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.

Continue reading

Soil Carbon Storage: The Headache of Grazing

[This is a guest post by Thomas Ross, a 3rd year Biology student at The University of Manchester – he is currently doing a Science Media Project on the effects of grazing on soil C storage, which I am supervising. This blog post is part of his portfolio, and he has to reflect on its impact in his final submission. So don’t hesitate to leave your comment!]

The carbon stored in soil amounts to double that in the atmosphere and biomass combined and soil has the potential to sequester more. As atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide have been on the rise there has been an increase in global temperatures and climate change (here, the processes involved in soil carbon storage explained in more detail). The potential of the soil carbon reservoir to sequester this carbon from the atmosphere, and potentially ease the speed of climate change, can be influenced by our actions and the way in which we manage land. One such way is through the grazing of domestic livestock.

Grazing has the potential to modify ecosystems drastically and thus affect soil carbon storage. But how much is too much? Unfortunately, I cannot give you a definitive answer as the effects of grazing on soil carbon storage vary greatly. Some studies showing increases in soil carbon due to grazing, others decreases and some no changes at all. This causes a tricky problem when deciding how to manage livestock to ensure maximum soil carbon storage and withholding the interests of all stakeholders. Continue reading

One year later

This is my attempt to revive my severely neglected blog, which I enthusiastically started just before moving to Manchester for my fellowship at The University of Manchester, exactly one year ago.

In that year, a lot has happened, of which, I would say, most was condensed in the second half, which at the same time explains why I haven’t written a blog post since August. I did make one attempt in November, entitled ‘My hole in the ground’, but I never finished it, which says it all, really!

It’s been a good, but unbelievably busy, and, from September, unbelievably stressful year:

We set up a new lab from scratch. We just about got most of the equipment set up and running last month! This has been a challenge, at times, with people (including me) running experiments and needing the lab equipment.

It has also been a challenge, albeit (mostly) an enjoyable one, to get to know how everything works at a new workplace, and to start doing my first teaching. Balancing doing research with students demanding attention and juggling new administrative and marking tasks is something that you have to get used to!

I’ve also submitted three grant proposals, one small one and two big ones (I got the small one, didn’t get one big one, and am still hoping for the second big one).

Then, I am also the chair of Plants, Soils, Ecosystems, a new special interest group of the British Ecological Society. We organized our first (Very successful! Read Sarah Pierce’s report of the meeting here) meeting, which was an extremely fulfilling, but at the same time very stressful thing to do – I am sure it will get easier though!

Finally, I have had a complicated operation on my hand, which was very successful, and has resulted in me being able to do all the things that I used to do before I broke my scaphoid 1.5 years ago: mountain biking, climbing, getting out of the swimming pool, even just leaning on my hand.

But what caused last year to be stressful was the fact that all these things occurred at the same time – in September and October. So, I submitted a big grant proposal, just before I harvested a major experiment while not having a fully set up lab, after which I went straight into my operation, after which I had to teach for the first time, then I organised and chaired our first Plants, Soils, Ecosystems meeting, after which I submitted another big grant proposal. Does this sound crazy? It was.

But, now it’s 2014, I feel refreshed and motivated, and I am determined to revive my blog!

So far, the posts I have been writing varied quite a lot in their topic – from my move to Manchester, to academia in general, to more science-y posts about soils in general, and my own research. I wonder what my readers (if there are any left!) find most interesting and enjoyable to read, but I am tempted to make my posts more science-y, about ecology in general, and plant-soil interactions and soil ecology specifically. If you’re interested the latter two: also keep an eye out for Plants, Soils, Ecosystems’ new journal club, in which we will discuss articles that have recently been published within the broader field of soil ecology and plant-soil interactions. I will post the first paper by the end of next week, and we will aim for bi-weekly/once-a-monthly updates, facilitating (hopefully) lively discussions and interaction between people interested in plant-soil interactions!