Evidence-based politics and women in science

AcademiaNet interview with Professor Dame Athene Donald

11. 5. 2017 | Award-winning researcher, champion of women in science and prolific blogger: Professor Dame Athene Donald has much to say about the role of science in society, the importance of science communication and gender equality in academia. Donald is a Professor of Experimental Physics at the University of Cambridge. She studies soft matter physics and its applications to synthetic and biological systems.
A network at her fingertips
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A network at her fingertips

AcademiaNet: Prof. Dame Donald, I was struck by a recent line in your excellent blog lamenting the fact that “[…] evidence is never necessarily sufficient to change minds or policy.” Sadly, this reality is reflected in much of the political and social discourse in today’s world. How and why do you think the role of science in society has become so controversial?

Athene Donald: I don't think it is science that has become controversial. I think because many people feel left behind by society and invisible to those in power they no longer feel as if progress – with which science is associated – is being made. They know what their feelings are and they don't necessarily want to attempt to understand what the evidence says. In the UK, it was Michael Gove who said the electorate has 'had enough of experts' and, although he was referring specifically to economists, it was interpreted much more broadly. People want to be validated and sometimes this desire is stronger than seeking out facts.

What are the responsibilities of scientists to ensure that conversations and policies are shaped by scientific evidence?

It is important that scientists do not just stay talking amongst themselves in their laboratories. They need to try to understand why not everyone shares their passion or wants to listen to the evidence; they need to be humble and not believe that their view has to dominate and to understand that people can have different values for all kinds of reasons. They also need to understand that policy-makers are inevitably influenced by public opinion. They will be much more persuasive in their conversations if they understand these issues.

You have long been a passionate advocate for gender equality in science. What do you think are the most pressing issues at present?

I think one danger is to assume that because women aren't formally excluded from the top positions, time will right everything. The reality is our culture influences how people think and behave. This starts in infancy, affecting career choices much later in life and tending to discourage girls from aspiring to certain disciplines, notably computer science and engineering. Cultural attitudes about women and competence certainly affect subsequent decisions about the opportunities and promotions offered to women. Many people – men and women – do not realise how biased their behaviour can be. Although it is hard to estimate how many it affects, persistent problems around harassment are also pushing numbers of women out of science. So, the problems remain many and variousjavascript:{}.

What are the responsibilities of universities and institutes, as well as of society as a whole, in bringing about full gender equality in academia?

Universities and institutes need constantly to monitor their policies and actions. It is not sufficient to have good policies if they are not implemented across an organisation. Support needs to be offered to those – men and women – who perhaps do not follow a standard career trajectory, and imaginative actions should be taken to ensure parents and other carers do not feel forced out because of short-term issues. All organisations need to do all they can to ensure talent thrives, and not work to outdated ideas of what success looks like based on the idea of a default male-with-wife working ridiculously long hours and all that such an imaginary person can achieve. They also need to ensure that it is those who contribute broadly to the institution that prosper. Judging people simply using crude ideas of impact factors, size of grant income, et cetera, is fundamentally unfair, since often people who do well on such criteria actually do not look after their research teams or contribute to the wider good of a department.

You are, and will continue to be, an inspiration to countless female researchers who are trying to succeed as scientists. Who have you been inspired by in your career?

My key mentors were both male: Sir Sam Edwards in Cambridge and Professor Ed Kramer then at Cornell. These were the researchers who made most difference to me. I think I was always inspired by the science and what I read about it much more than individuals, although many individuals including these two helped me on my way.

Finally, Prof. Donald, I believe you recently attended the 10 Years celebrations of the European Research Council in Brussels. What current scientific developments are you most excited by, in your own field, and in science in general?

I think we are at an exciting stage where developments in microscopy are revealing the beauties of biological behaviour at the level of individual molecules. Being able to study living matter at this resolution by bringing physics and biology together opens up fascinating new vistas.

Interview by Neysan Donnely for AcademiaNet.

  (© AcademiaNet)

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