Working Class in Academia

A few months ago I wrote this, about the challenges of being working class and the obstacles we face in our careers. I wrote that with one purpose – to explain that those of us who have “made it” did so with some intelligence and hard work but mostly luck.  I wrote this to dismantle the flawed and perniciaous myths of social mobility and meritocracy.

Today I write not about how us lucky ones got to academia but how it treated us once we arrived, once we’ve “made it”.

That’s the other myth – you never “make it”.  The legacy of working class never leaves.  It manifests in all sorts of different ways – from overcompensation to forever feeling an outsider.   But it persists.

I need to be careful here.  The white working class male will certainly pass in academica, and our working class upbringing can eventually fade into an upper middle class income and lifestyle.  I might have dodgy teeth and be betrayed by accents or manners, but even working class social awkwardness can be disguised as academic awkwardness.

We can pass.

So let’s not pretend our burdens are the same as black scholars or women or any minoritised group who cannot simply change the nature of their ‘otherness’ in academic circles. Let’s not pretend that working class obstacles persist and shape our careers to the same degree as race and gender and disability, when many of our obstacles are eliminated with job security and a promotion. Let’s not ignore the intersection of those prejudices.

But nevertheless, no matter what happens in your life you never fully escape your origins.

Precarity

The academic career is unusually precarious.  Financial precarity amplifies that.  Dramatically.

But it is complicated. My meager PhD stipend was actually the most money I had my entire life; for the first time in my life, I had disposable income.  For the first time in my life, I could go out to eat and join in social activities.  Because I knew how to save money and knew how to get by on inexpensive food or cheap accommodation or was willing to house share, I knew how to make that stipend last.

I was also very lucky in avoiding the precarity of the academic bottleneck between PhD, postdoc and permanent job.  I had my post-doc arranged when I finished my PhD; I had procured an assistant professorship post before I finished my post-doc. But I was lucky.  I was lucky with those jobs and that job market.  I was lucky in that both my PhD and Postdoc supervisors were well-known, respected and well-funded – providing a financial safety net as I navigated the challenging job market. And also, let’s be honest, those academic pedigrees unfairly advantaged me in getting my job at Bristol.  I had lucked into the right choices that helped me win a rigged game.

But precarity is real.  And is worse now than ever.  It takes longer to get a job: more time living under a cloud of uncertainty; more time waiting to buy a home or start a family; more time doing more jobs, different jobs, learning group dynamics, maybe moving- often internationally – with financial and emotional costs.  And that means more work, trying to keep up, trying to maintain your ‘productivity’ while figuring out new personalities and friendships, how to order pipettes in a new lab, get a visa or navigate a new country’s rental market.  At the same time, contracts seem to be getting shorter, requiring more uncertainty, more movement, more working on papers while unpaid, more exploitation.

The lack of a financial safety net exacerbates all of that.  It is harder to move around and follow jobs.  It is harder to start a family.  It is impossible to wait around between postdoc contracts; instead of writing papers between contracts, you get a job at a cafe.  You pay rent rather than paying off a mortgage, ensuring that at least some of that financial precarity follows you your entire life.

But the worst part of that precarity is its emotional toll – the uncertainty, the fear and the fact that so many people in academia do not understand it.

Despite my good fortune, this uncertainty haunted my career.  I remember confiding in a trusted mentor, someone who I respect as much as anyone in my life, and they replied:  ‘If you’re good, you’ll get a job.’  And as much as I respected them, in that moment I knew there was one chasm they’d never understand, having come from a middle class family of academics.  They could have empathy but never truly understand 1st generation fear and 1st generation risk.  And they’d never fully understand the one thing that poor people understand perfectly: you can be amazing and still fail.

And whether intentional or inadvertent, whether individual or systemic, this means that academia exploits us.

The Academic System will never stop exploiting Early Career Researchers

I love this career.  I love discovery.  I love finding new molecules or biosynthetic pathways or microbial adaptations.  I love using those insights to discover something new about our Earth.  And I just love reading about and discussing other people’s ideas and discoveries.  And I love teaching and mentoring and supporting colleagues.

And when you love your job so much that it is a career, love your career so much that it is part of your identity, you will be exploited.  The system – employers, the sector, funders – cannot help it.  Even the kindest, most benevolent line managers cannot help it.  As a Head of School, I do it.  And it comes down to this:

In a market with limited opportunities, where success is 90% down to luck, where the competitors all have intelligence and passion, the only thing that you have any real control over is how hard you work.

You cannot change the results of your experiments, the capabilities of your instruments (within reason), the jobs available.  You cannot change your gender or skin colour.

But you can volunteer to teach one more class or serve on one more committee.  You can come in on the weekend to generate one more finding for one more paper.  If no jobs are available you can write your own Fellowship application.  And those all will help and they will give you a sense of agency in a world in which you have so little control.  And it is exploitation.  It is.  And I don’t know how to change it.

What I will say is this: If you get the job you dreamt of, you are brilliant and lucky; and if you do not, it is because you are brilliant and unlucky.  But also: that we have trained you to have limited dreams.  Perhaps the academic dream is your true calling, but know that your brilliance and skills are valued and will be valued in places and by people you have yet to dream of.

The academic system will never stop exploiting you and especially your need for validation.

Almost everyone I know has imposter syndrome.  It is worse in minoritised, women, working class academics.  But it is widespread.  We all doubt ourselves and our achievements.  When we are at the start of our career, we are desperate to prove ourselves.  In the middle of our career, we are anxious that our peers do not respect our achievements.  At the end of our careers, we worry about losing our edge, being washed up, old news.

Imposter syndrome is an anxiety disorder that most of us face because of the conflicts between our self-doubt and ambition.

But more fundamentally, it is a direct consequence of a system that wants us to doubt ourselves and wants us to continually seek affirmation.  Invited Talks, Fellowships, Prizes, High Impact Papers, Citations, H-indices.  So many metrics.  Most Universities literally have ‘Esteem Indicators’ as part of our Promotions criteria.  And this eats at all of us.  It makes us lose sleep and have anxiety disorders.  It makes us check Google Scholar or bristle with envy when our friends when a prize or get a high profile paper.  I’ve seen staff dangle the promise of jobs in front of ECRs and I’ve seen Fellows of esteemed societies dangle the promise of legacy and esteem.  I’ve seen an FRS threaten Heads of School and Deans if they fail to comply with their requests.

This all works.

Because we have drunk the Kool Aid of exceptionalism.

And it is bullshit because so much of it is out of our control.  Fellowships are ridiculously competitive, historically sexist, and still rather arbitrary (especially in who nominates us).  Many of our best discoveries are accidental.  Many of our most planned discoveries would have been discovered a year later by someone else but we got lucky and sorted it first. Yes, there is planning and vision and leadership.  But you can labour for years, building a team, an international consortium, to tackle a critical problem and still fail to get funding.  Or get the funding and just not find anything interesting.

So just like that postdoc desperate for a job, we do the one thing that is under our control.  We work harder.

Longer hours. Weekends. And our institutions happily accept the generosity of our donated labour.

And it is getting worse. Universities are now financially dependent on high fee-paying overseas students, making them financially dependent on global league tables, creating a continuous pressure on performance, production, excellence, and metrics metrics metrics.

My School does well in these tables.  We do not brag publicly about it, because we know that these are flawed and we won’t let our self-worth be based on them. Most of all, we refuse to treat the scientific endeavour – the collaborative quest for knowledge – as a competition.  But quietly, amongst ourselves, especially on difficult days, we do allow that success to tell us ‘We’re doing something right.  And that is nice.’  And even that modest acquiescence to be a ‘world-leading department’ puts a huge amount of stress on nearly every one of my colleagues.  And as Head of School, no matter how much I support and reassure my staff that we are doing okay, to be kind to ourselves, that we support one another no matter what – the relief I can provide from that desperate desire to be excellent is fleeting and incremental.

Because we’ve drunk the Kool Aid.  Even as I sit here, typing this, rejecting this narrative, I feel it.  What papers can I push out; what grants can I be writing; what more do I have to prove.  I can sit here writing that I reject this system and still feel bitter that I was not nominated for an award, recognised by some esteemed society, invited to give a talk by my colleagues.

So where does the working class academic (or racial minority or feminist) aspect come into all of this?

Because we have been programmed for this bullshit for our entire goddamned lives.

Working class kids have to put in long hours just so our families survive, creating working patterns that are then exploited by employers the rest of our lives.  I worked on the farm from when I was seven, and had a part-time job from when I was 16.

But of course, social mobility says that working at that rate is just baseline.  If you want to really succeed, you must work hard enough to be extraordinary.  Are you doing okay?  Work harder and be better than average.  Are you doing well?  Work harder and be the best.  Be better than the best. That is how you escape poverty – be the best athlete, pianist or scholar.  Win. Break records.  Never stop; never rest.  Or someone else will take your spot.

Fuck me, I have been living in this mindset for over 40 years.

You’ll never fit in

I’m lucky.  I’m a geologist and our discipline, even in the ivory tower, rejects most pretensions. We wear shorts and t-shirts.  We drink wine but also beer.  We understand that on a field course, all of us had to find a tree to piss behind.  I’m not sure I could have survived in a different discipline.

One of my favourite examples of this comes from my favourite Organic Geochemistry conference.  I was quite anxious about attending my first one as it was a small, intimate conference. Aside from the academic anxiety of always being ‘on’, with effervescing conversations about the state of the discipline at breakfast, lunch and dinner, I was anxious about whether this working class kid could fit into the social norms.  I was particularly anxious because at that time, a tradition was a wine tasting.  I was a beer-drinking wine illiterate (I’m now a near-teetotal wine illiterate).  But.  There were so many friendly layers of subversion.  The organisers were kind, patient and happy to teach.  They grudgingly accepted the insurrection from those who would try to win with the cheapest off-brand wine they could find.  Many opted out.  Of course, in later years, it faded as we recognised that alcohol-centrism was inappropriate.

But I look at those moments of understanding and insurrection as signs of hope and change. In other contexts, I did feel like a redneck and a fool; but I gained strength knowing that these were far from universal.  Being an American in the UK gave another line of protection, as my cultural ignorance was hard to pin down.  Mostly, I found oases of friendships, departments, research groups and disciplines where comportment, elocution, fashion and appearance (all part of someone else’s imagined ideal of etiquette) were just not that important.

And yet… I was also told not so long ago that I would have an uphill climb to become a Fellow of the Royal Society because I lacked a ‘certain gravitas.’  What the fuck do y’all think that was referring to??

So… we never entirely fit it.

And… most of us will never again fit in at home.  

Academia makes you move away from home. We have become so much more sophisticated in rejecting the narrative that postdocs must move every year or two years.  Nonetheless, the numbers do not work in your favour if you want a University or research institute job near your home town.  Most of us move across the country; many of us move to other countries.  We move away from home, from our friends and families, from the familiar places.  That is an adventure, but it comes with consequences.

Of course, if you are working class, you have not just moved far from home physically you have likely moved far, very far from your family culturally.  You have different life experiences, you often adopt different politics a different world view.  Often, you adopt different values.

The first summer after University, I returned home and my job as a stockboy in the local supermarket.  My family and friends jokingly called me ‘College Boy.’  It wasn’t mean; it was friendly and filled with pride.  Ten years later, our conversations had become reminiscing and awkward silences.  Twenty years later, we fight.

I’m glad that I have changed.  I am glad that I have awoken to the racism and bigotry that lurked in our conversations. I am glad that I now see the struggle of Black people and immigrants as different versions of class struggle, and I am glad that I consider this while understanding intersectionality and my own privilege.

But sometimes the disconnection that comes from moving so very far away, geographically as well as culturally and politically, is overwhelming.

Early career working class academics, I need you to understand this:  At times in your lives you will feel terribly painfully alone.  Not always; you will meet and love amazing people.  But there will be times.

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Academia isn’t special.  It is a business.  In a capitalist society, it exists to make money and it makes money by exploiting its work force and its customers.  I am grateful that I work in an institution where my bosses are kind. But they cannot change the fundamentals of a market-driven sector.  That sector exploits us.  And it especially exploits our insecurities, anxiety and fear. And given how anxiety and fear are inequitably woven through society, through class and race and disability and gender, Universities exploit unfairly and with discrimination.

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I’ve learned from speaking about climate change, that it is not enough to talk about problems without also talking about solutions.  I’ve got no easy solutions but here are some thoughts.

In building a career, build something more than a career. Build friendships and relationships, with peers and colleagues, those in other disciplines, your partners in society.  Build knowledge and wonder, learn, discover. But be careful.  Those approaches can degrade work-life balance. And they can create an even greater dependency on your career.  So do not spin a web that traps you but build relationships that support you and lifelines that can rescue you.

Do not work long hours or weekends.  Of course, do so sometimes, when running an overnight experiment or racing to meet the occasional deadline.  But do not overwork as a habit.  I understand the temptation. I do.  And resisting it is hard.  But it will not make a difference. One more paper will not make a difference.  It will not help you get a job, when luck is so important.  It won’t solve your anxiety or imposter syndrome.  And in all likelihood your overall productivity will be greater if you maintain a healthier balance of all aspects of your life.

What is far more valuable – and it is a quality that many working class people have in abundance – is persistence. I do not mean only the potentially toxic persistence of sticking with a career and precarious roles if the associated job uncertainty is undermining your wider life.  Instead, it is the persistence to re-run experiments when they fail, to resubmit papers that are rejected, to resubmit Fellowship applications that are declined.  Working class or not, academia is characterised by more rejections than successes, and our ability to take the hit, allow ourselves a finite period of justified sadness or anger, and then quickly getting right back in the game is essential. I cannot count the times my Mom either literally of figuratively made be get back on that horse. You can resubmit that rejected paper in a few days or a month or it can simmer on your laptop for three years, causing anxiety whenever you think about it.  (As a corollary and to *everyone else in academia* – be fucking kind in those rejections.  We are asking people to be persistent not resilient in the face of our toxicity.)

If you are going to work those extra hours, however, then damn it, put that extra labour into what you love, what you want to.  If the system is exploitative, at least the academic system is one in which you have some modicum of control over how you will be exploited.  If your desperation forces you to work weekends, work less on productivity, less on one more publication, but instead read a paper, discover or share something new, find or share some wonder in this collective endeavour of knowledge. It is giving in to the system, but it is also owning your agency.

To do this, you need to find the means to make decisions based on your values, not the values of everyone  and everything that surrounds you.

