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Cambridge Global Food Security

An Interdisciplinary Research Centre at the University of Cambridge

To celebrate International Women's Day, and to honour the work that women in academia do to help make our world more food secure, we are profiling some of the brilliant female academics who work at/with the University of Cambridge. Policy systems specialist Dr Nazia Mintz Habib reflects on the importance of a good education, developing both as a research leader and as a methods specialist, and on how to support the growth of younger scholars and female scholars.

I am the founder and the director of the Resilience and Sustainable Development Research Programme at the University of Cambridge. I am a policy systems specialist with a background in political economics and sustainability science. Aside from being an academic, I am also a social entrepreneur, and hold advisory and consulting roles with global platforms such as the World Economic Forum, the World Bank, and the United Nations. I have advised over 20 countries on various socio-economic policies, while holding advisory roles with multiple non-profit organisations. My academic journey has been intertwined with the professional and personal levels of experience that I get from each interaction. I learn a lot during my teaching engagements with undergraduate and postgraduate students, and re-learn when I speak at events organized by institutions such as the Financial Times, Bloomberg and The Times. I have been developing a career trajectory that will not only make my research applied, but is also timely for critical decision-making, especially when it comes to resilience and sustainability.

I decided to do a PhD in international development primarily because I come from Bangladesh, a country known as a least developed country, but which during my lifetime has changed its status to an emerging economy, then to a ‘leaping tiger’ economy. Bangladesh’s journey is something that I have personally experienced as a citizen, but intellectually I was very curious to understand how it has occurred. I still do not understand what goes in a country that makes it move from one spectrum to the other, but what is fascinating about a country’s journey are the roles that leaders play in various decision-making processes, from economics to personal well-being. So I decided to pick a topic during my PhD that would help me to connect household level decision-making right through the different levels up to national level decision-making. And food, and agriculture, seem to be some of the topics that cut across boundaries. So my PhD subject was trying to understand the food versus fuel debate in the era of new energy – the carbonless world. In 2008, when I started my PhD programme, biofuel was on everyone’s minds, and I wanted to understand the value chain of the biofuel industry - how it was going to impact the food and agriculture market, and the unintended consequences it would have on the energy market, which is predominantly fossil fuel based. So my topic was ‘Food, Fuel, and Developing Countries’. Additionally, during my PhD I developed a framework called Institutional Feasibility Study (IFS), which subsequently got adopted by multiple multilateral organisations to conduct institutional analysis.

My supervisor Professor Peter Nolan once told me, when I was going back and forth between various interesting topics that I wanted to study during my PhD, that a PhD is a moment of reflection, and it is not a destination. You put a seed down, you let it grow, and you don’t know how big the tree will become and what the other branches will bear. My PhD has turned out to be one of those seeds that I planted. In addition to food security, renewable energy and climate change as sectoral topics – I also study these topics within the cross-sectional lens of systematic risks and institutional capacity approach. A typical outcome of my research leads to developing applied theories of change and methodologies to influence decision-making capacity.  

Over the years, I have developed a suit of action-research methodologies that integrate systems thinking with public policy to reduce risk in decision-making for leaders. I apply systems thinking analysis into public policy, and study it all the way from topics such as performance audit management for national auditors (how they can improve the national system of improving public welfare) to studying industry 4.0 (which would be about creating a system of resilience and security for a national population, where technology was challenging the labour market to compete with cheaper, more productive technology).

Within the research programme that I developed in Cambridge on Resilience and Sustainable Development, my team and I develop methodologies and train participants into systems thinking. We primarily focus on three areas: Good Governance, Sustainable Investment and Responsible Innovation. So I would say that a lot of my work is still closely related to the work that I started in my PhD, and is simultaneously growing new branches of enquiry which are bearing more fruit.

I went to an all-girls’ secondary school in Bangladesh, and I did not experience male-female divisions until I moved to the United States for my further education. I also realised that there is another layer which is racial, and within the racial distinction there is another layer, which is our physical appearance. Thus the question of diversity is something that, until you personally experience it, you are not aware of it and how it creates separation between you and other people. Secondary school was probably the time in my life when I was most equal to other people, and did not have to worry about any of these distinctions, unlike some of my peers who attended mixed high schools with students of different nationalities. But of course that experience is now so preserved in my memory that everything else after that seems quite a struggle.

