In which science policy suits up

What must Britain do to retain its global scientific reputation in a changing world?

This evening at the Royal Society, various men of science, industry and politics gave us their opinion (“UK Research: Building Bridges, Building Prosperity”). These included the Rt Hon Dr Vince Cable MP, the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, and the President of the Royal Society, Sir Paul Nurse.

Cable got the pesky idea of science funding out of the way right at the beginning, saying that the 2010 settlement had been relatively generous and he didn’t want money to feature in the ensuing discussion. A ripple went through the audience at this point, so I suppose I was not the only one who thought that this was a strange omission. How can you have a robust science base without robust investment?

His talk was interesting but didn’t cover any new ground. The most notable points included:

– The concept of “brain drain” should be rebranded as “brain circulation” – i.e. a good thing
– His department would be grateful for any feedback about outstanding problems with the visa system for scientists (so if anyone has any gripes, do please email them to his office)
– The UK needs to be more open about data sharing
– The new Defamation Bill in its current form adequately protects scientific freedom of speech (a point some consider debatable)
– Diversity in STEM is needed to make sure we have enough scientists. (I’m not convinced this statement is true – try finding a job in the current climate – but obviously I think there are many solid reasons for this goal, and we have a long way to go.)

I won’t cover the entire wide-ranging discussion that followed (Cable’s speech is available online), but I thought two of the comments from the floor were especially worth noting.

The first was a tweet from Evan Harris:

5 men on panel at Cable science speech at Royal Society & all 5 questions from men, 3 with beards ‪#coulddobetter‬ ‪#rsvince‬ ‪#beardsnotkeyissue

(Plus a man each for the opening and closing remarks. Note, the seven men on stage were also all white and of a certain age.)

It was a little difficult to take all the serious diversity talk from such a vast array of suits with a straight face.

Second, Imran Khan of CaSE asked Cable whether, when our competitors were increasing funding for science, he still felt that the cash cut in real terms and direct cuts for capital spending had been a sound idea. In essence, quite remarkably, Cable replied that the science budget previously had been so generous that it could afford to take a hit. I am sure that most researchers here in the UK would not agree that the tiny proportion of GDP that we currently spend on science is truly that big. But more significantly, I think this gives us a clearer picture of the attitude that scientists will be up against as the next Spending Review looms on the horizon – does the government still think our budget can withstand more trimming?

If so, we have a fight on our hands.

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
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17 Responses to In which science policy suits up

  1. Having also been present, I’d agree it was an interesting evening but nothing new emerged. However I’d like to pick up on Evan Davies’ tweet (who told me he’d been urged to send it by Martin Rees, ex Royal Society President!). Yes it is absolutely true that all those on the platform were men, as were the questioners, but there was time for only 3 questions so it wasn’t exactly a crowd of men asking with all the women in the room silent (and there were a healthy proportion actually present). Furthermore, in the interests of diversity, it is probably reasonable to point out that one of the questions came from Imran Khan at CaSE, so at least not all the questions came from white men of a certain age.

    For that event, did it matterr that diversity wasn’t much in evidence? I’d say no. It wasn’t a case of someone having carelessly neglected to choose any women speakers – these were people there ex officio, and so it really reflects the world as it was 30-40 years ago when these people were setting out. Furthermore the audience last night, unlike say at a conference, did not contain early career researchers who were looking for role models for inspiration; the audience also was in general of a certain age, you and Evan being definitely well below the median I’d guess. So, although it’s easy to point a finger at BIS, and the 4 national academies that had arranged the event, I think to do so is more an opportunity for point scoring than identifying a real problem.

    Incidentally, when I was discussing this point with someone at the reception afterwards, they pointed out that although only 2 women may have been elected to Fellowship of the Royal Society this year, 6 (if I remember correctly) new fellows were of Indian origin, 5 of whom work in the UK – as opposed to elsewhere in the World. Again, this demonstrates diversity but of a different sort and it is important to bear this in mind too when hammering the Royal Society (as people have done a lot this year, as I discuss here) about this year’s elections and the process overall.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Athene. I wasn’t trying to score points, and I certainly wasn’t hammering the Society about the composition of its Fellows. I was merely expressing my opinion that seeing all those men on the stage talking about science in general – and STEM diversity in particular – was disappointing to me as a female scientist. To me, it does matter – others are free to disagree. I wasn’t the only woman who felt this way, though – and I’m happy that Rees noticed too, so thanks for that nice bit of intelligence.