You must quiet that noise and discover what it is about your career that is really really important to you.  And you must not confuse that with what you have been taught is important, what societies and awards say is important, what appears important to your friends and colleagues and peers. What academia is continuously telling you has value and what does not.  If you know yourself, use that to dismiss all of the extraneous bullshit and centre what you value and enjoy; and then use that to prioritise your efforts, empower your decisions.  And do that at every single stage of your life.

And… seek help in navigating those decisions.  I’ve never had counselling despite guiding so many friends, colleagues and students in that direction.  I need to have some.  I should have had some in college, when I had anger issues, when I self-harmed through sports and fights.  I should have had some as a working class academic, whose marriage collapsed, who put my great capacity for love and compassion into projects rather than friendships.  I should have some now as a Head of School, dealing with multiple crises in our sector, distraught students, stressed staff and frustrations at an unfair world and incompetent leadership.  Writing this blog is a poor substitute for that.

But I never had the money, and when I had the money I “never had time”.  And talking to counselors is just not what we do, not us working class farm kids from Ohio.  So I’ll make you a deal.  I will find the time and reject my deeply ingrained biases to ask for help.  If you promise to do the same.

 

And finally: I love academia.  It is a great career, filled with intellectual flexibility, creativity, collaboration and the joy of discovery. These blogs are not meant to say otherwise; rather, they are a corrective to the myth that academia is an ideal career, based solely on merit and without flaw.  We can hold simultaneous truths, loving something while wanting it to improve.  Along those lines, I once promised a PhD student that I would never offer them advice about how to navigate a flawed and exploitative system, without also committing to change it.  And I do commit to changing this, to minimising exploitation and creating more oases where those who do not fit the typical academic profile can find homes.  And ultimately, I commit to destroying the very idea of a typical academic.  And together, we can commit to revolution and real fundamental change.

A message from a working class academic

Still a working draft, but thought I’d share anyway:

Friends, I think it is long past time for those of us from working class backgrounds but have been lucky enough to find success to start sharing our stories.

All of us have witnessed tragedy after tragedy after tragedy, with the poor always being most impacted. We know that most if not all of these tragedies could have been prevented.  And we know that prior to these tragedies, the concerns of the poor were ignored or mocked. From the lead-contaminated drinking water of Flint to the Grenfell fire to the devastation of Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria, poor suffer our society’s greatest tragedies not just because they have fewer resources to escape these conditions but because society has systematically ignored their concerns and actively failed them.

These examples are the norm not the exception, and in one form or another they impact every single person living in poverty – or trying to escape from it.

Those who have not experienced poverty do not understand the numerous ways in society holds back the poor.  How our systems exacerbate rather than ameliorate this inequality.  How talent and beauty thrives amongst all parts of society but is only uplifted for some, is marginalised for others and for many is ultimately snuffed out.

And when the poor go onto success in academia, industry, the media or politics we too often hide it.  Or we are held up as examples that ‘the system works.’

So I am going to share some of my own experiences with you.

I grew up on a farm and we were poor. We had third-hand clothes, second-hand cars and periods without hot water. To make ends meet, my dad also had a part-time job and my mom had a full time job. But – and this is so very very important – we had it better than most people living in poverty. On a farm, you have food. And long-term housing. We had some relatives who were better off financially and that helped (My Aunt Barb and Uncle Roy got my brother and me wonderful and essential winter coats one year…)

Also: I’m white.  And a male.  And straight. And grew up in the wealthiest nation on Earth.

In other words, these examples only scratch the surface of the challenges faced by many in poverty.  I had it relatively easy, had a lot of luck, a huge amount of support – and I barely made it.  And this is what I learned on the way.

 

Poor lives are expendable

Farming is one of the most dangerous occupations in America.  While I was growing up, I knew an Amish kid who suffocated in a silo.  A family friend lost his hand.  The father of a friend lost his arm.  One of my brother’s friends died when his arms were torn out, caught in a silage shredder.

And once.

My mom’s hair was caught in the tractor’s power take off shaft.  She was working alone.  In a field.  A mile from home.  It pulled out all of her hair and separated her scalp from her skull.  It was a miracle she survived. I remember coming home from School and finding her alone in bed, the lights off, the window shades drawn… a bag of her hair on the dresser.  I made sure she was okay. And then I went to do my homework.

Small family farming is not a great career from which to draw examples of worker’s rights – on a small farm, you are CEO, foreman and labourer.  (But industrial farming certainly is – it is profoundly exploitative and hides behind the family farm myth to justify it.) But it illustrates that when you are poor, you live on a more dangerous edge.  You compromise on safety because if you don’t, you cannot pay your mortgage.

So when wealthy landlords or employers or city councils or politicians cut corners, exploit their workers, ignore contaminated water, or burn up health and safety regulations, I see people who put profit above lives.

Of course, they can only get away so much.  They can only get away with putting profit above some lives. Over poor lives, nomadic lives, black lives.  But trust me my privileged friends, they’d do the same to all of us if they could.

 

Health Care

Health care in the United States is a disgrace. But the government does have schemes to help farmers purchase health insurance, a small sacrifice to ‘big government’ in order to feed your population.  My Dad also had Veterans Insurance due to his service in the Army. And that health care was essential for my family to survive those numerous accidents.

That health insurance, however, is associated with large deductibles, large bills, often thousands of dollars, that you have to pay before the health insurance kicks in.  And this means you do not go to the doctor when you are in pain or have a lump.  Of course, you also do not go to the doctor because you cannot get off work or you have to work two jobs or you have to milk the cows. So you wait –  often until it is too late.

My dad waited when he had a sharp abdominal pain.  The family debates the history of that, my dad suggesting he went to the doctor after 2-3 weeks and my mom suggesting it was months.  Regardless, he waited.

He had gall stones.  Or rather his gall bladder had been nearly completely replaced by a single massive gall stone.  And infection had set in.  The doctors said that if he waited another day or so, it would have likely become gangrenous and infected the liver.

Poor people do not go to the doctor until it us sometimes too late. And afterwards live under a cloud of bills, anxiety and harassment.

 

Dental Health

The consequences of poverty on dental health is scandalous.

I had a few cavities as a kid.  Not too many – Mom taught me good habits.  But I had a few and that costs money and there was no health insurance for that.

One day, I was dropped off at the new dentist’s office after school.  I had an appointment at 3:30 to get a filling.  I sat in the office for hours. Patients arrived and left.  I was vaguely aware that the dentist was looking at me, there was a phone call, there seemed to be some tension.  Eventually my dad showed up, told me to come with him and we left.

We had not paid our bills.  We couldn’t afford it. I cannot imagine how difficult it was for my father, the embarrassment and rage, to have to go in there, pick me up, knowing that I would not get the treatment I needed.  At the same time, I knew that the dentist was a young woman, probably just out of school, trying to start a practice. She couldn’t afford to take on patients who could not pay their bills, and I cannot imagine how it felt to her to send away a 12-year old farm kid.  I’ve never felt more powerless and angry.

I never saw her again.  We went back to our older dentist, further away, but more established, more able to be flexible in billing.

I am now very well off financially, but some legacies never go away. My teeth are crooked. I lost a filling.  That led to an infection. Then a root canal. And then a deep extraction and implant. I get headaches most days, where the implant aggravates my sinus.  My second root canal failed, leaving a gap.

My parents lost most of their teeth.

 

Time

Poverty is not just economic, it is time.

One of the few times I saw my mom really angry was when she was called out for not contributing to the school bake sales. My mom, who was working in purchasing at a local factory all day, doing farm chores each night and on the weekend, and cooking, cleaning, doing everything else to keep the house functional did not have the time to bake fucking cookies for your fucking bake sale.

Fuck you for asking that and fuck you for shaming my mother.

Poor people are smart, creative, wise and beautiful.  But we do not have time for your shit. We do not have time for *your agenda*.  When you ask us to contribute, try to engage us, even try to help us, know what you are asking.  We don’t have time for your town halls, your focus groups, baking brownies.

This is also why poor people eat pre-prepared meals. It is why my mom had a crock pot, so she could start something cooking and leave it.  It is why we had mushy vegetables – she would bring them to a boil, turn the temperature to a simmer and then go out to do the evening chores.

Our time is precious and it is ours.

Remember that when you are engaging marginalised communities.

 

Fear

You can’t fuck up when you are poor.

I saw friends sucked into alcoholism and drug abuse (and this was before the current opioid crisis ravaging rural America).  More often, I saw friends, cousins, friends of cousins getting pregnant or knocking a girl up.

When you are poor, an unplanned pregnancy means that your hopes and dreams are fucked.

There are exceptions – lots of exceptions.  But in my world, when you got pregnant, that was it.  You tried to finish High School and got a part time job and that was the end of your dreams of college, sports or a band.

Everyone knows you live at the margins.  Don’t get knocked up.  Don’t get in trouble with the law.  Don’t take drugs. Everyone deals with it differently – some steer into the risk, some live large, burn out, burn bright.

I… I lived… I cannot really describe it.  It was a long time ago. Saying I lived in fear is over-stating it. But I just continuously – continuously – tried to avoid any possible mistake that could ruin my life. I was terrified of getting a girl pregnant.  I did not have sex until I was 20.  I followed all the rules.  I did argue – with everyone, all of the time – I’m rather proud of the fact that my desire to walk the straight and narrow did not stifle my activism or values. But I never took risks and I never broke the rules.

[As an aside, I did fuck up once.  And…. it was not the end of the world.  The point is not so much about the consequences but the fear.]

I guess what I am saying here is that when you are poor, you live in fear of fucking up.

Rich people fuck up all the time.

 

Education.

My parents did not go to college but they recognised early on that I was rather smart and studious.  And so they pushed me; Mom pushed me so hard, endlessly.  And then, when those good grades in year 1 stopped being a success story and started becoming the norm, they either got out of my way and let me excel or stepped in to support me.  Farm kids have to do LOTS of chores.  My brother and I had rather modest chores – my parents wanted us to prioritise our homework.  My dad drove me to debate tournaments on Saturday mornings, after milking the cows, before other chores and sometimes through ridiculous Northern Ohio blizzards.

So when I was thirteen and two of my friends persuaded me to apply for an elite private school in the area, my parents supported me.  The school was all about excellence.  They claimed that they were value-driven. They wanted to support the community and the best and brightest.

I had higher standardised test scores than my friends.  I had higher grades.  They went to the school and I did not.  I was admitted.  But when it came to the fees, their values disappeared. No grants.  No loans.  No advice on where one might get loans. They led my parents and me, naively perhaps, down a path suggesting that they would be supportive.  I suspect they never thought some poor kid could get the grades to get in.

Not going there was one of the best things that ever happened to me.  Fuck them.

Fortunately, four years later, I discovered that Universities, despite extortionate tuition fees in the United States, do their best to match financial support to need.  Every university I applied to provided an impressive variety of support.  I attended Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and they did right by me.

But:

College still cost my parents $3000 a year.  And when my brother also went to college, they had to sell the farm.

And I had to work part-time for my final three years.

And I still finished with $10,000 in loans.

And to get those scholarships, I had to have a 4.0 GPA in High School and the highest SAT scores in its history. (Not bragging; I am test savvy.)

So fuck ‘social mobility,’ where we claim to have an equal society just because a very few lucky, smart, hard-working kids can escape structural poverty, inequity and racism. If a society genuinely wants to excel, to thrive, to innovate, it invests in all forms of education at all levels for everyone.

 

Life Choices

I love the American liberal arts university system.  I went to CWRU to study Physics, aspiring to be an astrophysicist, but also loved politics.  Eventually, I decided to major in Geology, fulfilling my passion for science, but intending to go to Law School afterwards and become an environmental lawyer.

But law school costs money.  And PhD students get paid.  Not a lot – but a lot by my standards.

I do not regret my choice to do a PhD in geology.  I do resent the fact that it was not fully my choice.

At 22, after years of success after success after success. After years of hard work and sacrifice, after excelling in High School and University, after being Presidents of clubs and societies, after continuously working part-time jobs.  After doing everything right, it was not my choice.

 

Poor people do not like cops

Yes, even poor white people. Which is why it is so infuriating that some poor white people seem to “love the blue” when it is Black people protesting their murder by police.

As a teenager, my brother once got busted for blowing up mailboxes. It was a stupid thing to do – the kind of stupid thing that kids do in the boring midwest. But what was really stupid is that he did it in the posh township instead of our own. Cops do not like poor people coming into their towns and causing trouble.  So they did him for everything they could, including charging him with corrupting minors since he had turned 18 a few days before and all of his Senior classmates had not.

I have been pulled over for ‘looking like I was in a hurry.’ Our town set up speed traps to catch late-night commuters, factory workers driving to the night shift. My mom told me to hide my long hair in a hat.

During my Sophomore year at Uni, I got a job. So I needed to use the beat up and old family car that summer.  It was okay; my college did not care and it was in a pretty working class area. However, to drive home, I had to drive through the wealthy Cleveland suburbs.  And the cops always shadowed me in and out of them.  One time, they pulled me over and gave me a ticket for every. single. thing. they. could.  It was $500, more than I made the previous two weeks.  If my professors had not been supporting me with some part-time work, I would have had to drop out of college.

Lots of police are nice.  But the police as an institution exists to keep Black people and Latin people and poor people in their place. It always has. It exists to protect capital.  Police do not harass people because of irrational fears about the threats posed to the safety of those posh communities. That might be part of it. But mainly, they harass Black people and the homeless and those driving rusty cars to protect property values.

They are wealth protectors and they never let you forget it. And some of them will kill Black people because of it.

 

Poor people do not trust you. We especially do not trust the government.

And we have reasons for that. We’ve been let down and betrayed. We have been demeaned.

And until the well meaning left understands that, the far right will weaponise those experiences against the same poor people who need government support.

 

A lot of working class academics are alone

When I first posted this blog, a lot of us talked about this privately.  We talked about our disconnection with the academic world but also the world we have left behind.  We all know that academia makes us move about geographically.  It also causes us to move about culturally and politically.  And emotionally.  And that is not all bad but on some days it hurts more than you can imagine.  And I’m not ready to say any more about this yet.

 

So what do I think we should take from these stories?

First and foremost, I must again caveat this blog with the fact that I had it pretty good. There are so many people, even in my own High School, let alone in poorer parts of the country or from marginalised minorities, who had it and still have it much harder.

And I sure as hell am not looking for pity. I’m doing really well. And once you overcome the barriers that society puts in front of you, your working class upbringing makes you strong.  When my mom had her hair ripped from her scalp, she managed to climb back onto the tractor, drive it home and call the doctor herself. If I have one-tenth of that strength, then I am fine.

And of course, poor white people can get rich. Poor Black people can get rich but will always be black in a structurally racist society. Read up on intersectionality, y’all.

