Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-74)



  60. You monitor that?
  (Professor Higgins) Yes, we can count them up and see what the proportion is. The figures are that actually the number of women who have been nominated has been going up over recent years and it is now around about 8 or 9 per cent, I think, which is working ahead of the pool which is very good. The number who are being elected is proportionate to that, it is perhaps slightly ahead of the number who have been nominated.
  (Lord May of Oxford) Once women get into the candidate pool they do slightly better than men, though not statistically significantly. Part of the task of the review committee is to make sure that there are no unconscious biases or people being overlooked, not just emerging disciplines but for one reason or another. Be that as it may, for the last eight years, including what will happen tomorrow, we have been electing women at the rate of about 8 per cent of the elections. You can see while that is good compared to the pool and so on, it is going to take us a long time to fix it. We worry about it hugely because if you look down to the younger people, a third and more of that cohort are women and we want them to be able to see examples of success. We worry particularly too about the problem of the few women, that in wanting to show them as models we are disadvantaging their careers. I assure you it is not for lack of thought or worry and it is a problem we share with other countries. The differences between us and comparable places are small and we find other handicaps. I speak from long personal experience of Australia and the United States where there is much better child care and there are tax breaks for working couples, neither of which we have. There are things we could do to make it easier.

  61. One of the things you do have is the Dorothy Hodgkin Scholarships. They are open to men and women, hugely oversubscribed by women in comparison, 90 per cent as I understand it. Does that mean that women are not applying for other forms of scholarship?
  (Professor Higgins) No. Actually I have just got a very interesting statistic that I want to share with you. We are just in the process of finalising the choice of the next bunch of university research fellows and I was absolutely delighted to find that just under 50 per cent of those in the physical sciences this time round are going to be women and I think that is a real break through. I do not know what the biological sciences is because they were still working on it when I left, they were looking at the final list. It is very encouraging that women are coming into the other fellowships as well. It is an extraordinary effect that dramatically they are coming in through Dorothy Hodgkin, they really feel empowered to do that.

  62. Some of the reasons for that obviously are because they address some of the issues, some of the impediments, so why not address those issues in all of the scholarships that you offer? Why is there a ghettoisation, as it were?
  (Professor Higgins) It is very interesting. If you look at the conditions for the other university research fellowships, maternity leave, support for going to conferences, it is all there. It is partly age. We actually focus the Dorothy Hodgkin's because it was believed, and I was not part of the management team at the time but I support this, that we were losing women at a very early age after the PhD, so the Dorothy Hodgkin's are focused on a younger age group, people coming out of their PhDs, whereas the university research fellows tend to have done one or two post-docs before they get there. It is marketing. It is a quite extraordinary piece of marketing and it has been brilliantly successful.

  63. You are Chair of the Athena Project as well?
  (Professor Higgins) Yes.

  64. How is the Royal Society involved in that? Do you get some financial support?
  (Professor Higgins) They were completely separate when they began because Athena came out of what was then the CVCP, so part of the connection is me, but over the last two or three years the Royal Society in a number of ways has supported Athena by giving us premises and by giving us financial support for specific meetings. They are going to be supporting five dissemination conferences over the next few years. I say "they" because I have put on my Athena hat, it is slightly schizophrenic. There is a request for support for some of the activities of Athena in the future Comprehensive Spending Review submission.
  (Lord May of Oxford) Currently it is out of our own money.
  (Professor Higgins) Currently. It is a great deal of moral support, provision of facilities and actually some financial support out of the Society's own money. I think the Society sees it as an absolute core necessity. The Society can support the young people starting their careers, what Athena does is really focus on trying to keep them in there.
  (Lord May of Oxford) Chairman, could I just use that to mention that one of our proposals that we have asked for some more money for in the next Spending Review—this has come out of consultation—is a new category of relocation fellowships that stems from the feeling that often when a couple move because one of them got a job the other, more commonly the woman than the man, is then left in limbo for a bit. We want to have a programme—

  65. I read that in your submission.
  (Lord May of Oxford)—that will provide funds to bridge and keep that person going. As you will see, nearly all the new initiatives that I hope we would get your endorsement of, because I think all of them speak to shared concerns, are nearly all oriented one way or another to diversifying our reach and oriented to younger people. There is the minor thing about Athena, there are the industrial fellows, there are the international brain gain fellowships, and above all what we are trying to do is enlarge this reach that not just gives them money but thinks of imaginative ways to keep people in the system against the odds.