  3. rpg says:

    Given the reaction of some pretty diverse people I’d say it does matter, too.

    Such events inevitably disappoint me—I was quite cross and I wasn’t even there.

  4. I do sometimes get the feeling that we hear a lot of sweeping talk about how to improve science – easing small companies through the ‘valley of death’, making better ties between academia and industry, training our graduates to be more flexible and ready for a life of science outside of academia – but in the end it’s hard to see how we can implement them without sufficient financial investment. Obviously it’s incredibly hard to justify any expenditure in the current climate – I do sometimes feel for the Government. It can’t be easy making these decisions, but we just have to convince them that without enough money for the running costs and capital to do science, and funds to support innovation, we are going to have to accept the fact that we’re going to slip in the world rankings, and that our economy is not going to be as robust.

  5. Stephenemoss says:

    Jenny – thanks for the overview. It seems from your comments and others tweeting through the evening that little of note occurred. As for the issue of female representation I tend to agree with you. I am currently involved in our Institute’s efforts to obtain an Athena Swan silver award, and one issue we are trying to address is the current lack of female membership on the most senior decision-making committees. There is no doubt that the absence of women in an august group of influential scientists and policy-makers, such as at the RS last night, makes matters worse because it discourages female scientists from aspiring to such roles.

  6. Yes, that’s rather my view. I think if I were an established scientist with a secure future, I’d have viewed the panel a bit differently. In my own current role, I can only see it as a message that “this is not the place for you.” Obviously on a rational level, I know it’s somewhat down to sampling error and chance that we ended up with that particular composition – but at deeper levels it bothers me a great deal. I got a bit of a creepy feeling afterwards, too, when I was leaving the RS and all these chauffeur-driven fancy cars were pulling into the forecourt and swallowing up all these important suits one by one, while I trudged off to the Tube in the rain. It just seems a world away from my existence as a struggling early career scientist.

  7. I feel it’s remiss of me to point out, in the interests of balance, that Athene introduced me to an amazing role model at the tea session before: Professor Molly Stevens of Imperial College, who’s doing amazing work on regenerative medicine. Just wow.

  8. cromercrox says:

    I think Vince Cable is a twit.

  9. I understand the frustration about the lack of women opening their mouths (you will note from my own posts I am not prone to ask questions!), but from my perspective – as a physicist – the audience was actually more gender-balanced than I am used to. I was merely trying to say that there are other places where the lack of women probably has even more impact. As you say, Jenny, you met Molly Stevens who is an amazing person, scientist and role model: appeared in Vogue (I can only find her photo from the magazine online, although I believe there was a purely scientific write-up about her), on the Life Scientific and in the Guardian top 100 women and currently expecting her 3rd child. Isn’t it more important that she exists and is doing brilliantly than that some woman actually opens her mouth during a fairly stage-managed set of speeches? Why should you think you don’t belong there, when Jean Thomas – the Biological Secretary – was there as part of the group that processed in and there were many women in the audience. It’s too easy to focus on the negative instead of the positive. Come along to Soapbox Science on Monday on the South Bank to listen to a dozen successful women of all ages share their love of science (and follow them through about 2 weeks of Independent blogs starting last Monday).

    I have spent today at the Royal Society, in my capacity as Chair of the Athena Forum; Ottoline Leyser is my deputy chair, also an FRS also a wonderful role model and author of the brilliant Mothers in Science book. The Athena Forum’s primary aim -working through professional bodies such as the Society of Biology and the Institute of Physics – is to disseminate best practice (which may be Athena Swan, but need not be) and act as a ginger group to put pressure where pressure is due. It is independent of the Royal Society but hosted by them because these things matter to them. When I walked into the Fellows room this morning there were 2 other fellows present – the aforementioned Jean Thomas and Ottoline Leyser, all of us female Cambridge professors. It struck me that this was an usual proportion of women and I put out a tweet about it. One middling physics professor, who has not infrequently had a go at me about my interest in gender issues, replied
    interesting that their gender balance rather than their institutional imbalance was the demographic that you noted..’ (Actually not true, because I had deliberately pointed out we were all from Cambridge because I am fed up with people having a go at my university in the same way as they do about the Royal Society, although I know that wasn’t your primary point Jenny). It is people like that we should be worrying about, colleagues of many of us who remain unhelpful to say the least, not the organisations themselves in my view. We need to tackle those who won’t help people as people, but feel themselves under threat because a new constituency is progressing. Many of us, not necessarily just those at the top of the tree, can combat petty nastiness – and we all should try to do so.

