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Women in Science

Volume 546: debated on Wednesday 13 June 2012

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Dunne.)

I am grateful for the granting of this debate and to the Minister for his attendance. I hope that he takes this debate in the spirit intended, rather than along party political lines, because the role of women in science is a matter for the whole country and where we see ourselves as a nation in the future. It is particularly important because other countries are taking investment in science seriously. I hope to demonstrate, first, that there is a problem; secondly, that the current solution to women and science, as suggested by the Government policy to cut the grant to the United Kingdom Resource Centre, is not adequate to address the problem; and, thirdly, that there are solutions to the problem.

I pay tribute to those women scientists who have made discoveries that have changed the world: Dorothy Hodgkin, who should have been awarded the Nobel prize for her structure of penicillin and vitamin B12; Rosalind Franklin, who in my view should have shared the Nobel prize with Watson and Crick for her work on the structure of DNA and RNA; and Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who discovered the existence of pulsars, helped build the telescope and had to be persistent in recording and convincing her supervisor about the existence of pulsars. He went on to win the Nobel prize but she was not included—there seems to be a pattern here—although she went on to become the first president of the Institute of Physics. What about the consultant Dr Wendy Savage, who, when she first came to the London hospital, was told by her senior consultant:

“there’s no place in gynaecology and obstetrics for women”,

or Professor Lesley Yellowlees, the first woman president in the 171-year history of the Royal Society of Chemistry?

There are many more women who have worked tirelessly behind the scenes, particularly in Bedford college, where I studied biochemistry. It was set up by Elizabeth Jesser and was the first higher education college for women, producing pioneering women scientists. It is always the case that women have to ask for things and start movements. We are never given anything directly. Dr Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman doctor, while Dr Sophie Bryant was the first woman to be awarded a doctorate.

I had the pleasure to host a reunion of some of those spirited women, who, with their persistence, made it easier for future generations, who perhaps sometimes do not realise the difficulties women scientists used to face. That is the spirit that runs through this country and gives it backbone, and it must be harnessed and cherished, not abandoned.

What about science now? In my view, women in science—indeed, science generally—are under threat. The Biochemical Society has conducted a survey in which women scientists expressed a number of concerns—I am not sure whether the Minister has seen the survey, but if not, I am happy to send it to him. Those women scientists cited inflexible funding structures, which mean that women are unable to take time out, perhaps to look after children, without being left behind. Universities could be more supportive of families and child care, thereby making it easier for women to balance family life and work. Any time taken off—say, for child care—results in a lack of publications, and it is hard to compete for jobs without published work. Short-term contracts cannot provide job and financial security, and are not conducive to family life. In 2001, 51% of all women academic staff were on fixed-term contracts, compared with 44% of men, and the percentage increase for women was 58%, compared with 20% for men. In 2011, 67% of part-time staff were women.

Let me turn to the United Kingdom Resource Centre for women, the body set up to help employers and organisations to enable women to achieve their potential across the STEM and SET work force—that is, in science, technology, engineering and maths, or in science, engineering and technology. The UKRC has identified that 5.3% of all working women—or one in 20—are employed in a SET occupation, compared with one in three men. Nearly 100,000 female STEM graduates are either unemployed or economically inactive. That is bad for the economy, particularly in engineering, which is a predominantly male work force, with many engineers over 50 and due to retire in the next 10 years. This is a golden opportunity to make the sector gender-inclusive. The UKRC has also worked with a major firm called Arup, which has given it a glowing testimonial. It has also found that in 2009 girls accounted for 48.8% of STEM GCSE exam entries, but only 42.2% at A-level, and that women accounted for only 33.2% in higher education, with only 9.6% in computing and 22.2% in physics.

What about the solutions? I urge the Minister to think again about cutting the grant and changing the nature of the work conducted by the UKRC, and to work with the UKRC alongside any other initiatives that the Government want to set up.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the reason the decision should be reconsidered is that the UKRC has, over seven or eight years, built up a lot of expertise? By making the change that they have, the Government are in danger of losing the benefit of all that experience.

