The IST Conference 2023

The one-day Institute of Science and Technology (IST) Conference 2023 was recently held in London at the South Bank University on 13 September. The IST was also celebrating its 75th anniversary.

After a splendid introduction by the UK’s first astronaut and IST President Helen Sharman CMG OBE HonFRSC, the keynote presentation was given by Dr Kelly Vere MBE FIScT.

Dr Vere gave a potted history of the technical profession in the UK and how they were perceived. Her presentation discussed how technicians and their contributions on the whole have been ignored by history.

She described research in the 1960s by Matilda Tansey who conducted a detailed study of the careers of laboratory technicians in British medical research pre-1960, and traced an evolvement of the technical role from before WW1, when "Lab Boys" were employed as personal lab servants, to post-WW2, when the term technician came into effect. Back then technicians were required to wear brown lab coats to distinguish them from their scientific colleagues who wore white, and technicians were not expected to use libraries or even travel in the same lift as the scientists.

She then highlighted an article on 17th century technicians by Stephen Shapin, written in 1989 for American Scientist magazine, which shows in drawings that technicians were characterised as hard working people but with their faces not showing, or depicted as cherubs carrying apparatus. Shapin also drew on literature that commented on the rising numbers of technicians with PhDs and remarked on the blurring of lines between the technician and scientists, as technicians increasingly gained academic knowledge alongside practical experience.

It was a very interesting talk and I wished it had been longer as I am interested in the history of technicians. Both articles, ‘Keeping the culture alive: the laboratory technician in mid-twentieth-century British medical research’ by Tansey, E.M., and ‘The Invisible Technician’ by Shapin, Steven, are available from the University of Leeds Library – ISSN: 0035-9149 and ISSN: 0003-0996 respectively – and both made interesting reading.

Dr Vere also spoke about the emergence of a more positive culture for technical skills, roles, and careers with the Technician Commitment being set up in 2017 (now with 115 signatories) and the MI TALENT programme that has transformed the perception and recognition of technical staff in universities and research institutions.

Throughout her career, Dr Vere has created, facilitated and led a number of opportunities for the technical community. These include the UK Higher Education Technicians Summit and Papin Prizes and the Herschel Programme for Women in Technical Leadership amongst others. In 2023, it was announced that she will lead the new £5.5M UK Institute for Technical Skills & Strategy (ITSS). The Technician Commitment is now housed within the ITSS.

The first workshop I attended was on ‘Career pathways and the three Rs’ by Jan Brett, the Technical Development and Planning Officer from the University of Liverpool and Sara Bacon from the NTDC Centre Manager. Jan spoke about the Research Technical Professional Pathway they had introduced at Liverpool. This was a non-compulsory pathway they had when staff were either transferring roles or aiming for promotion within their current role (covering Grades 6 to 10). The promotion indicators recognised role and professional development. There were five assessment areas including scientific/technical skills and awareness, professional activity and development, and outputs and impact. Of the 23 of their staff that applied in the first instance, 12 were promoted with 10 going from grade 6 to 7. It also was an opportunity to create a more connected technician community and also gave them potential to align training and continual professional development opportunities. Sara spoke about the bespoke Technician Survey the NTDC do, which has just run here at Leeds as I am sure you have heard about.

The second workshop was ‘The Role of Creative Arts Technician in HE – Sustaining Creativity, Networking and Mindfulness.’ This was three talks, the first by Graeme, the Principal Technical Specialist (Arts) of Brunel University, who manages a small team of four technicians to support delivery of film, games design and journalism subjects. He spoke about how at work he was feeling alone, isolated with no support network and lacking creativity due to the increasing time he was having to spend on non-creative tasks in his job. To combat this, he challenged himself to create a 40 minute piece of sound art performance work, which included sound and dance called ‘Made of Night’ and would contribute to a local research festival. To do this, he learnt new software and had to make contact with technicians outside his usual sphere to get equipment made or learn new techniques. He also reached out to find technician support networks. Out of this he felt increased job satisfaction, less isolation and more confidence in using the latest technologies. The next talk was by Oliver who spoke about the development, progress and intentions of an online Society of Arts Technician focused user group he set up (as there wasn’t one). It is open to all arts technicians across the UK so please check out if you would like to join.

There were a considerable number of stalls with companies explaining what they do and promoting new innovative products, including Astell, who have designed a new sink which includes an autoclave section within it where biological waste could be discarded down the plughole without bleach but then it goes though sterilisation and cooling before release. There was also a photography competition which was well received. 

All in all, it was a splendid and well run conference with interesting talks and workshops. I was glad to meet a lot of technicians, who I met and became friends with online during covid, but face to face for a change, and also again meet new technicians who work in a variety of different disciplines.

Written by Angela Beddows RSci

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