I come from a household in Bangladesh where my grandmother had eleven children. All of her female children gained master’s degrees, during the time when Bangladesh was still considered a least developed country. Education has always been a big part of the household environment where I grew up, and unlike many other parents, both of my parents were very keen on giving me the independence to think, and also to act. So I was born in a household where I knew no limits in terms of pursuing my academic interests, and that is probably one of the reasons I was exposed at an early age to the knowledge that there are people outside of Bangladesh doing wonderful things, including some amazing Bangladeshis. All of these inspiring stories meant that I could pursue opportunities if I wanted to. I come from a middle class family, and my father was a government officer. We could not afford a lot of luxuries, so my window to the world was the Times magazine that my father would bring home each month. I remember cutting pictures out of the international section to create an album of information, and asking my father: “what will it take for me to actually travel to the US?” And he said: “First you need scholarship to go abroad. And scholarships are only given to the top students.” Later, as I continued to excel in my education, it was my mother who kept reminding me how being a scientist would fulfil my maternal grandmother’s dream. She was a high-school science teacher who had wanted to be a scientist, but could not afford to overcome the social barrier and financial costs of higher education.

Times have changed so much since then. After coming to Cambridge I realised I can both go around the world and I can make a difference. I have travelled to over 50 countries, and contributed to over 20 countries' socio-economic policies. I continue to find ways to help leaders make better decisions.

Teaching and research make you smarter, because you are always learning and figuring out what you do not know. So, going from a lectureship within the University, I have developed a research track, and completely independently, have now established a program where we do research while actively engaging in improving the capacities of the participants who attend the research program (thus applying action research methodologies). Therefore, instead of individually gathering and analysing data, my team and I do it collectively with our participants, the people who are actually going to use the output of my research to make better decisions.

I believe that a lot of attention is paid to women in science and innovation, but it is still not enough. This is partly because, as I mentioned earlier, until you experience inequality, you do not know what it is like to be on the other side. Many of the decision makers in leadership roles have not actually experienced inequality, whether at a quantitative level of salary or at a qualitative level of being invisible in the process of decision-making. In the virtual world this is becoming an even more serious problem, if proper attention and care are not offered to women. These are things I have experienced as a female academic, even in prestigious institutions such as Harvard University and the University of Cambridge, where we pride ourselves on egalitarianism. However, there are changes: more leadership roles are being offered to women, and the younger generation are becoming more vocal on their rights and responsibilities. We just need to be more systematic in maintaining the momentum. In my own small leadership capacity, I always make sure there is a female speaker in our flagship lecture series called the ‘Sinews of Sustainable Development’, which occurs every term.

A study recently published in Nature found that female researchers, particularly those in the early stage of their careers, were the hardest hit during the pandemic. Another unpublished study found that mid-career scientists are struggling to find a balance between caring and career responsibilities. The pandemic is making it even harder for women scientists to get ahead. Additionally, if you add diversity variables, female academics of colour need more systematic support to level the playing field. It’s an uphill battle. Part of the process of getting female researchers and academics to be recognized has to start at home – the University needs to do more to highlight the younger female academics, and better highlight some of their work in news articles.

It should also provide them with more public relations opportunities, because another challenge is that many of us are on a racetrack and just do not have the time to stop and reflect. This is partly because the current academic environment has changed, and you can no longer sit back and just be an academic. Now you have to do pretty much everything. I think the system, in and of itself has the intention to be more egalitarian, but there are a lot of details that still need to be understood on how to promote female academics and leaders within academia. Having gone through the system from being a student to being an academic, I am very fortunate to find mentors and guides who have helped in more ways than I can count. Having friendships and mentorships are critical survival tools for female academics.

Anything I do is falls into the interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary domains. Due to being trained in systems thinking, and because of my keen interest in understanding national development trajectories, there is no way that only one discipline could offer me the answers on how to grow from an infant economy to a mature economy. I am curious and constantly agitated by not having enough clarity on how to improve decision-making processes, by leaders who hold the power to change lives and heal our planet. In my research, I bring my disciplinary expertise and work closely with colleagues from other disciplines and practices to connect their methods of inquiry and problem solving. Disciplines such as public health, medical science, computer science and engineering offer critical ingredients to improve qualitative research techniques in social science. I have developed multiple action research methodologies with my team, such as sustainable investment markers, policy boot camps, policy simulation labs, and policy road mapping.

