Counting myself out

By Lucy Heady 16 December 2010

How many physicists are there in the UK charity sector? No, I don’t know either but as of tomorrow there will be one less. After four years at NPC I am finally hanging up my calculator and moving on.

When I arrived at NPC, fresh from solving equations and programming computers, I knew next to nothing about the world I was about to enter. All I knew was that I had finally worked out the blindingly obvious; people are more interesting than electrons. There are few other things that are blindingly obvious to most people but are helpful to point out to any clueless physicist starting out in the charity sector:

  • Language really matters. You’re coming from a world where graphs and numbers say the important stuff and words are peripheral. For charities, choosing the right words is everything. Before coming to NPC I had no idea that ‘children with autism’ and ‘autistic children’ could provoke completely different reactions.
  • Start by talking to people. Physicists aren’t very good at this, they like working stuff out from scratch or reading about it in a peer-reviewed journal, but I’m afraid this is non-negotiable. The most important stuff isn’t written down, it’s assumed, passed in whispers or off-hand comments at conferences. Even if it is written down it probably won’t be public. The only way to get evidence is to ask for it.
  • Seminars are not a competition where the aim is making someone else cry. People who work for charities are really nice, they listen to each other and don’t try to prove each other wrong all of the time. Be nice back.

The clash of two worlds works both ways though and there are some perspectives that seem obvious to a physicist that charities can learn from:

  • Just because you’ve measured something doesn’t mean it’s there. Actually this is something that charities are pretty clear on, most of the measures we come up with are far from perfect. What charities are less aware of is that this is exactly what scientists think as well. Help charities to understand that just because you’re good at measuring things, doesn’t mean you think it’s the answer to everything.
  • In order to understand how something works, you need a theory. Without a theory you don’t know how what you’re measuring relates to what you want to measure. Your numbers won’t help you to understand what’s going on. You won’t know what to do when someone else’s numbers disagree with yours. In short, get a theory for why what you do works and if it turns out to be wrong, change it.
  • Don’t trust your intuition. The history of physics is discovering what we thought was obvious is completely wrong. Heavier things don’t fall faster. 99.9% of matter is just empty space. Particles can be in two places at once. Intuition and gut feelings drive fantastic innovations in the charity sector but charities could do with the healthy dose of mistrust and drive for evidence that comes with a scientific background.

In my time at NPC I have seen understanding about the need for evidence in the charity sector grow and grow. What is needed to match this is people with the technical expertise in measurement who also understand what daily life is like for charities. I am leaving behind a team of bright and enthusiastic quantitative analysts who fit this bill and there are a few others around but the sector needs more. So if there are any physicists (or bankers or economists or mathematicians) out there who are also discovering that people are actually quite interesting really then get in touch with NPC. I can’t think of a better place to start your charity education.

P.S. I am not leaving the world of charities and measurement altogether (how could I?), I am going off to be an economist for the Peace Dividend Trust who work to make aid in post-conflict countries more effective.