An ideal environment for research

October 5th, 2013

I’ve been very fortunate to work in a number of research institutions over the years. These are places set up specifically for people to work on new discoveries and developments – in my case, mostly in engineering, though it applies equally to many other fields. I really, really love good research institutions, and this evening I’ve been musing on what would make an ideal one. Here are my thoughts.

Firstly, you want the right people. It is, after all, mostly about the people. You want people that are interested and committed, and who have a varied range of skills and experiences. You’ll want several flavours of researcher from different fields, and then to support them with enthusiastic and helpful support staff. However, don’t employ too many – I think that about 200 people is the largest practical size. Why?

Firstly, geography – you can fit 200 people and all their stuff into one sprawling building, or a cluster of interlinked ones. You really don’t want to be having more than one building, or worse a split site with half the institution several miles down the road. This results in two institutions and not one. Most people can get to know 200 people and remember their names (mostly) within a year or two, given the right environment. Any bigger than this and you start to think of your colleagues as functions (“Purchasing”, “Geophysics”, “IT Support”) rather than as people, which really hinders collaboration.

If possible, you should provide opportunities for people to have casual conversations. These provide the vital cross-connections between people working in different offices. The key to ensuring casual conversations are two concepts from the world of retail – footfall and dwell time. Footfall is the number of people who pass through a space. If all your offices radiate from a central lobby, that lobby will always have high footfall as people move about the building, making it more likely that two people will meet in the lobby. However, if your offices are arranged into corridors by department, with the corridors interconnected at the central lobby, most people will only move about within their departmental corridor and the central lobby will be mostly quiet. In this situation, you can improve the chances of people meeting by increasing the dwell time in the central lobby. Put a coffee machine, a tea kettle. or a water cooler, and some chairs and tables in the lobby. People passing through will be encouraged to stop by, and people wanting coffee or water will come to the lobby deliberately and hang around. Increased dwell times mean more casual conversations.

Another great place to have casual conversations is in the canteen. You should definitely have a canteen – you don’t want your staff to disperse at lunchtime and not talk to one another, or worse to sit in their offices eating packed lunches whilst surfing the web. You should offer a choice of various types of food. You should allow people to eat their packed lunches in the canteen if they’d rather bring their own. You should have only just enough chairs and tables, so that people have to sit with other people that they don’t know when the place is busy. I think that having rectangular tables that seat four, that can easily be moved around, should be encouraged – these tend to then form a few long refectory tables for the gregarious types, whilst also providing quieter tables elsewhere. Make sure that the food is good and not too expensive. Make sure your catering staff are enthused and motivated – and perhaps even consider employing them directly rather than contracting out. For bonus canteen action, serve breakfast snacks mid morning and cake in the afternoon to encourage people to go, eat, talk and discuss their work with one another. If possible, make your canteen a through space, with multiple entrances to different parts of the building, so that it forms a natural meeting-place.

Now, the introverts reading this will say “but I need a place to think!” which is indeed very true. People need space to think and concentrate at times, without distractions. So, I’d recommend that you provide a number of tiny “carrels” – little quiet rooms with a desk and a chair and plenty of light – that people can book to use when they need a small, private space to work. Providing access to carrels means that you can continue to put your staff in shared offices – perhaps 3-4 to an office – which makes for better group-working than individual offices.

You’re also going to want meeting rooms of various sizes. Again, make these bookable by everyone, rather than reserving them for particular departments.

Now, on to the thorny topic of support staff. There’s always a reticence to employ support staff because they’re a “fixed cost” and seen as “not contributing directly” to research output. This is a fallacy. You have brilliant researchers, you want to enable them to do stuff they’re good at and give the stuff they are lousy at to other people that are better at it. Speaking as an engineer, I would strongly recommend that scientists are discouraged from building their own equipment without help from engineers! Huge amounts of time and resource can be wasted while people reinvent wheels or build Heath Robinson apparatus because they’re unaware of techniques or equipment that come from other fields. Likewise, good technicians are worth their weight in gold. Good mechanical technicians can make things out of bits of metal in an afternoon that would take me a week. Good electronic technicians can wire up cabinets neatly, and solder delicate components without damaging them. Employ good technicians, pay them properly, make them feel valued.

