Fellows of the Royal Society are human too

Guest post by Jonathan Gregory (with thanks to Meteorology’s Weather and Climate Blog where this originally appeared).

In early May I was surprised and honoured, as well as happy, to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. One of the best consequences of this so far has been that I was allowed the opportunity to give a speech to members of the department one afternoon at an informal celebration. Actually I had requested this occasion, following the admirable departmental tradition of celebrating successful PhD vivas etc., because I wanted to share with my colleagues some thoughts, which I’m writing down here in case they’re useful to others as well. First among these was to thank those who proposed me for the fellowship, and my bosses of the last 28 years, who recruited me into excellent research institutions and gave me the freedom to work on subjects which seemed useful and interesting to me.

It turns out that FRSs are human too. Nothing has magically changed since my election. There are still lots of things I can’t understand. I’m still worried that I won’t be able to think of enough good ideas. I still feel near to despair about the large number of things I want or need to do at work, and my inadequacy in tackling them. In fact for much of my adult life I have suffered from recurrent depression. Many of the thoughts that cause me difficulties are sometimes described as symptoms of imposter syndrome, which is a fear that you are in a position that you don’t deserve to have reached, and that any moment you might be unmasked as a fraud who has misled people into thinking that you are actually quite clever.

It is probable that some colleagues have similar fears, and it’s good to know you’re not alone. Most people need encouragement, I guess. I value my election as FRS because it’s an external recognition of climate science and the value of my contribution to it, and I’ll try to use this knowledge to help myself when I’m feeling depressed. It’s useful to remind yourself in those circumstances of positive things that others have said, and in fact I’ve compiled a list of them, to look at when in need. Because I know that positive remarks are useful to me, I advocate that we should all offer positive comments to our colleagues, staff and bosses whenever we think they’ve done something good. Positive feedback should not be lagged!

One of my jobs is to make such comments myself. My other important function is to ask questions that I feel stupid in asking, especially in group meetings etc. where there might be others who’d rather like to know the answers too but don’t feel confident to ask. It’s easier for a professor to do this job than a new PhD student, because (presuming that I am actually not altogether an imposter) I can have some confidence that I am not being unusually stupid if I don’t understand something. Actually ignorance is not the same as stupidity anyway. Ignorance is not necessarily a bad thing. Socrates said that he knew nothing except that he knew nothing, and in Nineteen Eighty-Four one of the ruling party’s slogans is “Ignorance is strength.” Maybe that’s going too far, but ignorance can certainly be useful, because it avoids preconceptions. Asking questions when you feel that the answer ought to be obvious, but doesn’t seem to be, can be a way to change people’s thinking. In his book, The structure of scientific revolutions, in which he put forward the idea of paradigm shifts, Thomas Kuhn points out that radical progress is often made by people who are new to a subject, presumably for this reason.

If people seem blank when you explain something to them, it might just be because you haven’t been clear enough, but on the other hand it could be because the subject you are dealing with is not yet properly appreciated, and you’re speaking a new language. If a subject seems unclear and confused to you, it might be because no-one properly understands it, and everyone’s been skirting round it, thinking it’s someone else’s business. So perhaps it would be a good idea to head straight in that direction and see what there is to be discovered, because there may be unknown mountains hidden in the mists of ignorance, and amazing panoramas can occasionally be glimpsed through the gaps.

Diversity and Internationalization

Guest blog by Vincenzo Raimo (Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Global Engagement)  

I’m a passionate advocate for the benefits that we all gain through the internationalization of our universities. Among the reasons that I was particularly keen to rejoin Reading University as Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Global Engagement in 2014, was its very strong and long-standing international relationships and its extensive global footprint. As a student, here in the 1980s, I remember a very international population of staff and students, like we have today, and living with students from a very diverse set of countries including Sudan, Oman, Rwanda, India, Cyprus and elsewhere. Almost 30-years on I’ve been privileged to visit most of these countries and to have met Reading graduates all over the world who, like me, have been profoundly influenced by the international experience they enjoyed as students here.


I’m sometimes met by skepticism in my belief in the benefits we all gain through greater internationalization on our campuses – a belief that by bringing students and scholars together from across the world we can share knowledge as well as developing a greater understanding and mutual respect for our fellow citizens of this planet. There are also significant benefits in terms of economic flows and in diplomatic relationships, but most crucially in creating a better and safer world which we can share together.

Internationalization does not, however, come without its challenges: the current challenges at home in relation to government policies, including the immigration and Brexit debates played out daily on our news screens, but also those challenges pertinent to operating as a transnational organization. Here in the UK we are home to more than 16000 students and 3700 staff representing most of the world’s nations, and a large number of the world’s religions and faiths. We need to be supportive of the diverse communities which we welcome to our campuses and ensure that we are sensitive and receptive to their particular needs.

We also have almost 3000 University of Reading students on our campuses and study sites outside of the UK including in South Africa, China and Malaysia as well as growing staff populations in those countries and an increasingly mobile staff travelling between Reading’s campuses.

Among the most significant challenges we face as a transnational organization are the very different legal and cultural environments we encounter in some of the countries to which our staff and students travel and in which the University of Reading is located today. It’s important to stress that while we obviously work within the different legal and cultural environments in which our people travel and in which we are located, our core values and principles as a University community remain unchanged – values of respect, tolerance and freedom of expression.

The University’s Diversity and Inclusion Strategy is, as the name says, about being inclusive and welcoming to all people, irrespective of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion or disability. It is about ensuring that our practices do not exclude, marginalise or disadvantage people and that we create environments, as Rebecca Hilsenrath, Chief Executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission has described, in which “students and staff feel confident expressing who they are and what they believe in”.

The fact that we have a Diversity and Inclusion Strategy, recognises that we still have work to do at our campuses in the UK to ensure our values are fully embedded. But this work also goes beyond our UK shores. While recognising that we can’t control the experiences of our staff and students away from the University, our campuses themselves, wherever they may be located, must be open and inclusive places. That may mean challenging assumptions and local cultures  – in part this is what universities have always done – but we must also be sensitive to the safety and the feelings of our people within the contexts in which we operate.

To support our Global Engagement Strategy, the University has signed-up as a Stonewall Global Diversity Champion as from 1st June 2017. This will help us to assess more accurately how we are meeting our University Values in our overseas sites, as well as helping us to provide the best possible advice and support we can to our staff and students who are currently working or studying at one of our branch campuses, or considering doing so.