Futurepub March 2024 – International Women’s Day

The latest event in the Futurepub series, on 4 March 2024, took International Women’s Day as its theme. The topics of the talks were related to women and four out of the five speakers were women.

It was held at Bounce – a large basement bar and table tennis venue. As with the event last October (which focused on AI) there was not an emphasis on publishing and scholarly communications. It was an interesting evening nonetheless.

The talks were recorded and will be available on the Cassyni platform.

Suze Sundu was the host for the evening. Suze wrote recently on the TL;DR blog about ‘Empowering Women in STEM‘ and in that piece she mentions her recent interview with Dame Athene Donald (an Occams blogger).  Dame Athene’s book Not Just for the Boys: Why We Need More Women in Science  is required reading for anyone who wants gender balance in science.

  1. Subhadra Das

The first speaker was Subhadra Das, talking about ‘The History we Deserve’. Subhadra is a ‘writer, historian, broadcaster and comedian, who looks at the relationship between science and society’. A historian of science, she is particularly interested in the history of scientific racism and eugenics.

Subhadra clearly knows her subject and she also knows how to communicate. She had the audience in the palm of her hand, making us laugh one moment and think (or wince) the next. Her recent book, Uncivilised, is definitely going on my personal reading list.

Subhadra said that ‘old ideas shape new stories’. I guess that implies that we should try to break free from the constraints that these old ideas can place on our thinking. She reminded us that the complete title of Charles Darwin’s famous work is ‘On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life ‘. Ouch! That subtitle is very uncomfortable. Subhadra asked us if Darwin was racist, answering her own question in the affirmative but adding that it was more complicated than a simple ‘yes’.

She also introduced us to a less familiar evolutionary pioneer, Edward Drinker Cope (1840-97).  Cope was a self-taught palaeontologist from the USA who made significant contributions to the field, but he had pronounced racist and sexist views. Those ideas seem very out-of-date to modern ears but there are plenty of people today whose thinking is influenced by them, knowingly or otherwise.

Subhadra finished by giving us a short reading list:

  • Annabel Sowemimo’s book Divided on racism in medicine
  • Ruha Benjamin’s Race after Technology on how social hierarchies are embedded in internet tech
  • Joy Buolamwini’s Unmasking AI on encoded discrimination and exclusion in AI.
  1. Hélène Draux

Next up was Hélène Draux, a Senior Data Scientist at Digital Science, talking on ‘What The Decline in Women’s First Publications Means For Research’. She told us that while the trend in the proportion of women publishing their first academic paper had been increasing since 2000, it peaked in 2021 and is now in decline. It is not clear what is causing this reversal, but it is a worrying trend. I suspect that the COVID lockdown might have something to do with it.

You can read more about her findings in this blogpost on TL;DR.

Hélène posed some questions that need further exploration:

  • Is this trend true at institutional level?
  • Is there a difference within fields of research?
  • Is there a difference between funded and unfunded research?
  1. Jennifer Rohn

Jenny is well-known to Occam’s regulars as the author of the Mind the Gap blog on this platform where she writes about her life as a professor at UCL, a scientific researcher, a novelist and a mother. Her subject this evening was ‘Outsmarting urinary tract infection’.

She noted that her area of scientific research, UTIs, was typically a conversation stopper. But it is an important issue.  There are about 400 million cases of UTIs every year and it is predominantly a disease of women. Jenny noted that there has been little progress in this “mostly women” disease and research funding is hard to come by. (Funders – you need to do better!)

Antibiotic treatment often fails as the bacteria causing UTIs can evade the drugs commonly used to treat them. Jenny’s lab has developed a 3D model of human bladder tissue that allows her team to study what is going on at a cellular level. Jenny is using this miniature system to study UTIs and how we can deliver drugs directly to the site of infection and knock out the offending bugs.

  1. Joe Twyman

Joe is the co-founder and director of the public opinion consultancy Deltapoll so he knows something about survey technique. His talk was provocatively titled ‘Sex with Strangers – what could possibly go wrong?’ It’s a serious-sounding topic but Joe had the audience in uncontrollable laughter from the outset.

He told us about a classic paper by Clark and Hatfield: “Gender differences in receptivity to sexual offers” that was published in 1989. The authors found that whereas 75% of men will have sex with strangers, 0% of women will do so. The paper has been cited more than 1200 times.

Joe dug into the details to give a devastating critique of the paper – the small sample size, the homogeneity of the sample (one Florida university campus), the cis-het focus, the way the questions were asked, the survey technique. Joe also pointed out that a high profile serial murderer and rapist had been active in the area prior to the research being undertaken. All in all, the paper’s findings can be called into question.

In the midst of his very funny presentation he raised a serious issue about how and why a flawed piece of research can become such an influential and highly cited paper in its field.

Joe summarised with a couple of points:

  • The questions respondents actually answer do not always align with the questions that respondents are asked
  • You need to know ‘how the sausage is made’, particularly in the context of gender
  1. Kate Devlin

Kate Devlin from King’s College spoke on ‘Navigating the AI sea of dudes’. She displayed a photograph of the 1956 Dartmouth AI workshop – all those shown were men, though there were women doing important work in AI at that time.

In 2016 Margaret Mitchell, an AI researcher at Microsoft, talked about a ‘sea of dudes’ in the AI space. People (i.e. men) told her she was wrong. Mitchell pointed out that this imbalance is important because ‘gender has an effect on the types of questions that we ask’.

Kate asked what has the discipline done since 2016 to improve things and make it fairer and more representative of the world? Sadly, nothing. She showed us persuasive evidence that there is still still a serious dude problem in tech. Things are improving, but very slowly.

  1. Wrap-up

The evening ended with food and drinks and networking, as well as a (very noisy) table tennis tournament. It was good to catch up with various people from the scholarly comms world. I hope future events will bring back some scholarly comms focus to the talks.

I tweeted and skeeted a little on the #futurepub hashtag. I didn’t see any other social media activity about the event, aside from a few pre-event posts on #futurepub. I guess that event tweeting (etc) is dying out.

UPDATE: You can read a fuller account of the evening over on Digital Science’s TL;DR blog.

About Frank Norman

I am a retired librarian. I spent 40 years working in biomedical research libraries.
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