Give your research staff a briefing on how to use the support departments effectively. This isn’t rocket science, but a surprising number of people don’t get it.  The simple rules for dealing with support departments are:

  • Be polite.
  • Ask nicely.
  • Explain clearly what you want, and when you want it by.
  • Be reasonable.
  • Say thankyou afterwards.

If you do this as a researcher, you will find that your support staff will go the extra mile to help you when you find yourself in a difficult situation. If you take them for granted, they’ll get jobsworthy.

As a manager, please don’t ask your support departments to charge internally for their time. This causes two levels of evil – firstly, the researchers go “how much!?” and then try to do the support task themselves badly, or circumvent it by some other method to avoid paying. Secondly, your support departments become less helpful, because the response to “can you help me with this?” becomes “what’s your charge code? it’ll cost you!”. By all means have your support staff keep job logs, so you can see which individuals/departments are making heavy demands on support departments if you think they are being abused.

Information is the lifeblood of research. You need to know what is being done elsewhere, and also crucially what has been done in your institution in the past. So, you need access to books, journals and conference proceedings. A lot can be obtained electronically but you probably will still need a library to keep physical media in. This also provides another useful quiet workspace. Please have everything in some sort of electronic catalogue or portal page so that staff can easily find out whether the institution has access to the particular paper they’re looking for. Consider partnering with a university library to buy information services from them, or to allow your staff to have “visiting scholar” access if required.

Almost as critically, make sure that you retain information within your institution. Knowledge that doesn’t get published in peer-reviewed journals should nevertheless be held onto within an internal publishing system. I’m strongly in favour of the BBC’s system for doing this, which is called the Technical Note. TNs can pretty much contain any content you like and be of any length, though most are 10-30 A4 pages. When a member of staff writes a TN, it is signed off by their Head of Group and circulated to all the other senior managers and anyone else involved in the work. It is also archived and catalogued. The distribution of TNs ensures that information flows between departments, via the managers, and crucially provides some helpful validation for the researcher in question when senior people meet them in the corridor and say “Oh, I found your TN very interesting!”. TNs are also a convenient, measurable deliverable thing that results from any piece of work – a few hours of exploratory research, a new proposal, the outcome of a brainstorm – all these things can be captured, archived, and distributed around the institution.

Provide great facilities, the best that you can afford. Make sure someone take responsibility for looking after them – research labs often suffer “crisis of commons” effects where valuable equipment gets damaged through lack of experience and training. Provide “general” lab space, and make sure that you avoid departmental turf wars over lab and bench space. If you are constrained for lab space (and who isn’t?), I suggest a leasing system – a bench is “leased” to one project for a given period (weeks or months) and the lease is then reviewed when it “expires”. If the project is continuing, a new lease can be issued. This avoids the problem of dead projects squatting facilities that are needed for new ones. Some sort of “warm storage” facility would be nice – then you can put equipment into store that may not be used for a few months, rather than have it sit there gathering dust in the lab.

Administration is necessary and helpful, and admin people should not be looked down upon as lesser beings. On the other hand, you should not allow your administrators to dictate business processes for their own benefit! Make your purchasing and budgeting systems streamlined. If possible, provide regular updates to budget holders about how much money they have committed from their budget to purchase requests and how much has actually been paid out against invoices. Most accounting systems I’ve seen only keep track of payments and not budgets, so nearly every manager I’ve ever worked for has run some sort of parallel accounting system in Excel to work out how much budget they have left. This is a waste of everyone’s time – build the budgeting into the purchasing system and make it work for everyone. Train your research staff in how to interact with the admin and business processes, and make sure you have guides to common procedures in a staff handbook or on an intranet.

