Science, Diversity & Division, By Andrew Howard

As someone from outside of the ‘scientific community’, it is easy for me to see how the science sphere can be seen as just that – an isolated community separate from the remainder of society. Indeed, in light of Merton & Mulkay’s work (1973 [1942]; 1976), it is explained how science as a discipline is potentially more cohesive than others – all work is cumulative, there are golden rules to which all researchers abide, & there is a good deal of tacit knowledge which is not easily shared or explained to the layperson. Science is truly different from other disciplines – it is arguably the only area that has the potential to get everybody reading off the same hymn sheet. When we look at other disciplines, it is not easy to find the steadfast knowledge that the natural sciences can offer (I will not detract on contentions within science for the sake of argument). I feel it is for this reason exactly that science should be more accessible & less the realm of the white, middle-class male. This stereotype surely perpetuates division & lessens the impact of social good that science has to offer, & further efforts should be made to tackle it.

Debates over climate change, GM food & vaccinations (to name a few) suffer considerably when perceptibly reduced to a debate between the scientific community & ‘the rest of society’. Much can & has been said on the miscommunication in the UK’s GM debate, but let us take the imagery of white, middle-class, technocratic, possibly bearded, probably bespectacled man in a lab coat – let’s make them a bit crazy & eccentric too (why not?) –, I contest that it is often this picture in people’s heads when contemplating the dubious ‘science’ (pro-GM) side of the debate. I realise it may be very problematic to suggest this, but the stereotype nonetheless exists, & it does nothing for a clear & open debate.

Ecosia’s gender neutral image results when searching ‘scientist’

Were science as an institution to be one representative of everybody, regardless of race, gender or class, the stereotype would dissolve, & leaving us with a society much more open to scientific progress, or at least debating it on much more legitimate grounds. How to achieve this? Quotas are controversial, but from looking at the Royal Society’s awarding of fellowships (2 women out of 43 in 2014) it appears there are some steps to be taken inside the institution. Otherwise, Phipps’ (2003) argument that women’s particular underrepresentation in science is owed to the pre-existing discourse that it is a male discipline leads us to redesign the stereotype. The European Commission’s attempt at this with ‘Science: It’s a girl thing’ was a disgrace. I think seemingly subtle manipulations however can make a big difference: 10 of the first 18 pictures displayed when trying ‘scientist’ on Ecosia’s (a search engine that uses its proceeds to plant trees in the Amazon) image search display women (unfortunately all images are predominantly white, but it’s a start). With Google, the result is much the same as my imagery above. Wasn’t expecting this to be a plug but… MESSAGE: search with Ecosia.

It probably takes a few different efforts to achieve the desired diversity in science, & the yields of this will probably not be enjoyed for years to come. But it is clear, I believe, that scientific debate will continue to be skewed as long as science is the property of one social group, or at least seen as such.

References Merton, R. K. (1973) [1942], The Normative Structure of Science, in The Sociology of Science, Chapter 13 pp. 267-278 [HD 24000 Mar] Mulkay, M. (1976), The Mediating Role of the Scientific Elite, Social Studies of Science, Vol. 6, No. 3&4, pp. 445 – 470 [Q 1 Soc] September Phipps, A (2003), Gender and education in the UK: background paper for the UNESCO global monitoring report ‘Education for all: the leap to equality’. Project Report. UNESCO. 2003, http://sro.sussex.ac.uk/16917/

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