They're off the wall, not off the shelf

October 27, 2006

Some scholars refuse to tread the traditional career path. It doesn't always make their lives easy, but it makes them happy, discovers Anna Fazackerley.

We have all met them or at least heard of them - those academics who do the usual daily business of teaching or research but somehow also manage to become a television celebrity, or sit on every government committee going, or run a couple of businesses in their lunch hour. These portfolio academics cram their lives full of different experiences in different areas and are often noticeably - almost unfashionably - excited about what they are doing. But talking to them, one cannot help noticing that portfolio academics don't feel they fit in. In fact, they stick out like sore thumbs in a world that expects a focused commitment to churning out research papers.

Kevin Fong is a case in point. He is not only an anaesthetist and lecturer in physiology at University College London, he is also a leading expert in space medicine and chair of the UK Space Biomedical Advisory Committee. He has set up conferences about space science and extreme-environment physiology and next year will climb Mount Everest with a group of doctors to further his research. He is fast becoming a big name on the lecture circuit, and his public profile is such that Esquire magazine named him one of the top 100 most influential men in the UK under 40. In his spare time, he writes a column for The Times Higher . Just reading his CV is exhausting.

But Fong refuses to blow his own trumpet. He is anxious about the very idea of being described as an academic in this article. "I'm not really. I definitely have a portfolio career and I do work for a university, but my career is non-definable. It makes it extra difficult to navigate," he says.

"Certainly, people look me up and down and say: 'You're not a scientist'.

And they are right. I am an amateur. I am a clinician who is lucky enough to do research."

His hesitancy points to one of the problems experienced by portfolio academics: by steering a different path, they open themselves up to criticism about not being sufficiently serious. Universities may no longer be ivory towers, but the word "populariser" is still regarded as an insult in many circles.

Colin Blakemore, chief executive of the Medical Research Council, has sympathies with the portfolio lifestyle. He has refused to give up his research career and has published 30 academic papers and two books since taking the MRC job three years ago.

Blakemore, who has been a prominent figure in the media for years, points out that snobbery about communicating to the public is not new. "My first venture into broadcasting was the Reith lectures," he recalls. "You would have thought that would be reasonably respectable, but I know a lot of my colleagues looked down upon it."

He is hopeful that things are changing - his research council, like many public organisations, stresses the importance of engaging with the outside world. But he admits that progress is slow.

"The attitude of the new generation of academics seems to be ambivalent,"

he says. "On the one hand, they are not snooty and they are much more willing. But on the other hand, they don't want to communicate because it isn't rewarded properly and they want to focus on publishing papers instead."

Fong agrees that the system is not set up to reward or help people such as him. "One thing I do rail against is that it is so difficult to do anything that is 'out of the box' in this country. If it doesn't fit into some pre-defined pigeonhole, with some predefined funding scheme, you will be told you can't do it," he explains. In fact, Fong's whole career has been marked by people telling him he can't do things. Usually he does them anyway. He is adamant that creating one's own career is rewarding. "There are big advantages. It is never ever boring. Mostly you just see synergies - ways in which things fit together that you can't see if you work in a single field."

Susan Bassnett, director of the Centre for Translation and Comparative Culture Studies at Warwick University, hopes that young stars such as Fong can remodel what it means to be an academic. "People are coming into universities now with very different skills. They are thinking across boundaries. Academics who cling to the idea that this is a vocation and that we are somehow separate need to wake up. That world is long dead."

PETER ATKINS

Three years ago, 40 influential chemists from rival nations in the Middle East gathered for a secret weekend in a hotel in Malta. "It was terribly edgy," recalls Peter Atkins, professor of physical chemistry at Oxford University (pictured top right), who set up the meeting. "You had a Saudi sitting next to an Israeli for the first time in his life."

Although all the guests were of political importance in their countries, the overt purpose of the meeting was to talk chemistry. Several Nobel laureates were there to speak - or, as Atkins puts it, to offer the honey that lured the bees to Malta. "I see science as transcending national boundaries. We provided an opportunity for chemists in warring countries to sit down together and respect each other at a professional and personal level," he explains. The meeting went well, with political enemies eating meals together in between talks. And when the event was repeated last year, with the same chemists and 30 new ones, Atkins says the atmosphere was tangibly warm from the beginning. "We may not create peace, but it is a drop or two in a leaky bucket," he says.

To look at his publication list, it is surprising that Atkins is ever able to leave his desk. His chemistry textbooks have long been required reading and have made him a millionaire. He has notched up 60 books so far and shows no signs of stopping. But he is adamant that science is an international mission and refuses to be confined to Oxford. Last year, he went abroad at least once a month, travelling to Egypt, Israel, Russia, South America and Turkey, among other countries, to give talks about science.

International flights also feature heavily in his role as chair of the education committee within the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry - charged with spreading best practice across developing countries in particular. "Science is different from other subjects because it is truly international. But most academics in this country don't know what is happening in education abroad. They know what is going on in the lab, but not in the classroom," he says.