To summarise – hire awesome people, help them work together, with excellent facilities and well-thought-out processes. Produce excellent research. Profit!


Springtime in Punta

November 13th, 2010

The weather has been unseasonably fine in Punta Arenas since we’ve been here. It’s gloriously sunny, mostly pretty warm and the winds are relatively light. Given that Punta Arenas is normally renowned for being extremely windy with optional sideways-blowing rain, sleet and snow, we’ve got off lightly!

Sadly, the weather at Union Glacier has been day after day of snowfall with light winds, and now the ice runway is under half a metre of soft snow. Apparently the weather’s improving, and a gale is forecast for Monday which should help to blow the soft stuff away.

In the mean time we’ve done more prep work, been issued very smart new staff uniform jackets and hats, had an excellent barbecue and been to see the penguins on Isla Magdalena. The trip over there by boat was great – lots of pingus, seals and seabirds to look at.

Now we’re playing a waiting game and trying not to eat and drink too much…


Punta Arenas or bust!

November 8th, 2010

For those of you that don’t already know, hot on the heels of finishing both the Writing-Up Cruise and the actual writing up of the thesis (hurrah!), I’ve embarked on a new job in Antarctica. I’m working for Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions, who provide support to private expeditions and governmental organisations and also operate guided trips to Antarctica under the brand name Adventure Network International. I’m spending three months as a communications operator/engineer at their main camp at Union Glacier, in the Ellsworth Mountains. But right now, I’m in Punta Arenas in Chile, doing the manic pre-season organisation and training and waiting for the conditions to be suitable to fly in to Union Glacier.

I got to Punta on Wednesday evening, having left Cambridge at 0530 on Tuesday morning! I took a cab into town, a coach to Heathrow, a flight to New York, another flight overnight to Santiago, and yet another flight to Punta Arenas itself. That’s three flights, five airline meals, thee meals in airports and about five hours sleep… In Santiago, they called my name and said that one of my bags hadn’t made the connection in New York: as I queued up to fill in the forms, I met Fran, one of the other ALE staff and a veteran of many seasons. As I completed my final form, a man appeared with my missing case – but poor Fran was concerned that her bags had gone AWOL in New York. Fortunately we had a long connection in Santiago, and Fran’s bags caught up with her in Punta Arenas…

Since then I’ve been getting to know everyone, done some introductory training in how the company works, done some field training (revision of my Rothera days!) and run round like a mad thing trying to get computers, meteorological and communications equipment organised for the first flight. We fly in to Antarctica on a giant Ilyushin-76 transport plane, flown by a band of jolly Russians, Belarusians and Ukranians – and it lands on an ice runway. Just at the moment the weather at UG is non-ideal – lots and lots of soft snow – and the runway isn’t yet usable. We should have flown today if conditions were right, so now we’re on daily standby!

In the mean time we get to enjoy Punta Arenas, its four-seasons-in-one-hour weather and its tasty food and drink. I’ve met the first of our clients, Chris Foot, an ex-Marine who’s planning to be the first person to ski from Hercules Inlet to the South Pole and back without being resupplied by air or using a traction kite. Chris is at one end of the ALE client spectrum – the other end being wealthy, elderly guests who come for a week’s holiday at UG and a day out to the South Pole by air. In between are lots of different expeditioners, tourists and scientists! Once I’m at UG I’ll have no web access and only limited access to email. I’ve got blog-by-email set up, so hopefully once I’m on site I’ll be able to keep everyone up-to-date via the blog.


Days 71-83: the end of the cruise

November 8th, 2010

It’s been too hectic to blog over the last few weeks, and now I find myself with a lot to catch up on!

I left Kilby Bridge in the company of nb Skean Dhu, with two guys on it delivering it to Brentford for a friend. Their throttle handle had jammed when they were about to set off, and I loaned them some tools to sort it out – then we travelled in convoy for the next few days. We went to Foxton Bottom Lock, struggling a bit in the shallow water due to a leaking culvert, and moored overnight. In the Foxton Locks Inn, I met Barrie Hayward, former deputy director of BAS… small world!

