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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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

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

The first one.

This is my first blog post. Ever.

Why did I decide to start a blog? Why do I want to throw my opinion into the digital world, why do I want to promote my own science, or rather, myself? Why am I building this altar for myself? Why would anyone care about what I write?

Well, according to the Nature jobs blog , female scientists don’t blog, but should – because women are underrepresented in the media, and seem to be reluctant to put themselves forward. However, Athene Donald argues here that much is to be gained from blogging by female scientists. Social media can help you get your research (and you) more known, but it can also increase your writing skills, something which I, as a non native English speaker, am always interested in. In addition, you can also see blogging as online mentoring, something which I am very interested in (I have been involved in two mentoring schemes for women in ecology by the British Ecological Society )

However, apart from these strategic motivations, I really feel that I might have something to say.

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