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This art­icle star­ted with a Face­book post. A few months ago, a photo turned up on a friend’s page. It showed a group of Indi­an women in sar­is, appar­ently whoop­ing with joy and high-fiv­ing, in a con­trol room, flanked by grin­ning onlook­ers and ser­ried ranks of com­puter screens. The cap­tion read, “Hey Hol­ly­wood, this is what sci­ent­ists who have just put an orbit­er around Mars really look like”.

It’s a great shot, and I was think­ing about it the fol­low­ing day, talk­ing with edit­or Dan about the next Fish­Head inter­view. “Someone in sci­ence would be great,” he said. I asked around, and then later that day, listen­ing to the radio on the drive back up the Kapiti Coast, I caught part of an inter­view with three women sci­ent­ists, talk­ing, among oth­er things, about the ways in which women are under-rep­res­en­ted in the field, and the nuances of why that might be so.

One of the three seemed to me to be the most author­it­at­ive, and her name was Nic­ola Gaston.

 

Even in the ten minutes or so that I man­aged to catch (I replayed the full inter­view later from Radio New Zealand’s web­site), it was clear that there was a story here. A few days later, I was stand­ing at the door­way of a small, sparse office on the fifth floor of Vic­tor­ia University’s Laby Build­ing. The inten­tion was to inter­view Nic­ola Gaston about her work and her advoca­cies but, as any­one who’s ever read this magazine knows, I am an appalling interviewer.

As usu­al, whatever struc­ture there was to my ques­tions soon crumbled, and I now find myself star­ing at the tran­script of an intensely enjoy­able but com­pletely free-range con­ver­sa­tion, the guts of which I’m now going to try to communicate.

 

Just so you know, Dr Nic­ola Gaston is a seni­or lec­turer at the School of Chem­ic­al and Phys­ic­al Sci­ences at Vic­tor­ia Uni­ver­sity, and a prin­cip­al invest­ig­at­or at the Mac­Di­ar­mid Insti­tute. She is cur­rently pres­id­ent of the New Zea­l­and Asso­ci­ation of Scientists.

 

My sci­ence jour­ney starts at school, I sup­pose. I was good at it and I had some good teach­ers. I enjoyed it, but I don’t really have a cre­ation story about how I became a sci­ent­ist. It’s just a set of decisions I made: I like this, I’m inter­ested and I want to keep learn­ing. So I went to uni­ver­sity and I kept at it.

            I was born in Eng­land, because my par­ents were liv­ing in the UK at the time, but they and my grand­par­ents were all born here. Not that it really mat­ters, but I do think there was some­thing about know­ing I had been born some­where else that was part of this intense desire I had to always be able to travel, and to have a career that would sup­port that. And I knew that sci­ence is a career that encour­ages and sup­ports travel. So I was prag­mat­ic in that way, but I really don’t think I would have ser­i­ously con­sidered anoth­er career any­way. It’s always been my thing.

 

We talk here for a while about what is ostens­ibly the pur­pose of this story; the reas­ons why women are under-rep­res­en­ted in sci­ence, des­pite the fact that in most dis­cip­lines at under­gradu­ate, gradu­ate and doc­tor­ate level the sexes are roughly bal­anced. After com­plet­ing a doc­tor­ate, the usu­al next step in any scientist’s career is to try to secure fund­ing for their research, but with budgets being lim­ited and more tightly focused every year, and busi­ness and industry hav­ing a large say in what does and doesn’t get fun­ded, the com­pet­i­tion for grants and pos­i­tions is intense.

A few years ‘miss­ing’ on your CV — to raise chil­dren, say — can make all the dif­fer­ence between fur­ther­ing a career, or being forced to drop out of research-based sci­ence. Sci­ent­ists, par­tic­u­larly women sci­ent­ists, are so used to this appar­ent bar­ri­er in their pro­gress they even have a name for that great pool of tal­ent whose poten­tial work is being lost; they call it the ‘post-doca­lypse’.

And, of course, it becomes a self-ful­filling proph­ecy. His­tor­ic­ally, the sci­ence we were taught at high school was dom­in­ated by a pretty famil­i­ar pan­theon of old white men (usu­ally with some pretty astound­ing facial hair), and that ste­reo­type can be pretty indelible. Nic­ola has run up against these clichés through­out her career.

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It’s partly the stor­ies we tell ourselves about sci­ence. And even I find myself doing it when I’m teach­ing. I mean, I teach quantum the­ory and there are fant­ast­ic stor­ies about Max Planck, who at the time was work­ing for an elec­tric­al com­pany, lit­er­ally try­ing to devel­op a bet­ter light bulb. But out of his test­ing and the­or­ising about the prop­er­ties of the mater­i­als he was work­ing with, comes the found­a­tions of quantum the­ory. And it’s a story I love telling, but then there’s always that point when I’m reel­ing off the names of the fig­ures involved, and it really is just this list of white men.

            And that is the his­tor­ic­al truth, and it doesn’t dimin­ish the sci­ence that was done in any way, but I won­der wheth­er even our new­est gen­er­a­tion of stu­dents are still get­ting this idea that there is some­thing about sci­ence at the highest level that is still a male pre­serve. I quite delib­er­ately bring out Mar­ie Curie [who prac­tic­ally dis­covered radi­ation, was the first per­son to win two Nobel prizes, and is still the only per­son to win a Nobel in two dif­fer­ent sci­ences; phys­ics and chem­istry], but I do feel that she is over­worked as a coun­ter­weight to the myth of the lone male geni­us. The real point is that all sci­ence is col­lab­or­at­ive, if not in real time, then as a res­ult of team­work over time — that’s where ‘sci­entif­ic objectiv­ity’ comes from I think.