The lock-keepers were running water down the Foxton staircase overnight, and all the side ponds and run-off channels were alive with water – it looked like a formal water garden on a massive scale.
We ascended the staircase without incident, had a bacon sandwich and plodded on to Crick. The following day we had to descend the Watford staircase (as in Watford Gap, rather less pleasant than Foxton as it’s next to the M1) and were delayed by an hour waiting for boats to come the other way. I moored at Whilton overnight and said farewell to the Skian Dhus.

From Whilton I went on to Gayton Junction, filled up with diesel and descended the Northampton Arm – feeling very much like familiar territory now. Over the next few days I descended the Nene to Peterborough without too much incident apart from the fan belt breaking just as I left Wansford on the final morning – fortunately it was easy enough to nudge into the bushes before the engine overheated and replace the offending belt – always carry a spare one!

At Stanground the lock-keeper remembered me, and my journey through the Middle Levels was considerably easier than on the way out! I moored overnight at March and then at Salter’s Lode for an early tide on the morning of the 6th. I picked up Mike at Littleport and we cruised on to Ely. Now, our journey beyond Ely was blocked by Bottisham Lock, which was having emergency repairs. I had to be away the following week, so Innocenti spent a week in Cathedral Marina. Following my return, I went to Waterbeach to catch up with friends there, and then called the Cam Conservancy to find that the final lock, Bait’s Bite, had reopened. I found my previous mooring unoccupied, and tied up.

The total for the trip was 909 miles, 648 locks, 543 litres of diesel, 5 gas cylinders and 132 rashers of bacon!


Journey’s end

June 20th, 2007

I’ve now been back in the UK for just under two weeks – we arrived at Portland docks bright and early on the morning of the 7th June and I met my parents (and Lowri’s!) on the dockside. It was certainly a marvellous way to come back home – in many ways a lot more special than arriving at Heathrow!

arriving at Portland
Arriving at Portland – more photos
Anyway, since then I’ve been away for a week’s holiday in Cornwall and am now back in my old bedroom at my parents’ house throwing away lots of stuff I abandoned there when I left to go South, and arranging to meet lots of friends and relations.

Everyone’s been asking me what I’m doing next. I’ve applied for a PhD studentship that’s been organised between BAS and Leicester University, looking using modern digital techniques for HF radio. I’m currently waiting to hear whether my application’s been accepted – I’m expecting to be called for an interview at some point in the next few weeks. If I do get it I’ll be moving to Cambridge, and this blog will hopefully chronicle how it all goes. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about my Antarctic experience – I’ve certainly enjoyed writing, photographing and videoing it – and I’m always happy to answer questions about my time down South.


Saunders Island

April 5th, 2007

One thing you don’t really appreciate when you’re staying in Stanley is how big the Falkland Islands are – Stanley is quite a compact town, and houses about 3000 residents. The remaining 350 residents live elsewhere, on scattered farms covering an area half the size of Wales. Saunders Island is 30,000 acres, all in the ownership of one family, who live in a settlement of half-a-dozen buildings on one of the few flat pieces of land on the island. We flew there with the Falkland Islands Government Air Service (FIGAS) which is a bit of an experience in itself. You book a flight, saying where you want to go and when, and then you listen to the local radio station at 1815 the night before you fly. The announcer reads the weather and shipping forecasts, and then the flight schedule for the following day. We checked in at 0815 at the little airport outside Stanley (not to be confused with the much bigger international airport and military base at Mount Pleasant). This is not a normal air service – you turn up with your baggage, which is weighed as usual. Then they weigh you as well! Eventually you’re led outside to a Britten-Norman Islander aircraft, which is probably the smallest commercial airliner in service – having just six passenger seats. Our pilot, Derek, showed us to our seats and then off we went. Like all small air operations, weather is a crucial factor and there was fog over most of West Falkland which would obstruct our route, but after some quite exciting low flying (150′!) and then a climb up over a fog bank and down into a hole the other side we landed on the rough grass airstrip at Hill Cove, on the north coast of West Falkland. The plane bounced to a halt, one lady got off, along with various baggage, parcels and mail, and various other freight was loaded on. Then we took off again for a ten minute hop to Carcass Island to pick up Tom and Jade, who’d join us on Saunders.