Second: Don’t you dare cast this as a narrative ‘that with a bit of pluck and hard work’ anyone can make it.  Fuck that.  I did not work my ass off because I am such a noble worker; I did it and my family did it to survive.

No, the real point of these stories is that I got lucky.  I am smart.  I am good at my job, have authored or co-authored hundreds of papers and taught thousands of students.  Science is better for having me participating in it.  I was the Director of a world-leading environmentally-facing research institute and am now the Head of one of the top Earth Science departments in the world. And the only reason any of that happened is that I got lucky again and again and again.

I got lucky being born white and male, and have benefited from that my entire career. I was adopted by parents who were supportive of my ambitions.  We might have been poor but we had food and shelter and stability. I happened to go to one of the top public schools in Ohio, by dumb luck of geography, and happened to have some of the most amazing teachers. I got lucky during my PhD and Postdoc, who I worked with (amazing supervisors, mentors, colleagues and friends), the lab equipment we had, the discoveries we stumbled on, the grant that barely got funded.

We pretend to live and work in a meritocracy, where everyone has a chance and excellence and hard work is rewarded. We especially believe that myth in academia. And I think we do so because we do work hard but also because we need that story to justify the sacrifices we all make.  But we do not work in a meritocracy. Some people are born into wealth and some into poverty.

And the success of a few poor kids does not change the truth of that injustice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Engaging Communities

‘The University always has to have its moment in the spotlight.’ Sarcasm dripped from every word, heard by me even though it was whispered only to his neighbour in the audience. His colleague laughed in reply.  I had just given a talk as part of a Conference on Bristol’s Resilience Strategy, on work we had co-produced.

On another occasion, after speaking about the racial impacts of climate change, a person who’s opinion I valued and still value above nearly all others cornered me and said, ‘If you care so much about racial inequality why is your audience all white? Why are your speakers all white?’

Co-production.  Participatory Approaches. Citizen Science. Co-creation.  Shared learning.  We now recognise that our research – maybe all of it and certainly aspects of it – cannot be conducted in the ivory tower but instead must be done in an engaged, equal and constructive partnership with the relevant communities.  Increasingly, however, the nature of that engagement is critiqued.  Who do we engage and why?  What are the implicit and explicit power imbalances and hierarchies? Even when we engage genuinely, are we still centering our agenda through our soft influence and power?

These are not new questions, but as researchers approach community engagement with new enthusiasm, they are re-discovered by new parts of the academic community and university leadership. The lessons have to be learned again. Our partners have to teach us. Again. And are exploited further.

Twenty years ago, it was thought to be enough to simply be seen to be engaging, so desperate were cities and communities for researchers to listen to them.  But engagement can reproduce the same inequities of the past.  In fact, given the greater emotional and labour investment of the partnership, the potential for exploitation is far greater.

Why must we engage?

I was asked this at a recent workshop, not because anyone there thought it was a contested question but rather to stimulate discussion.  Nonetheless, if we are to collaborate with communities with integrity, it is essential to understand not just why we are obliged to engage as researchers but why we choose to engage as people.

When I first started working more closely with communities – those in Tanzania as part of project to study past climate, with Bristol communities to explore local climate action – I was inspired by the classical reasons.  It is fun; I enjoy working with people.  And it is ethical; people have a right to know where and how their taxes, resources, or history are used and have a right to shape that research.

As I increasingly focused on the intersection of my work on past climate change with local and national strategies for climate action and resilience, my motivation became more pragmatic. If we expect our work to make a difference to society, then people need to have not just understanding but buy-in to that research. Where possible, they should be co-creating those solutions and policies, whether via Citizen Assemblies or involvement in technological innovations.  Too often, scientists, engineers and social scientists have envisioned solutions that have been met with apathy, indifference or even hostility by the citizens they’ve been meant to serve: nuclear power, pesticides and genetically modified crops. Vaccines.  And with communities, flood defences, wind farms, hazard resilience strategies, clean air zones, park restoration.  Co-production will never eliminate controversy, but it mitigates it.  And it certainly helps all of society anticipate challenges and create a more constructive path towards the implementation of solutions.  It will be especially important to implement the very challenging changes required to address the Climate and Ecological Emergencies.

Although I still embrace that pragmatic rationale and approach, it is too simplistic.

First, it is not enough to simply engage the usual, expected or obvious stakeholders.  Instead, we must ask challenging questions about who we are engaging and why, viewed through a decolonial lens and in a manner that challenges the prevailing conventions.  Failure to do so in a society with deeply embedded inequities – locally, nationally and globally – will likely replicate or even amplify the structural racism, sexism and classism of our world.

Take as an example the electric car, a critical part of decarbonising transport.  In the news, in policy, and in engagement by researchers, whose voices are privileged, whose have been centered.  Whose have been marginalised. Which communities do we challenge and which do we placate. I would argue that the entire dialogue centres the current car user – how to make electric cars affordable and comfortable.  How to build the enabling infrastucture.  Where to invest in charging stations.  The dialogue frequently fails to consider the non-car user or the impoverished.  It almost always fails to consider the resources to manufacture those cars:  The countries that still suffer from neocolonial exploitation; the people in those countries; the marginalised groups and indigenous communities in those countries.  Every pledge to invest in electrification of transport is a colonial claim to a finite resource, and yet these issues are almost never discussed in the race to innovate and invest.

The act of engagement is not a neutral one.

Second, we must complicate the personal dimension of the ‘why engage’ question by examining motivations and power inequities.  What are your motivations. Why are you doing this?  Was it necessary to the grant?  Is it necessary for your work to have ‘impact’?  Is it because it is what your employer expects of you in order to achieve the previous?  Engagement is necessary for the success of academics and the University, and therefore, it is always an act of institutional privilege, centering our agenda even when it is co-produced.

This is what sits under the simmering resentment of the anecdote I opened with.  That work was some of my most genuine and heartfelt; it was good work of which I am proud and it did involve multiple communities.  But in that moment, in that forum, I was speaking because I was expected to.  I had a platform not because of the work but because of my employer.  I had long ago understood my white and male privilege, but in that moment I understood my institutional privilege.  Just like I had initially resisted the idea of white privilege because I had suffered as a poor working class kid in rural Ohio, I resisted the idea of institutional privilege because I viewed myself as another proud Union member who loved the University of Bristol but still thought of myself as exploited by the neoliberal University machine as anyone else.

But it is not true.  I had and have the privilege of working for an institution that has nearly a billion pound annual turnover, whose decisions shape our city in profound and long-lasting ways, skewing property values, demographics and investment. I have no doubt that our University, as progressive as it is, brings not only income to Bristol but also inequality. I was leveraging that privilege for a spotlight.  And I would later be able to leverage that spotlight for recognition and promotion.

These complicated power dynamics are not an excuse not to engage, however; they are a lesson about recognising the privilege that is embodied in any interaction with our community.  A counter example is my involvement with the Bristol Festival of Nature.  For over ten years, the University and my research group has attended, bringing an interactive display about how molecular fossils can tell us about past climate and past human history.  It is sort of the most rudimentary form of community engagement. There is no co-creation.  It’s just scientists rocking up and talking to the public and answering their questions.  And no one has ever challenged my role in that or the University’s.

That is because this engagement, although it offers little, offers more than it asks.

Mireia on Twitter: "Paleodetectives ready to uncover the past at @AtBristol #BristolBrightNight @cpe_bristol http://t.co/KoDjvlwCOS"
Megan and Mireia showing the Palaeodetectives at the Bristol Festival of Nature
Deep, meaningful, long-term and honest engagement with communities is not necessarily “better” than rocking up and giving a talk but it is deeper, with greater rewards and also greater obligations.  In any interaction, but especially interactions involving the vast power disparities of Universities with their cities or UK scientists with marginalised communities, it is not enough to fixate only on the most effective mechanism but to understand the privilege we derive from those power differentials, the underlying transactions and the potential for exploitation.
Barriers to Engagement and their Solutions
The Barriers to successful engagement are extensive: finding common cause, a shared language and approach, agreeing mutually beneficial outcomes. There are questions of legitimacy and trust, especially when there has been a history of exploitation. When trust is built, there is the shared frustration of funding, with the options available to all of us limited to months or years, undermining the ability to develop the meaningful relationships to which we aspire.
Prosaically, the solutions are obvious.  Coming from a privileged organisation, can you procure more long-term investment? Given that engagement is part of our jobs, are we willing to transfer some of our academic privilege to our partners by volunteering our time?
But informing and underpinning all of that is the essential need to understand the transactions implicit or explicit in our partnerships.  I don’t want any of us to make our world any more transactional than it already is. But we are obliged to have an understanding of the transactions that are explicit and implicit in our partnerships – for us and our partners – and use that understanding to build a collaboration based on equity, honesty and empathy.
Researchers must be more honest with our partners about what we will get out of it – and sometimes that means being more honest with ourselves. Successful engagement will help us get a PhD. A job. A grant. A paper. A promotion. A pay raise.
Similarly – and in light of history and privilege differentials – we must create the space where our partners can also be honest about their needs, their research priorities, and how they need to have that knowledge returned to them in an actionable way.
And we have an obligation to understand what we are asking of them. Remember this: For a poor person, we can ask for few things more valuable than time. For someone from a marginalised group, we can ask for few things more valuable than their emotional labour, experience and re-lived trauma.
And most of all, understand the source of power imbalances in any interaction. Marginalised groups have power.  Growing up in a working class family, I was acutely aware that we did not have access to much financial, legal or political power; but we had other power that comes from closeness, resilience and lived experience. My community partners would say the same.  The Green and Black Ambassadors are powerful.  Ujima Radio is powerful.  The real question is the intersection of power and privilege.  What power (skills, knowledge, experience) is privileged in society?  And what power do we wield in a civic partnership that arises not from legitimacy but from our institutional and individual privilege.
What I learned about dismantling privilege and building engagement with the Green and Black Ambassadors
In 2015 Bristol was the European Green Capital and it was widely regarded as a successful year.  But it was rightfully critiqued for failing to be inclusive – despite well intentioned efforts to be so. Because of that, I partnered via the Cabot Institute with Ujima Radio, a community radio station, and the Bristol Green Capital Partnership to explore the lack of inclusion during the Green Capital Year and more widely in the environmental movement.  This was the Green and Black Conversation, and through its delivery we learned a lot of things that environmental movement should have known already:
– That the programme was shaped by and favoured the interests of the ‘in-crowd’; its focus and themes, the venues, the types of events all reflected the tastes, interests and convenience of the usual suspects.
– That they were invited to events and even to speak but only after the agenda was set.
– That individuals and groups that represented marginalised groups were being exploited for their time and labour. Moreover, they were not supported in leveraging the Green Capital accolades to win their own funding. It is not the same for the Director of the Cabot Institute for the Environment to sacrifice his day to attend a sustainability workshop than it is for the Director of a racial equity organisation.  Not only are there questions of alignment of responsibilities but also a chasm in resource.   Inviting them to attend was not inclusion.  Expecting them to attend was exploitation.
– That the language was exclusionary.  In particular, language about marginalised groups assumed a lack of interest – ‘How do we get more Black people into nature.’  ‘How can we ensure Black people have access to nature’ – without recognising that they already had their own initiatives and projects. That they had their own sustainability solutions.  That they were engaged just not with the ‘in crowd’s projects.
And so we launched the Green and Black Ambassadors with several goals and values.
– We would always pay our Ambassadors and our partners, compensating them for their labour and experience; and that we would use our privilege to demand the same from all future partners.
– We would invest in a new generation, recognising both the great capacity in Bristol’s African and Caribbean populations but also that this capacity had been undermined by decades of under-investment.
– We would give them a platform to promote initiatives from their own community; and eventually, we would cede our platforms to them.  I would no longer accept the invitations arising from my institutional privilege but pass those invitations to Zakiya and Jazz.
– We would be allies in challenging institutions, including our own. We advocated for their voices in our Board Rooms, classrooms, working parties, One City Plans and more.  We were their voice when they were not present but more importantly, we agreed to open the door and let them come in and have our places instead.
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Roger Griffith and the Inaugural Green and Black Ambassadors, Jasmine Ketibuah-Foley and Zakiya McKenzie
In short, it was a political project to challenge the lack of equity and inclusion in the environmental movement, politics and industry.  And although that might seem far from how you might build engagement into a research proposal, it is not. The principles for all engagement must be the same because all interactions characterised by power differentials are political projects.
But moreso, this type of collaboration enriches and adds value to all of our scholarly endeavours.  Much of the Green and Black Ambassadors Programme was funded by my ERC project on The Greenhouse Earth System.  Centering racial inclusion in the environmental movement might seem rather removed from developing molecular tools to study Earth’s climate 50 million years ago.  Maybe.  But by building trust, relationships and credibility, I have been able to share my research findings with 1000s of people I might not otherwise. The palaeoclimate research was never centred, rarely prominent, usually never mentioned, because that would have undermined the ethos of the Green and Black Programme.  Instead our conversations focused on the air pollution and food poverty issues that our engaged communities had prioritised.
But here is the thing: I’d far rather have my work be a very small part of a large story shared by many than the central part of a small story heard by few. And I think that is a truth of the entire suite of global crises we face.  If we are to address the many environmental and social justice challenges of the future, we must embrace community while rejecting ego.
Addendum.  There is a lot of ‘us’ and ‘them’ in this essay.  Ultimately, we must get away from that.  We must avoid not just the language of we and them but the unconscious view from which that language arises. But I still believe that in the vast majority of partnerships, ‘we’ still need to do better by ‘them’; and pretending we are all in this together, that we all enter into a partnership with equal privilege and capacity is duplicitous.  So my final advice is recognise there is an ‘us’ and ‘them’ arising from differences in privilege, and do everything you can to dismantle that.

Addendum 2: Once you begin to explore power differentials, you unlock a range of challenging questions.  In particular, I find this short article by Farhana Sultana to be illuminating in revealing the power dynamics within the communities we engage.

 

Building Interdisciplinarity

From an article for GW4 on Innovative approaches in SW England. The University of Bristol’s Cabot Institute is an exemplar of interdisciplinary collaboration, bringing together researchers from across the arts and humanities, sciences and technologies to address global environmental challenges. We hear from its Director, Professor Richard Pancost, on the lessons he has learned from leading the institute, from the importance of building trust between academics, to the value of managing expectations and eschewing ‘checklist targets’.

