Parliamentary Activity

This week has brought some curious interventions into the STEM landscape in Parliament. I will return shortly to the much-publicised, if seemingly ill-informed remarks about girls and Physics made by Katherine Birbalsingh – a headteacher and the Government’s social mobility commissioner – but let me start with a different story, also close to my heart. Ottoline Leyser was talking to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee session on delivering a UK science and technology strategy in her capacity as CEO of UKRI (relevant section about 35 minutes into the evidence). She openly admitted that UKRI was (still) not really coping well with interdisciplinary work. As she put it

‘where I think we have not yet delivered is what I would call research that is so interdisciplinary that it has no home’.

Interdisciplinarity is something that the 2014 Nurse Review highlighted as a challenge that a new over-arching body (that body which subsequently came into being as UKRI) ought to be well-placed to resolve. In the so-called Strategic Prospectus of UKRI in 2018 (no longer apparently available on UKRI’s website, although I have a downloaded copy), the emphasis in this area was on the Strategic Priorities Fund (SPF), which has indeed put money towards a range of interdisciplinary initiatives, including my own research area of the Physics of Life. However, these are all specific, targeted calls under eight identified themes. This fund is not the place to go for blue skies interdisciplinary research in general. In the 2018 prospectus it was said that the Fund would

‘drive an increase in high-quality multi- and interdisciplinary research and innovation by encouraging and funding work in areas which previously may have struggled to find a home. It will ensure that good ideas are supported that might once have been more challenged by organisational boundaries. It will give pioneering research the space to develop, laying the foundations for future capability.’

That the SPF calls are instead highly targeted means this aspiration is not met. Instead, numerous applications will continue to fall down the cracks, as they have for many years and as I described a decade ago in the relatively early years of this blog. At that time I said ‘We should have a seamless funding landscape and we do not.’ Nor do we now, as Ottoline admitted in her testimony in the Lords.

It is a conversation I started having with funders more than 15 years ago and, despite many warm words directed towards inter- and multi-disciplinary research in many documents, things don’t seem to have moved particularly far forward. In the 2019 UKRI Delivery Plan, there was a promise to ‘Review our peer review mechanisms to best support multidisciplinary research’ , but I have seen no sign of such a review being set up in practice; maybe others have. One of the key problems for such research is the failure of referees to appreciate that originality and excellence do not have to reside in every single part of a proposal. For this reason, IDAP – the Interdisciplinary Advisory Panel for REF2021 which I chaired – stated clearly in its criteria that

‘the criteria [of originality and significance] do not need to be demonstrated across all of the constituent parts brought together in the work, but may be identified in one or more parts, or in their integration.’

Generations of referees often fail to appreciate this simple fact, based on my experience on grant-giving panels (although I hope the REF sub-panels have managed better). A review of peer-review for such grants is extremely overdue. I hope it is in Ottoline’s sights.

As for the second story, the recording and transcript of this can also be found on the web (at about 10.20), but Birbalsingh’s attitude towards girls and physics is so outdated and stereotyped, that when approached by the Guardian for a comment I described it as ‘terrifying’ in an off-the-cuff remark by phone. I’d have been much more guarded in an email, but I was in the coffee break at a conference and trying to battle with the absence of a reliable phone signal to make any contact at all.  Birbalsingh’s comments included:

‘From my own knowledge of these things, physics is not something that girls tend to fancy. They don’t want to do it. They don’t like it….

There is a lot of hard maths in there that I think that they would rather not do. That is not to say that there isn’t hard stuff to do in biology and chemistry—there is— but it is not mathematics’.

You can listen to the whole of her evidence on the recording, or read the transcript, if you think I might be unfairly picking out one small part, but you won’t find anything to counter that position in the rest of what she says. As a result I do find her attitude  ‘terrifying’, because it comes from someone who is meant to be a leader in the field. To hear such words spoken by a supposed expert really is deeply dispiriting, a view many other female scientists also expressed in the hours after her statement (see the full Guardian story here; there are other comments from experts on the Science Media Centre’s website).

