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A pleasing bouquet?

Diana GarnhamDiana Garnham, Chief Executive of the Science Council, is also a keen gardener. But is there more to her day job than letting a thousand flowers bloom? Ted Nield interviews.

Geoscientist 19.7 July 2009

“The problems facing society are hugely complex and require the skills of a wide range of professionals, including scientists. But there isn’t going to be a single approach or answer.”

Diana Garnham has what many would regard as an unenviable – indeed un-doable job. She oversees an umbrella body comprising the CEOs of scientific and technological institutes – including the Geological Society. The rest of the membership consists of similar organisations – but their connection with science and technology, and in some cases their former membership of the Science Council’s predecessor the “Council of Science & Technology Institutes” (CSTI) is usually where their similarity ends.

Yet somehow this naturally factitious bunch of prima donnas has to be made, coerced or cajoled into behaving themselves, and reaching some sort of consensus – which is Diana Garnham’s role in life – at least for now. Formerly Chief Executive of the Association of Medical Charities, Diana joined the Council in January 2006. She admits to not being too hung up on history. “I don’t know a great deal about the old CSTI though I did recently find some rather dusty files when we moved office” she quips.

Her appointment owed much to the Council’s former President, the late Sir Gareth Roberts, former Vice Chancellor of Sheffield University, Chairman of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, and author of numerous Government reports now named after him. “I had known Gareth for many years and worked with him on many different issues at AMRC – including university overheads and the RAE. I also served on the HEFCE research strategy committee, which he chaired” she says. “Gareth persuaded me that my skills were what the Science Council needed if it was to develop a culture of collaboration and a true community.

“Once communities work together they can have enormous impact, reducing the discord and noise levels that are so confusing for government, and looking towards tackling the big issues facing society. But I had also worked for many years on public engagement in science, and wanted to explore the difference between trust in science and trust in scientists. We have to raise the visibility of the people who do science – and Chartered Scientist, the new post-nominal designation that we brought in, is a great way of doing that.

Diana sees Chartered Scientist as the platform for raising the profile of scientists. “I think the focus of media, and government and indeed everyone is most often on ‘academic’ scientists; but there are so many other types out there, and from the public’s point of view, they are probably even “closer” to them. It’s just that no one knows they are there! I want to change that.”

“So we are now trying to share the individual stories, the inspiration and energy we see every day. For example, Edmund Nickless did a podcast interview for us a while ago –about how he “thinks” when he sees a mountain – what’s it made of, how long it has been there and so on. Another Science Council Board member talked lyrically about the mathematics of a rainbow. When journalists heard these they were bowled over – the stories had texture, were approachable and were fun. Non-scientists could relate to them too. It wasn’t about “breakthroughs” and Nobel prizes; it was about what goes on every day in a scientist’s head.

“I am really passionate about making this work. If we don’t enable the wider public, and particularly young people and their parents, to get a better idea of what scientists are doing in their community every day, we won’t encourage more young people into science. Raising the profile of the hidden working scientist is very high on our agenda.”

To this end, and to encourage the young, the Council has run a number of initiatives like Future Morph ( and Big Bang). I asked Diana how they fitted in with this policy of bringing people closer to working scientists. “Future Morph is all the above and more. With 65 partners providing funding and content for the website, it has a guiding, sharing and enabling role – which I think are the key behind the scenes skills for any CEO of an umbrella group!”

“It is important to remember that in an umbrella body, each member is different; and part of what we need to do is celebrate those differences – the “specialness” – at the same time as remembering that we become stronger and more effective by working together. It isn’t just CEOs of course – in this sector the influence of the ever-changing Presidents needs to be taken into account too – so, first rule is to find space and a voice for every individual.

“I suspect some of the CEOs see me a ‘voluntary sector type’ who doesn’t understand the science world very well; but I believe it was important for the Science Council to have an early discussion about its values. We did that, and central to this is that each organisation in membership is valued and respected within the collective. One of our aims is to showcase the great things our members are doing. The Geological Society, for example, is doing some innovative projects with young people, and it is great for us to be part of these events and then report on aspects of it. I don’t think we can really find an activity and say “this is the right way” – because every organisation is different, has differing resources available and faces a different set of issues. Take gender and diversity. GSL has some good projects that we can showcase, but we would encourage our member bodies to look at this for ideas, rather than “blueprints”. Sharing ideas and good practice within the community is something we want to encourage.

“The next task for Science Council is to get a success under our belt; and I think we have that with Future Morph. Our member bodies need to feel good – proud even – of what they achieve by working together. Being able to identify something that they think is different, and down to their commitment is a good step forward.

“The Science Council’s “Unique Selling Proposition” (as the jargon has it) is its ability to look at issues right across science and mathematics. The problems facing society are hugely complex and require the skills of a wide range of professionals, including scientists and mathematicians. But we need to accept there isn’t going to be a single approach or answer.

“It annoys me when I see institutions going beyond their own field. They should be working across the discipline barriers. Take water as an issue. Almost all STEM subjects have a role to play in addressing it, so it cannot be down to one subject discipline or professional body to put forward the only single solution. Geologists know about one part of it but meteorologists know another, and so on. Our future is about getting our organisations to go beyond where they are now. Of course, some will need to be coaxed, but I hope we have at least reached the stage where they all prefer to be at the table, rather than left out. Of course some organisations and groups will be less engaged than others; but we will get there.

“The hardest area is undoubtedly science policy development. Some think of science policy as only being about research funding. Science policy for me governs the landscape in which we have to work – which includes research funding in HE but it does not end there. We need to get the overall temperature of the water right for science and innovation to thrive. There are several strands to this. Capacity, both in terms of research strengths and investment, and the numbers of professional scientists in the economy outside academia, is one strand. Another might be improving the teaching of science in schools; ensuring that degree courses provide the right depth of subject and skills, and achieving broad-based public support for science and scientists so that we get the regulatory and social environment right for science and innovation to thrive.

“As the Science Council we need to be involved in public affairs, but we also need to improve our accountability and openness with the public. In many ways Geol Soc is a microcosm of this. It represents scientists with a broad range of STEM skills and draws members from across academia, big business, public sector, SMEs and consultancies, education and also committed individuals. The science community embraces all these groups. So my job is much like any CEO of a learned society - trying to please everybody!”