  10. Unfortunately, being assured that I shouldn’t feel discouraged at a marked lack of women on stage does not actually help. I feel what I feel, presumably for some valid reasons, and I don’t think it’s terribly surprising given that many other women (and some men) said they felt exactly the same way. Rational or not, when the people organizing a very high-profile science panel don’t even manage to get one woman, it sends a message, no matter how unintentionally. I think that Athena Swan is really great, and I admire all the work it’s doing, and yes we need to help people as people, but sometimes the superficial symbolism is surprisingly powerful.

    (On this: “I am fed up with people having a go at my university in the same way as they do about the Royal Society, although I know that wasn’t your primary point Jenny”

    Just to clarify that it wasn’t even my secondary point. It wasn’t my point at all, full stop.)

  11. As I say, come along and be inspired on Monday then, where lots of women will have lots of interesting things to say. All I can say is that things are improving, albeit far too slowly. I wasn’t trying to ‘assure you you shouldn’t feel discouraged’ because that would just be patronising, and it isn’t what I wrote. I just hope you don’t let the symbolism be all-engulfing, even though it’s depressing. I guess I’ve got toughened up to the lack of women over the years; in a situation like last night I didn’t notice it till it was pointed out. But then you’d probably say I don’t need to let it worry me since I’m not in your position. (Vince Cable did, after all, sneak one woman’s name into his speech!) But that is proof positive that women do belong and can ‘make it’ – which was why I was trying to identify other women above who have equally demonstrated that fact. (And you may not have meant to do so, but by writing ‘people organizing a very high-profile science panel don’t even manage to get one woman’ you are implicitly having a go at all 4 of the academies who organised last night. ).

  12. Yes, I’m aware where my criticism was aimed, and it was indeed intentional. I’m sure those organizations wouldn’t mind receiving a bit of constructive criticism, especially since I was respectful about how it was phrased.

  13. rpg says:

    I think it’s entirely appropriate to criticize whoever was responsible for seven old white guys banging on about the importance of diversity.

    There’s actually a word for that sort of behaviour.

    Unless of course one is naive enough to truly believe that words speak louder than actions—and I’m not referring to tokenism, nor sneaking a woman’s name into a speech (as if that were something to be praised).

  14. Nina says:

    I was in the audience too, also noting the lack of diversity among the panel, in sharp contrast with the words about diversity. It’s good that the issue is being noted as important, but a shame that the need for change was so clearly illustrated. I tried hard to ask a question from the floor. As Vince Cable’s answer to the third (of three) questions included a comment that the panel had been primed about that question, I was left wondering whether all three questions had been pre-selected and the whole thing just a bit too stage-managed.

  15. Ah, it’s a pity you weren’t called on. You know, it’s disappointing when panel discussions don’t leave enough room for sufficient audience participation in the end. Sometimes this is the most interesting part, and it often gets short shrift – not because time wasn’t budgeted in, but because speakers are not held to time themselves.

    What would you have asked?

  16. Nina says:

    I probably wasn’t the only woman with a hand up. My question was on the theme “Building Bridges”. My research ticks relevant boxes – we collaborate internationally and with industry (a small pre-revenue spin-out company), we’ve taken fundamental research in mathematical biology through to applying it to a major global problem (reducing the burden of mosquito-borne disease), and we are combining science with economics to assess the prospective health economic implications of new biotechnology. The BBSRC have been great supporting us so far, but few potential sources of funding have sufficient scope and highlight/priority areas are usually pretty narrow. You’ve written plenty elsewhere about the difficulties of securing funding, and career development, as a postdoc. I wondered what the panel would recommend for funding policy to encourage research groups like ours to take basic research through to bridge-building with early-stage companies.

  17. I would have liked to hear the answer to that.

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