Birbalsingh did not make her position any better when in her intended defence she subsequently tweeted that this was ‘my guess’ i.e. not based on evidence. Had she read the IOP’s 2012 report It’s Different for Girls, she might have had some evidence to the contrary to rely on. Interestingly, back when that report was released and I was asked to talk about it on Radio 4, I was faced with a different female headteacher (whose name I don’t recall) who tried out exactly the same line of ‘girls just don’t like physics’, a position I tried to debunk when I wrote about it at the time in the Guardian. I won’t repeat the arguments I made then but, ten years on, those arguments have stood the test of time. It is depressing that some people seem to want to believe that cultural expectations placed on young girls have no impact on their choices, that we are somehow hard-wired differently from birth from those systematising boys so that we are all empathetic and should stay as nurses or whatever.

We will never shift the dial on how many girls enter the Physical Sciences, Computing or Engineering as long as educational leaders (presumably primarily those, such as Birbalsingh, with arts and humanities backgrounds as opposed to first-hand experience of what STEM is all about) believe such inaccurate tropes without studying the evidence to the contrary, of which there is plenty. Much of it is summarised and the background given, for instance, in books by Cordelia Fine (Delusions of Gender and Testosterone Rex) and Gina Rippon (The Gendered Brain).  A school leader who discourages half the population from pursuing Mathematics or Physics is not doing the best they can for their pupils.






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6 Responses to Parliamentary Activity

  1. David Sweeney says:

    The Birbalsingh comments echo my experience, going to my daughter’s parents evening and being told that Physics was a bad A-level choice because girls weren’t very good at Physics. I had a very particular reaction since at the time I was leading the HEFCE work on increasing STEM numbers at university and she was effectively tell me that the job was hopeless. It wasn’t hopeless though there is a long way to go. I do think we’ve got to move forward from attacking the person who made the comments though and concentrate on the evidence we have and great experiences of many girls studying Physics.

  2. Sara Walker says:

    I found the whole thing very disheartening, as a physics graduate working in engineering now. I hope you, I and others can remain positive and continue to provide evidence that ability in all subjects is not dependent on gender.

  3. Marnie Dunsmore says:

    About four years ago, I worked for two years as a contractor at DARPA MTO, the premier American agency for the Pentagon that funds research in electronics, physics, and computing. DARPA MTO does fund some research that is done at Cambridge there in the UK.

    I happen to have had a chance to speak with several of the researchers there at Cambridge, each of whom is absolutely at the top of their research area in the world.

    My background: I have three STEM degrees. One of them is in mathematical physics. Another is in computer systems engineering. I have worked for many years in Silicon Valley in various capacities. My very first job out of university had been as an electronic design engineer at PMC Sierra, one of the very first fabless semiconductor companies, based in Vancouver, Canada.

    Among the Cambridge researchers I got to know a bit, I could see that one of them had repeatedly tried to mentor women in his field. He had been somewhat successful at doing this and was a rare standout in this respect.

    However, one of the other researchers told me to my face that the reason there were not more women in computer science was because women were not interested in computer science. He was talking to me, a women with a background in computer science, and couldn’t even bother to ask me what the barriers for me had been as a women in engineering/computer science. I think he didn’t want to know. This person was a very engaging person, very smart. It was a disheartening experience. I added it to the heap of other disheartening experiences where smart, good men in STEM fields don’t want to have to engage with the experiences of women and girls interested in their field.

    I get it that researchers have their own challenges getting grants, dealing with departmental politics, etc., but one recommendation: if you do not have the time and energy to take an active interest in the challenges that women and girls face in male dominated STEM fields, then admit that you do not understand what is going on. Don’t assume it is because women are not able and not interested in math, physics and computer science.