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention and for the work that she is doing for women in science. Indeed, I will mention her later in relation to a publication that she edited.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this matter to the House this evening. Is she aware that there is a CBI report out, entitled “SET for growth”, which indicates that there will be a critical need for science, engineering and technology students over the coming years? Does she feel that, for that reason alone, the Government should reconsider their decision, which will reduce the number of ladies involved in those professions?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and I absolutely agree with him. That is why we are all here this evening: because we take the issue seriously.

The UKRC has the expertise. It is carrying out good work, it has a recognised brand name and it is an organisation that can collate, draw together and disseminate good practice. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. UKRC needs core funding to do regional outreach work, which is not readily supported by employers, and to direct services to unemployed women and returners. It cannot charge for support services such as mentoring, as the cost would be prohibitive to small companies.

The Minister said in a written ministerial statement on 3 February 2011 that a number of organisations would be responsible for collecting data. One already exists, however: the UKRC. It would save on costs. People have to pay for figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, and an employer that did not want to change its practices might not want to pay for UKRC’s services. Core funding is therefore required to enable UKRC to show such employers that part-time women scientists are still committed to their work and the organisation.

Employing women of child-bearing age is, unfortunately, still an issue—especially now, as some employers want to hire and fire at will. I ask the Minister to think again about the Government’s policy of using UKRC to find ambassadors, because the problem of women in science will not be solved by volunteers alone. I also ask him to look at some of the solutions put forward by women scientists responding to the Biochemical Society. Those solutions include: establishing funding streams that are not conditional on an academic publication record; removing the upper age limit on career advancement grants to give flexibility; providing funding or fellowships for part-time positions, to encourage women to have flexible working arrangements; and supporting the work of the Daphne Jackson Trust by providing grants or support for returners. If the Government were to provide a grant that resulted in a commercial gain from the research, perhaps they could take a percentage as a return.

I ask the Minister again to consider providing clear targets, which is the main way of measuring improvements in achieving equality. That has also been suggested by the Campaign for Science and Engineering. Will he also consider adopting a long-term strategy, rather than one that simply responds to demographic change? Such a strategy must be built within the system, from school onwards.

I also ask the Minister to look at the publication from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers—brilliantly edited by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) and published by the Smith Institute last year—entitled “Unlocking Potential”. It found that there was no shortage of women to take up the challenge. The information and evidence on how to recruit and retain women scientists is there, in that pamphlet. Will the Minister also ensure that Government funding for all activities for diversity in science is made transparent by being published, historically and in future?

I have to sound a note of caution at this point. Our competitors are getting ahead of us. In a recent article in the New Scientist, Penny Sarchet wrote:

“Germany has been quietly funnelling a considerable amount of money into science and research with the goal of becoming one of the ‘world’s best three science nations by 2020’.”

Germany has put money into increasing university attendance and boosting innovation to such an extent that, in 2011, the European Commission described it as an “innovation leader”, whereas the UK was an “innovation follower”. I do not know whether Members recall “Tomorrow’s World”, with the excellent James Burke and Judith Hann, which inspired quite a lot of us youngsters at the time. If there is a BBC producer listening, perhaps they could revive the programme and show it at peak time instead of “Strictly Come Dancing”, with presenters who are diverse in age and gender.

Many companies see research and development as their engines for growth to develop and progress. Research cannot be measured by tick-boxes—it takes time. I am sure, Madam Deputy Speaker, that you will have been mesmerised by the transit of Venus. Everyone who is alive now will not be alive when Venus passes across the face of the sun again; certain things carry on long after we leave this earth. I hope that I have persuaded the Minister that investing in science and women in this country will provide a lasting legacy that will endure long beyond the next transit of Venus.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) on raising this important subject and on the way in which she has pursued her argument. She provided an impressive list of female scientists. As we know from the history of science, women who made great scientific advances did not always receive the credit they were due. I hope that that is all changing, however. The three scientists presenting the excellent television programme on the transit of Venus did an excellent job, and I hope that it contained a subliminal message for the audience that they should make no assumptions about the gender of a scientist.

