Why are Scientists off the Radar?

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.

Note added 1700 on November 7th. This piece first appeared in the THE on November 7th 2013 under the title ‘Evidence of Absence‘ but the title was subsequently changed. Consequently, to be consistent, I have changed the title of this post also to the revised version Why are scientists off the radar?


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6 Responses to Why are Scientists off the Radar?

  1. Geologist says:


  2. D. Wilson says:

    Interesting post – the Guardian article on Question Time guests certainly made an impression on me, so it’s interesting to see the same problem cropping up elsewhere. To help get some perspective, do we have a ballpark figure for the proportion of the country who are ‘practicing scientists’?

    Not sure about the blame lying with the education system though. In my personal experience, science took a respected and prestigious position in the ciriculum – that may have changed in recent years, but the corresponding cohorts would then be too young for consideration in these lists etc.

  3. cromercrox says:

    Because the literati simply don’t care.

    Read my recent post on the awfulness of science on TV aimed at the general population.

  4. 1) I’m going to guess that by “practicing scientists” you mean currently publishing. Seem reasonable; though I might expand that to “anyone able to repeat the experimental” (I’m a physical chemist).

    2) Part of the reason we scientists don’t get “invited to those parties” so to speak is because we are busy throwing our own. We’re only talking with each other- not with our populations, our societies. And, they are not even permitted to view our conversations.

    I am hoping PubMed Commons might help explain …. “how scientists talk to each other” to the general public, if the NCBI ever lets it go public. (I was a beta tester. This version (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedcommons/faq/) is early, but fairly robust thus far.) I’m really just hoping commentary in plainer language by experts might be helpful for bridging the huge gap in education that currently exists between “practicing” scientists and their supporting taxpayers.

  5. Liz Lund says:

    I thought the women’s hour list was selected by listeners. Perhaps very few practicing scientists listen to Women’s Hour, Weekend Women’s Hour or even radio 4.

    • The Women’s Hour list was produced by listeners and had a good sprinkling of scientists – Nancy Rothwell was high up and Sally Davies was also on it. But the BBC 100 Women list was different and I’ve no idea how the names were chosen.

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