The transition post…

A life between pandemic and departmental closure.

I resume writing after a while and just for a ‘short’ update. The last two-three years have been quite tough. Yes of course there was the pandemic. As tough as it was for most of us, I was lucky enough to have a relatively stable job and not feel the financial pressure of the pandemic in 2020.

Here is the point, ‘relatevly stable’ and 2020. Because of funding cycles, in academia we experience crises often with a delay. This is my experience, my story, my views, but there are many learnt lessons that could be useful for junior academics, post-doctoral scientists and students. I will thus share these with you but I needed time to move on, strip these lessons of emotional components and personal biases, simply to provide those couple of you who read this blog with some genuine advice.

Hence, this is a transition post, the only one that I will allow myself to share with more emotions, not just the passion with which I usually speak or write. I avoided sharing negative thoughts, and soon – very soon – I will share new positive experiences at my new job. But let me, give me, just this post…

While the pandemic was developing, our institute’s quinquennial review took place. While I was submitting documents under the philosophy of ‘business as usual‘, I was tracking students rushing home, who in the UK, who abroad. While I was revising documents apparently one page too long, I was seeing tragic scenes in my dear Italy, trying to keep in touch with friends and family who lived in the Asian and European epicentres of the pandemic. I was hearing about the first deaths in Cambridge, a nearby institute, someone in the neighbourhood.

While I was responding to referees, I was updating safety procedures and devices, trying to plan logistics for managing, procuring, trying to contribute to the community response, making sure my colleagues were safe and looking after my family.

Then the car rack that was the closure (no, not the lockdown, the actual closure, complete defunding) of our department with no certainty, little information, and deep anxiety in the second half of 2020. Eventually, we got a one-year extension, a rather standard support measure in a very non-standard period of historic proportions.

While the closure of a research institute, like the closure of a company, is absolutely legitimate, the measures that organizations deploy to mitigate the impact of their choices on their employees, speak a lot about the working culture of institutions. While the closure of a research institute is absolutely legitimate, it is much more difficult to think that that the closure of a publicly funded research institute during a global pandemic and without special mechanisms in place to mitigate the effects on employees could be done… honorably*.

A moment of crisis permits us to stress-test systems and to really distinguish between the fluff, the hypocrisy, the inefficiency, and tangible support for people. Of course, there is another side to the story. A moment of crisis permits us also to see how many good people there are, from your neighbour to your colleagues. Many helped, even just with a listening ear; a very few who should have helped, in all practical terms did not. Some that I would never have expected to help, even people that at the time I did not know well if at all, did help within the limit of what was possible.

Please avoid guessing who was bad and who was good because your guess will probably be wrong. People and organizations involved have reasons, have mostly good intentions. Unfortunatly, now and then, we slam against walls built of institutional bad habits, fatalism, and disconnect.

Although in this post I let myself to reveal a bit of the emotional rollercoaster that the last few years were, eventually my intent – my ambition – is to nudge a bit all of us to be better, our institutions to improve, and our working culture to progress. Think about an aircrash investigation** where assigning blame has modest consequences compared to the industry-wide safety benefits to avoid similar accidents to happen again. Eventually for the benefit of everyone.

Sadly, my repeated offer to analyse what has happened, not in public but as an internal procedure to improve in the future, has been so far dismissed.

My search for a new host organization was hindered by a job market affected by the pandemic, some risk-aversion in recruiting a physicist that does biology, or a scientist that does not have a formal track record in teaching undergraduate courses. And of course, by the psychological impact of living through this chaos which took its toll on the mental wellbeing of me and colleagues at any level. All of this is compounded by the shortcoming that I certainly have, like anyone else, of character and curriculum.

Despite the huge setbacks that my colleagues and I experienced, the delays in research productivity and the money virtually wasted in the process, I anchor myself to the understanding that most people in society and academia are good people, amazing and well-intentioned. I am indebted with those many colleagues in companies and academia who supported me. I will be forever grateful to the many kind-souls out there, that irrespective of their roles, position or means, did what they could to help.

I have one regret. I could not shield my team from all of that, as I did not have the power to. The only thing I could do is to to my best, including all my students and researchers, sharing information in real-time, discussing, listening, advising and supporting them within the limited resources I could tap into.

And now? Time to move on. Time to move to Brunel University London, where I found amazing people – soon to be new colleagues with whom we will do amazing things. But I will dedicate to Brunel ample space in the near future, focusing in what I predict to be an extremely positive experience in the making.

Time to move on. Well, I did move on in many respects, and left behind the worst emotions, the worst memories. I will however use these incredible experiences*** I passed through, to dig deeper into the mechanisms of academic life, as usual, trying to have a positive impact on younger scientists and students who might accidentally land on these boring, sometimes nerdy, pages.

I hope I will soon have time to write about the difference between power, leadership and management, the role of human resources in academia, the institutional bad habits that we should eliminate to ensure the good that is in most of us percolates up to our organization (yes, we need an antigravity machine of sorts), how careers between a research institute and University should be structured, or how openly speaking with colleagues in industry about career can be extremely positive.

I’ll have much less time with my new job starting, but I will have the right mental attitude to discuss those ideas without the shadows of the last few years.

Transition-post completed, the future is waiting.

*) I have been inspired by another event, another person, in the use of this sentence. And although only very few people will know, I still feel obliged to disclose this.
**) Not my philosophy, I hear this often in the Mentour Pilot Youtube channel. Inspiration can come from everything!
***) To be clear, other people in the UK and around the world experience much more tragic issues. I do not want to offend anyone sounding overdrammatic. Still, I can’t do anything else then telling my stories, lucky in a broader sense, hoping to be of use within my trade.