    It’s unfortunate to see this kind of thing once again raise its nasty head at the highest levels. I was just starting to get over James Damore, Tim Hunt and Lawrence Summers. And that was after having had to deal directly several times with the VC Michael Goguen (one of the VCs that funded PMC-Sierra), and a long list of other nuts who think that women don’t have any spatial ability. Lest you think that this has nothing to do with the UK, Goguen’s primary venture capital associate for more than fifteen years was Sir Michael Moritz:

    Lewd Texts & Secret Missions: Inside Billionaire Michael Goguen’s Wild Life

    Hmmm . . . Katharine Birbalsingh, BA Oxford; Michael Moritz, BA Oxford; Boris Johnson, BA Oxford . . . no connection there, for sure.

    Moving right along now . . . Nothing to see here . . .

    What I recommend for girls who are interested in STEM is for them to work hard, pursue their interests in STEM and related fields, but also be relentless in making sure that the universities, companies, departments, and supervisors that you work with are well versed on the real reasons of why there are so few women in male dominated STEM fields. Sometimes, you will not be able to do this. Let it go and pick the pieces up. Keep searching for good people who take an active interest in helping you advance your interests in STEM and in life.

    A good book: The Mind Has No Sex? Women in the Origins of Modem Science by Londa Schiebinger.

  4. Marnie Dunsmore says:

    Often, as these firestorms about why women don’t study computer science, physics and engineering light up, I envision myself as the dormouse at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party:

    I notice today that there is an article in the Times entitled “Pushing Girls into Physics Isn’t equality.” I was wondering how they there were going to try to rescue this situation. Here it is in the Times.

    Yes, pushing girls into physics isn’t equality. But repeatedly lying to girls, telling them that they are not suited for leadership and have little mathematical and spatial ability; constantly pressuring them to worry about their appearance through bombardment on social media; and plying them with stories about how they are better suited to jobs that require “verbal” and “soft skills” is Mad Hatter stuff for sure. But I guess the Times won’t be talking about that.

    Birbalsingh is the beneficiary of an elite public school in Toronto, Canada: Victoria Park Collegiate Institute. Her father is a university professor.

    Most professionals today don’t have this kind of background. The primary path today to upward mobility is by having some quantitative and scientific background. Combining that with broader studies and experiences is a good idea, but a liberal arts background alone is somewhat limiting.

    Telling girls (or anyone) it is entirely OK to avoid math and physics in high school is limiting. Even most high school students who want to focus in business, finance or biology, for instance, take physics and calculus (well as chemistry and biology.)

    Birbalsingh and the Times are weasel wording to try to back out their blatant attack on women and girls.

  5. Marnie Dunsmore says:

    I noticed Christina Pagel’s article in Science Focus today:

    She discusses the situation in the UK as to why girls choose physics A-levels less than boys.

    For sake of comparison, I’m going to discuss the situation at high schools in San Francisco, California and in Canada.

    In California, we do not have A-levels. Instead, California (and the US generally) have something called Advance Placement classes and tests. Both the AP classes and AP tests are optional. In general, one can take regular physics or advanced placement physics. This is true for many subjects in high school. The AP classes cover first year university subject matter. If one does well in the national AP test for a particular subject, this is viewed favorably by universities, especially if a student is applying to a field where they have done well in a related subject.

    Students can take as many AP classes as they want. In my daughter’s senior year at Lowell High School in San Francisco, many students have take many AP classes and written the AP test for those classes.

    Michelson (Michelson-Morley experiment to measure the speed of light) was an early graduate of Lowell High School.

    It is not uncommon for a STEM focused student to take AP physics, AP calculus, AP chemistry, AP psychology, AP biology, AP computer science, AP geometry, AP world history and AP English. There are even different kinds of AP calculus courses which focus on different areas calculus. There is AP statistics. These classes are all optional. One doesn’t have to take them. However, taking them leaves one better prepared for university. Taking them across a wide range of subjects prepares a student for a wide range of knowledge areas in advance of university. Universities recognize these classes and look favorably upon them.

    Recently, I asked my daughter what the composition of her AP Calculus class was in regard to the proportion of girls and boys. I was a little surprised to find out that there is a much higher proportion of girls than boys in her AP Calculus class. I suspect this might be only at Lowell High School, which has a pre-selection process for students with high middle school marks.

