Soil science. A man’s world?

I am a female soil scientist (a soil ecologist, more specifically). And while traditionally the field of soil science has been dominated by men, I’d like to think that women are catching up. Certainly in the labs where I have worked in the last 10 years, women have dominated the postdoc and PhD positions, although this trend yet has to reach the more senior, permanent academic posts. (Unfortunately, there are many reasons why it might not.)

And I couldn’t help but notice that in a recent NERC strategic call for soil science grants (within the larger Soil Security and SARISA programmes), all eight grants that were awarded had male principal investigators. (And that is on top of the fact that all other projects in these two programmes, which were funded about two years ago, are also led by men.)

And because of this traditional male domination of soil science, I thought that maybe, just maybe, and hopefully (in a way), this might just be a true representation of the gender balance of the applications, and of the wider UK soil science community.

So I inquired. And these are the numbers.

Out of 34 applications, 11 were led by female principal investigators – which means that grants led by women made up a reasonably healthy 32% of all grants submitted. And this number is actually representative of the gender balance of the members of the British Society of Soil Science (which assume to be a representation of the UK soil science community as a whole): women make up 30% of its members.

But none of these applications led by women were successful in getting funded. While the female submission rate was 32%, the success rate of female applications was 0%. And while it is well known that grants submitted by women often have lower success rates, this is a pretty low number. I made a graph to visualise it for you, just in case it wasn’t clear yet.

soil-security-small-grants

The number of applications and the number of grants awarded in the latest round of Soil Security small grants (between £150k and £250k), split for male and female principal investigators.

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This time it’s personal

When I read the news of Trump’s election I cried. I didn’t just cry a little bit, I cried so much that my husband had to take our two-year-old son to another room. I felt devastated, sad, and angry. Now, a few days on, mostly the anger has staid. But I am still shocked to the core.

Why has this election result affected me so much? I don’t live in America, and the consequences of Trump being president will take a while to trickle down to the world, or to affect my life directly.

In fact, this election result affected me even more than the outcome of the Brexit referendum. While, this, too, made me cry (actually Brexit was the first time I cried about politics ever), and feel upset, and angry, and scared, it did not affect me to the same extent as Trump’s election did.

So, why? And why have these two occasions both affected me much so more than any political event before?

Well, I think I know why.

First, these two outcomes challenge everything I feel I stand for. They challenge fairness, equality, kindness, and looking out for others. But they also dismiss the truth, scientific evidence, and expert opinion and knowledge.

But, I think both Brexit and Trump’s victory affect me more than any other political outcome because this time, it is actually about me.

I am an EU citizen living and working in the UK.

I am a woman.

I am a scientist.

This referendum and this election are about me.

I have never considered myself different, or less, than other people. But these two outcomes give the message that I should not be working in the UK, that I can be dismissed and groped because I am a woman, and that I don’t have to be taken seriously as a scientist working on climate change.

So there. And this makes me wonder whether this is how many, many coloured, or LGBT, or disabled people, or other minorities, have felt numerous times before. Or, in fact, whether they might feel like this continuously.

So I’ve made a decision.

I know academia isn’t the most diverse work place. While it is inherently international, it is also extremely white and male-dominated. The representation of minorities is shocking, and there is a strong gender imbalance in many scientific fields. There seems to be an under representation of LGBT people. And I know very few disabled people who work in academia.

So, I am going to do everything I can to promote diversity and equality in my group, in my university, and in academia in general. While I hope I am a reasonably kind person, I am going to do my best to be kinder, and to encourage especially people from minorities to work and succeed in academia. And I am going to challenge every practice that is ignoring or underrepresenting minorities.

That’s the least I can do. Who’s with me?

On gender bias in research funding

I have never, in any way, in any shape or form, experienced sexism in my career. I have never though that I could not do something because I am a woman. In primary school and high school, never once made anyone a distinction between boys and girls and their abilities, or future career aspirations. At university, I never gave the fact that I am a woman any thought. And during my PhD and postdoc, OK, maybe I started thinking about having children at some point, and maybe that seemed complicated (I now know that it is certainly not straightforward). But never, never, have I experienced any form of harassment, or bias, or being disadvantaged, or not being taken seriously, because of my gender. Despite my gender, I am generally doing quite well in my career.

But it might be that I am, unknowingly, disadvantaged in receiving the research grants that I am applying for.

But last year, the BBSRC, who fund my research, published a report ‘Towards a better understanding of issues affecting grant applications and success rates by female academics’. This report clearly shows not only that fewer women apply for BBSRC research funding, but also that their success rate is lower than that of male applicants. This is particularly the case with the applications for strategic LOLA (longer larger) grants, which are considered to be more senior grants. A notable exception are the fellowships, which are aimed early career scientists (and of which I am a recipient), in which female applicants are more successful.

