Little small talk goes a long, long way

June 6, 2003

With research cash increasingly targeted at interdiscipIinary study and cutting-edge science becoming ever-more complex, the aphorism 'it's not what you know but who you know' has never been more apt. Harriet Swain explains why networking is now a key academic skill

Soon after being appointed secretary of state for education, Charles Clarke attended a drinks party at a flat in London's Covent Garden.

He had previously met very few of his fellow guests and barely knew the hostess. Neither did the gathering have anything to do with his new official duties; indeed the invitation had been issued some time before his appointment. The party had one purpose only - networking.

Carole Stone, author of Networking - The Art of Making Friends and host of the "salon" attended by Clarke, says that while it had a more educational feel than her usual regular Monday evening gatherings, she did not compromise her belief in a "good mix". Guests included Anthony Smith, president of Magdalen College, Oxford, who had known Stone's husband when they both worked on Panorama ; geneticist Steve Jones, whom she had met at a wedding party; Vernon Bogdanor, professor of government at Oxford University, to whom she had been introduced by Rabbi Julia Neuberger; and a couple of young education journalists suggested by friends and contacts.

Stone is clear about the benefits of networking. "If there was going to be something extra in the national curriculum, then learning small talk should be it," she says. "People who cannot do small talk often cannot do big talk either." Mention the word networking to many academics, however, and they recoil in horror. Their minds are supposed to be on far higher things than who is in or out and whom they should be sharing canapes with in order to get on.

Yet networking - whether chatting to someone at a conference, contacting the author of a journal paper or joining a learned society - has always been part of academic life. And as new ways of communicating emerge, through technologies such as the internet and video conferencing, so networks are becoming wider, more diffuse and, many argue, more important.

David Gadian, professor of biophysics at the Institute of Child Health in London, says he is no big networker himself. Nevertheless, he recognises that every scientist must get out and build relationships - with their own research team, neighbouring teams and other researchers worldwide - simply to keep abreast of advances in their specialisms. Much successful academic work depends on developing a knack for spotting the important snippet of information at conferences, he says. "You can argue that serendipity comes into play, and you can predict to which people serendipity will happen."

One reason why networking may be growing in importance is the emphasis on interdisciplinarity. It is rare nowadays, particularly in science, for academics to work entirely alone. This is partly a matter of finance - it is easier for a group to raise what is needed to fund projects. There are also more grants aimed at encouraging interdisciplinary work. But, more crucially, it is becoming increasingly difficult for a single researcher to know enough to carry out their work without consulting specialists in other fields.

Younger academics in particular have also become keen to broaden the scope of their search for inspiration. Mark Lythgoe, a neurophysiologist at the Institute of Child Health and determined networker, has collaborated with artists and film-makers, and reviews for the Radio 4 arts programme Front Row . He advocates using the strict methods of science in combination with insights gained from the arts to help explain the world better. To that end, he has brought in a permanent artist to work alongside scientists at the institute, and he urges his colleagues to attend outside events in order to become more well-rounded. "I get up in the morning and I look at the world differently every day because of the experience I have had in collaborations with people," he says. "The power of networking should not be underestimated."

He is part of a group of young scientists and artists in Britain and the US linked through friendship and an interest in each other's ideas. Another member of this circle is Janna Levin, a research fellow in astrophysics at Oxford University and scientist in residence at Ruskin School of Art. She met Lythgoe while serving on a body funding one of his art/science projects. Levin describes this grouping as one based primarily on friendship but admits that she was looking for "the fantasy of a community that is culturally vibrant and connected with a lot of ideas". She thought she would find this in academe but has discovered it more through literary and artistic circles and among scientists who write.

A key member of this grouping is Lee Smolin, a theoretical physicist at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Canada, who has known Levin since she was a graduate student. He admits to consciously deciding to get interested in what the rest of the academic world was thinking about when he was in his first job at Yale University. Accordingly, he went to seminars in philosophy, English and law. There he met legal theorist Drusilla Cornell, who introduced him to philosophers including Jacques Derrida. He ascribes many of the theories behind his first book, Life of the Cosmos , in part to conversations with artists and legal theorists. The book also brought him into contact with high-profile scientists Richard Dawkins and Martin Rees through a seminar at the London School of Economics. This event led to the offer of a job at Imperial College London, where he made further links with the young "ideas set" including Levin and the musician and artist Brian Eno.