    At Lowell, the proportion of girls who took AP Physics was lower than for AP Calculus. At the same time, the proportion of girls who took AP Chemistry was about even with the boys. Most Lowell graduates matriculate in the University of California system. Especially in STEM fields, the UCs are the beneficiary of many of very well prepared students that have had exposure to a broad range of disciplines through taking many AP classes.

    As noted in Christina Pagel’s article, physics and computer science in the last twenty years have been heavily marketed using programs that favor hobby interests that are often taken up by boys. Marketing and high school competitions in the last twenty years around computer gaming, robotics competitions, electric vehicle competitions etc., have permeated high school computer science and physics projects. Even the problem examples in high school physics classes are now often focused on rocket launches and car racing examples.

    This was not the case at my high school in the 1970s in Vancouver, British Columbia:

    Our physics experiments focused on the properties of water, Boyle’s Law, Snell’s Law, classic gravity examples about falling objects, astronomy examples, and diffraction of light. We did a lot of experimentation. I particularly loved the Snell’s Law experiments and became fascinated by it’s various implications.

    I was not a tomboy but I loved the outdoors. I loved thinking about physical phenomena in the natural world. I don’t think I was particularly unusual in my interests as a girl in high school.

    Generally, in my high school, students interested in STEM took 12th grade physics, chemistry, biology and math. There were no extracurricular science clubs and competitions. Most of us played sports, did model UN or played music as extracurricular activities. At that time, we did not take calculus in high school. The proportion of boys to girls, including 12th grade math, and 12th grade physics were about 2:1. Teaching of physics and math were seen as necessary to do well in many fields including in nursing, medicine, education, law, journalism and many other fields. In fact, it is true that nurses do make many medical decisions that have some basis in physics. Our school did not “market” physics as a specialty discipline.

    Meredith Wadman, now a journalist at Science Magazine was a year ahead of me at my high school. She studied medicine at UBC, got a Rhodes scholarship there, and then went into journalism.

    I don’t know what it is like in Vancouver today. But in 2021, Canada ranked fourth in the world in the science PISA behind Japan, Estonia, and Korea. In Canada, girls rank slightly ahead of boys on this international measure of science proficiency:

    The UK ranks eighth. Girls have slightly lower PISA science scores than boys.

    All of this is to say that I agree with Christina that the narrow of focus into three A-level subjects is not reflected by the Canadian or California system. Students don’t have to specialize in a STEM field in high school. In fact, in the University of California system, and in many other US universities, students are encouraged *not* to specialize until at least the end of their first year of university. This early enforced specialization for girls in the UK system is perhaps obstructing girls from matriculating in subjects related to physics.

    Finally, I agree with Christina that girls in high school are not immune to knowing that engineering and physics are male dominated fields where women are not treated very well. And by now, they are aware that scientific fields such as biochemistry, neuroscience, and psychology have more women and are more female friendly than fields such as computer science and physics. So I am not surprised at all that many girls are self selecting out of university level specialization in computer science and physics. This is true regardless of country.

    Physics, by the way, is not considered to be “hard” as compared to biochemistry, so that cannot account for the relatively greater proportion of women in biochemistry compared to physics.

    I find it absurd that a person with an undergraduate degree in education is allowed to ponder in Parliament, as if she were an expert on the matter, that girls do not like to study “hard” maths. What does this term even mean? Hard as compared to what? What this means is that Katharine Birbalsingh doesn’t like math. Nothing else. I would never send my daughter to her school.

    All of this distracts, once again, from the fact that physics, computer science and engineering have been hyper masculinized, sexualized and outsourced in the UK, the US and more broadly. The genius paradigm (all genius’s are male, don’t you know) has been allowed to run unchecked to the extent that incompetent “genius” self promoters are often promoted ahead of competent and ethical scientists and engineers. Tech companies and venture capital firms are full of these “genius” self promoters. It’s a mesh, to say the least.

    Katharine Birbalsingh’s comments are meant as a distraction from these more salient topics.

  6. Marnie Dunsmore says:

    Its a mess (not mesh) to say the least.

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