Islander at Saunders

Finally we landed at Saunders and were met by Suzan Pole-Evans, who owns the island with her husband David. She loaded us into her Land Rover and we made a long and bumpy journey to The Neck, where we stayed in a comfortable portacabin. The Neck is a narrow spit of land connecting the western part of the island to the rest of it – it’s only a few hundred metres wide and is home to Gentoo, Rockhopper, Magellanic and King penguins, plus a whole range of other wildlife – we saw Commerson’s dolphins in the surf, a huge range of small birds, lots of Striated Caracaras (a hawk-like scavenging bird that’s very common in the Falkland Islands – and one which likes to hang around near people), and also a significant number of nesting Black-browed Albatross. It’s a fine place for naturalists, twitchers and photographers!

penguins in the surf
Penguins in the surf at sunrise

Far too many wildlife pictures from Saunders Island

We walked, wandered, took lots of photographs and retired to the portacabin to cook our meals and enjoy a glass or two of Chilean wine. A very pleasant few days!

Tomorrow is Good Friday, so everywhere in Stanley will be shut. I’m not quite sure what we’ll be doing – we may go walking again if the weather is good. However on Saturday, I’ll fly to Punta Arenas and begin the great South American adventure!


In Stanley again

March 30th, 2007

It’s quite strange being back in Stanley again – despite only having been here for four days on the way down, the town feels very familiar and there are still a lot of BAS people about so you’re always bumping into people you know. It still feels disconcertingly like the UK – the street furniture and road signs are all UK-style, and the food shops are full of British brands. My first morning in Stanley, however, was spent dealing with the Great British Bureaucracy – I needed a visitors permit stamped into my passport. Dave the Purser on the ship organises immigration – and for most people it was straightforward. However, for the ten of us who were staying in the Falklands as tourists there was a problem – travel insurance. The customs officer needed to see proof that we had insurance to cover medical evacuations in the event that we became seriously ill or injured during the time we weren’t covered by BAS’s insurance. This had been a saga in itself – it’s almost but not quite impossible to buy travel insurance if you haven’t been living in the UK for 12 months and your journey doesn’t begin or end in the UK. After a tip-off from a colleague I bought a policy before leaving Rothera from Travel Nation which doesn’t have those irritating residency requirements. Anyway, three of us trekked up to the Customs office and stood around for twenty minutes whilst a slightly bemused official read our policies and eventually issued us two-week visitor’s permits.

Anyway… yesterday we went to Volunteer Point, which despite being expensive (and boy is everything expensive in the Falklands!) is well worth it. We’d organised two Land Rovers and local guides to take us there, as the journey is quite difficult – firstly you drive for about an hour and a half along the gravel roads to the tiny settlement of Johnson’s Harbour, and then you drive ten miles across rough peaty moorland until you reach the nature reserve. This is a little neck of land with a long sandy beach on one side facing the sea, and a muddy lagoon on the other. On this small piece of land, perhaps half a mile long, there are Magellanic penguins (Jackasses, the locals call them, because they bray like a donkey) in their little burrows, and noisy, smelly colonies of both the small Gentoo penguins and the much larger King penguins. The Kings had chicks, too – small grey ones still huddling around their parents, and much older ones covered in a mass of brown fluffy down.
It’s a magical spot, particularly as the penguins are quite unconcerned at your presence and happily wander around mingling with the scruffy local sheep.

king penguins
King Penguins on the beach at Volunteer Point
Lots of pictures of Stanley and Volunteer Point


