Parliamentary Activity | Athene Donald’s Blog

This week has brought some curious interventions into the STEM landscape in Parliament. I will return shortly to the much-publicised, if seemingly ill-informed remarks about girls and Physics made by Katherine Birbalsingh – a headteacher and the Government’s social mobility commissioner – but let me start with a different story, also close to my heart. Ottoline Leyser was talking to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee session on delivering a UK science and technology strategy in her capacity as CEO of UKRI (relevant section about 35 minutes into the evidence). She openly admitted that UKRI was (still) not really coping well with interdisciplinary work. As she put it

‘where I think we have not yet delivered is what I would call research that is so interdisciplinary that it has no home’.

Interdisciplinarity is something that the 2014 Nurse Review highlighted as a challenge that a new over-arching body (that body which subsequently came into being as UKRI) ought to be well-placed to resolve. In the so-called Strategic Prospectus of UKRI in 2018 (no longer apparently available on UKRI’s website, although I have a downloaded copy), the emphasis in this area was on the Strategic Priorities Fund (SPF), which has indeed put money towards a range of interdisciplinary initiatives, including my own research area of the Physics of Life. However, these are all specific, targeted calls under eight identified themes. This fund is not the place to go for blue skies interdisciplinary research in general. In the 2018 prospectus it was said that the Fund would

‘drive an increase in high-quality multi- and interdisciplinary research and innovation by encouraging and funding work in areas which previously may have struggled to find a home. It will ensure that good ideas are supported that might once have been more challenged by organisational boundaries. It will give pioneering research the space to develop, laying the foundations for future capability.’

That the SPF calls are instead highly targeted means this aspiration is not met. Instead, numerous applications will continue to fall down the cracks, as they have for many years and as I described a decade ago in the relatively early years of this blog. At that time I said ‘We should have a seamless funding landscape and we do not.’ Nor do we now, as Ottoline admitted in her testimony in the Lords.

It is a conversation I started having with funders more than 15 years ago and, despite many warm words directed towards inter- and multi-disciplinary research in many documents, things don’t seem to have moved particularly far forward. In the 2019 UKRI Delivery Plan, there was a promise to ‘Review our peer review mechanisms to best support multidisciplinary research’ , but I have seen no sign of such a review being set up in practice; maybe others have. One of the key problems for such research is the failure of referees to appreciate that originality and excellence do not have to reside in every single part of a proposal. For this reason, IDAP – the Interdisciplinary Advisory Panel for REF2021 which I chaired – stated clearly in its criteria that

‘the criteria [of originality and significance] do not need to be demonstrated across all of the constituent parts brought together in the work, but may be identified in one or more parts, or in their integration.’

Generations of referees often fail to appreciate this simple fact, based on my experience on grant-giving panels (although I hope the REF sub-panels have managed better). A review of peer-review for such grants is extremely overdue. I hope it is in Ottoline’s sights.

As for the second story, the recording and transcript of this can also be found on the web (at about 10.20), but Birbalsingh’s attitude towards girls and physics is so outdated and stereotyped, that when approached by the Guardian for a comment I described it as ‘terrifying’ in an off-the-cuff remark by phone. I’d have been much more guarded in an email, but I was in the coffee break at a conference and trying to battle with the absence of a reliable phone signal to make any contact at all.  Birbalsingh’s comments included:

‘From my own knowledge of these things, physics is not something that girls tend to fancy. They don’t want to do it. They don’t like it….

There is a lot of hard maths in there that I think that they would rather not do. That is not to say that there isn’t hard stuff to do in biology and chemistry—there is— but it is not mathematics’.

You can listen to the whole of her evidence on the recording, or read the transcript, if you think I might be unfairly picking out one small part, but you won’t find anything to counter that position in the rest of what she says. As a result I do find her attitude  ‘terrifying’, because it comes from someone who is meant to be a leader in the field. To hear such words spoken by a supposed expert really is deeply dispiriting, a view many other female scientists also expressed in the hours after her statement (see the full Guardian story here; there are other comments from experts on the Science Media Centre’s website).

Birbalsingh did not make her position any better when in her intended defence she subsequently tweeted that this was ‘my guess’ i.e. not based on evidence. Had she read the IOP’s 2012 report It’s Different for Girls, she might have had some evidence to the contrary to rely on. Interestingly, back when that report was released and I was asked to talk about it on Radio 4, I was faced with a different female headteacher (whose name I don’t recall) who tried out exactly the same line of ‘girls just don’t like physics’, a position I tried to debunk when I wrote about it at the time in the Guardian. I won’t repeat the arguments I made then but, ten years on, those arguments have stood the test of time. It is depressing that some people seem to want to believe that cultural expectations placed on young girls have no impact on their choices, that we are somehow hard-wired differently from birth from those systematising boys so that we are all empathetic and should stay as nurses or whatever.

We will never shift the dial on how many girls enter the Physical Sciences, Computing or Engineering as long as educational leaders (presumably primarily those, such as Birbalsingh, with arts and humanities backgrounds as opposed to first-hand experience of what STEM is all about) believe such inaccurate tropes without studying the evidence to the contrary, of which there is plenty. Much of it is summarised and the background given, for instance, in books by Cordelia Fine (Delusions of Gender and Testosterone Rex) and Gina Rippon (The Gendered Brain).  A school leader who discourages half the population from pursuing Mathematics or Physics is not doing the best they can for their pupils.






Author: Frank Washington