Smolin, along with Rees and Dawkins, has also been prominent on a website ( www.edge.org ) run by US literary agent John Brockman. This site has brought together thinkers such as Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker and Lynn Margulis to explore what Brockman refers to as "the third culture" - bridging the gap between scientific ideas and the "intelligent reading public". Levin describes Brockman as a man who "knows everybody ", who "collects people - and some pretty interesting ones". She met Eno through Brockman, who also introduced Smolin and Jaron Lanier, inventor of virtual reality, to each other. This introduction was made at an event held to bring together Dawkins and the web intelligentsia who were fascinated by his "memes" theory - the idea of cultural replicators such as tunes and ideas being passed from person to person in a similar way to genes - in some ways a paeon to the powers of networking.

This is not the only network in which Dawkins plays a part. Through his wife, the former Dr Who actress Lalla Ward, he is plugged into the acting and science-fiction worlds. And the zoology department at Oxford University, where Dawkins holds the Charles Simonyi chair of the public understanding of science, fosters a spirit of networking as a means of keeping its academic work up to date and influential. Paul Harvey, head of the department and also secretary of the Zoological Society with responsibility for London and Whipsnade zoos, says: "It is vitally important that people in a place like Oxford University don't hang around Oxford and deal only with the Oxford model. There is a very positive attitude in our department to getting people to take on outside jobs."

Hence, John Krebs, a Royal Society research professor in the department, is chairman of the Food Standards Agency and before that was chief executive of the Natural Environment Research Council, while another prominent member of the department, Sir Robert May, was the government's chief scientific adviser before becoming president of the Royal Society. Dawkins himself maintains a number of political contacts and attended one of the "millennium lectures" at Downing Street, given by Susan Greenfield - another generally acknowledged networker.

"People are encouraged to get out there and do things because that wider range of experience makes a wider range of contacts and knowledge that is then useful for the department," Harvey says. This usefulness manifests itself academically - Harvey's experiences of working with animal welfare in real zoos help prevent academics getting "stuck in some kind of ivory-tower thinking about animal welfare" - but there are also more material benefits. The political involvements of people such as May and Krebs mean that the department knows how Whitehall and the research councils work. "That helps us to get grants," Harvey says.

The link between networking and cash is a sensitive one but it is widely recognised. Gadian says: "You have to accept that writing papers and grant applications isn't just a question of how good your science is but how well you communicate it and how you can convince people that what you are doing is good."

One man who understands this all too well is Colin Pillinger, head of planetary sciences at the Open University. His Beagle 2 probe took off for Mars this week thanks as much to Pillinger's networking as to his scientific prowess. Not only did he have to persuade the European Space Agency that the Mars Express mission should carry his lander in the first place, he also had to run the academic team that produced Beagle 2 , develop links with industry to get the various components made and raise millions of pounds to finance the project.

Pillinger has said there was nothing he would not have done to get Beagle 2 off the ground - proving this by giving talks to the royal family, organising drinks receptions for aerospace bosses and displays at the Chelsea Flower Show, and employing advertising agency M&C Saatchi to recruit sponsors. His greatest PR coups have been persuading the pop group Blur to provide music as the signal sent back to Earth when Beagle 2 arrives on the Red Planet and getting a spot painting by BritArt doyen Damien Hirst etched on the lander to recalibrate its instruments. He came into contact with Blur because he knew their accountant's next-door neighbour. They in turn introduced him to Hirst.

Pillinger's career - which has involved mixing chemistry, physics, biology and astronomy - has long been a tribute to the powers of networking. "My whole experience has been that you can learn something from everybody and they from you. If you adopt that kind of attitude, it's pretty easy to step outside the box of your own environment."

Despite increasing numbers of academics sharing his view, there is still little recognition of the value of networking within UK universities beyond subject associations and some specialist groups for women or ethnic minority staff. The Learning and Teaching Support Network is trying to improve this, particularly by getting together groups within an institution from different levels of seniority. At the same time, the Higher Education Staff Development Association has been experimenting with a programme for senior staff, linking heads of institutions with others at a senior level inside and outside universities through formal courses and then email contact.

Experienced networkers say that while most people can do it, it takes effort - and is not for everybody. Lythgoe says he has benefited often from people opening doors for him, "but there are loads of times I would have preferred to sit in front of the telly and not go out but have felt forced to". He also acknowledges that while "contacts snowball, they only snowball if you are any good".

Perhaps surprisingly, Smolin also sounds a warning note. Ideas tend to come out of conversations from people each grounded in their discipline, he says. Encouraging too much interdisciplinarity may result in people having too little specialist training in their particular craft to generate the ideas in the first place.

But there are limits. He tells the story of another of his friends and influences, Roberto Unger, a professor at Harvard Law School for 25 years, who has written about cosmology. Unger asked Smolin whether he knew of any physicists he should speak to in connection with his work. Smolin suggested Harvard was as good a place for top physicists as any. To which Unger replied: "Where is the physics department?"

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