Not seasick

March 26th, 2007

As I’m writing this, the Ernest Shackleton’s about 50 miles south of the Falkland Islands and we’re expecting to dock in Stanley tonight. The first part of our trip across the Drake Passage was (relatively) calm and so the ship’s made good speed. Yesterday, however, we had Force 7 winds and huge waves crashing over the bows – making the whole ship shudder and sending a lot of people (crew and Fids alike) to their bunks. It turns out that I don’t get seasick (although I feel a bit dodgy if I’ve been reading a book or sat in front of a computer for more than about half an hour) for which I’m profoundly grateful!


On the Shack

March 23rd, 2007

We sailed from Rothera yesterday morning, waving farewell to the winterers and leaving them to the mercy of the practical jokes we’d played on them! With glorious weather and calm seas we made our way into Margerite Bay, round the southern end of Adelaide Island and out into the Southern Ocean. At this point, the Ernest Shackleton’s legendary hydrodynamics began to produce the chaotic pitching and rolling for which the ship is infamous. Everyone took their Stugeron, and only a few people retired to their cabins. I found I was happier when watching the natual horizon, and headed up onto the Bridge. I found Vicky there already, and as the two of us looked out to the west we saw three whales blow several times in succession a few miles away. You can usually tell a whale’s species from the shape of its spout, and subsequent research revealed that these were most likely to have been the very large but now very rare blue whales – wow!

last view of rothera
Through the porthole – a last view of Rothera

This morning we woke in the calmer waters of the Argentine Islands, where we were to drop of a small team to help sort out some faulty meteorological equipment at the Ukranian base, Vernadsky. This used to be a British base (initially called Argentine Islands but later known as Faraday) and we still have a good working relationship with the cash-strapped Ukranians and tend to bail them out from time to time.
Whilst the ship held her position behind the base, rumours circulated around the crew and Fids as to our intended route. The captain had initially said “no scenic route” – meaning that after leaving Vernadsky we’d go directly to the open sea and set a direct course for the Falklands. In fact, as it was a glorious day and the conditions were calm and largely ice-free, Captain Marshall treated us to a small detour through the utterly spectacular Lemaire Channel before cutting round Anvers Island (passing the American Palmer Station on the way). Lemaire is a narrow channel flanked by high rocky mountains, and in an area with an abundance of wildlife. Stood on the “monkey island” – the upper deck above the bridge – we saw Orcas, penguins and seals in the water, as well as more whales (we think they were humpbacks). Should you ever get the opportunity to take a tourist cruise down the Antarctic Peninsula, make sure it includes this route as it is stunning!

Now we’re back in open waters, with the ship’s motion making you feel like you’re on a slowed-down Waltzer ride at a fairground. We should be in Stanley harbour on Tuesday morning.

Pictures of the journey


We’re history

March 20th, 2007

On Saturday we had a hugely successful fancy dress night with a historical theme. Lots of people dressed up in a variety of intriguing costumes: cave-people, cowboys, Romans, crusaders, hippies and so on. Roger and Pete almost stole the show as Stonehenge (yes, they made a “henge” out of cardboard and danced around in it for a significant amount of the evening) until Kai appeared in a robot outfit made from plumbing spares!
With a certain inevitability, I came as Brunel…


brunel

…with a frock coat made my creative modification of a vicar’s cassock from the dressing-up box and a top hat made from corrugated cardboard and gaffer tape.

On Sunday we had a heavy fall of snow, which makes the base look pretty again.

base in snow


bransfield in snow

This morning the Ernest Shackleton has arrived to take us home. I’ll be moving on board tomorrow night, although the ship will actually leave on Thursday morning.


Shackleton at wharf

This may well be the last post for a while – I’ll try and keep updated whilst I’m on the ship but as the Shackleton is famous for making people seasick then I may be indisposed…


people on point

Final photos in the snow- Lowri, Jade, Tom and (not leaving yet!) Roger