Tag Archives: pandemic

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.

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].

References

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.

Lacking creativity

detail tl from abstract painting by Zahrah RI feel that I am moving to the next level of experience with online meetings but I am unsure that it will address the slow down in productivity and a loss of creativity being reported by most leaders of research groups to whom I have spoken recently.  About a month ago, we organised an ‘Away Day’ for all staff in the School of Engineering with plenary presentations, breakout groups and a Q&A session.  Of course, the restrictions induced by the pandemic meant that we were only ‘away’ in the sense of putting aside our usual work routine and it only lasted for half a day because we felt a whole day in an online conference would be counter productive; nevertheless, the feedback was positive from the slightly more than one hundred staff who participated.  On a smaller scale, we have experimented with randomly allocating members of my research team to breakout sessions during research group meetings in an attempt to give everyone a chance to contribute and to stimulate those serendipitous conversations that lead to breakthroughs, or least alternative solutions to explore.  We have also invited external speakers to join our group meetings – last month we had a talk from a researcher in Canada.  We are trying to recreate the environment in which new ideas bubble to the surface during casual conversations at conferences or visits to laboratories; however, I doubt we are succeeding.  The importance of those conversations to creativity and innovation in science is highlighted by the story of how Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna met for the first time at a conference in Puerto Rico.   While wandering around San Juan on a warm Caribbean evening in 2011 discussing the way bacteria protect themselves against viruses by chopping up the DNA of the virus, they realised that it could be turned into molecular scissors for cutting and editing the genes of any living creature.  They went home after the conference to their labs in Umea University, Sweden and UC Berkeley respectively and collaborated round the clock to implement their idea for which they won this year’s Nobel Prize for Chemistry.  Maybe the story is apocryphal; however, based on my own experience of conversations on the fringes of scientific meetings, they are more productive than the meeting itself and their loss is a significant casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic.  There are people who point to the reduction in the carbon footprint of science research caused by the cancellation of conferences and who argue that, in order to contribute to UN Goals for Sustainable Development, we should not return to gatherings of researchers in locations around the world.  I agree that we should consider our carbon footprint more carefully when once again we can travel to scientific meetings; however, I think the innovations required to achieve the UN Goals will emerge very slowly, or perhaps not all, if researchers are limited to meeting online only.

Source:

Clive Cookson, A dynamic Nobel duo with natural chemistry, FT Weekend, 10/11 October 2020.

Image: Extract from abstract by Zahrah Resh.