Three objectives guide my teams work; we reduce risk in policymakers' decision-making processes; we change the political process of policy making into a logical process; and we significantly reduce the costs of policy making in terms of time and money. We have developed a policy research laboratory to collectively understand the barriers and approval processes to limit the unintended consequences of a decision. We then create insightful narratives to help external decision-makers make better decisions. As an example, in March 2021 I conducted a virtual policy boot camp for the Swedish government, where in four hours we addressed how adolescents can improve their dietary habits to be healthier and more sustainable. Currently, I am in the process of developing a food policy system platform with the EAT Foundation and the United Nations, in an effort to help improve food systems level effectiveness to address global food insecurity while training decision-makers in systems thinking.  

COVID-19 has been both a positive and negative force in my life. Professionally, it is a great opportunity to be a leader of a research track which resonates with what everyone is driving towards, which is resilience. I have already invested over ten years in developing my understanding of sustainable development applications, and with resilience and systems thinking we have developed a menu of applied tools and techniques that can help individuals, industries and countries to identify ways of applying resilient applications. My work has thus been in great demand in many of the countries where they are now looking to identify resilient economic principles, or to apply sustainability as a part of their core driver to improve their economic agenda. For instance, we are now working with Commonwealth countries to help them to develop new resilient economic models that can be invested in by multi-lateral agencies such as the World Bank, the IMF, and any other private investors looking to diversify their investment portfolio in countries that previously were not often considered favourable investment environments. In a post-pandemic era, we need to come up with new economic models and new economic benchmarks, and we have to understand the system within which the country resides. These are the kind of very complex, integrated problems I am now able to work on, partly because the time is ripe to ask these critical questions. It is a time to be more creative and reflective as an academic. The virtual world also helps me by making it easier to meet with people all over the world, thus making it easier and cheaper to do research.

Personally I have lost some and gained some. I gained a daughter just before the start of the pandemic, so I have a young child. It is not easy to be creative and thoughtful during the time of the crying baby! I also lost my best friend in my life, my father, to COVID-19. He and I spoke almost every day since I left my country when I was 18. He was the force who always reminded me why I needed to do research.

There are times in life when you are in a good place and when you are not. For example, in my work I am fortunate because I have developed methodologies which I have full control of, and I am in the position to make my own decisions. If you are not able to make decisions for yourself, you are dependent on others, and there are barriers to your progress because you are not there in person to have the conversation. There are a lot of interpersonal misunderstandings that can happen, and as women, we might not be able to clearly express our needs. There is a shortage of institutional support for younger academics due to the pandemic, and I also find that I am struggling to communicate effectively. It is harder to convey my empathy, warmth and kindness over email, especially as English is not my first language. Communication difficulties can also be unintended stressors for those who are not independent academics, or who are not well known scholars.

In the professional world networking is very important. The virtual world limits networking opportunities in conferences and workshops, because you enter and exit virtual events as an unknown entity. For the past three years I have been running an event called ‘Sinews of Sustainable Development’, where we bring in world leaders to lecture on interesting topics. If it was a real world event, the students would have had time to engage with the speakers and other visitors, giving them opportunities to learn in a less formal environment. This is no longer possible.

Fieldwork is something that is also missing from the space, especially in the social sciences where we are dependent on going out and physically gathering data. A lot of time is now lost in chasing people to respond to emails and in trying to virtually network. This creates difficulties for younger academics who are on fast trajectories. University of Cambridge staff and students are fortunate to have the University’s reputation to help them open doors and get faster reactions, but that is not the same for everyone else outside of this wonderful bubble that we are lucky to be in.

International Women’s Day is a very significant day for women, and for me it is almost like remembering that I am a woman and I have a place that needs to be recognized by other people. Those people often get diluted in our minds because we are trying to compete, and in an effort to compete, we almost forget who we are. This is one of my strengths and one of my weaknesses, which is unique to me as a woman. International Women’s Day is a time to also think about the I role play in making a difference in my own capacity. The possibilities are out there, by learning about other wonderful women who have done things on their own terms. That is a very important reflection point, to not lose hope or ground because you sometimes feel as if you are in it by yourself.

Please find more on Nazia's work here.

Image supplied. Dr Nazia Mintz Habib speaking at the Bloomberg Sustainable Business Summit about SDG's. 7 November 2018, Bloomberg London, UK.