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.


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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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

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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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!

Blood, sweat, and tears: the story behind the paper

I have already hinted at it in a previous post, and I have been tweeting a lot about it during the past couple of days: our paper ‘Soil food web properties explain ecosystem services across European land use systems’ is now online on the PNAS website! The paper is about, well, soil food webs, and how important they are for ecosystem services. Of course, I already knew that, as did many others, and relationships between groups of soil organisms and ecosystem processes have been shown before. But in this paper, we show that there are strong and consistent relationships between soil food web properties and processes of carbon and nitrogen cycling on a European scale!

Anyway, this is all pretty exciting, but I don’t want to write about the actual content and message of the paper here. No. Because when you see a paper like this, nice and shiny and with a blue PNAS logo on the side, with slick figures, a list of references, online supplementary information, and a small box detailing the contribution of each author, oh, and not to forget the acknowledgements thanking the funder, the landowners, and the people who helped in the lab, you don’t think about all the blood, sweat, and tears that went into putting together such a paper. And blood, sweat, and tears went in it. Continue reading