 

Nine years ago, many of us at the University of Bristol set out to create a new kind of research institute, one that would draw together multiple disciplines to tackle society’s grand environmental challenges. It was supported from the ‘top’ of the University, with an ambition to foster cross-disciplinary research; but it was led from the ‘bottom’, by those already leading diverse themes while also recognising that something larger, bolder and more creative was necessary. Those conversations led to the launch of the Cabot Institute in 2010, the University of Bristol’s first (of four) University Research Institutes (URIs), of which I have been the Director since 2013.

At the time, both interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinarity were popular but contentious concepts.  Many organisations were pursuing them but perhaps without a robust intellectual justification or an understanding of their ultimate purpose.  This was particularly challenging because classical but constrained concepts of interdisciplinarity were being challenged as insufficiently ambitious. No longer was a collaboration between a chemist and physicist worthy of special recognition; the new and challenging aspiration was to join scientists, social scientists, engineers and cultural scholars.

At the same time, interdisciplinary research was being critiqued as too frequently treated as an end in and of itself by individuals, funders and organisations.  Instead, interdisciplinary methods, like any other, should be deployed only when they are appropriate to the challenge or question.  And when done so, they have great power, drawing together the different disciplines required to tackle grand challenges and co-producing energising new ideas. This was the rationale of Cabot – we could not tackle challenges like climate change within a single discipline or within academia alone; nor could we tackle climate change as an isolated challenge given its connection to social justice, energy policy and food production. This challenge-led motivation for interdisciplinarity – and more fundamentally the co-production of knowledge – is the inspiring force behind Cabot.

However, there is some risk that we have swung the pendulum too far towards the ‘problem-solving’ rationale for interdisciplinary research.  Just as applied research best thrives in an ecosystem that includes fundamental research, so do interdisciplinary endeavours.  The joy of such research and the benefit it brings is not simply new solutions but new ideas, new ways of thinking, even new disciplines. Many of these new ideas arise from the friction of interdisciplinary research and many arise from the new processes created to facilitate it. The intersection and clash of perspectives and different forms of knowing creates an environment in which new ideas can germinate and thrive. It does not always lead to new proposals, papers or solutions; instead, sometimes it infects its participants with new perspectives on their own research and new ways of interrogating old problems.

For example, Cabot now has extensive scholarship associated with the cultural understanding of natural hazards; some of that will help us mitigate risk but much of it more fundamentally helps us understand the human condition and how we conceptualise our relationship with nature. My own research on past climate has thrived within Cabot not because of how it has informed better climate model predictions but because it has allowed me to reframe conversations around uncertainty, decision and anticipation. This in turn has created new avenues for engaging with policy makers and our community.

Holding those competing intellectual values in tension, the Cabot Institute has experimented, facilitated and catalysed, with both successes and failures, the former often surprising and the latter sometimes predictable in hindsight.  And during that time, we’ve learned a great deal that elaborates on these themes of multi- and interdisciplinarity. Below I describe four values that I have found particularly important.

BRINGING DIFFERENT DISCIPLINES TOGETHER IS INTRINSICALLY ABOUT BRINGING PEOPLE TOGETHER

Of Cabot’s many objectives, the first and most essential is to build new communities of scholars, within and beyond the University. These comprise both interdisciplinary efforts that genuinely sit in new intellectual spaces and multidisciplinary ones that represent a mosaic of classical disciplines. This ethos imposes a range of secondary considerations. The inter- and multidisciplinary thrives best when the disciplinary thrives as well; some of our greatest successes have emerged from strong disciplines coming together as multidisciplinary efforts that then give rise to a new interdisciplinary way of thinking.

Community building also requires a diverse form of support activity.  We can bring groups together to discuss a particular challenge, but we also need to bring people together in more creative and less prescribed frameworks.  The Cabot team needs to have 1-2-1s with our community, so that we are sufficiently informed to be match-makers.  And we all need funding to nurture these ideas, allowing them to thrive to sufficient maturity to attract external funding.

Moreover, a truly intellectually diverse multi-disciplinary environment is one that it is not limited to academics. Cabot has thrived via strong partnerships across the city, UK and world, supported by the traditional mechanisms (a brilliant External Advisory Board chaired by Chris Curling, then Sir John Beddington and currently Dame Julia Slingo; secondments into the Government Office of Science; partnerships with Rothamsted Research and the Met Office) but also creative collaborations that have created the space for our esteemed University to be more humble and learn from the brilliant civil society organisations and incredible individuals in Bristol.

Of course, we have also been opportunistic, using Bristol’s year as the European Green Capital to host events and support others, prominently putting our ethos of equal and collaborative partnership on display.  This has led to participation in the Festival of the Future City, co-sponsorship of the Coleridge Lectures, partnership in inspiring Arts Projects,  the Green and Black Ambassadors, and support for our City on the world stage at COP21 – all as equal partners, respecting and valuing the diversity of perspectives and wisdom in our city.

When we have drifted from those values is when we have failed. One of our initiatives was to create a ‘Corporate Club’, VENTURE, in which corporate partners, via a subscription, would fund staff, who in turn would help build collaborations and develop research projects. It was a legitimate effort towards co-production, based on shared resourcing. However, trying to procure funding from our partners undermined the message of collaboration, partnership and support.  Would we not provide the same service to those who did not join?  Would we not support those organisations with fewer resources?  Of course we would. Partnership was not just a way of working but a Cabot value. VENTURE could work for other organisations, but for Cabot it revealed itself to be inconsistent with our core mission. It is to the credit of our partners that this dialogue, through shared learning and deeper respect, led to stronger relationships – even if VENTURE failed.

THE VALUE (OR NOT) OF HAVING A RESEARCH THEME

The Cabot community has resisted calls to be the Institute of the ‘environment’ or ‘climate change’ or ‘sustainability’ or ‘risk’ or all of the above. As soon as one of those words is imposed, it would begin to define and constrain our purpose. And Cabot was created to disrupt silos not to create a new one. We would not have been able to engage in a rich dialogue with our city around social justice, co-create the Green and Black Ambassadors, support smart city initiatives, sponsor the International Conference on Anticipation, or explore the challenge of food security if we had an overly constrained remit.  Associated with this, we view our membership and partnership as permeable, with nearly 1000 academics and other colleagues engaging with us over the years, more or less, off and on, depending on the opportunities, challenges and potential for creativity.

On the other hand, it is essential to have some broad thematic focus.  There is already an entity that should support all multi- and interdisciplinary research – it is called the 21st century University.  Therefore, Cabot’s value arises from having a loose thematic remit that provides some guidance of what colleagues and partners can expect us to offer, who they might meet at a Cabot event, what we might be prepared to profile.  Moreover, having some common themes, such as low carbon energy, food security and environmental change, allows us to build added value, partnerships and communities as our projects accumulate and diversify. Of course, we can never fully anticipate where such dynamic and creative conversations might take us – and that is part of the fun!

EMBEDDING COLLABORATION AND COMMUNITY IN INTERDISCIPLINARY RESEARCH  

One of the great pleasures of Cabot has been not only drawing in new ideas from our academics and partners but also our professional services. Breaking down silos is not limited to the silos that exist between Schools or disciplines: we all live in a world of structural and administrative silos. And building bridges between them reveals great pools of experience and knowledge. Our estates team is a world leader in sustainability and has fostered new discussions around everything from district heating and sustainable procurement to the carbon footprint of our research. Collaboration with our Press Office led to the creation of the Press Gang, in which we train postgraduate students keen on developing their communication skills and connect them to partners; in return they help us produce blogs and press releases.  A partnership with our Centre for Public Engagement led to the Engaged MSc Research projects, which connect postgraduate researchers with external organisations who have a wealth of ideas but limited resource.

Crucially, this fosters not just the creation of new research directions but new ways of working, new ways to support and enable the academic community, and new learning experiences. We have brought in external provocateurs, run sandpits, workshops, mingles, and all the activities one might expect.  But we have also fostered conversation through curated peer-to-peer learning.  We have worked with artists – who have served as collaborators, facilitators and enablers. We have connected UGs to academics, PGRs to community organisations, citizens to councillors, academics to MPs. We have run conferences and curated discussions on behalf of city partners.  And all of that has been fostered by an ethos of partnership and learning, and fuelled by permission – or perhaps more accurately, a mandate – to try new things.

METRICS: MANAGING EXPECTATIONS

Cabot’s budget is small but powerful given that our mission is not to deliver but to be catalytic. But more important is the conditionality of that funding. We are not assessed against a checklist of targets or how much of a specific activity we deliver – how many workshops we have organised or events we have hosted. Instead, we are assessed against a more challenging but vital target – how we have added something new to our research or teaching portfolio. This permissiveness is the foundation for experimentation and creativity.  It is the foundation of collaboration rather than competition. And therefore, it creates the environment in which new ideas can thrive. These new ways of working might or might not solve climate change or any other grand challenge; however, a diversity of new ideas inspired by a diversity of perspectives, whether from Bristol, GW4 partners or others, likely will.  As such, Cabot’s ambitions transcends our initial ambition to facilitate problem-driven interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary research; we aspire to create an environment where we challenge one another to think, learn and conduct research in exciting new ways.

These perspectives do not represent the only approach – and certainly not the only rationale.  My comments have arisen from the many who are part of the Cabot community. And not all of them would agree with what I’ve written or omitted. For example, I see no need for a physical space and in fact view it as a threat to creativity and adaptability; others would have good reasons to disagree. As such, these observations are not meant to be lessons but rather provocations; and as such, I hope they help catalyse the conversations of others pursuing similar initiatives – even if they make different choices.

The 50th Anniversary of the Organic Geochemistry Gordon Research Conference

In 1970, some of the world’s leading research held the first Organic Geochemistry GRC.  It was not the first organic geochemistry conference, and our field traces its origins to some 20 years earlier – when Alfred Treibs showed the structural link between biologically produced chlorophylls and hemes and their diagenetic products in rocks and oils.  In doing so, he showed that organic matter in the sedimentary record was nearly entirely of original biological origin – albeit significantly altered by diagenetic and catagenetic processes.  This then was the platform for a diverse discipline that explored topics ranging from the exploration of life on the moon and other planets, the fingerprinting and discovery of fossil fuel deposits (as well as the fingerprinting of fossil fuel contamination), the probing of critical Earth system processes, and the reconstruction of the past – in historical and archaeological contexts to recent climates to deep time and even the early history of life.

I was fortunate to be chosen by my colleagues to chair the 2020 Organic Geochemistry GRC which would have marked its 50th Anniversary.  We had a fantastic lineup of speakers – from diverse backgrounds, international, and with interests ranging from the origins of biosynthesis to the fate of organic matter in polar regions to the structure of membranes (many of the best biomarker tracers for past climates are membrane lipids). Unfortunately, that was cancelled due to Covid.

 

 

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The original 1970 GRC Attendees.
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A larger and much more diverse cohort in 2018. And full of wonderful colleagues spanning several generations of organic geochemistry. But like all of the geosciences, our discipline still has some work to do to be truly racially and ethnically diverse.

Instead we marked it virtually, sharing photos and memories.  This fantastic figure by Keith Kvenvolden captures the origins of the GRC, its attendees and themes.  It has changed in many ways but the seeds of everything we do now – the discovery of new biological and geological materials, the centrality of analytical innovation, the ambition to look at *anything* – were already present.

 

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For the past 20 years or so, the Organic Geochemistry GRC has been hosted at Holderness School in New Hampshire.  We miss you.  But Roger Summons was passing through and took some photos…. we are there in spirit.

 

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And some pictures from the past.  They would not be complete without table football! Who are these fierce competitors.  And where are their shoes?

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And some photos courtesy of Roger!

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Also courtesy of Roger is a photo of the iconic Thursday night lobster dinner.

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Cait Witkowski shared this great photo of the NIOZ group (past and present)

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And others shared photos of meeting up (socially distanced) in other ways!

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Flo and Nadine are evidently still working on that asphate seep paper from Nadine’s masters research!

One of the key events at the GRC is the awarding of the Treibs Medal (by the Organic Geochemistry Division of the Geochemical Society). This year, the very worthy winner is my friend and colleague Kai-Uwe Hinrichs of MARUM. Congratulations, Kai. It is hard to imagine a more deserving winner.

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Kai’s research group (and one visitor!)

Last year’s winner was Sylvie DeRenne (awarded at IMOG in 2019) and the previous GRC Awardee was Stefan Schouten.  Here is a history of Dutch diagenesis that… I guess led to his formation?

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Previous recent winners include Kate Freeman, Marilyn Fogel and Pat Hatcher. But of course Steve Larter had to mark his award with a song… which he forced all of the 2014 Scientific Committee to sing.  I reluctantly share this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rv-dLT2qAPE&feature=youtu.be

Also announced during our virtual GRC: Three members of the MIT Group started an organic geochemistry podcast!  Great initiative by @FatimagulHusain@angelshale, and @wizardofdrozd You can check it out here!

And of course, Gordon Inglis also hosted the second Biomarker World Cup on Twitter – a chance to learn about biomarkers and banter!  The brackets and results are below… and if you follow some of the links, you will be able to learn about these amazing compounds.  And if you follow this link to the twitter thread, you can see the extensive associated banter (including reversals, betrayals, friendships torn asunder)!

From Gordon: To celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the first Organic Geochemistry Gordon Research Conference (GRC), the ‘Biomarker World Cup’ has returned for its 2nd edition! It will feature 16 biomarkers and conclude this weekend. Who will win? Only you can decide!! #50YrsOrgGeochemGRC

Group A, Team 1: 𝘯-alkanes. Veteran biomarkers and reigning champions. Derived from epicuticular wax of terrestrial plants, they are nature’s ultimate waterproofing. Insights into vegetation, C3 vs C4 photosynthesis, rainfall and diagenesis (). Versatile. (tinyurl.com/y2k6ujw3)

Group A, Team 2: Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs). Volatile compounds produced by the incomplete combustion of organics. Usually interpreted to indicate changes in fire occurrence (e.g. Karp et al., 2018; ). Inferno. (tinyurl.com/yxdfgexm)

Group A, Team 3: Ladderanes. Made their debut at the GRC in 2002. Geoff Eglinton took Jan de Leeuw aside and asked if they were a joke (!). Biomarkers for anaerobic ammonium-oxidizing bacteria (e.g. ). Modern Art. (tinyurl.com/y6kj4nqe)

Group A, Team 4: 2,6,15,19-tetramethylicosane (TMI). Perhaps the “…rarest biomarker in the world” (@rpancost, pers. comm). Archaeal origin. An acyclic isoprenoid only found during mid-Cretaceous Oceanic Anoxic Events (e.g. OEA1b; ). Underdogs. (tinyurl.com/yxvu7mk2)

Vote now for the winner of Group A! Only one team will qualify to the semi-finals.