Then, a couple of days ago, I read an article that essentially shows the same trend for NIH grants. While there was no difference in funding rates for start-up grant applications, when women applied for grant renewals, they received lower scores than men. This was despite the fact that these grant applications were more likely to receive praise in their written feedback from the panel.

Triggered by these two reports, I decided to have closer look at the gender balance of research grants of some other funders – particularly the ones that I might apply for.  Continue reading

Soil boring? My take on the image problem of soil science.

I am passionate about soil, especially about soil biodiversity and how soil organisms and plants interact and control C and N cycling. I have studied soils since I started my undergraduate in 1996, and I have witnessed a complete turnaround when it comes to interest in soil biodiversity and the functions it performs. When I started my PhD, no one was interested in soil organisms and how they regulate crucial ecosystem processes that also happen to be central to sustainable agriculture. Now, everyone is interested – from farmers, to policy makers, to fellow ecologists.

Well, I say everyone, but that is clearly not the case. Soil is still remarkably unsexy. I will illustrate this with a little anecdote.

Last Friday, I met the third year Zoology student who had been assigned to do a final year Science Media Education Project with me. As we walked up the stairs, I asked her what her background was, and she replied and said: “….. and you study soils, right?” in a slightly too upbeat manner. We went to my office, and after finding out that she’d like to interact with primary school children, I suggested organizing a book launch family activity or classroom activity linked to a children’s book about an earthworm that I provided scientific advice for. I explained to her what the book is about (it is about a little worm with low self-esteem, who goes on a journey and meets lots of impressive animals, but eventually finds out that worms are crucial for soil health and plant growth), that the authors are based in Manchester, and that it will come out in February. I saw her face light up as she got increasingly enthusiastic, and I said: “You probably thought, oh no, I have to do a project on soil” to which she replied that she had indeed been a bit worried. When she left, I felt happy that I had been able to excite her about the project, but sad that she had been worried about studying soil.

Sadly, I can’t really blame her.

I, too, often feel deeply bored when I read about soil.

Why is this? Continue reading

I’m quite busy

I have been neglecting my blog. I have done this in the past, but it’s never been this bad. I wrote my last post in December 2014. What has changed then? Well, it’s simple. I am a mother now.

What I would really like to do here is write about soil food webs, soil microbial communities, plant communities, roots, and how these all interact under changing environmental conditions, like land use change or climate change. I never wanted this blog to be one about ‘issues’, like sexism in academia, the struggles of getting a permanent position, long working hours, women in science, equal pay, …… Not that I don’t care about these issues, but there are enough people out there that are much better at discussing these then I am.

But, I always intended this blog to also be partly about my personal experiences as an early career ecologist working abroad. And I feel like I am combining quite a few experiences at the moment! Continue reading

How I got my fellowship – and how you might get yours

In my previous post I wrote that I recently got awarded a very competitive BBSRC David Phillips fellowship! And I promised I would dedicate a post to this. Applying for this fellowship has been a lengthy, exiting, and exhausting process, which has taught me a lot about how to write a grant proposal and how to prepare for such an important interview. Although I have applied for grants previously, none of them was anywhere near as much work, and as stressful, as this one.

So, here I will outline the points that I think are crucial for being successful in getting a very competitive fellowship like a BBSRC David Phillips fellowship. I think these points, together, can greatly improve your chances of being successful. But who am I that I think I have advice on this? Well, since 2008 I have applied for seven personal research grants (a Royal Society Newton International Fellowship, a Dutch Rubicon fellowship, a L’Oreal For Women in Science fellowship, a British Ecological Society Early Career grant, a Royal Society International Exchange Grant, a Royal Society University Research Fellowship, and a BBSRC David Phillips Fellowship), of which three were successful. If you consider that the average success rate of this type of grant is around 10%, then that’s pretty good. Moreover, I think I have learned a lot from applying for these grants and getting feedback on them, and I believe that as a result, I got better at it. Also, I regularly review grants for a range of funders, and I think this has improved my own grant writing.

Here are my tips. Continue reading

Quite a year!

Despite all my good intentions it has been very quiet in this space. For a long time. Nine months to be precise. Which only illustrates what a hectic year it’s been! Yes, I know I wrote exactly the same last time, but this year has even been more hectic. So, here is a quick update of the past 9 months – as soon as that is out of the way, I can start writing proper posts again. Just a word of caution though: I might forget things, or repeat myself, as I am severely sleep deprived.

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