Could Parental Leave Actually be Good for my Academic Career?

Author: David Kent
Original: University Affairs | The Black Hole


Last autumn, I started my research lab at the University of Cambridge’s Stem Cell Institute, but this coming summer I’m doing something completely different – I’m taking parental leave with my first child. I must admit that at least some inspiration came from my brother, who took a term off with his second child and said it was one of the best decisions he’d ever made.

It’s been a tough journey to get a group leader position – 11 years of intense research-focused time, most of which were spent in a complete black hole of uncertainty with respect to my future career. And now, I won’t be in the lab for 14 weeks – we’ll see how it all works out.

Reaction to my decision amongst non-academic family and friends was pretty much universally positive, but reaction from academic colleagues was highly variable – a substantial number of whom think I’m absolutely crazy to take off so much time within the first year of my research lab’s existence. I wasn’t too surprised by this, having emerged from the North American system where parental leave is much less generous than in Europe. What I didn’t expect were the other reactions …

In November, I was at a national cancer conference and at one of the evening receptions I spoke with a female scientist from another U.K. university about women in science. Over the course of the discussion, I mentioned that my partner and I would be taking advantage of the U.K.’s new “Shared Parental Leave” policy, with my partner taking 8.5 months of leave and me taking 3.5 months. She said she was shocked and surprised that a brand new group leader would take the time off, but also said “good for you.”

The next evening is when things really hit home though. After the conference dinner I was on the dance floor and a complete stranger came up to me and asked, “Are you David Kent?” I assumed she had seen my presentation earlier in the day until she continued, “the David Kent who is taking parental leave as a new group leader? I just wanted to say thank you.” We chatted a little and it was as simple as this: a male group leader taking parental leave was just not that common, especially not a 3.5-month block of time. The professor from the other night had clearly gone off and told her colleagues and word had spread.

Here I was being showered with praise for taking 3.5 months off work and feeling pretty good about my decision until I did a quick comparison to my partner’s situation, also an early career scientist. Not only would she be taking nearly three times the amount of leave, but she’s also been carrying a baby around for eight months whilst undertaking world-class research. Is there a small fan club of approving academics lined up to congratulate her on the brave decision to spend time with her child? Not that I’ve seen.

So, in effect, my taking a short block of parental leave has boosted my profile in the eyes of some academics and her taking a longer block will put her in the challenging position that so many young female academics find themselves in: trying to play catch-up and pretend that children haven’t impacted their careers (many do not acknowledge children on CVs, job applications, etc., for fear of being viewed unfavourably). The science community needs to embrace rather than shun such individuals.

Overall, if universities want more women in science, then the way we handle babies and families needs to change – men need to be as “risky” to hire as women. But change does not come overnight and it does not come easy. As a start, more countries (and institutions) need to have “use it or lose it” policies, such as exists in Quebec – the father is given a block of time that the mother cannot use. Universities and individuals need to fight for this. Countries such as Sweden have seen incredible results from such policies and are amongst the world leaders in having women in senior positions. For science specifically, granting agencies need to behave like the European Research Council with respect to eligibility windows and like EMBO for postdoctoral fellowships – creating small allowances for young parents that make the journey just a little bit easier.

Or perhaps we should just force them all out of science – that seems to be the way things are currently set up and it makes me worry for our future science workforce.

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Scientists Have the Power to Change the Publishing System

Author: David Kent
Original: University Affairs | The Black Hole


Earlier this month I read an article by Julia Belluz that ripped into the scientific publishing system. The saddest, and truest, sentiment of the article can be summed up in the following quotation:

“Taxpayers fund a lot of the science that gets done, academics peer review it for free, and then journals charge users ludicrous sums of money to view the finished product.”

This is certainly not the first attack against the publishing process nor the first to encourage open-access publishing. In the remainder of her article, Ms. Belluz focuses on the role that governments can play in getting more scientific research freely and instantly available. In sum, she suggests that government funding agencies (e.g., the United States National Institutes of Health or the Canadian Institutes of Health Research) could refuse to give grants to those scientists who did not publish in open-access journals.

This is a laudable, and indeed it is the approach being taken bit by bit by funding agencies – the Wellcome Trust in the U.K. for example has a very robust open access policy that includes providing grant funding for the open-access charges. While this will certainly get more research out sooner and without charge, I believe it misses out on an important aspect of the power dynamic that plagues the scientific publishing process.

The fact is that journals with high impact factors wield enormous power because they hold the key to scientists’ careers – the field has become so obsessed with metrics that it is insufficient to be a good scientist with good ideas and the ability to perform good research. As things stand now, if you want research grants (and in most cases, this means if you want a job), then you need to publish a paper (or several!) with a big-name journal.

So what can scientists do? Well, it turns out scientists are involved in just about every aspect of the publishing power dynamic. First, one needs to understand what’s at stake. Scientists want big name papers for three main reasons:

  1. Grants
  2. Jobs
  3. Recognition

However, papers in big-name journals do not directly give you grants or jobs, nor are they the only way to be recognized as a good scientist. Other scientists make these decisions, but far too often their judgment is impacted by the glitz and glam of the big-name journals.

Jobs are often won by those doing research that has good institutional fit – they bring a novel technology, a new way of looking at things, or a broad network of excellent former colleagues – but jobs are often lost because the candidate is “not fundable.” The latter is more often than not decided based on where they have published and how a grants panel will view them. So it basically comes down to who can get grants. And who generally decides funding outcomes? Scientists.

I wonder how many grant panels have heard the phrase “the project looks good, but the candidate has only ever published in mid-range journals.” Indeed, I know several scientists who rank applications based on a candidate’s publication record irrespective of how good or bad the project is or how well-resourced the working environment is.

One suggestion: Ban the CV from the grant review process. Rank the projects based on the ideas and ability to carry out the research rather than whether someone has published in Nature, Cell or Science. This could in turn remove the pressure to publish in big journals. I’ve often wondered how much of this could actually be drilled down to sheer laziness on the part of scientists perusing the literature and reviewing grants – “Which journals should I scan for recent papers? Just the big ones surely…” or “This candidate has published in Nature already, they’ll probably do it again, no need to read the proposal too closely.”

Of course I generalize and there are many crusaders out there (Michael Eisen, Randy Sheckman, Fiona Watt, etc.) pushing to change things and I mean them no offence. I just wish that more people could feel safe enough to follow their lead. In my own journey to start up a lab, I am under enormous pressure to publish in a big journal (i.e., my open-access PLoS Biology paper doesn’t make the grade and open source juggernaut e-Life has yet to achieve high-level status despite its many philosophical backers).

So, in sum, scientists in positions of power (peer reviewers, institute directors, funding panel chairs) are the real targets for change. Assess based on research merit, not journal label. Let’s make journals tools of communication, not power brokers of scientific careers.

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