This was contentious with the upstart Ladderanes challenging the iconic n-alkanes. It prompted some discussion on Twitter:

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Wow! The holders (n-alkanes) are knocked out in the first round! Absolute scenes. Instead, the world’s weirdest biomarker (ladderanes) progress to the semi-final. Who will join them? Vote now!! #50YrsOrgGeochemGRC

Group B, Team 1: Crenarchaeol. A funky molecule with a unique structure. Specific to the phylum Thaumarchaeota. Not good enough for TEX86, but a rising star in the paleobarometry community (see @sarahjhurley et al; ). Fluid. (tinyurl.com/y2aqtnsq)

Group B, Team 2: Alkenones. Sea surface temperature proxy. CO₂ proxy. Algal productivity proxy. Salinity proxy (e.g. Gabriella Weiss et al ). Is there anything it can’t do!? Discovered in the late 1970s, but still going strong. Legendary. (tinyurl.com/y3guugju)

Group B, Team 3: long-chain diols. Another oldie, originally discovered in the early 1980s. Multiple sources (diatoms, algae) but new interest as a proxy for input of riverine organic matter (e.g. Julie Lattaud et al., ). Potential. (tinyurl.com/y35azv2b)

Group B, Team 4: 3-methylhopanoids. Once attributed to aerobic methanotrophs. Used to study Neoarchean aerobiosis, but can be produced by other bacteria. Methylation may aide survival under nutrient limited conditions (@PaulaWelander & Summons; ). Diverse. (tinyurl.com/y5e443rn)

Vote now! Only one team will progress!! #50YrsOrgGeochemGRC

A game of two halves. After leading for 12 hours, alkenones faded away in the second half. They will be really disappointed with that performance. Congratulations to crenarchaeol who progress to the semi finals. Next up: Group C!

Group C, Team 1: branched GDGTs. Who produces them? Who cares! First discovered in a Dutch peat, now found just about anywhere. Can help distinguish OM sources. Routinely employed as continental temperature and pH proxies (). Rising star. (tinyurl.com/y5d88lxp)

Group C, Team 2: 24-isopropylcholestane. Unusual molecule found in Precambrian rocks (~650 to 540 Ma). Perhaps the oldest evidence for complex animal life () but may also be produced by unicellular organisms. (). Controversial. (pnas.org/content/113/10…) (tinyurl.com/y6lurj45)

Group C, Team 3: Porphyrins. Discovered and described by Alfred Treibs (“the father of organic geochemistry”) in 1936. Derived from chlorophylls and helped to confirm the biological origin of petroleum. Now used to provide insights into N-cycling (e.g. ). (tinyurl.com/y3ndaope)

Group C, Team 4: Highly branched isoprenoids. Notable for the distinctive “T-branch” in their carbon skeleton. Used to explore the rise of diatoms during the Phanerozoic (e.g. ). Also a useful sea ice proxy. Utility. (tinyurl.com/y35ugl4y) Vote now! Only one team will progress!! #50YrsOrgGeochemGRC

Porphyrins were a formidable force back in the 1980’s. However, they seem to have lost their enchantment as well as supremacy. The golden era is over. Instead, branched GDGTs progress! Now onto Group D

Group D, Team 1: Isorenieratane. Light-harvesting pigment derived from photosynthetic green sulphur bacteria. These bugs like sunshine and hydrogen sulfide but hate oxygen. Regarded as key evidence for euxinia in the geological record (). Indicative. (tinyurl.com/y39n59la)

Group D, Team 2: Phytane. Diagenetic product of chlorophyll (…but other sources likely). Easy to measure using gas chromatography. Pristane/phytane often used as redox indicator. Renewed promise in recent years as a paleo-CO2 proxy (). Revitalised. (tinyurl.com/yye8ysaz)

Group D, Team 3: Archaeol. Abundant in methane-rich settings. Ridiculously low carbon isotope values (-100 per mil) provided early evidence for the involvement of archaea in anaerobic oxidation of methane ( & ). Extreme. (tinyurl.com/yytmrtlf) (tinyurl.com/y2f9fz5g)

Group D, Team 4: Heterocyst Glycolipids. Biomarkers for nitrogen-fixing cyanobacteria (…move aside 2-methylhopanoids!). Remarkably well preserved in ancient sediments and can provide unique insights into microbial ecology (). Potential. (tinyurl.com/y28mjsje) Vote now! Only one team will progress!! #50YrsOrgGeochemGRC

That was the closest race I have EVER seen. Nailbiting. Congratulations to phytane! Now onto the semi-finals

Semi Final 1: Ladderanes vs branched GDGTs. Do you prefer cyclobutane or cyclopentane rings? Only YOU can decide! #50YrsOrgGeochemGRC

Branched GDGTs win!

Semi-final 2: Crenarchaeol vs phytane. Liquid chromatography vs gas chromatography. The winner will face brGDGTs in the final. You have 24 hours to decide!! #50YrsOrgGeochemGRC

Its been a long season for phytane and they looked increasingly fatigued as the game wore on. Crenarchaeol, with its superior mass-to-charge ratio, took full advantage. A big win for the big molecule. Now onto the long-awaited final

The final: branched GDGTs vs Crenarchaeol. Bacteria vs Archaea. Terrestrial vs Marine. It’s the ‘Battle of the GDGTs’. Who will win? You have 48 hours (!) to decide! #50YrsOrgGeochemGRC

It is all over! Crenarchaeol win the 2020 Biomarker World Cup. A deserved victory. Branched GDGTs are runners-up for the second World Cup in a row. Ouch!

Thanks to everyone who participated over the last week. It was a blast! #50YrsOrgGeochemGRC @rpancost

Congratulations to crenarchaeol but also to Laura Villanueva who clearly went all out for the cause, appealing to marine deities (and the entire Archaea research community) to support the cause.  Image

 

My Dad

My Dad died three weeks ago.

I am not comfortable about sharing this. I share a lot in this blog and hold little back about my beliefs and politics, but I hide more than it seems. I always have.

But Covid prevented me from saying goodbye to Dad. It is preventing me from going home. It is preventing our family from mourning him together. I miss all of them. So I wanted to write some thoughts down, to put them somewhere they will not be alone and where they will wait until I can say them out loud.

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Dad and my Brother Ed, sharing their goofy and mischievous grins.

I miss him so much.  I remember riding around the country roads and farm fields with him; he had made these small metal-framed chairs for my brother and me and welded them onto the side of the tractor wheel basins. I remember him telling me last year, on the porch swing, to look after Mom the way Mom had looked after him.  I remember him trying to understand my concerns about a foster girl we wanted to adopt – concerns I could not articulate as a 10-year old. I remember him picking me and my girlfriend up and driving us home after I had totaled the family car. I remember him taking me to college exams and interviews, and picking me up after School.  I remember the way he bantered with every waitress, every check-out worker, sometimes crossing the line but never indifferent to anyone, ever. I remember him holding my hand and telling me that Shelli had died.

Dad and I disagreed on a lot of things.  Most things politically.  Many things that I value.  But Dad (and Mom) also taught me my values and my strengths; they helped me become who I am.

Probably the most important thing he taught me was ‘Do not put up with anyone’s bullshit.’  In 1976, he decided that he had enough of working for someone else, at the local factory. So he quit to work for himself.  Our family – the four of us – started a dairy farm.  There is a lot that I could write about working on the farm: carrying the pails back and forth as he milked the cows; stacking hay in the loft, straw slivers sticking to your skin or in your arm, temperatures near the loft ceiling shooting past 100F, wasps buzzing around your head; his shovel scraping my hands in the freezing cold as we filled burlap bags with corn to be taken to the mill; riding in the back of the pick-up truck on the way back from town, soft-serve ice cream whipping away from me in the wind.

I loved parts of it and hated others. I loved the smells – of fresh-cut hay and fresh-ground corn – and I hated the rattling, abrasive noise of the farm equipment.  I loved being with my family nearly every day; even when I claimed that I did not.  But it was not an easy life and it was not a lucrative life – and although that was frustrating, we did not care most days.  Because we worked for ourselves – and although we had to answer the diurnal demands of the cows, the demands of mortgages and loans, the demands of floods and drought, we did not answer to a boss.

Dad, Mom, my brother and I all took different lessons from that life – we all recognised that you could never escape other people’s ‘bullshit’ entirely.  Banks replaced bosses. Dad ultimately embraced a libertarian view while I adopted a socialist one.  And so even though we differed in our beliefs, they sprung from the same outrage against perceived unfairness and stupidity.

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Some Family Photos. On the right are my Mom and Dad in their wedding photo.

*************

But choices have consequences.  And one of the main consequences of being a rural Ohio dairy farmer was being poor.  Rural poverty, especially when you are a farmer, is an unusual thing. We had land to run about in, room to roam and play; my brother and I hunted frogs and salamanders in our creek, fished in local ponds, and built dams and forts.  We always had food in the freezer or the cellar, beef from the farm and vegetables from the garden.  We did not feel poor in many ways. But we did not have money.  We often did not have new clothes, except as hand-me-downs or ill-fitting gifts. We did not have the cool toys. For a while, we did not have hot water.  Some dental appointments were cancelled. Bills and uncertain weather and farm accidents loomed over us – and occasionally crashed into our lives and reminded us how precarious and precious they were.

But we had ambition and dreams; and Mom and Dad never let their own plans inhibit those of my Brother and me.

They supported us in every possible way.  There seemed to be a contract between them, that no matter what choices they made, we would have every opportunity in the world.

I always loved science.  I had a little blue travel suitcase that was packed full of my science books, mostly astronomy and planetary science, that I took everywhere. The 1980 version of the Larousse Guide to Astronomy was read to tatters. Somehow Mom found me the National Geographic issues associated with the Voyager expeditions and they got me a subscription to Astronomy magazine long before I could understand most of the articles.

But Dad was the first person who helped me how to do science, how to do an experiment. In 7th grade, as I prepared for the Science Fair, he suggested that I think about some recent work on incubating cow manure as a source of energy for rural communities. That’s right – my Dad introduced me to methanogenesis, biogeochemistry and renewable energy… in 1983. He helped me think about how we might test it, and he took me to the Chemistry Department of the local Hiram College to borrow the lab glassware we would need. He always had a knack for rigging things together, and he helped me connect the tubes and balloon reservoirs to our vat of heated manure and a valve that allowed us to burn the methane as evidence of its production. I won 3rd place in the county Science Fair for the project: Methane From Manure – Is it for You?

Dad shares the prize, but shares no blame for the title.

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13-year old Richie and his 7th Grade Science Project, co-created with my Dad. Note the vat of manure and the balloons of methane.

I got good grades throughout School – College was always on the cards.  Mom had to push me pretty hard in elementary School, but by the time of Middle School I had developed a rather strong internalised sense of ambition; my parents nurtured and supported that. In particular, they supported my desire to attend a private and elite High School, which we had been led to believe was key to getting into a top college. The School recruited us and wooed us; and when I got admitted, they told us that there was no prospect for financial aid. I was crushed. So instead, Dad fought for me to have a fast-track High School experience, to compensate for this setback by graduating from High School a year early.  Ultimately, I opted for the experience of the full four years of High School and I sure as hell do not regret missing out on the private High School. But I remember my Dad arguing with admissions directors and guidance counselors on my behalf, fighting for his son to have every opportunity.

I think my strongest memories are of him driving me to Forensics tournaments nearly every Saturday morning for four years, all though the winter, in every weather, weekend after weekend, and already after he had milked the herd. My parents had a simple rule for my brother and me when it came to extracurricular activity: they did not care what we did – sports, band, choir, debate, science clubs – but we had to do something. I think they viewed it as essential for our character, to do something real, something neither from the farm nor from the classroom.

I joined the Forensics (Speech) Team.  And I was good at it, making it the State championships a few times.  The tournaments were every Saturday during the School year and all over NorthEast Ohio. After milking the cows, Dad would drive me to the High School by 8am, so I could catch the Team school bus to wherever the tournament was being hosted.  Through the winter dark, he always drove me.  And through god knows how many blizzards – lake effect blizzards – at those early hours before the snow plows and salt trucks had emerged.

I remember one morning when the snow had fallen so hard, I was sure he would say we could not go.  He did not, and like every other Saturday we headed off at 7:30 am, him fresh from the barn and me wearing my suit. The roads were treacherous with compacted snow. And as we carefully inched down State Route 82 towards Derthick’s Hill, a not unimpressive hill for NE Ohio and so-named because of the owners of the farm at its summit, we saw red lights twisting and turning towards us, the brake lights of cars sliding, out of control down the impassable hill. Some into ditches and some towards us. He turned to me and asked, ‘How important is this tournament?’ And I said that it was really important.  And so he turned down a snow-packed country side road and drove the back way, over uneven and twisting ice-packed gravel and dirt roads and through blizzard-occluded views, until we finally reached the High School and the waiting bus.

I don’t remember a thing about that tournament; all I remember is that my Dad got me there.

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This is one of our family’s favourite photos. Dad and me on Boomer and Ed and Mom on Fancy, after a long ride to our friend’s home.

Not all memories are good. They never can be; nor should they be.  And failing to remember the disagreements or the really tough financial times makes a lie out of remembering the many good times. But I can honestly say that not once in my life have I ever doubted that my parents had my best interests at heart, that even when they did not entirely understand my dreams or decisions, they supported them. They loved the family life we shared on the farm, but we all understood that would end after I started College and my brother followed two years later. They never thought I would move so far, across an Ocean, but they did know I would move away.

These were different choices than they had made. My Dad joined the Army out of School instead of college. But I never would have gone to college nor completed it without him. I never would have gotten my PhD. I dedicated my PhD to both Mom and Dad and gave Dad the only copy of my Thesis I ever printed, which remains unbound in his closet.

Years later, I found myself in a submersible exploring the mud volcanoes and brine lakes of the Mediterranean seafloor, searching for methane seeps and the organisms associated with them. I was so far away from the farm and yet so close; we were exploring the landscape like my brother and I had explored the forgotten corners of our farm, and we were looking for some of the same organisms that I had studied with my Dad in that 7th grade Science Project.

Then and now, I think of Dad and am grateful to him.  For the sacrifices he made, the lessons he taught me and the opportunities he gave me.  I love him and I miss him.  But he has always been with me and he always will be.

 

Actions To Improve Racial Diversity, Equity And Inclusion In Our School

Actions To Improve Racial Diversity, Equity And Inclusion In Our School

Prepared by the School of Earth Sciences Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee (NOTE: This version has not been finalised. Consultation with the wider School and Faculty EDI Committee will be done before this is finalised).