  66. One more question, if I may. We have talked about diversity but the one area you have not mentioned in your submission or today either is ethnic minority support. It seems to be something that is invisible to the Society at the moment. I understand you do not monitor fellows or perhaps even your own staffing or research fellowships.
  (Professor Higgins) We do, of course, know how many Indian fellows we have because they are part of the Commonwealth. We actually do rather well on the numbers of Indians.

  67. I do not think we are so interested in that but within the UK population. You do not feel this is a responsibility?
  (Lord May of Oxford) We are certainly very aware of it in our own staff and I think we have a pretty good record in that regard.

  68. You know that, do you?
  (Lord May of Oxford) I know that. I can tell you that. I could tell you the statistics and particular people. It is not that we are doing it through any sense of obligation, as it were, these people are all just ace people, they just happen to be Malaysian, Indian and other such things. I would not dismiss too lightly the character that is given to the Society by the fact that it is the Commonwealth Society. We elected our first Indian fellow in 1841 and we have had a long stream since. Of the 26 Indian fellows only 15 actually live in India, the others are in this country, in Australia. The wonderful thing about science, as I am inclined to say at too great a length, is my own research group comes from nine countries and four continents and that is 12 people. My own life has been lived in different countries. I have difficulty thinking of people in categories because my friends and colleagues are friends and colleagues in science. It is the transcendent thing, it is the one ray of hope in Palestine and Israel.

  Mr Heath: In terms of an internationalist view that is undoubtedly right but when we are talking about encouraging people within this country to pursue scientific careers that is a rather different matter.

  Chairman: It is the British ethnic issue that we are worried about.

Mr Heath

  69. You can be as internationalist as you like and not do anything to actually bring people into science and encourage them through their careers and I think that is something that this Committee is concerned about and perhaps the Society must be as well.
  (Lord May of Oxford) I thoroughly agree. As we look down into schools in so far as on occasion we have events where we bring together schools and different places we try and make a deliberate effort to make sure that those are indeed very consciously multi-ethnic meetings. I could give you anecdotal chapter and verse, for example, on a lecture that I gave at the beginning of—

  Chairman: Spare us.

  Mr Heath: I am grateful.


  70. We would really like your monitoring policy if that is available because we will be doing other work in this area, I am sure.
  (Lord May of Oxford) For the staff we can give it to you but for the fellowship we do not do it.

  71. And research fellows too, do you have a monitoring policy for research fellows in this country?
  (Professor Higgins) No. 1

  72. Is there a reason for that?
  (Professor Higgins) We simply go for the best. There is no quota for women, there is no quota for anything, it is merely we go for the best.

  73. We have put you under pressure for over the time and I know there are others waiting in the wings to come in. Thank you very much for sharing this session with us and for giving us very frank and straight answers, long sometimes but there you go, they are all recorded. Thank you very much indeed for coming. We will give you the report.
  (Lord May of Oxford) Could I give you the first paragraph of the last letter Max Perutz wrote to me.

  74. Yes, I have seen it. You can send it again if you want.
  (Lord May of Oxford) Max Perutz said "I am about to die and I wanted to write to you to let you know what the Society meant to me. All through my life people have asked me am I Austrian? am I British?; perhaps I am a jew and I have been evasive because what I want to say is "I am a Fellow of the Royal Society'." He said it is the world's most active academy.

  Chairman: I do not know how they got eight Desert Island Discs out of you. Thank you very much indeed.


1  Note by Witness: We do not monitor research fellows. See supplementary evidence.


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