When I discovered my own unconscious bias in managing an NMR lab

“Remember, you might call it a position of responsibility but actually it’s a position of power”

I’ve been following over the last few days various threads on Twitter in and around themes of work / life balance in academia. Phrases like “you won’t make it in academia if you’re working this week” are being thrown around casually. Thus far I have not responded on Twitter because a) I wasn’t sure I had something valuable to add, and b) 140 characters.

One of the areas that I didn’t see discussed was access to scientific instruments after hours, many of which run 24/7 and demand for which is fierce. And I had a sharp realisation that in the past I had been contributing to the problem through unconscious bias. So here is my brief confession and list of suggestions to help people who run, maintain, and grant access to scientific instrumentation keep them a little more equitable (admittedly biased towards NMR)

Short Version

  1. Don’t make parents who have to pick up kids from school or childcare wait until after 5.00 or 6.00PM to start their overnight slots. Ask them when they need to leave work and adjust the “rules”/guidelines to cater for them.
  2. Build guidelines ensuring people are aware of what to do with people’s overnight samples if they can’t be in at 8.00 or 9.00AM because they’re doing the school run.
  3. If you have users with disabilities make sure they get instrument time when extra support that may be needed is available.
  4. Keep all past booking sheets for a few months and periodically review to ensure you are maintaining equity of access.
  5. If funds permit, invest in autosamplers. Depending on labs, often an overnight booking for 1 sample is excessive. 2x8hours much better, and doesn’t need a 1AM drive to the lab.
  6. Make explanation of your relaxed policy for parents and disabled users a key part of training for _all_ new users to raise awareness

    Long Version

I know for a fact that my conscious decision some years ago to work fewer weekends was sneered at by some in the department. Now being a chemist I was always aware of our local OH&S rules about what lab work is and what isn’t allowed on weekends. Some types of reactions have written into their risk assessments that they shouldn’t be run when you’re alone in the lab, regardless of what day of the week it is.

But my weekend work tended to be mostly NMR. So I would book weekend time, come in and set the jobs running and then go home. But I had a minor advantage. I was also in charge of the NMR booking system.

As a short detour because it’s important, I’ll mention that this was the weekly booking system for our two hands-on 600s, neither of which had autosamplers. The 400 is a walk-up with 30 minute booking times and an autosampler for overnights and access has it’s own set of rules.


2×600 MHz NMs flanking the walk-up 400 MHz machine

So I’d go along to our weekly booking meetings with my projected weeks needs like everyone else, and if no one had asked for the weekend, I’d take them, not booking weekday timeslots (unless there were spare of course)

Now the weekday system was that overnight runs started at 5.00PM and ended at 7.00AM. If (and only if) by the time of your run no one had booked the next morning emergency 7-9AM slot, then you could extend your run to 9.00AM.

Now we can and did have exceptions to the general rules occasionally but I now realise that this system was set up with an assumed bias: that everyone could bend their non-work life to these rules. This is clearly not true, and is particularly unfair on parents who have to pick up children from school and drop them off before work.
So if you are in a position where you gatekeep scientific instruments, take a moment to review your current practices. My experiences above are with NMR but are equally applicable to many other pieces of kit.

  1. Do you give a bit of leeway to parents?
  2. Have you considered technologies that can improve work/life balance?
  3. Are your current systems adequate for disabled users?
  4. Are your regular users trained to accommodate special needs users?
  5. Remember, you might call it a position of responsibility but actually it’s a position of power.

About martin

almost on holidays
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