Summary

This document was prepared at the request of staff and students to provide resources to help them build a more racially diverse, equitable and inclusive School. As such, it comprises three sections: an introduction; a list of Actions that individuals can take, including references and resources; and a summary of the University and School Action Plan, showing what actions the School is taking. The first two pages are a summary of the more exhaustive information provided on pages 3-11.

Introduction: We all have a role but our roles will differ.  We all share obligations to understand our society, our privilege, the sector that employs us, and our university policies; and we all have an obligation to create a respectful, inclusive and equitable workplace and learning environment. But we recognise that those of us in formal and informal leadership roles have different capacity to create positive change.  The introduction also summarises the key resources we drew upon to create the Action List, including a University racial equality ppt presentation: file:///C:/Users/cordp/Downloads/NV%20U.Bristol%20Nov%202019.pdf

Summary: Twelve Actions that Each of Us Can Take:

1) Understand that there is a problem, the depths of that problem and how it manifests in your life and career. Action is motivated by understanding racism and accepting our presence in a racist society. Useful resources include White Privilege: The Myth of a Post-Racial Society.  And discipline specific resources include the following Nature Geoscience articles: No Progress on Diversity in 40 years and Race and Racism in the Geosciences

2) Educate ourselves about the social, historical, political contexts that contribute to these inequities. It is vital to understand the historical roots of racism, how it manifests today and the role of science in perpetuating it.  Some recommended books include:

Renni Eddo-Lodge – Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race – available to read electronically through UoB Library Services: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/library/find/

Angela Saini – Superior, The Return of Race Science

3) Do not expect marginalised groups to do your work for you. We recognise the inequities of society and academia. In doing so, we also recognise that it is profoundly inappropriate to ask them to invest even more labour or revisit their trauma to educate the rest of us.

4) Do platform the voices of marginalised groups. Although we must not create labour for our colleagues, we want to create opportunity, to profile and to give voice. We can invite them to our seminars, advocate for their inclusion in scientific programmes and nominate them for awards.

5) Do not “All Lives Matter” your conversations. There are multiple marginalised groups and most of us come from one or more of them – gender, racial, ethnic and religious minorities, differently abled, neurodivergent, LGBTQ+, working class, indigenous groups and more. This school recognises all of these, celebrates all of our staff, students, alumni and collaborators no matter what their background, privileged or not. But the time and place for discussing different forms of marginalisation requires care and understanding. It requires that we recognise the context and situation: when a house is on fire, that is not the time to say, “All Houses Matter.”

6) Do not intellectualise someone’s trauma. We are scientists.  We like to argue and debate. But there is a time and place for debate and a time for empathy, understanding and support.

7) We make mistakes; learn from them. We will make mistakes, mispronouncing someone’s name or making inappropriate assumptions about culture. We must not be complacent about such mistakes, and we must strive to improve. Crucially, our mistakes are not an excuse to disengage because we are anxious, thereby creating new forms of marginalisation.

8) When challenged, be reflective not defensive. If we have created the environment that we want in our School, marginalised colleagues will feel safe in calling us out on those. When that happens we aspire to be reflective rather than defensive; thoughtful rather than dismissive or argumentative.

9) Understand White Privilege. Understanding how to tackle racism requires an understanding of how white people have benefited from it. Crucially, in the competitive and challenging environment of academia, acknowledging privilege can feel like it detracts from our achievements. It does not. But it does help us recognise what has been taken away from others.

10) Be a vocal supporter and advocate for anti-racism in our organisations.  There are many ways to be visible – in the Common Room, on social media, in seminars. Be a good ally https://guidetoallyship.com/; be an active bystander https://www.ihollaback.org/bystander-resources/; be an advocate for change in our discipline.

11) Do something. Anything. Try. Learn. Improve. Try again.  Start a journal club; focus your outreach on marginalised schools; suggest more speakers for our seminar series.

12) Be in it for the long haul. Black colleagues around the world are happy to see expressions of solidarity from individuals and organisations but are rightfully concerned that the commitment to act is superficial or will fade with time. Commit now and revisit your commitments in the future.

University and School Actions: Although this document focuses on the actions we can all take, we recognise that it is ultimately the legal and ethical responsibility of the institution to ensure that our School is a diverse and equitable place to learn and work.  We have included a partial list of the actions the University and School are taking in the second part of this document but summaries of these can be found on the University and School EDI websites.

 

 

 

We All Have A Role but Our Roles Will Differ

We all share obligations to understand our society, our privilege, the sector that employs us, and our university policies; and we all have an obligation to create a respectful, inclusive and equitable workplace and learning environment.

However, our legal responsibilities, influence and visibility will vary, such that our potential – and tools – for affecting change will also vary. Those of us with formal roles, such as the EDI Director, Head of School or Institutional Representatives, have the capacity to advocate for structural change in laws, systems and policies that promote or reinforce inequalities in the University. All of us who serve in formal roles in the School have obligations to embed EDI principles into our delivery of those roles. Colleagues involved with UK or international geoscience organisations or members of esteemed societies will have power to influence these institutions to take a more active role, thereby strengthening our discipline.  Some of us do not have formal roles, but still have leadership obligations arising in informal ways, including from our profile and visibility in the School or our discipline.  All of us can lead by example, amongst our peers and friends, in the School and in wider society.

Crucially, all of us have the capacity to improve our School for racially marginalised groups, to help create a more equitable working and learning environment and ultimately a more diverse community.

This document collates principles and advice to help us, adapted from a number of resources, including the following:

For those keen to further explore the topic beyond the geosciences and STEM links below, a compilation of UoB academic research on racism and anti-racism is available on the Univeristy EDI webpage. The BAME Staff Network have produced a statement in relation to Black Lives Matter which has more information and resources for staff.

Notes:  This document was completed during the global protests in support of Black Lives Matter.  Many of the resources below, however, are broader.  Some focus specifically on the experience of black people; others on broader groups of racially, ethnically and religiously marginalised groups.  They draw on international resources, referring therefore to BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic), BME (Black and Minority Ethnic), VME (Visible Minority Ethnic), POC and WOC (People of Colour and Women of Colour) and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour). These terms are more or less appropriate in different contexts, but it is critical to note that each of them conflates a great variety of marginalised groups, each with disparate histories, experiences and forms of marginalisation.  As such, we recognise the limitations of their use.  Further commentary on the sometimes problematic conflation of different marginalised groups is in this essay by a colleague in the School of Law: https://folukeafrica.com/the-only-acceptable-part-of-bame-is-the-and/

Actions That Each of Us Can Take

1) Understand that there is a problem, the depths of that problem and how it manifests in your life and career. Action is motivated by understanding racism and accepting your presence in a racist society. A powerful book on this topic is: White Privilege: The Myth of a Post-Racial Society, written by Kalwant Bhopal and published by Bristol Policy Press – https://policy.bristoluniversitypress.co.uk/white-privilege

It is not enough to have a superficial understanding, our motivation fuelled solely by events deemed newsworthy or that provoke outrage.  The violence by police against black people or the shockingly higher Covid-19 fatality rates among some BAME populations are terrible and therefore catalysts to act. But a focus on only those can obscure the fact that they are only the most shocking and appalling examples of racism in our society, much of it invisible to those with privilege.

The racism and marginalisation that permeates society includes the Earth Sciences and academia.  Not a single permanent member of academic staff in our School is Black or Minority Ethnic, a pervasive issue in the Earth Sciences discipline:

No Progress on Diversity in 40 years https://www.nature.com/articles/s41561-018-0116-6?proof=trueMay

Race and Racism in the Geosciences https://www.nature.com/articles/s41561-019-0519-z?proof=trueMay

Those both explore the issue using USA data and perspectives. The situation is no better in the UK or Europe, but comparable studies cannot be done because the data have not been rigorously collected and the data we do have has not been made public.  More recent UK trends were explored in a Leading Routes study which revealed that from 2017 to 2019, of 19,868 PhD funded studentships awarded by UKRI research councils collectively, only 245 were awarded to Black or Black Mixed students, with just 30 of those being from Black Caribbean backgrounds.  https://leadingroutes.org/mdocs-posts/the-broken-pipeline-barriers-to-black-students-accessing-research-council-funding

Some of us have asked NERC if we can explore this further, via discipline centric data, and we cannot.  There are so few NERC-funded Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) students that they cannot disclose numbers without violating privacy data. However, HESA data reveal that only 10% of geology undergrads are from a BAME background and just 2% of geology undergrads are Black. There are no published data, but these numbers will drop at PhD, postdoc, and faculty level; an unofficial survey by Tanvir Hussain reveals that of current PhD students (June 2020), only 1% of NERC students are BAME and 0% of STFC students. There are two Black geology professor in the UK.

We must accept that this is a problem – not just in society but academia, in science, in the geosciences, in our School. We must accept that it is in part a consequence of our own action and inaction, that we have not sufficiently appealed to diverse society to join our discipline nor created an environment that welcomes those who do. We must accept our responsibility to act. Finally, to our BAME students and colleagues we commit to changing this in our own School and our discipline through advocacy and via our privileged roles in, i.e. NERC, the Royal Society, GSL and other organisations.

2) Educate ourselves about the social, historical, political contexts that contribute to these inequities. It is vital to understand the historical roots of racism, how it manifests today and the role of science in perpetuating it.  This is a great reading list provided by Leanne Melbourne:

Renni Eddo-Lodge – Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race. This is a really detailed discussion on white privilege and structural racism. It is also available to read electronically through UoB Library Services: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/library/find/

Akala- Natives – Akala uses his experiences to discuss the structural systems in place today

Angela Saini – Superior, The Return of Race Science – This is an excellent book which talks about how science has been used to fuel racist motives.  (Saini also wrote the excellent Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research that’s Rewriting the Story).

Adam Rutherford – How to Argue With A Racist – A similar topic to Angela Saini’s but not as detailed.

David Olusoga – Black and British: A Forgotten History – This book is a large one but covers a lot of black history in Britain (and by someone with a strong connection to Bristol)

Yomi Adegoke and Elizabeth Uviebinene – Slay in Your Lane (The Black Girl Bible) – This book gives an excellent insight into what it is like to be a Black woman in the UK

Candice Braithwaite – I Am Not Your Baby Mother – Black women are five times more likely to die in childbirth die as a result of complications in pregnancy than white women in the UK. Candice’s book discusses this and also more about being a black mother in the UK.

Colin Grant – Homecoming: Voices of the Windrush Generation – Different stories from the Windrush generation told in their own voices

There also many excellent documentaries.  They will not offer the forensic examination and critical advice that the books above do but they do help understand the black experience, both historical and contemporary: https://www.standard.co.uk/stayingin/tvfilm/netflix-uk-movies-shows-documentaries-racism-a4459721.html?amp

Our colleague Foluke Ifejola Adebisi in the School of Law has written this powerful summary of the history of slavery in the city of Bristol and how it is embedded in the financing of our University and still expressed in the names of our buildings and our logo: https://folukeafrica.com/decolonising-the-university-of-bristol/

Beyond the inequities in academia and society, the Earth Sciences has its own problematic history. An extensive reading list on the colonial history of geology can be found here: http://mineralogy.digital.brynmawr.edu/blog/geology-colonialism-reading-list/

3) Do not expect marginalised groups to do your work for you. We recognise the inequities of society and our own systems, the extra trauma experienced by marginalised groups and the extra labour they will have had to invest to achieve what they have. In doing so, we recognise that it is profoundly inappropriate to ask them to invest even more labour or revisit their trauma to educate the rest of us.

Institutionally, this means we take care in how we ask community partners to help diversify our institution, i.e. for our recruitment and outreach projects.  At a School level, we must take care in who we ask to serve on committees. And at an individual level, we must take care in asking friends or colleagues to explain racism.

This is not a simple rule. As an institution, we do seek guidance from community partners, but then we must compensate them. As a School, we can ask marginalised groups to serve on EDI committees but only if we ensure that service is truly recognised and rewarded to the same degree as other contributions, within the School and the University.  As an individual, maybe our friends want us to ask, to talk to us and share experience, but we must not expect them to do so and we must respect one another if we are instead requested to reflect, do our own research or read a book instead.

4) Do platform the voices of marginalised groups. Although we do not want to create labour for our colleagues, we want to create opportunity, to profile and to give voice. We can:

Invite colleagues from marginalised groups to present in our school seminars or at conferences.

Advocate for their inclusion in scientific programmes.

Nominate them for fellowships and awards.

Celebrate them and showcase them on social media.

In doing so, respect them for who they want to be.  Please do not ask Black scientists to speak in Conference diversity sessions but not in scientific ones.

5) Do not “All Lives Matter” your conversations. There are multiple marginalised groups and most of us come from one or more of them – gender, racial, ethnic and religious minorities, differently abled, neurodivergent, LGBTQ+, working class, indigenous groups and more. This school recognises all of these, celebrates all of our staff, students, alumni and collaborators no matter what their background, privileged or not. We are a community and we are committed to diversity in every respect.  We are committed to every single one of you.

But the time and place for discussing different forms of marginalisation and sharing experiences requires care and understanding. It requires that we recognise the context and situation. When a house is on fire, that is not the time to say, “All Houses Matter.”  These conversations are challenging, but you can be guided by:

Reading the room: What is the nature of the conversation, what is its context? If we are discussing School policy, then of course we discuss all dimensions of marginalisation.  But if we are discussing a specific issue – sexual harassment in the field, the murder of black people by police, or the harassment of our overseas students – then our focus must remain on that issue. Conflating other issues can dilute the cause and the conversation, undermine the quest for solutions, and undermine the voices of the victims.

Not centring yourself: There are moments where we might wish to share our own experiences as an act of solidarity. It is perfectly natural to do so, to make a connection and build empathy and understanding. But do so with care and consideration. Question your rationale – is it compassion and reinforcement of your colleague’s concerns or is it deflection? If you do so, ensure that any such sharing is quickly followed by a return to the concerns that started the conversation in the first place, to those who have experienced the trauma. Do not allow the conversation to become recentred on yourself.

Recognising intersectionality: The term intersectionality was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw  as a way to explain the oppression of African-American women. Since then, the term has expanded to include the intersection of any minoritized characteristics (although that wider definition is contested, with many arguing it should only be used as originally intended). Truly understanding this concept – on a deep personal level – is essential to balancing our own personal experiences of repression with our privilege. Many of us come from a poor working-class backgrounds, but we retain privilege from our white identity; we have had setbacks and faced unfair obstacles, but we have also been afforded privileges that our black colleagues have not.

