Tag Archives: leadership

Devaluing novelty: not all that glitters is gold

My regular readers will have recognised the novel nature of a blog that seeks, in a unique way, to present promising engineering ideas in a favourable and robust manner.  Actually, I hope my regular readers will recognise this opening sentence as completely uncharacteristic.  It was a blatant effort on my part to include the five words, underlined, with positive meanings that are most used in the titles and abstracts of articles published in clinical research and the life sciences.  A recent survey of more than 100,000 articles showed the prevalence of these words, with them being used significantly more in articles in which the first or last authors were male compared to those in which the first and last authors were female.  In other words, female authors are significantly less likely to describe their research findings in these positive terms and this influences the subsequent citations of their work and probably their prospects for research funding and advancement.  Sunday was International Women’s Day and, hence this is an appropriate week for everyone responsible for decisions about research to be conscious of this trend.  They should also be aware that the use of these positive words has increased in clinical and life sciences research by around 150% in the fifteen years to 2017.  In other words, the modesty of researchers has declined and they are more likely to describe their results as ‘novel’; however, I think it is unlikely that the results are any more novel than typical results published 20 years.  Of course, like most researchers, I always think my last breakthrough is the most exciting yet but many of us have been letting that enthusiasm lead us to exaggerate its novelty and value.

Source: Lerchenmueller MJ, Sorensen O & Jena AB, Gender differences in now scientists present the importance of their research: observational study, BMJ, 367:16573, 2019.

Try the impossible to achieve the unusual

Everyone who attends a certain type of English school is given a nickname.  Mine was Floyd Patterson. In 1956, Floyd Patterson was the youngest boxer to become the world heavyweight champion.  I was certainly not a heavyweight but perhaps I was pugnacious in defending myself against larger and older boys.  Floyd Patterson had a maxim that drove his career: ‘you try the impossible to achieve the unusual’.  I have used this approach in various leadership roles and in guiding my research students for many years by encouraging them to throw away caution in planning their PhD programmes.   I only made the connection with Floyd Patterson recently when reading Edward O. Wilson‘s book, ‘Letters to a Young Scientist‘.  Previously, I had associated it with Edmund Hillary’s biography that is titled ‘Nothing Venture, Nothing Win’, which is peculiar corruption of a quote, often attributed to Benjamin Franklin but that probably originated much earlier, ‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained’.  I read Hillary’s book as a young student and was influenced by his statement that ‘even the mediocre can have adventures and even the fearful can achieve’.

Sources:

Edmund Hillary, ‘Nothing Venture, Nothing Win’, The Travel Book Club, London, 1976.

Edward O. Wilson, Letters to a Young Scientist, Liveright Pub. Co., NY, 2013.

Advice to abbots and other leaders

For some years I have been practising and teaching the principles of ‘Procedural Justice’ and ‘Fair Process’ in leadership. For me, it is an intuitive approach that involves listening to people, making a decision, then explaining the decision and resultant expectations to everyone concerned. It was given a name and attributed to two researchers at INSEAD Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne when I attended the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, North Carolina in 2008. However, last weekend, I  discovered that it is much older because it forms part of the advice to abbots in ‘The Rule of St Benedict‘ written around 540. In chapter 3, entitled ‘Summoning the brothers for consultation’, Benedict says ‘whenever any important matters need to be dealt with in the monastery, the abbot should gather the whole community together and set out the agenda in person. When he has listened to the brothers’ advice, he should consider it carefully and then do what he decides is best.’  So long before Kim and Mauborgne discovered the effectiveness of this approach, Benedictine abbots were using it to run hugely successful abbeys, such as Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire where I came across a copy of  ‘The Rule of St Benedict’.

Sources:

The Rule of St Benedict, translated by Carolinne White, London: Penguin Books, 2008.

W.Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne, Fair Process: Managing in theKnowledge Economy, Harvard Business Review, 81(1), pp.127-136, 2003.

Thought leadership in fusion engineering

The harnessing of fusion energy has become something of a holy grail – sought after by many without much apparent progress.  It is the energy process that ‘powers’ the stars and if we could reproduce it on earth in a controlled environment then it would offer almost unlimited energy with very low environmental costs.  However, understanding the science is an enormous challenge and the engineering task to design, build and operate a fusion-fuelled power station is even greater.  The engineering difficulties originate from the combination of two factors: the emergent behaviour present in the complex system and that it has never been done before.  Engineering has achieved lots of firsts but usually through incremental development; however, with fusion energy it would appear that it will only work when all of the required conditions are present.  In other words, incremental development is not viable and we need everything ready before flicking the switch.  Not surprisingly, engineers are cautious about flicking switches when they are not sure what will happen.  Yet, the potential benefits of getting it right are huge; so, we would really like to do it.  Hence, the holy grail status: much sought after and offering infinite abundance.

Last week I joined the search, or at least offered guidance to those searching, by publishing an article in Royal Society Open Science on ‘An integrated digital framework for the design, build and operation of fusion power plants‘.  Working with colleagues at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, Richard Taylor and I have taken our earlier work on an integrated nuclear digital environment for the nuclear energy using fission [see ‘Enabling or disruptive technology for nuclear engineering?‘ on january 28th, 2015] and combined it with the hierarchical pyramid of testing and simulation used in the aerospace industry [see ‘Hierarchical modelling in engineering and biology‘ on March 14th, 2018] to create a framework that can be used to guide the exploration of large design domains using computational models within a distributed and collaborative community of engineers and scientists.  We hope it will shorten development times, reduce design and build costs, and improve credibility, operability, reliability and safety.  It is a long list of potential benefits for a relatively simple idea in a relatively short paper (only 12 pages).  Follow the link to find out more – it is an open access paper, so it’s free.

References

Patterson EA, Taylor RJ & Bankhead M, A framework for an integrated nuclear digital environment, Progress in Nuclear Energy, 87:97-103, 2016.

Patterson EA, Purdie S, Taylor RJ & Waldon C, An integrated digital framework for the design, build and operation of fusion power plants, Royal Society Open Science, 6(10):181847, 2019.