Curie didn't need a club

February 13, 2004

Susan Greenfield's defenders and critics alike do a disservice to her and science, says Vivienne Parry

Last week, in a mind-boggling display of playground petulance, various fellows of the Royal Society were said to have threatened to resign if Susan Greenfield was admitted as a fellow.

Baroness Greenfield, professor of neuropharmacology at Oxford University and director of the Royal Institution, might reasonably be said to be a high achiever in science. But a number of serious crimes were held against her: appearing in Hello! magazine, jumping the FRS queue, short skirts - that sort of thing.

But the reason given against her admission was that her science was not up to scratch. It was all fairly predictable stuff, as were the claims that Greenfield needed to be made a fellow because women in science need role models.

The implication that you have to have FRS after your name to be a true role model is an odd one. After all, consider the case of Marie Curie. One of only four individuals to get two Nobel prizes (and in different subjects, too), she was a global celebrity, hounded by the tabloid press of the day.

She was put up for election for the French equivalent of the Royal Society, the Academy of Sciences, but was turned down. In truth, she didn't need membership of their club to confirm her brilliance, courage or achievements, which were blindingly obvious to everyone else.

Curie was a special sort of role model. In the same bracket, I'd put people such as Rosalind Franklin, Helen Sharman and David Attenborough. As a child, you may know that you are unlikely to become a Nobel prizewinner or an astronaut, but Franklin and those like her are tinder boxes, creating a spark that someone else, like an inspirational teacher, needs to fan.

Other role models who are crucial to whether you take science to A level are scientists who are people just like you. Teenage girls are depicted as rebels but actually most are sheep in Pink outerwear. What they really want to know is: "Can I be a scientist and be, well er, normal?" Most girls have seen boys who do physics. They don't want to be thought of as a "Norma No Mates" geek. Nor do they want to be on their own: a sole girly presence in a computing class of 90 is a dismal prospect.

Meeting those who have recently graduated and discovering that they are just like you, that they've had a great time and that it wasn't too hard (girls need solidarity to keep their confidence levels up) is essential, as is knowing the astonishing range of jobs that are possible. Highly paid, globe-trotting, different every day, incredibly satisfying - careers in science can be all that. And it is possible to have a family and still remain in the job you love, particularly in industry where they are desperate to retain women.

Getting through the early years of university requires yet another sort of role model. People often assume that women need women as mentors. I don't agree. What you need, above all, is someone who you admire, who can cherish your intellect and spirits and who you can really talk to. A lot of men are very good at this. Equally, some women are shockingly bad at it. It's the person that's right for you that counts, not their gender.

So once women are flying in science, do they need to continue to be upwardly aspirational and crave an FRS? The unfortunate impression being created by fellows of the Royal Society is that it's a club that you'd rather not be part of, if that's the way they behave.

Does the outside world care about the letters FRS after a person's name? Probably not. The real damage created by this fracas is that it shows that if you succeed in the media, you lose the respect of your peers. At a time when science has never needed public trust more, that's a pretty poor exemplar.

Vivienne Parry is a writer and broadcaster.

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