Columns @IndiaBioscience

YIM 2015 live blog, Day 4: Highlights

Anjali Vaidya

The fourth day of the Young Investigator’s Meeting started with a morning session on the challenges and opportunities posed by science funding in India, chaired by Savita Ayyar (NCBS). Following talks by representatives from funding agencies ranging from DBT and Wellcome Trust to international bodies, all of which had energetic question and answer sessions, the morning ended with a panel discussion on funding. One common complaint voiced by young investigators and postdocs in the audience was that their applications take a long time to go through. According to Shahid Jameel (Wellcome Trust/DBT) the problem is that finding willing referees and getting comments from them takes a very long time. “To get three reviews, staff at the India Alliance have to approach thirty reviewers,” he said. L S Shashidhara (IISER Pune) agreed. “The reason for the variety of delays is partly a problem with the community itself,” he said. “Build a culture of reviewing as fast as possible.”

Faculty and representatives from funding agencies had several points of advice for researchers seeking funding. These included planning applications well ahead of time, paying attention to detail, getting feedback from good mentors, and ensuring that the project proposed was feasible within the resource constraints of the place and people. “Think about what the possible criticisms for your work could be and try to address them,” said Michael Eisen (UC Berkeley). “That’s good for your grant-writing as well as for your science.”

After the session, about ninety of the workshop participants trekked out of the Khyber hotel into the winter cold, snow and fog of Gulmarg, Kashmir, taking a short trip down the road to ride gondolas up into the mountains. The Gulmarg gondola ride advertises itself as the highest in the world. Cloaked in white mist, even nearby mountains were invisible from the top. The ride took us above buildings buried nearly up to the roof by recent snowfall, dwarfed by thick stands of pine trees that rose far above the gondola wires themselves.

Elizabeth Hadly (Stanford) gave a lively talk in the late afternoon on her life and academic career, which began in anthropology and then shifted into paleoecology, but throughout focused on processes of global change. Speaking of her work tracing ecological change through fossil remains preserved in caves, Hadly said, “Puzzles to me are the most wonderful thing on the planet. When you excavate, it’s like every single trowel full is a mystery.” Her current work focuses on how animals respond to human-instigated disturbances, merging the past with present environmental crises. She spoke strongly about the need for scientists to communicate their work in styles that are accessible to policy makers and the public, especially if their findings are of urgent public concern. “We’re in this ivory tower and we talk to each other, but we don’t do a good job of talking to the public,” she said. “Tell people in plain language why what you’re doing is important.”

Hadly then opened a group discussion on gender sensitization, speaking briefly of the challenges that she faced raising children while continuing her career, and pointing out that many women around the world drop out of science at an age where family-work balances become problematic. The intense discussion that filled the next hour began by scrutinizing the leak in the pipeline that causes women to leave science. Several women in the room soon added that the problem is not just managing the work-life balance, however, but also the lack of systemic response to gender-based discrimination and sexual harassment faced by women in academic circles. Several constructive suggestions were made members of the audience for addressing these problems. These included: approaching civil bodies in harassment cases where institutes fail to prosecute their own, amending the law so that committees dealing with sexual harassment allegations have to be composed entirely of people external to the institute or university, starting a forum that brings sexual harassment cases into the open so that all institutes and universities are aware of their common problems, introducing mandatory introductory gender sensitization training for individuals hired at all levels in research where the definition of harassment and its legal consequences are made very clear, and putting a review system in place for administrative bodies.

The session ended with a positive note injected by Michael Eisen (UC Berkeley), who talked about the problems of sexual harassment in academia in the US which were commonplace twenty years ago but have reduced in the intervening years precisely because of open debates like the one in this room. “Bad stuff still happens,” he asserted, “but the mindset has changed, and it’s changed because people have done exactly the kind of things that you’re talking about.”