Monday, October 19, 2015

Women and Scientific Innovation

On Friday 2nd October, I was a guest panelist for an event hosted by the Mulberry School for Girls. More than 100 secondary school girls participated in a day of discussion on the theme of women in science, technology and finance. I participated in the third and final panel discussion of the day on the topic of innovation. The panel was Chaired by Kirsten Bodley, CEO of STEMNET UK, and the other panelists were Dr Dominique Allwood, a medical Doctor and Expert in Public Health and Miranda Lowe, Senior Curator at the Natural History Museum.

 We were given the questions to think about in advance and here are my notes made in preparation.

What is innovation? 

I think of innovation as new solutions to old problems. It's looking at the world in a different way. It's something where having a diverse group of people is really important - we need a diversity of perceptions and life experience to develop the best innovative solutions.  

Is it true that women working in science face more obstacles to success than men - and if so, what are these obstacles, how did they come to exist, and what can we do to tackle them? 

I think this can be true, but actually a lot of the obstacles may be internal. Or at least internalised messages of who scientists are and what makes a good scientist which are ubiquitous in our culture and which children (girls and boys) pick up before they're even in secondary school.

Once women have made a choice to be scientists or study science there's little evidence any more of the kind of deliberate obstacles that were common even 50 years ago. But it really has only been a short time that that is true. In fact women on average slightly out perform men in some metrics - the hypothesis is that that is because as a group they have already self selected to be only the best, most committed scientists. While men with relatively weak ability in science might still decide to try, that's not as true of women.

Do female scientists work differently to male scientists? 

I'm not a fan of that kind of generalisation. People are different from each other - some are more collaborative, some prefer to work alone. Some have bigger egos than others. We need a diversity of people to get the full benefit of scientific progress.

There may be a slight trend for men and women to prefer different ways of working, but I'm not aware of a study which looked specifically at women scientists compared to male scientists, instead of men and women in general. Women who currently decide to be scientists, against societal expectations may be different to women in general….

What should the priorities be for scientific research in today's world?

We see a lot of emphasis these days coming from the government and funding agency to encourage scientists to do research which has immediate and obvious economic impact. This sounds like a great idea, and I can also see the viewpoint that we should be researching the big problems facing the modern world - clean energy, global warming, the cure for cancer etc. The problem that I see though is that research in it's nature isn't linear. You don't know where you're going before you get there.
Take my field of astronomy and the impact it's had on smart phones. Without astronomers and astronomical research, which at the time it was happening seemed very obscure, even "pie in the sky", your smart phone  would be very different. Astronomers improved CCD technology to take better images of the night sky - now those improvements help a CCD chip fit in your phone so you can take selfless. Astronomers developed algorithms to disentangle multiple radio signals - now in your phone heaping to make your wifi work. Astronomers noticed that the theory of gravity which works so well on Earth is subtly wrong in some places (e.g. the obit of Mercury) - leading to the development of general relativity. You might not know this, but your phone uses general relatively to work out where it (and you) are from the GPS satellite signals. Without those corrections it'd quickly be metres off and you couldn't use your phone to find your way.

None of that was targeted research aimed at finding those solutions, which is why I think it's so important to fund research which might seem useless today.

How can we encourage more girls to take science-related degree subjects, and pursue careers in scientific innovation?

I'm often asked this, and as a former girl who did choose to study science I wonder if I'm the right person to come up with an answer. Shouldn't this be asked of those who didn't chose it? I chose physics because I found it fascinating, and I wanted to study the stars. I also have always enjoyed surprising people and going against societal expectations.

My colleague Prof. Averil MacDonald, the lead of Diversity for the South East Physics Network (which Portsmouth is part of), points out it's actually not STEM in general which has a problem. Overall more girls choose to study STEM subjects, and they out perform boys in those subjects. It's only physics that fails to attract girls at post-16. In her report for the WISE campaign "Not for People Like Me", Prof. MacDonald argues that effective interventions are helping parents (particularly mothers) understand that their daughters could be happy in a physics or engineering career, and helping young women to understand that STEM subjects (including physics) offer interesting careers for people like them. We can do this by talking more about the diverse range of roles that physicists have, from explorers, to communicators, educators, engineers and entrepreneurs.

In Portsmouth one thing we're trying is a physics degree with more of an emphasis on applications. The idea is that girls may be more attracted to this as they can learn how to use physics to make a difference. We also recently launched Physics with Astrophysics which is traditionally more popular with girls. And both of these have relatively low entrance requirements - this is a recognition that you don't have to be a genius to study physics, if you a willing to work hard and persevere anyone can do it.

It was a really interesting event to be part of and I very much enjoyed being a part of it.

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