According to her profile at the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, where she is “principal investigator”, Victoria University senior lecturer Nicola Gaston’s current research focus is “understanding the relationship between electronic structure and properties such as catalytic activity, chemical reactivity, conductivity and thermodynamic stability, and how this relates to the underlying structure (size, shape, composition) of the material”. Graeme Tuckett caught up with one of New Zealand’s most outspoken scientists to talk about the state of science in this country, gender imbalance and the importance of pure research for the future of the planet. Photography by Clive Pigott

The Interview: Nicola Gaston

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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.

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.

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.

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