After the tsunami of Boxing Day 2004, Atkins was off again, this time to Sri Lanka with a team of chemists from the Royal Society of Chemistry and the IUPAC. "The aim was to revitalise chemistry. I went a couple of times.

The second time about 80 per cent of the country's chemistry professors came to Colombo. We were trying to help them into the 21st century - the 20th century as it turned out."

Consequently, when he is at home Atkins is at his computer typing furiously at 6am every day. But he admits that he has been lucky. "Being in a large department makes it easier to do your own thing. And not having the responsibility of a research group is important. I couldn't help young minds develop and at the same time be obsessed with the books and fit in everything else."

KATHY SYKES

Kathy Sykes has just negotiated the sort of contract that academics tied up in red tape have racy dreams about. The professor of public understanding of science at Bristol University used to feel guilty about presenting television programmes and sitting on advisory committees for the Government and organisations such as the Royal Society. "I would do all that in my own time because I was terribly anxious about giving Bristol value for money," she explains. "I've been officially part time because I felt it was so important to have that freedom."

But now, in addition to making her chair permanent, her university has acknowledged that external commitments are a vital part of her job. Sykes, who recently won the Royal Society's Faraday award for scientific communication, is delighted by the deal. She hopes that it will prove an example that leads other institutions to loosen the reins on academics. "I am trying to change the culture at Bristol. There are drivers from the Government and Treasury saying we ought to be collaborating with business and talking to the public, but the culture in universities is still all about publishing," she says with exasperation. She adds that most vice-chancellors she talks to want their academics to engage with the outside world: the problem is that in many cases this message does not trickle down to the heads of department who set agendas and control promotions.

Fustier academics might turn their noses up at Sykes's public engagement mission. Yet her critics would find it impossible to argue that she is not working hard enough. On top of policy advising and broadcasting (she is perhaps most famous for appearing in the BBC's Rough Science series) and the more regular business of training scientists to talk to people, she set up and now runs the influential Cheltenham Science Festival. The annual event aims to involve the public in silly and serious scientific questions, but with the glamour and professionalism of an international literary festival. It is generally regarded as a big success.

While Sykes concedes that many academics just want to knuckle down and publish papers, she insists that working in a portfolio way can be hugely productive, with experience in each different area helping you to perform better. But there are downsides. "It is an enormous struggle to manage time because I care about all these things so much," she says. "Being at the right meeting at the right time can make a huge difference to a whole organisation - although of course some are a total waste of time. I am rather earnest about what I do. I work most weekends and I have a stupidly packed diary. I am not naturally well organised. I've had to learn."

PATRICK BARWISE

Patrick Barwise (pictured bottom left), professor of management and marketing at London Business School, became an academic because he wanted freedom, and he made sure he got it. "Most academics have a strong anarchic streak, but I've probably taken it further than most," he explains. While colleagues have concentrated on publishing in the right journals, Barwise has tackled many of the "dirty, messy, practical business problems" that don't - or at least didn't used to - earn you any serious points in the all-powerful research assessment exercise. As well as acting as a consultant to big-name companies such as Mars, he has written two major reviews of the BBC and an award-winning book on marketing, in between sitting on external committees and boards. As he approaches retirement age (although he has no plans to do any retiring) his CV is packed with as many achievements and responsibilities outside academia as within it.

Barwise's broadcasting reviews have clearly given him a taste for political influence. He was able to broaden his political range two years ago when film-maker and politician Lord Puttnam asked him to sit on a Hansard commission on improving the public's perceptions of Parliament. And last November he joined the Sunningdale Institute, an experimental virtual think-tank set up by the Cabinet Office to examine the management of public services.

He admits that an initial draw in getting involved in such things is flattery - the pleasure of being asked and of having a foot in the corridors of power. But it is more than that. "My main motivation is ideological," he insists. "The management of public services is one of the biggest issues for the 21st century. I want to be involved."

On a different tangent, several weeks ago Barwise was involved in a legal case that resulted in UK-based pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline paying a record $3.4 billion (£1.8 billion) to the American tax authorities. He was on the winning side, acting as an expert witness. "I enjoy it because it is pretty well paid. The meter is running and lawyers and expert witnesses charge a lot," he says bluntly. He also loves the challenge - the anxiety of thinking on his feet in unfamiliar surroundings.

"It is scary, but they usually settle before you have to be cross-examined, although I have been, in the High Court and in Paris," he says, adding:

"Being a teacher at London Business School is quite good preparation for that. It is a graduate school, and we have a lot of fairly aggressive students."

Yet Barwise is aware that he has made compromises. "Had I concentrated more I would have been more successful as an academic. I would have built up a reputation in a single area and I would have more respect from my colleagues," he explains. Then he stops. "But for goodness sake, life isn't a dress rehearsal! You have to do as much as you can. And do what you really enjoy."

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