MP seeks facts on women's raw deal

June 19, 1998

The drive to increase the number of women researching in science, engineering and technology could soon be given an extra boost as a Labour MP, herself a former scientist, seeks a Commons debate on whether women get a raw deal.

Phyllis Starkey, MP for Milton Keynes South West, has been collating information from a number of government departments on the percentage of research grants, studentships and fellowships given to women.

The sparse data collected by many government departments particularly concerns Dr Starkey, who is keen for an adjournment debate in the House of Commons to address the issues.

Dr Starkey's interest follows a paper in Nature last year, where Swedish researchers proved sex bias within the grants system at the Swedish Medical Research Council where women had to be 2.6 times more productive than men to be rated equally.

Following the Swedish survey, the British Medical Research Council investigated its own grant-awarding system, finding no sex bias in the distribution of grants but that considerably fewer women applied for funding than expected.

Dr Starkey, who worked at the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council in Swindon before entering Parliament at the last election and previously as a biochemist in Oxford, has had responses from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions, the Department of Health and the Ministry of Defence, none of which collect information on grant success by gender.

Figures from the Office of Science and Technology and the research councils are broken down by gender, though she is still awaiting figures to compare the success rates of men and women applicants.

Dr Starkey says: "It's irrefutable that applications from women only make up a small percentage of the total to the research councils. This may be to do with the fact that you have to be in a permanent position in a university to apply, and women are often less likely to be in such a position."

She adds: "Given that lots of government research money does not go through universities and the research councils but through other departments, I would certainly like to see these figures collated more widely. The very fact that we don't collect figures means we don't have a clue about what's going on with most of the departments.

"If we are serious about increasing the representation of women in science and engineering, then the whole of the science budget needs to be signed up to this agenda, not just what's in the Office of Science and Technology."

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