Comment: Major research institutions drive innovation through diversity

To meet the government objective of the UK becoming a scientific superpower, we must ensure we are providing a fair and inclusive workspace where all voices can be part of the way forward, says Zoe Bowden MBE, former head of operations and deputy director of ISIS Neutron and Muon Source.


I joined the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in 1979 through a scheme similar to modern apprenticeships. I didn’t think about whether it was a career for women at the time, I just knew I wanted a job in science. I didn’t meet many objections, but I did hear comments that would now be considered deeply inappropriate – for example that I could have a good career ‘as long as I didn’t get married’.

In many respects I was lucky in my early career, as when I joined the facility it was very new, with few staff, so I was given the opportunity to try my hand at many different roles. My unique skillset became that I understood the languages of both scientists and engineers, and was able to provide a bridge between the two.

My career at the ISIS Neutron and Muon Source started as a trainee scientist and as I progressed, I moved from running neutron instrumentation to managing all the support technologies for the experimental programme, bringing an exceptional team together to provide world class environments for the samples under investigation. The team supported the entire experimental programme, encompassing a huge and diverse set of skills across the groups from in situ chemistry to humidity cells, from pressure cells at milli Kelvin temperatures to high temperature stress rigs.   These teams remain at the facility and are critical to the delivery of the science programme.  During this period in which the numbers of women in STEM were very low, it was important not only to be supportive of each other but to challenge the status quo in matters such as embedded recruitment criteria, which generated bias against women. As a manager, this meant supporting and promoting development for everyone, as well as providing advice on working in such a male dominated environment.

In 2014, I became Head of Operations for the Facility and Deputy Director – I really enjoyed this role because it gave me the opportunity to encourage best practice and facilitate innovation across the whole organisation.  To run such a large and complex facility it is essential to have excellent engineers from all disciplines, science staff renowned in their own fields and able to collaborate with the user community, as well highly trained, flexible technical staff.  Working to improve the exploitation of the facility and its resources with such exceptional staff was a brilliant role to have.

Mentorship to support career progression

The role of women in STEM has improved, but there are still some barriers to overcome. There is a certain amount of pressure to become ‘one of the boys’, but the next generation of early career researchers are more accepting of diversity. Mentoring is key here, in ensuring all staff reach their true potential. I have been lucky enough to benefit from several excellent mentors, men and women, during my career, and I like to think that I have benefitted others in turn.

Formal reverse mentoring schemes bring a new dimension, although some might say I had been doing this informally all along. It is hugely beneficial to an early career scientist or engineer to understand the organisational environment they are working in, but it also brings fresh and diverse insights to senior management that might challenge their assumptions about their ways of working. This was particularly acute during the COVID-19 pandemic, as younger staff tend to be digital natives, adapting more quickly to digital working and socialising, setting an example to the rest of us.

Flexibility at senior levels

There is still a lack of diversity at senior levels, so preserving diversity as this new generation progresses is vital to the scientific endeavour. I am a strong believer in the unique ability of science and engineering to address global challenges, and strong evidence points to the need for a range of perspectives to find solutions in an increasingly complex world. To meet the government objective of the UK becoming a scientific superpower, we must ensure we are providing a fair and inclusive workspace where all voices can be part of the way forward.

This can mean different things to different groups. Providing good childcare facilities for all parents can lessen the disproportionate impact that starting a family can have on women’s careers. Flexibility is very important across the board, for example allowing staff to manage chronic health conditions, or carers to balance commitments at work and home, or to accommodate and respect religious practices. But fundamentally it is about knowing your people – it doesn’t matter which groups they fit into, but about supporting everyone in reaching their full potential.

Recognising the need for diversity at a facility level

Diversity in engineering underpins success. The nature of research at ISIS Neutron and Muon Source, from fundamental science to functional materials, means that we must constantly innovate. This requires not just technical or engineering skills but the ability to communicate effectively, to find new solutions and take them to completion. For example, working with scientists and other engineering teams to deliver a new scientific instrument that has never been built before. Putting together many different people from all backgrounds only strengthens our ability to innovate and solve challenges the UK is facing today.

I always thought it was really important to recognise the roles of engineers and technicians at a scientific facility like ISIS Neutron and Muon Source, where world-class research is the visible output. Our work is underpinned by a huge number of engineers to maintain, operate, and develop the accelerator and instrumentation. Our engineers span all the disciplines – we need mechanical, mechatronic, electrical, software, electronic and cryogenic engineers, along with a host of skilled technicians providing hands-on expertise. To do the best science, we need not only the best scientists but also the best engineers, the best technicians, and the best software developers.

I believe that if you are driven by the desire to solve complex and often unprecedented problems, develop and deliver innovative solutions, and be part of a large, collaborative team that is working to tackle global challenges, research institutions like ISIS Neutron and Muon Source provide a unique opportunity, no matter who you are.

Zoe Bowden MBE, former head of operations and deputy director of ISIS Neutron and Muon Source