Why are scientists off the radar?

Our cultural values, media and education system are pushing science to the margins, Dame Athene Donald warns

November 7, 2013

Source: Nick Shepherd

There are those who believe that one should never have “women-only” lists of anything and that even the venerable BBC programme Woman’s Hour should be banned because there isn’t a Man’s Hour on Radio 4. This viewpoint has it that all such actions are inherently sexist.

I understand this position although I personally don’t subscribe to it. It seems to me that so often lists of the top 100 people in business, technology or whatever basically mean men and that equally good women often get overlooked by the list-makers. Just as I see prizes for women as having their place in our world as a way of reminding people that we can be hugely successful and should rightfully be celebrated, so I see lists of the top women in one field or another simply as a way of flagging up the many contributions made by this slightly-greater-than-50 per cent of the population.

Recently this argument has been revived in the wake of the BBC’s 100 Women project, which culminated in a day of discussions in October around the current status and role of women. I, however, had a different beef with those preparing the list of “female trail-blazers”. Along with a number of others, spearheaded by my colleague Val Gibson, professor in high energy physics at the University of Cambridge, I was a signatory to a letter about the project to The Times. Our complaint was that there wasn’t a single practising scientist on the list. The BBC tried to claim (responding not only privately to us but also publishing its own rebuttal in The Times) that the list did feature “eminent contributors from scientific and technological fields such as Claire Bertschinger, director of tropical nursing studies at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the Russian-Finnish-Indian engineer Irina Chakraborty and the technology entrepreneur Martha Lane-Fox”.

Without wanting to denigrate these people, who no doubt do wonderful work, the reality is that none of them is a practising scientist. The worry is that the BBC does not recognise what this means and anyhow confuses science and technology. One can even question whether a mere three representatives (even if they were representative) is an appropriate balance in a list of 100. This question is part of a cultural bias that remains endemic. The 100 women selected are skewed towards activists and journalists. Those who created the list no doubt chose the people with whom they feel most comfortable or with whom they network regularly.

The same problem was identified by science writer Martin Robbins in a recent Guardian article about the BBC’s Question Time. As he pointed out, the programme has featured regular appearances by other non-political professions, but with barely a scientist in sight; for instance, the proportion of comedians to scientists is 14:1 over the period he considered. Likewise, The Independent on Sunday’s most recent Pink List of influential lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people contains many journalists and writers, but only one scientist. Somehow scientists simply don’t feature on the radar of the people who dream up these lists and so consequently vanish from the public’s daily diet of reading.

This is a problem on many fronts. In the case of the 100 Women list, I felt it was disappointing if those chosen, however splendid, were taken as representative of suitable careers for girls. It seems an uphill struggle to remind people – teachers, parents and journalists – that science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects are entirely suitable for schoolgirls to consider, leading to a wide range of interesting career options. But the other examples given above demonstrate that overlooking scientists is not about gender: this is an issue about the mainstream media more generally taking the easy way out and always choosing to focus on areas with which their own journalists appear to be familiar.

This, I fear, is a direct result of our education system and cultural values. Chancellor George Osborne and Vince Cable, the business secretary, know that science and technology are key to the UK’s economic recovery and future growth. They frequently make comments to this effect, as in the discussion of the “eight great technologies” they like to highlight. However, I do wonder, when discussing the need for research on energy, whether Osborne could distinguish a watt from a volt, or whether he appreciates (in the field of regenerative medicine, another of the “Great eight”) the distinction between pluripotent and multipotent stem cells; perhaps a good Etonian Classics education helps him with that particular distinction. The Royal Society, among many other organisations, has previously stated that it feels our education system narrows student choices too much. We are at the mercy of too many people making too many easy choices that effectively write science out of many people’s lives.

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