6) Do not intellectualise someone’s trauma. We are scientists.  We like to argue and debate. But there is a time and place for that.  There is a time to discuss and debate government policy over Prevent, Windrush, Grenfell, austerity or military interventions.  But consider the origin and context of such conversations and especially if they have been initiated by a colleague’s pain, arising from their concerns as a person impacted by those policies.  If someone is concerned that Prevent targets them or their family, that is a moment for solidarity and understanding not a debate about government policy.

Or course, this applies to a huge range of issues beyond just policy, including forms of activism, appropriate climate action, sports, current events, the jobs we will seek after graduation and even how we conduct science.  There is a time for scholarly debate and a time for empathy.

7) We make mistakes; learn from them. We will misread the above situations.  I have, time and time again.  We mismanage or misread the situations articulated above. We mispronounce someone’s name and then try to laugh it off.  We make assumptions about culture that are inappropriate. We laugh at racist jokes and can be poor allies. But we must not be complacent about such mistakes, and we must strive to improve.

Crucially, our mistakes are not an excuse to disengage because we are anxious, thereby creating new forms of marginalisation.  We must engage, accept the discomfort that comes from not knowing, accept that we will make mistakes, learn from them, apologise, and improve.

One might argue that these attributes are also those that we aspire to as scientists; there is little excuse to not embrace them in an EDI context.

8) When challenged, be reflective not defensive. When we engage with these issues, we will make mistakes.  But if we have created the environment that we want in our School and our society, marginalised people will feel safe in calling us out on those.

Reflect when that happens. Do not deflect, make excuses or become defensive. Take a moment to think about it.  In academic environments, we are quick to argue. Instead, become quick to listen.

This tendency to defensiveness is also socially embedded. “Socialised into a deeply internalized sense of superiority that we either are unaware of or can never admit to ourselves, we become highly fragile in or conversations about race. We consider a challenge to our racial world as a challenge to our identities as good, moral people. The smallest amount of racial stress is intolerable – the mere suggestion that being white often triggers a range of defensive responses. This includes emotions such as anger, fear and guilt…These responses work to reinstate white equilibrium…I conceptualize this process as white fragility.” Robin DiAngelo from White Fragility 2018.

Further Reading on this includes:

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Race by Robin DiAngelo

How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi

A counterpoint to defensiveness is empathy for the experience to those challenging inappropriate behaviour. It is difficult to speak up to a friend or mentor when something they have said is inappropriate.  No one wants to be uncool and take offense at a joke. No one wants to start another argument.  No one wants to see their concerns dismissed again. Therefore, often when someone calls you out it is an act of friendship and trust. They are doing so because they trust you, they think you will listen, they care about you.  It takes little effort to just listen, to ask more questions, to ask for some time to reflect on what they have said.

9) Understand White Privilege. Understanding how to tackle racism requires an understanding of how white people have benefited from it.  The term white privilege has a long history can be traced back to the beginning of the 20th century; it came into contemporary fashion following a 1989 essay by Peggy McIntosh “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”: https://www.racialequitytools.org/resourcefiles/mcintosh.pdf  She defines it as: ‘an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day …. An invisible, weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank cheques.’

You can find many more contemporary discussions on it, such as this one: https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/fall-2018/what-is-white-privilege-really It helps explain what white privilege is, why it is important to recognise, and crucially it empathises with the reluctance some have with the term: “The two-word term packs a double whammy that inspires pushback. 1) The word white creates discomfort among those who are not used to being defined or described by their race. And 2) the word privilege, especially for poor and rural white people, sounds like a word that doesn’t belong to them—like a word that suggests they have never struggled.” The http://www.carryourweight.org/reflect website has resources focused on reflecting on these issues.

Crucially in our hyper-intensive academic environment, understand that your privilege does not take away from what you have achieved. In academia, every single one of us has overcome a huge number of obstacles to achieve what we have. It is hard to be admitted to our School, hard to get a degree, hard to get a PhD, hard to get a job, hard to get grants funded, hard to become a Professor.  And aligned with that, we like to believe that our field is a meritocracy, that we have earned our success.

Academia aspires to be a meritocracy, but it is not one (see Superior and Inferior, above). Our privilege helped us, and our success is partly conditional upon that.

But that does not undermine our achievements.  If we can acknowledge the role played by our parents, or our teachers and our mentors, then we can also acknowledge the role played by our privilege. It takes nothing away from us, but it does help us recognise what has been taken away from others.

10) Be a vocal supporter and advocate for anti-racism in our organisations.  There are many ways to be visible – in meetings and on social media, in invited talks and award lectures, in conversations both private and in the coffee room. We must all learn to call out problematic statements and learn how to be a good ally; from https://guidetoallyship.com/, to be an ally is:

In more serious situations, be an active bystander. There are excellent online resources:  https://www.ihollaback.org/bystander-resources/ and The University has put together an Stand Up Speak Out online training toolkit to guide you through how to be an Upstander.

We can advocate for change in our societies, either through the official roles we have or as visible members of our geosciences community. We can advocate for change in our own School, in our own committee meetings, in our hallways.

Sometimes the most effective course of action is a confidential mail or a private conversation with a colleague in a senior role; sometimes it is by publicly calling out an individual or an organisation for insufficient action.  However, if those of us who are privileged only pursue the former, our allyship and support is invisible to those who need it most. Our actions must – a significant amount of the time – be public and visible. Members of our community from marginalised groups must see the rest of us make a stand and commit to solidarity.

Crucially, in doing so we must resist the temptation to centre ourselves. We use our influence to sometimes protect others from further trauma and sometimes to create a platform on which they can stand. We do not do so for our own reward and we are vigilant against White Saviour complex.

We will make mistakes. But by publicly and vocally advocating for change, we share the labour with marginalised groups. And we create an environment where they feel empowered to raise their own concerns and speak for themselves.

11) Do something. Anything. Get stuck in.  Try. Learn. Improve. Try again.  All of the above are starting points. By understanding these issues we can speak more confidently.  By speaking publicly we are implicitly committing ourselves to act.  And by taking small action, we are building the capacity to take stronger ones.

Here is a list of ten further actions you can take to make academia a more inclusive workplace, by Jacquelyn Gill: https://contemplativemammoth.com/2016/01/07/ten-easy-ways-to-support-diversity-in-academia-in-2016/ These can serve as ideas or stimulate your own: Start a journal club or a discussion group; focus your outreach on marginalised schools or wards; suggest more speakers for our seminar series; when you are invited to speak elsewhere, ask how diverse their seminar series is; discuss a statement on behaviour, values or code of conduct for your lab or group (https://ecoevorxiv.org/4a9p8/). Some of these are actions that we are taking as a School but many of these can be taken by individuals or by groups, they can be formal or informal.  And of course your actions can and should include challenging the School and University.

Finally, you may wish to engage with anti-racism issues in wider society. In Bristol, Beyond the Hashtag has been established by Black campaigners; it is full of resources on Bristol’s history – including the activism that has transformed it as well as tools and advice: https://beyondthehashtag.co.uk/resources/

12) Be in it for the long haul. Black colleagues around the world are happy to see expressions of solidarity from individuals and organisations but are rightfully concerned that the commitment to act is superficial or will fade with time.

Commit now and revisit your commitments in the future.  Create an action plan or a checklist. Put a note in your diary for six months time to reflect and refresh your actions: you can revisit the outrage that motivated you to speak up today; book a day off to read one of the above books; or simply audit what actions you have taken between now and then.

 

Finally, if you wish to financially support Black Lives Matter projects in the UK, there is a compilation here:

https://docs.google.com/document/d/10iIz_pFB8DzPkwddc8dcmJdJ0ZMITfTs7lvs4uyusZk/preview?pru=AAABcpk9kiI*KXe1KQSnVEDy_8YpzJtp8A

It includes various campaigning groups, educational links, petitions and even a sample letter for sending to an MP. The School does not officially endorse it given some links to political parties, but it contains many useful resources. Thanks to Frances Robertson for sharing.

 

 

What Actions Has the University and School of Earth Sciences Taken and Will Take

In early 2020, the University of Bristol published its Institutional Race Equality Statement which sets out the key areas of focus for our evolving race equality strategy, establishing our direction of travel for the coming years.  Central to that have been the following actions:

  • Undertaking our first Ethnicity Pay Gap Reportand taking action to address any inequalities;
  • Establishing a BAME Staff Networkwhere people can share a sense of community and work with us to ensure that our BAME staff have a consistent and positive experience at the University;
  • Participating in the Stepping Upinitiative, a positive action programme aimed at improving the representation of BAME people, as well as other groups, in senior leadership roles within Bristol and the wider region;
  • Launching an apprenticeshiptalent pipeline to drive ethnic diversity while taking into consideration the skills gaps present in underrepresented groups in industry demand areas such as Finance, IT, Human Resources, Engineering and the Creative Industries;
  • Working with schools and colleges and local community groups and leaders to ensure that our recruitment opportunities reach potential staff from diverse backgrounds;
  • Delivering role and application workshops in the local community;
  • Participation in city-wide events – such as St Pauls Carnival and the African Caribbean Expo – while sharing employment opportunities at the University and helping people become more aware of the range of jobs on offer.

University-led initiatives aimed at supporting students include:

  • Launching the online Report and Support service that offers students and staff a quick and easy way to tell us about specific incidents.
  • Funding research internships which provide paid experience in research for new graduates, in order to increase the number of Black, Asian and minority ethnic students progressing to postgraduate study.
  • Setting a target to eliminate the BAME awards gap at the University by 2025 and developing a comprehensive action plan to address this, informed by research done by Bristol SU.
  • Beginning the work of decolonising our curricula, led by academic colleagues with expertise in this area. It is only one of two UK Universities in which this is explicitly included in our strategic plan.
  • Working closely with Bristol SU and the student BME Network to understand and improve BAME students experience at the University.
  • Providing staff training in race equality; harassment and hate crime awareness training delivered by SARI; and intercultural awareness training delivered by Kynfolk.

At School level, we endorse all of these. Most of the actions we have taken or will take as part of our 5-year Strategy are included in our Athena Swan Silver document and action plan (soon to be available on the School EDI website). The Athena Swan process and data collection focuses on gender issues; as such, we deem it incomplete with respect to racial diversity. However, our School survey identified BAME diversity as a top priority and our Action Plan specifically addresses that, including:

  • Build an influential EDI Committee and empower the EDI Director. We have a large EDI Committee that is empowered to drive the school’s social and community building agenda. The Director sits on School Board, ensuring a voice comparable to that of our Research and Education Directors. As a result of our survey and action plan, the Committee and Director are mandated by the School to devote specific effort to BAME diversity and equity.
  • Ensure that support for BAME diversity is embedded in our staff recruitment and appointment. Our commitment to diversity is included in all advertisements and all core academic staff appointments require a diversity statement. We are currently expanding this for PDRA recruitment.
  • Require all Staff to complete the University EDI Training module and advocate for its improvement. The UoB-provided training module centres gender issues and is somewhat less developed on wider EDI issues, including those around BAME equity; we have advocated that the University commit to a more comprehensive training approach as part of their commitment to the Bristol Equality Charter and this will be introduced in the autumn.
  • Ensure our School outreach and UG recruitment reaches BAME groups. Our outreach programmes, including the Bristol Dinosaur Project, are increasingly engaging with Schools from Bristol’s most marginalised wards. We are working with UK organisations, civic partners and the University to ensure that the Earth Sciences is promoted in Schools from across the UK where our discipline has traditionally had low visibility. This has resulted in an increase in BAME student admissions over the past two years.
  • Fully fund all travel for undergraduate field courses, so that no one is excluded due to personal financial constraints.
  • Seek funding to support all of our students, regardless of background, to buy field equipment and fully enjoy our field trips.
  • Seek funding to support all of our students to access summer internships. In doing so, we will expand on the Palaeobiology Group’s Bristol Summer Diversity Internship.
  • Diversify our Seminar Series. We currently require a gender balance in suggestions for School Seminar speakers and encourage suggestions of BAME speakers. In the future we will require at least one BAME School Seminar speaker per term.
  • Lobby UKRI to allocate additional funding and create targeted schemes to recruit racially diverse PhD students and Fellows.
  • Support and reward staff who lead on diversity initiatives within the University and geological societies
  • Ensure that our social events are welcome to those from all backgrounds, including all racial, ethnic and religious groups.

This remains an incomplete plan and revising it will be a priority in 2020-2021, with a focus on taking bolder action on outreach, recruitment, curriculum review and diversity training.

I do not want to talk to you about ‘Population’ and Climate Change

It happens at nearly every talk I’ve given on climate change or the environment.  I could be talking through the lens of my own research on past climate, or via my Cabot Institute role or as a climate action activist. Inevitably and regardless of context, the tedious question is asked, usually posed as a ‘gotcha’ moment, what the questioner considers to be a particularly trenchant insight: ‘But isn’t population the real problem?’

It is the same on social media. Sometimes in the news.  Sometimes said by leaders and environmental advocates who really should know better. It is a pervasive little bore in almost all environmental conversations, intellectually lazy and dishonest, evasive of responsibility.

Of course, often it is far worse than that, coded for racial and colonial bias, an attempt to blame ‘them’ for our environmental problems, ironically ‘them’ that have been most victimised by climate change and environmental degradation in the first place.

In all cases, it reeks of shifting responsibility – either from an individual or a nation, or from a cultural bias or economic worldview. And not shifting that responsibility upwards, to challenge those in power, but shifting down, kicking down, blaming those already exploited and oppressed.

Sometimes it is well intentioned, especially from those new to these debates. And to those of you who want to genuinely bring population control into the environmental discussion in any of its forms, I have one request:  Don’t. I am not interested in this conversation. Few or us are. We know how to do math, we’ve had the conversation many times, and we know it adds nothing new in the way of insight or solutions.

But, if you insist on imposing this conversation on someone, insist on making a documentary where ‘too many humans’ is your central conclusion, insist on coming to talks or coming into our mentions just to ask this question, then here are the rules.

1. Tell us your point.  If your point is to say that ‘more people will consume more’ then move along; we can all do math. We know.

2. If your point is that ‘this is the real problem and it is being ignored’, then go back and redo the math.  Global birth rates have been declining for decades, from a high near 5 in the 1950s to about 2.4 now, i.e. not quite but nearly at stable population levels. That is why population is expected to plateau in the middle of this century. Is this, therefore, the ‘problem that is being ignored’?

2019 revision – world population growth 1700 2100From https://ourworldindata.org/future-population-growth Note the declining rate of population growth since 1960.

