Women in Science debated in the House of Commons

This blog post was written by James Lush, the Biochemical Society’s Policy Officer

Yesterday, Valerie Vaz, MP for Walsall South, organised an adjournment debate on women in science [transcript here]. I recommend you read it. She set out clearly what many others fail to do: that the matter of equality and diversity is not only a social justice issue, but also of vital importance to our competitiveness, and the government needs to do more about it.

Ms Vaz, a Biochemistry graduate, referred to a recent survey run by the Biochemical Society, which sought to bring to light the main problems facing our members, and some solutions to these. Issues associated with having a family – including childcare and the detrimental effects of taking maternity leave or working flexibly/part time within the traditional academic career and funding structures, featured highly in the responses. Furthermore, more female than male academic staff are on fixed-term contracts, and Ms Vaz reported that the gap is increasing.

Such issues are a considerable problem at an individual level, but also pose a great risk to our competitiveness, as diversity in research (as well as a well-motivated community) is benficial for research and innovation. Within academia, some universities and departments are doing a lot to address these imbalances, as I was recently exposed to when I joined an Athena SWAN judging panel for the first time. However, I also realised that some don’t “get it”.

Accountability

If we are to be an ‘innovation leader’ and secure the future strength of our science base, we need action now.  I hope to raise this at Monday’s Science Question Time event on science and growth. Mr Willetts has shown signs that he buys into his role in solving the problems (attending the debate was a good sign), and said yesterday that he is to be accountable for mainstreaming the expertise developed by the UKRC, which used to be funded by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. Willetts points to his direction to the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering to instigate a new diversity programme (the subject of the last Policy Lunchbox event). However, as the Royal Society of Chemistry points out, the funding for these programmes is relatively small. He needs to be doing more to promote change, and develop clear targets and a strategy. But I, and others, aren’t sure he gets the whole picture.

Final note

Mr Willetts took the opportunity the debate presented to draw attention to BIS support for Vitae, which provides careers support for researchers. He highlighted its role in helping postdoctoral researchers, that oft-neglected community, and his acknowledgement of their need for support is welcome. However, Vitae itself may be heading the way of the UKRC, as the latest Research Fortnight cover story reports: ‘Funding councils throw Vitae £3m lifeline – But careers body still loses more than half its core funding’. Indeed, one of the activities that will lose core funding, RF reports, is the GRADschools programme for postgraduate researchers. Maybe not something to be shouting about then.

Further reading: MPs debate women in STEM (Campaign for Science and Engineering blog)

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