How 'crazy ideas' and breaking barriers helped secure £10 million funding for a new research centre

An Oxford academic with self-confessed 'crazy ideas' made headlines around the world, and won funding for a new £10 million Leverhulme Centre for demographic science.

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Melinda Mills, Professorial Fellow in the Department of Sociology at Nuffield College, is a leading researcher on combining molecular genetics and social sciences, focussing on human fertility, sexuality, reproduction, employment, health and mortality – or in other words, life, death, and everything in between.

As part of this, she published the first study on the genetic basis of fertility behaviour in Nature Genetics and wrote a perspective in the revered journal Science on whether there is a 'gay gene’. This led to her making the front page of The Guardian, as well as a spread in the New York Times, and multiple appearances on TV and radio.

The genius of 'crazy' ideas

But it is her self-confessed ‘crazy ideas’ which have driven what is arguably her greatest achievement to date – securing £10 million funding from the Leverhulme Trust (with an additional £1 million in matching from Nuffield College) for a new Centre for Demographic Science, coupled with an ERC Advanced Grant in the same year. It is the first Leverhulme Centre based in the Social Sciences, and the first Leverhulme Centre within Oxford.

Professor Mills, Director of the centre, will apply her pioneering approach of bringing 'science' into demography by uniting researchers from multiple fields under one roof when the Centre opens later this month. These include sociology, economics, anthropology, criminology, marketing, molecular genetics, computer science, statistics and even zoology.

She said: ‘We were delighted to receive this award. Our aim is to build an internationally-recognised centre of research excellence that will disrupt, realign, and raise the value of demography.

Demographic research aids society, government, and industry to prepare for demands related to population growth and shrinkage, climate change, migration, longevity and ageing, fertility and household change.’

‘This money will also support the next generation – we are giving up-and-coming early career researchers a chance, and creating new jobs, which is really exciting.’

The new team is already working on pioneering studies, including the analysis of social network, social media and molecular genetic data.

How she made it

During her career, Professor Mills created an impressive CV – travelling internationally, working with the United Nations, and meeting countless inspiring people across the globe. She is also a published author and has edited several international journals.

‘Sometimes I cannot believe we are paid to do this. It's so enjoyable – we are very, very honoured’, she said.

The adventure started in earnest in 1994 when she ran a census of Métis settlements – the half French Canadian, half First Nations population living in Canada. It was a demographic data project which had huge implications and she was ‘hooked’.

She went on to carry out a series of pioneering research studies, including:

  • Sociogenomics – Investigating whether there is a genetic component to behavioural and reproductive outcomes in an ERC Consolidator grant SOCIOGENOME (www.sociogenome.org). The study looks at the genetic basis of men and women's age at first birth and sexual initiation, number of children ever born, and childlessness. These factors have a strong relationship with fitness, human development and infertility disorders.

‘This area of research is so exciting, topical and important right now. Particularly at a time where millions of people are using direct-to-consumer genetic services to access their DNA results. People are even reinterpreting their identities’, Melinda Mills said.

  • Internet Dating – Collaborating with global dating sites to explore dating related to ethnic preferences, what divorced singles want, and factors influencing gay and lesbian daters
  • Nonstandard work schedules – Research on the impact of the social, genetic and biological basis of chronotype to evening and night employment on health and family life in a newly launched ERC Advanced Grant called CHRONO.
  • Statistical Textbooks – A book on survival and event history models, and a new forthcoming introduction to applied statistical genetic analysis with MIT Press.

She also managed to raise two children of her own while pursuing a high-flying academic career.

In 2018, she was awarded an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours List in recognition of services to social science, elected as a Fellow of the British Academy and serves on the ESRC UKRI Executive Council and Supervisory Board of the Dutch Science Council.

We asked Professor Mills what advice she would share with early career researchers:

‘Firstly,’ she advised, ‘be bold.’

‘Applying for funding with the Leverhulme Trust and ERC is very competitive but these funders value bold and risky blue-sky ideas which can fail.’

‘Our approach to the Leverhulme bid was extremely different. Our team was a very broad church, even ‘anti-disciplinary’, including representatives from industry, statistics, genetics and the broad spectrum of social sciences.’

‘Secondly, be resilient.

‘I likely have the highest number of rejections, but also a high success rate, on bids for funding.

‘Some people give up after trying once. When you have risky and innovative ideas, you need to develop a resilience for rejection. Stick to your intuition, even when in the face of adversity. Those ‘crazy ideas’ form the basis of true discoveries.’