3. If despite this, you still maintain that population is the real problem, i.e. a greater problem than capitalism and consumption, a greater problem than the wealthiest burning through energy and the environment at a rate an order of magnitude greater than the rest of us and two orders greater than the poorest of the world, then acknowledge the inequitable world for which you advocate. Understand global (or even sub-national) per capita differences in consumption, CO2 emissions, etc. Understand how those differences align with privilege and wealth.  And class. And race. Understand who you are blaming, who you are accusing of being the ‘real problem’. And most importantly, understand who you are protecting, who you are insulating from blame, who you are insulating from meaningful action. And therefore:

4. Acknowledge if you just abdicated or deflected from your own responsibility and dumped it onto someone else.  And then we get to explore why you have done so.

5. Do your homework on the history and wider cultural context of the arguments you are making. Understand eco-facism. Understand its history and the crimes committed in its name. Understand that all of us who have been talking about climate change for decades have had hundreds of speakers come up to us after a talk and say, ‘But we all know that the real problem is population growth in Africa/India/Asia, etc.’  If you are going to talk about population growth, you have an obligation to be aware of the racial subtext – and your own inherent racial biases. You do not have to accept responsibility for your fellow travellers, but you are obliged to know who they are.

6. Put your cards on the damn table. You do not get to suggest something so provocative and laden with racist and imperialist connotations and not have the guts to propose a solution.

7. If the solution is better education of women and alleviation of poverty, then say that instead.  If your solution is to advocate for improved access to birth control, say that instead. We’ve all seen trolls make ominous allusions to population control and then, when challenged, retreat to the respectable conversation of better education and empowerment of women.

8. If your solution is something darker, you don’t get to just vaguely gesture at the problem and allow your audience to fill the gaps.  If you want to control the life choices and bodies of black women, have the guts to say so. If you are a eugenicist, admit it.

9. If you don’t say what your solution is, i get to assume that you are volunteering to be front of the queue if it is implemented.

10. If you are a privileged, white male, just don’t.  If you are past the age of having more children yourself, just fucking don’t.

Seriously.  Re-read point 10.  I’m not saying you do not get to have an opinion; I am a white male who has chosen not to have children and I have opinions.  But I’m not interested in that opinion, especially when it is a conversation about what “other people” need to do in order to solve a problem that people like us created.  What I am interested in is honesty, integrity and personal responsibility.  For any climate or environmental issue, what is your solution and what are the consequences?  Who are you expecting to change or to sacrifice; where does the burden for action fall; to whom are you assigning blame?

And why do you think that?

 

The Organic Geochemistry Unit’s ‘Mission to the Moon’

Y’all! A blog adapted from my 19 July 2019, 50th anniversary twitter thread about the Apoll0 11 #Apollo50th lunar samples and the search for life. Adapted from a presentation by @ogu_bristol founder Geoff Eglinton, who led the search for biomolecules. The team included him, James Maxwell, Colin Pillinger, John Hayes and others, titans of the organic geochemistry field. University of Bristol press release here:  (bristol.ac.uk/news/2019/july…)

Today, the @ogu_bristol studies archaeology, past climate, the Earth system, environmental pollution, astrobiology and the evolution of life. We are all proud to build on the legacy of Geoff and James, shared between @UoBEarthScience and @BristolChem (bristol.ac.uk/chemistry/rese…)

Geoff’s involvement dated back to 1967 when @NASA first commissioned proposals for analyses of the rocks! (Geoff – like all of us – also smelled an opportunity for investment in fantastic new kit!)

Slide from one of Geoff’s iconic presentations

This was exciting news in Bristol – but the @bristollive (Bristol Post) headline rather captured the gender stereotypes of the day. As we know, there were many hidden figures at NASA. And although the OGU was mostly men in 1969, women were a critcal part of the group.

“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do these other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills’ JFK, 1962. A thrilling statement of scientific intent.

Everyone had their own role to play in the post-mission effort do derive as much scientific value as possible from this great human endeavour. This is Geoff’s list of the ‘Big Questions’:

Images of the launch…

… and some of Geoff’s favourite images from the mission. All courtesy of @NASA

The Rocks Arriving at NASA! They had to be quarantined for three weeks in the Lunar Receiving Lab to ensure they were not contaminated with extraterrestrial life, radiation, toxins.

And then processed via different labs for different analyses, partitioning, etc. This flow chart looks SO simple, given what we have all personally experienced in distributing far less precious samples!

Love these photos.

This discussion over how to process some of the most valuable samples in the history of humanity just looks too damn chill.  I’ve seen scientists nearly come to blows over how to partition a marine sediment core!

Bristol newspapers took this seriously: “The Four Just Men of Bristol.” The rocks arrived in Bristol on 23 Oct 1969, an event that we celebrated with a talk by James Maxwell and a fantastic introduction by Colin Pillinger’s wife, Judy.

Sidebar: (John Hayes was Kate Freeman’s PhD supervisor; and she was mine. The legacy of this mission and the analytical techniques that spun out of it is vast. And now I co-lead this same group. This is humbling.)

This is James Maxwell and Colin Pillinger transferring the moon dust. I never had the privilege of working with Colin, but James, Geoff and John are titans in the field from whom I had the privilege to learn.

This is it. This is what we got.

The most precious samples in the history of humanity. Looking for trace quantities. That could change how we perceived our place in the cosmos. No pressure.

What. Did. They. Find?? The @ogu_bristol had two scientific goals. The first, as we are organic geochemists), was looking for molecular evidence for life.

And?

They found none. Despite at least some pop culture suggestions to the contrary!

Including our own Bristol pop culture, right @aardman?

One of my fondest memories of Geoff was Richard Evershed asking him at the end of the seminar ‘Did you expect to find any evidence?’

Geoff: ‘Ha ha ha ha… No.”

Another newspaper article reporting the findings. The press back then was really keen on making sure we knew what gender these scientists were….

But they did make fascinating discoveries! They found traces of methane embedded in the lunar soil. This important organic compound could be formed in minerals by solar wind bombardment of the surface with carbon & hydrogen. But lunar surface is also bombarded by micrometeorites

So which was the correct mechanism? Geoff’s explanation in his own words/slides and drawings!

And the inevitable @nature paper!  (It turns out that it is more complicated than that.  It is partially contamination and partially carbon chemistry on the lunar surface)

The adventure did not end there. They continued analysing samples from not only the Apollo missions but also the Soviet Luna missions.

Colin Pillinger went on to pioneer UK space science for the next three decades. And the scientists and methods thrived as the foundation for a multitude of disciplines here on Earth, from chemical archaeology to climate reconstruction to tracing pollution in the environment. And the legacy thrives through over 1000 scientists – undergraduates, PhD students, post-docs, visitors, and users of the Bristol node of @isotopesUK.

Many debate the cost and priority of space science and exploration, compared to tackling real world problems. That might seem especially true now as we grapple with the immediate challenge of Covid-19 and the long-term challenge of climate change. And I agree with that, especially when exploration becomes a vanity project rather than a shared and collective intellectual endeavour. But when done right, it brings out our very best, with inevitable and profound benefits for all of society. It ensures we retain our ambitions. It ensures we remember what we can achieve together. And it creates a legacy of knowledge, innovation and scholars #Apollo50th

The Weirdness of Biomolecules in the Geological Record

In the 1930s, Alfred E. Treibs characterised the structure of metalloporphyrins in rocks and oil, revealing their similarities to and ultimately proving their origin from chlorophyll molecules in plants.  From that the field of biomarker geochemistry was born, a discipline based on reconstructing Earth’s history using the molecular fossils of the organisms that once lived in those ancient lakes, soils and oceans.

Most biomarkers are lipids – or fats – although there are exceptions such as the porphyrins. Lipids are ideal biomarkers because they have marvelous structural variability, recording in their own way the tree of life and the adaptation of that life to the environments in which they live(d). And they are also ideal, because they are preserved, in sediments for thousands of years and in rocks for millions, often hundreds of millions and in some cases billions of years.

The classical way in which we use these biomarkers is to exploit those subtle structural changes as a record of environmental conditions – using the number of rings or branches or double bonds as a microbiological record of ancient temperatures or pH. We also use them to identify the sources of organic matter to ancient settings, helping us to characterise an ancient lake or sea or documenting the biotic response to a mass extinction.

They can even record the evolution of life. The rise and diversification of eukaryotes, the Palaeozoic colonisation of land by plants, the Cretaceous emergence of the angiosperms, the Mesozoic rise of red algae and the Cenozoic rise of certain coccolithophorids are all documented in the molecular record.

But that record also documents moments of profound weirdness in ancient oceans, transient events in which some ancient organism appeared, dominated the seas and thus the sedimentary record, and then disappeared, taking with them a suite of biosynthetic machinery.

The Jurassic Ocean

Take for example, the ancient Kimmeridge Sea, which covered much of the UK during the Jurassic about 155 million years ago and within which many North Sea oils were deposited as well as the magnificent sedimentary sequences of Kimmeridge Bay.

Image
A core cutting from Jurassic Kimmeridge Clay Formation, collected from the @NERCscience-funded Kimmeridge Drilling Project. The slight colour changes reflect changes in lithology, with darker colours reflecting more organic-rich horizons.

 

The Blackstone, oil shale, east of Clavell's Hard, Kimmeridge, Dorset
Ian West has some great photos and descriptions of Kimmeridge Bay black shales at https://www.southampton.ac.uk/~imw/gif/kimblack.htm

Within the archived sediments of this ancient basin, we observe many of the biomarkers for common life that we’d find in any sediment from the past 600 million years: eukaryotic-derived steranes (from sterols, such as cholesterol, which occur in every plant and animal) and bacterially-derived hopanes (from compounds similar to sterols but present only in Bacteria).  But we also find very odd compounds, unusually-branched linear isoprenoids.  The isoprenoids, compounds constructed of the five-carbon atom unit isoprene, are not odd; in fact, steranes and hopanes are just linear isoprenoids folded into rings, and the membrane lipids of the third domain of life, the Archaea, predominantly comprise linear isoprenoids. More on them below.

But the isoprenoids from some sedimentary horizons deposited in the ancient Kimmeridge Sea have extra branches or missing branches, revealing an assembly from smaller molecules in a manner unlike any organism on Earth today.

Image
A gas chromatogram from the KCF (you can view this like a bar chart – each peak is a compound and its area reflects its concentration). It shows the distribution of the unusual isoprenoids (letters and letter combinations), which in some parts of the KCF such as this particular sample dominate the entire assemblage.

In those horizons, they eclipse all other biomarkers in abundance, indicating that these ancient organisms did not just persist at the fringes of life, an idiosyncrasy in a complex ecosystem, but were one of the dominant organisms.

And then they disappeared, taking these peculiar lipids with them.

An Archaeal Event in the Cretaceous

Deep in the Cretaceous, near the boundary between the Aptian and Albian Ages, about 110 million years ago, organic-rich sediments were deposited across the North Atlantic Ocean.  The event is called Oceanic Anoxic Event (OAE) 1b. Such events are not uncommon, especially in the Cretaceous when combinations of algal blooms, restriction of ocean circulation and depletion of deep ocean oxygen facilitated the burial of the organic matter (that in many cases became the oil and gas that fuels the Anthropocene). But unlike earlier and later organic burial events, this event was not an algal event; it was not a plant event.

This was an Archaea event.

Archaea are ubiquitous on the planet, but rarely do they dominate, instead ceding the modern Earth to the plants and Bacteria. Their hardy physiology allows them to dominate in very high temperature geothermal settings and they are uniquely adapted to a handful of ecosystems. Some Archaea, those involved with the oxidation of ammonia, also appear to dominate in parts of the ocean, but only in scarce abundances, representing a significant proportion of the biomass only because other organisms find it even more challenging to eke out an existence in that sunlight-starved realm.

But 110 million years ago not only did they dominate, they dominated in a way that led to the deposition of thick layers of archaea-derived organic matter on the seafloor.  We know this because nearly all of the organic matter – analysed through the lens of multiple analytical techniques probing the various pools of sedimentary organic matter, with names like bitumen and kerogen, maltenes an asphaltenes, saturates, aromatics and polars – are all dominated by compounds diagnostic for the Archaea.

Amorphous organic matter from OAE1b – structureless with no evidence of plant or algal cell walls. In many ways, this is a mundane image, similar to much organic matter in sediments, and keeping the secrets of its origin to itself. But its chemical composition is less opaque, revealing its unique archaeal origin.

But OAE1b was evidently not merely a brief explosion of the same Archaea that thrived at much lower abundances prior to and after it, and thrive at low abundances even today. No, this event included Archaea that biosynthesised subtle variations of classical Archaeal lipids, variations restricted -as far as we know – to this single event in all of Earth history.

A library of compounds found in OAE1b sediments. The archaeal isoprenoids I-V and XI to XIV dominate. And in the kerogen, similar fragments (XVII and beyond) dominate, indicating that the archaea dominate the production of all OM. But of all of these compound I is particularly unique, similar to the others but apparently confined to this one event in all of Earth history.

Compound I from the figure above might not look that special; it takes a keen eye to distinguish it from Compound II below it.  But like the unusual lipids of the Kimmeridge Clay Formation, it is apparently restricted to (and abundant during) only this one event.

 

These are weird biomarkers and that is why we love them. They prompt us to ponder the organisms that made them – and how and why?  And this prompts further questions that are perhaps more fascinating and profound, and not just the interest of organic geochemists.

Why have no other organisms chosen to make them?  Are these lipid simply an accident of phylogeny? Or are these a specific adaptation to the environmental and ecological needs of a particular moment in time, in a particular ocean basin? And that is both enigmatic and beautiful.  It speaks to the rapid emergence and then the casual discarding of a biosynthetic pathway and the associated enzymatic machinery.

And surely that must say something of the organisms that have produced them. Because these weird and unique biomarkers also reveal the expansion and disappearance of the microorganisms that made them, organisms comprising not just a truncated branch on the tree of life but a branch that what was, for a brief while, thick and thriving.  And now gone.

 

But as fascinating as these microbiological events are I am even more curious about those that we have we missed? Most life does not make such weird and singular lipids, relying on similar biomolecular solutions to similar ecological needs. Consequently, I suspect that there are many cryptic microbiological evolutionary events, invisible to the molecular fossil record. And by extension, are these simple organisms – the single-celled bacteria, archaea and microalgae – as primitive and eternal as we assume?  Or is Earth history replete with exotic microbiological events – a multitude of failed experiments or singular innovations appropriate only for a moment in time – and then rendered invisible even to organic geochemists because they have not been signposted by a peculiar lipid?