 

It’s a curi­ous thing, and a sur­pris­ing real­isa­tion. I’ve always thought of sci­ence as being the most egal­it­ari­an of careers, and one in which women would pro­gress on mer­it as a mat­ter of course. But while we no longer blink at women being at the very top of polit­ics, eco­nom­ics and the arts, the ways in which we fund and encour­age sci­ence have put up a road­b­lock to women’s pro­gress that is poten­tially cost­ing the world very dearly.

And that opens up an even broad­er issue. Although women are the most vis­ible vic­tims of our recent policies and atti­tudes towards sci­ence, there is maybe even more insi­di­ous dam­age being done to sci­ence as a whole.

 

There’s been a move­ment right around the world — and we’re cer­tainly buy­ing into it here — to har­ness sci­ence to industry. And at one level, that’s abso­lutely fine. We all want sci­ence to pay its own bills, and to con­trib­ute to the eco­nomy. But if that business/industry con­trol of fund­ing becomes abso­lute, then sud­denly you have people who don’t really grasp the poten­tial, or the implic­a­tions of your research, mak­ing decisions about wheth­er it goes ahead or not. And that can be incred­ibly damaging.

            I mean, if you had tried to explain to any­one at the time what quantum mech­an­ics was, I don’t know if any­one oth­er than a very good sci­ent­ist could have grasped it, and cer­tainly the prac­tic­al applic­a­tions of quantum mech­an­ics weren’t obvi­ous. But quantum mech­an­ics is now at the heart of all com­put­ing, all elec­tron­ics. It was purely blue-sky, spec­u­lat­ive research, but it changed the world in incred­ible ways.

            My fear is that our cur­rent fund­ing mod­el — which focuses so tightly on short-term indus­tri­al applic­a­tion — is going to ignore and kill off the research that could actu­ally change the world.

 

On my record­ing of our talk, I can hear myself grunt­ling along in excited agree­ment here. His­tory is littered with examples of purely spec­u­lat­ive sci­ence that utterly trans­formed our lives. James Maxwell’s the­ory of elec­tro­mag­net­ic radi­ation led dir­ectly to the inven­tion of radio com­mu­nic­a­tion, but it wouldn’t have happened when it did if Max­well hadn’t had a place to work, and a salary to live on. Any sci­ent­ist could name you a dozen oth­er examples. Yok­ing sci­ence to industry might yield a break­through that makes our pine trees grow a little faster, or our cows udders a little fat­ter, but it’s prob­ably not going to see soci­ety make any giant leaps. For that, you need peer-reviewed sci­ence that is free to go off the map and into uncharted, unima­gin­able territory.

But the issue is even lar­ger than fund­ing. This month there has been out­rage, and many fine words spoken, about the abso­lute import­ance of free­dom of speech as a found­a­tion stone of our soci­ety. And yet…

 

…a bill has just passed through the [US] House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives, which actu­ally removed the right of sci­ent­ists to give evid­ence on the sub­jects of their expert­ise. A sci­ent­ist who has spent years on a sub­ject is dis­missed as being too biased to com­ment on it, while a lob­by­ist for industry is still allowed to par­ti­cip­ate in the debate.

 

It took me a while to take this in, but search out ‘EPA Bill HR 1422’ and you’ll soon be up to your spleen in indig­na­tion. The bill will be vetoed by Pres­id­ent Obama, but it is indic­at­ive of what a future Repub­lic­an admin­is­tra­tion has planned.

Not that we have any reas­on to be com­pla­cent back here. We reg­u­larly see sci­ent­ists who raise con­cern about water pol­lu­tion belittled and under­mined, while our media still hap­pily wit­ter on in a hugely con­des­cend­ing way about ‘boffins’ and their ‘gad­gets’, while delight­ing in smirk­ing at the ‘latest sci­entif­ic the­ory’ as though it were some passing whim, soon to be superseded.

To a sci­ent­ist, of course, everything is the­ory, even when the evid­ence is utterly over­whelm­ing. That’s why sci­ent­ists talk about the ‘the­ory of grav­ity’, and not just ‘grav­ity’. This appar­ent lin­guist­ic uncer­tainty gets ruth­lessly exploited by industry and the media, always keen to under­mine any sci­ence that might ques­tion the sus­tain­ab­il­ity of their busi­ness. We should prob­ably count ourselves lucky that no fun­da­ment­al­ist — cheered on by Fox News — has yet deman­ded equal air time for his ‘the­ory of intel­li­gent falling’.

 

There’s two things we need to do, I think. We need to open up broad­er path­ways for people to get into sci­ence. If we don’t delib­er­ately do that, then the demo­graph­ic issues we have are going to get per­petu­ated for anoth­er gen­er­a­tion. And that can harm sci­ence, and also harm our entire society.

            But we also need to stop — now — this devalu­ing of what sci­ent­ists actu­ally do. There’s an industry and polit­ic­al cul­ture now that talks as though sci­ent­ists aren’t liv­ing in the ‘real world’, when if any­thing it’s the com­plete opposite.

            And we need to re-estab­lish some of the emphas­is on explor­at­ory off-the-map research. Sci­ence work­ing closely with busi­ness has its place. But if that’s all we’re about, then we’re deny­ing ourselves the pos­sib­il­ity of doing some­thing truly great. And we’re bet­ter than that.

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About Graeme Tuckett

Graeme lives on the Kapiti Coast. He fits bouts of writ­ing, broad­cast­ing and busi­ness own­er­ship between his many and var­ied leis­ure activities.

Graeme Tuckett

Graeme lives on the Kapiti Coast. He fits bouts of writing, broadcasting and business ownership between his many and varied leisure activities.