Being a member of Young Academies

a sociologist, a philosopher, a chemist and an engineer walk into a room….no it’s not the start of a joke, it’s a young academy meeting

I became an inaugural cohort member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s Young Academy of Scotland back in 2011 and then joined the Global Young Academy in 2013. Each of these young academies has a 5-year membership term, so I’ve become alumni of the Young Academy of Scotland and I’m in my final year of my membership of the Global Young Academy. It is, therefore, perhaps a good time to reflect on what it has been like to be a member of these organisations and whether it has been worthwhile. I’m not doing this simply to naval gaze; currently, there is an open call for members for the Global Young Academy (deadline 24th September 2017) and I wanted to offer an insider perspective for any prospective members.

A major benefit was the opportunity for leadership experience. Whilst each Young Academy will differ in how it is organised, a common theme is that they are run by the members. The Global Young Academy for example, has two Co-Chairs, and an Executive Committee consisting 11 members; this is the leadership team. A Managing Director and a small office staff help the organisation to run, but decisions are made by members for members (it’s in our constitution!). Members can also lead a working group.  Of course, leadership takes many forms, so being able to represent the organisation at events, give talks etc., and representing us well – talking us up – is leadership.  To do this not just for yourself but for the good of the organisation is leadership.

When I joined the RSE Young Academy of Scotland, I was a Research Fellow (or, Assistant Professor to those outwith the UK!).  At my home institution I was not leading anything in the ‘traditional’ sense, well I’d been principal investigator on grants and started an online network for sexual health but I hadn’t yet taken on a lead role in my institution.  So, at that time, I found I had a pathway to leadership much more readily available, and immediately in front of me.  It was for me to grab the opportunities if I wished.  So, I led a working group on health and wellbeing.  Being a working group lead meant you attended joint meetings with the 4x Co-Chairs and our contact person in the RSE.  So straight away I was at meetings where the word ‘strategy’ was used a lot.  This was pretty new to me at that time. In the Global Young Academy, I led a working group called Global State of Young Scientists (GloSYS), which focuses on gathering data on the barriers and facilitators to the career development of young scientists and scholars.  I contributed to the initial precursor study, then to the follow-up GloSYS ASEAN study, and then helped write the grant application for a follow-up study across countries in Africa (successfully gaining 300,000EUROs funding).  I found myself presenting findings from the precursor study to the President of the European Research Council.  I travelled to Bangkok for the ASEAN project, and met amazing folk from other young academies we’d involved.  In May 2017, I was elected by my fellow members of the Global Young Academy to the Executive Committee.  In my final year I wanted to give back in a different way.

I have enjoyed being with my peers throughout these experiences.   It has felt like we were all learning skills together, learning from each other and so forth.  Reflecting back, I wonder if I had a leadership opportunity back in 2011 at my university then chances are that I would be in meetings with more senior academics and ‘imposter syndrome’ may have crippled me.   Instead, I’ve had opportunities for leadership in safe environments where I wasn’t really expected to know it all.  I’m not sure, looking back, that I can put a value on this.  If I did, it would be pretty high!

Next, being exposed to so many disciplines in one go was truly one of theeeeeeeeee best things I can ever say about young academies. I love interdisciplinary work, and strive for it in my own work.  I often joke that a sociologist, a philosopher, a chemist and an engineer walk into a room….no it’s not the start of a joke, it’s a young academy meeting.  Honestly, even if you think you’re interdisciplinary you are unlikely to be surrounded by this many folk from across so many disciplines at the same time. I truly believe that some of the world’s biggest problems will not be solved by science alone.  I’m not knocking science in any way, but often it simply cannot be the silver bullet.  We need to work together and crucially, we need to respect each other’s expertise and listen.  Enter a young academy with an open mind, be willing to listen and learn from your peers and, importantly, be willing to be challenged.  Something you think you’ve believed for a long time may be challenged because you’ve just never really been exposed to that discipline.  If we can ensure the arts, humanities, social sciences and sciences all work together I believe THAT is how we will solve problems.

At one GYA annual meeting I was sitting at a dinner table with a group of folk from different countries and I thought what we all shared was a similar sense of humour.  We laughed until I was almost in tears.  It may be a cliche, but we do have more that unites us than divides us.  When we are willing to listen, to appreciate, and to respect each other then so much is possible. Every member will have their own experience of being in a young academy, but you will get out what you put in. This is not a line on a CV; this is about helping to build a community.  I bet you’ll make lots of new friends too!

Join a young academy if you are prepared to be open to new ways of thinking, to collaboration, to our own (‘youthful’!) style of leadership and dare I say if you want to be little bit disruptive! After all, we’re not our parent academies and we do have our own voice. Let it be heard.