics GmbH and Strain Solutions LtdAirbus is our topic manager.

Logos of Clean Sky 2 and EUThe DIMES project has received funding from the Clean Sky 2 Joint Undertaking under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 820951.  The opinions expressed in this blog post reflect only the author’s view and the Clean Sky 2 Joint Undertaking is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.


Switching off and walking in circles

Traditionally in Easter week, I go to the Lake District for a week of hill-walking with my family and a digital detox [see ‘Eternal non-existence‘ on April 24th, 2019 and ‘Gone walking‘ on April 19th, 2017]. For the second year in succession, we have had to cancel our trip due to the national restrictions on movement during the pandemic [see ‘Walking and reading during a staycation‘ on April 15th, 2020]. I am still attempting a digital detox but the walking is restricted to a daily circuit of our local park. While Sefton Park is not on the scale of Central Park in New York or Regent’s Park in London, it is sufficiently large that a walk to it, round its perimeter and home again takes us about two hours. It might not be as strenuous as climbing Stickle Pike but it is better than repeatedly climbing the stairs which was the limit of our exercise last year [see ‘Virtual ascent of Moel Famau‘ on April 8th, 2020].  We might not be allowed to leave our locality but we can switch off all of our devices, do some off-line reading (see ‘Reading offline‘ on March 19th, 2014), slow down, breathe our own air (see ‘Slow down, breathe your own air‘ on December 23rd, 2015) and enjoy the daffodils.

It’s tiring look at yourself

Picture of the authorFor many people Zoom fatigue is very real. It has been studied by Jeremy Bailenson at Stanford University [see ‘‘Zoom fatigue’ brought into focus by Stanford study‘ in the FT on February 26th, 2021]. He found that one source of tiredness was the high level of self-evaluation that arises from continually having to look at a video of yourself. Of course, it is easy to fix by choosing not to display your own video on your screen. We all have two egos: one is our subjectivity or the physical sensations registered by our body via our senses; and, the other is our reputation or the reflection of ourselves which forms our social identity [see ‘A reflection on existentialism‘ on December 20th, 2017]. Gloria Orrigi describes this second self as not a simple reflection but one that is ‘warped, amplified, redacted and multiplied in the eyes of others’. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that being constantly exposed to the view of ourselves being seen by others over a video conference raises our level of fatigue as we subconsciously and constantly review the impression being made on others. Orrigi describes our reputation as being like the trail left by snails has they slither over surfaces. Our social interactions with others leave deposits in their minds that become an information trail that we cannot erase and can only partially control. The pandemic has forced many of our social interactions to be via the internet which means they also leave electronic trails over which we have little control and cannot erase; however, we probably worry less about these traces than we do those left in the minds of others. Perhaps that is why our conversations lack spontaneity when conducted via a Zoom call [see ‘Distancing ourselves from each other‘ on January 13th, 2021] or maybe it’s just because it’s very difficult to gossip on a video conference even using the ‘chat’ function. Robin Dunbar has suggested that the real reason language evolved in humans is to allow us to gossip and thus maintain the social cohesion. If we are suffering from a loss of social cohesion caused by a lack of gossip then it is likely our stress levels would be raised causing us further fatigue. So, maybe we should be picking up our phones and calling people for a chat instead of scheduling meetings on Zoom.

The picture is the photograph of me that others see when I switch off my camera in an internet call.  It’s a selfie with which I am happy, for the moment anyway.


Robin Dunbar, Grooming, gossip and the evolution of language, London: Faber and Faber, 1996.

Gloria Origgi, Reputation: what it is and why it matters, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018.


Collegiality as a defence against pandemic burnout

photograph of a flower for decorative purposes onlyMany of my less experienced colleagues ask, ‘what is collegiality?’  Collegiality is the glue that holds universities together according to Neeta Baporikar.  While Roland S. Barth suggested that if students are to learn and develop, then their teachers must also learn and develop and collegiality is the set of practices and culture that support this adult growth.  In this context, Thomas Hoerr has proposed that collegiality has five components: (i) teachers talking about students with teachers; (ii) teachers working together to develop education programmes; (iii) teachers observing one another; (iv) teachers teaching each other; and (v) teachers talking about education and working together on committees.  Neeta Baporikar echoes this view by concluding that if we hope to teach students to participate, examine issues, collaborate, think critically and synthesise new approaches then we should be their model.  

In an environment where research is a priority, it is possible to substitute ‘researcher’ for ‘teacher’ in the descriptions above.  Then collegiality becomes researchers talking about [research] students, researchers working together to develop research programmes, researchers observing one another, researchers teaching each other, and researchers talking about research and working together on committees.  The idea that collegiality is a strategy for excellence holds as well as for research as it does for teaching.

The pressures on early career academics in a research university can be intense and the temptation to focus exclusively on delivering teaching and performing research can lead individuals to work in isolation and to neglect the opportunities provided by active engagement with their colleagues.  However, leaders must also take responsibility for creating an environment in which collegiality can thrive and encouraging active participation – it is part our service to the academic community as leaders to create and maintain a culture of scholarship and excellence [see ‘Clueless on leadership style’ on June 14th, 2017].  Neeta Baporikar provides steps that heads of departments can take to nurture collegiality, including providing a vision, encouraging collaborative participation, listening to diverse opinions, building on people’s strengths, and being aware of the world outside the department.  This is similar to the shepherding approach to leadership that I wrote about in May 2017 [‘Leadership is like shepherding’ on May 10th, 2017].  However, it has all become much more difficult in a pandemic – both collegiality and leadership.  Last week an article in Nature suggested that pandemic burnout is rife amongst academics working long hours in isolation to transpose and deliver their teaching materials online, to maintain their research without the spontaneity of face-to-face discussions with their team or collaborators, and to support the well-being and mental health of students who are also at risk of burnout.  It is suggested that burnout can be managed by finding a forum to express your feelings, creating ways to detach from stress, prioritizing and normalizing conversations about mental health, and fighting the isolation through meeting with peers.  These steps are a combination of traditional collegiality and the five ways to well-being: connect, be active, take notice, keep learning and give [see graphic in ‘On the impact of writing on well-being’ on March 3rd, 2021].


Neeta Baporikar, Collegiality as a strategy for excellence in academia, IJ Strategic Change Management, 6(1), 2015.

Roland Barth, Improving schools from within, Jossey-Bass, 2010.

Virginia Gewin, Pandemic burnout is rampant in academia, Nature, 591: 489-491, 2021.

Thomas R. Hoerr, Principal Connection: The Juggler’s Guide to Collegiality, Communication Skills for Leaders, 72(7): 88 -89, 2015.