Leadership in science: insights from experts at the Science Leadership Workshop

Trishala Mohan

A whopping twenty thousand people registered to participate in the Science Leadership Workshop held last June. The virtual event paved the way for aspiring science leaders across various fields of science to glean insights and avail an internship from a panel of prominent science leaders from India and abroad. Trishala shares a few takeaways from the week-long event. 

Leadership in Science
Photo: Author

Three premier science academies — Indian Academy of Sciences (IASc), Bangalore, Indian National Science Academy (INSA), New Delhi, and National Academy of Sciences India (NASI), Prayagraj — jointly conducted a Science Leadership Workshop (SLW) from 22 to 28 June 2020. The virtual event was organised by Felix Bast, Associate Professor, Central University of Punjab, Bhatinda (CUPB). It was live-streamed on YouTube (the individual talks can still be accessed here).

The event brought together eminent speakers from across the world and from various areas of science. They shared their insights on what it takes to be leaders in science and some do’s and don’ts of leadership in science. Over 20,000 registrants participated enthusiastically, making the event a successful learning experience. Additionally, a Facebook group functioned as an interaction platform and as a noticeboard during the program.

The article summarises some essential lessons gleaned from the workshop regarding leadership in science.

True learning cannot proceed unless you suspend your judgment – Ashutosh Sharma, Secretary, DST

On day one, Ashutosh Sharma, Secretary, Department of Science and Technology, Govt. Of India; Renu Swarup, Secretary, Department of Biotechnology, Govt. of India; Gagandeep Kang, Professor, Christian Medical College, Vellore; and Subhra Priyadarshini, Chief Editor, Nature India, spoke about the importance of teamwork. 

Sharma said, A leader should also be a follower” and True learning cannot proceed unless you suspend your judgment”. Some key takeaways from this session were:

  • We are all driven by the same fears and aspirations; the difference lies in moving past the hurdles graciously.
  • One should lead by example by getting past the hurdles and having long-term objectives.
  • Reading science journalism should be the starting point for any aspiring writer.

On the second day, Ramakrishna Ramaswamy, Former President, Indian Academy of Sciences, Bangalore; Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, Founder and Chairperson, Biocon India Ltd.; Felix Bast, (CUPB); and Anindita Bhadra, Associate Professor, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Kolkata, shed light on the importance of time management. 

Bast gave tips on being productive and managing time smartly by delegating and prioritising one’s time and energy. He highlighted the importance of scheduling time-blocked to-do lists and notes to help eliminate unnecessary tasks and reducing interruptions. In addition, speakers talked about how efficient and regular communication helps build trust between team members and saves time and energy.

On day three, Shubha Tole, Professor, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai; Shalini Arya, Assistant Professor, Institute of Chemical Technology, Mumbai; Yoko Shimpuku, Professor, Hiroshima University, Japan; and Gitanjali Yadav, Faculty, University of Cambridge, UK, discussed the value of having a positive lab culture. 

Tole emphasised that choosing the right mentor to do a PhD would significantly impact one’s whole experience and work. A good and positive lab culture is a must to be able to work happily and efficiently. In addition, one should be passionate and compassionate with one’s approach while dealing with other lab members and staff, Tole said.

Be clear of what you do not want, even if you do not know what you want – Smita Jain, Executive Director, IndiaBioscience

The next day focused on the theme of flexibility during unpredictable circumstances”. The speakers included Shobhana Sharma, Retired Professor, TIFR, Mumbai; Robert Lepenies, Research Scientist, Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, Germany; Magdalena Skipper, Editor-in-Chief, Nature London, UK; and Vandana Vinayak, Associate Professor, Dr Harisingh Gour Vishwavidyalaya, Sagar, India.

The speakers discussed how flexibility was not just about responding to changing events quickly. It also involves responding to the different needs of the people in the workspace. Being adaptive and welcoming new ideas brings optimism and growth with the chance of learning something new. The speakers emphasised the importance of honesty, transparency, and empathy. 

On day five, Shahid Jameel, Director, Trivedi School of Biosciences, Ashoka University, Sonipat; Smita Jain, then Executive Director, IndiaBioscience, Bengaluru; R.K. Kohli, Vice-Chancellor, CUPB, and Monisha Dhiman, Professor, CUPB, spoke about career and productivity.

Be clear of what you do not want, even if you do not know what you want,” said Jain. The speakers discussed how being decisive requires both courage and intelligence. It is essential to base conclusions on data and evidence and to review decisions as one progresses. Jain also highlighted the difference between a job and a career: a job is the work one performs to earn money to support one’s basic needs while a career is an individual’s long-term professional journey through learning, work, and passion.” Jameel said that Productivity is directly proportional to the effective, productive time spent in the lab” for a research scholar.

Management is about taking control; leadership is about giving control – Alok Dhawan, Director, CSIR

On day six, L.S. Shashidhara, Professor, Ashoka University, Sonipat; Alok Dhawan, Director, CSIR-Indian Institute of Toxicology Research, and Mona Khoury-Kassabri, Professor, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel, spoke about the importance of critical thinking. 

A critical thinker who aspires to be a leader in science should have an eye for observation and be an abstract thinker, they said. One should believe nothing until it gets defined by one’s understanding. Dhawan said, Management is about taking control; leadership is about giving control.”

On the seventh and final day of the workshop, Dipankar Chatterji, Former-President, IASc, Bangalore; Ramarao Poduri, Retired professor, CUPB, and Shekhar C Mande, Director General, Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, New Delhi, discussed factors involved in risk-taking. 

They pointed out that a positive risk element can positively affect one’s project and its objectives, so one should be open to learning and making mistakes. Chatterji advised to never saying no to teaching.

The speakers also touched upon a few other topics such as:

  • The need for better opportunities for women in science,
  • The importance of cross-cultural communication,
  • Mentorship networks,
  • The need for better transparency and clarity in communication and,
  • The importance of collective leadership.

Overall, the experts highlighted that a leader in science should aim high and have a big vision. Leaders should work equally on honing technical and soft skills; they should be compassionate and helpful, build teamwork skills to sustain excellence with relevance in an organisation. 

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