The Government are, of course, committed to promoting science as whole, with our funding settlement—the ring-fenced £4.6 billion a year—and we are also committed to promoting equality in the workplace, as all our announcements on flexible working and parental leave demonstrate. We certainly agree with the hon. Lady that the STEM work force should be diverse, should reflect wider society and should make use of all the talents available to it. She is correct that investing in science and research with a high-quality STEM work force is vital to our economy, and, more widely, to having a civilised society that is fully able to grasp and be at the frontier of scientific advance. Our research base misses out if it does not draw on scientists and engineers from as wide a talent pool as possible, including people who are economically disadvantaged, a wide range of ethnic groups and, of course, women.

I have some sympathy with the hon. Lady’s point about the way in which the research career structure has developed. The large number of short-term contracts can be tough for people—men or women—who are trying to combine a research career with raising a family. Looking at the situation, it is important to do what we can to help post-docs. That is one reason why we support the concordat to support the career development of researchers and the Vitae programme, which began under the previous Government and we are committed to maintaining. I do not think that the hon. Lady referred to Vitae—perhaps the one omission in her speech—which monitors what is happening and ensures that, wherever possible, we do not have post-doctoral researchers dropping out because the regime is hostile.

When it comes to UKRC, we continue to believe that the best approach is to mainstream its work through all parts of the publicly funded research base to achieve the best outcomes for all under-represented groups. It was put to me by UKRC, after our original decision back in 2010, that it needed time to transfer its knowledge to, and engage with, a broad mix of partners. That was the reason that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills provided UKRC with a further £500,000 of transitional funding for the year 2011-12. I recognise that that has now come to an end, which is why the hon. Lady has raised the issue both at Prime Minister’s questions and in this debate.

Let me briefly remind the hon. Lady of some of things we are doing to mainstream our work on diversity. There is, for example, the crucial work we do through STEMNET—Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Network. I will be at the Cheltenham science festival tomorrow and look forward to meeting STEMNET ambassadors there as I have in the past. On average, 40% of those ambassadors are female and, within the science and mathematics strands, it is 60%, showing that we have made a real effort to ensure that STEMNET ambassadors are truly representative.

We continue to commit ourselves to raising our game on that. Indeed, there is a new STEM diversity programme. Late last year, I asked the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering to lead jointly a programme to tackle the long-standing issue of diversity in STEM. They are taking this forward through their existing and excellent relationships with a diverse mix of STEM institutions and businesses to try to challenge leadership at all levels to take on responsibility for delivering equality and diversity. I know that the Royal Society has begun this process by consulting and engaging leaders in the scientific community to draw in expertise and commitment to the programme. Having participated in discussions with Sir Paul Nurse, I know how personally committed he is. The Royal Society is going to carry this forward with an 18-month policy study on this subject. The diversity programme of the Royal Academy of Engineering is engaging the professional engineering institutions, industry, education, and other STEM and diversity organisations. When we say that we are mainstreaming the work of the UKRC, we mean that we are continuing to ensure that women are properly represented as STEMNET ambassadors. The new STEM diversity programme involves the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering.

No one would want to argue with the principle of mainstreaming, but does the Minister not understand that the role played by the UKRC supported that mainstreaming by bringing together sources of expertise and developing new ways of working? For instance, companies were given a charter so that they really understood what they needed to do in order to mainstream. Does the Minister not accept that the tiny amount that is now being spent on women in science is simply not enough to tackle the issue raised by my hon. Friend about the competitiveness of other countries? The big budget for science is welcome, but please will he consider giving more money to UKRC?

I meant what I said about mainstreaming the UKRC’s work. We shall have to see through 2012-13, but I agree with Opposition Members that the UKRC has developed genuine expertise in this area, and part of the purpose of the transitional funding was to ensure that that expertise should not be entirely lost. We want it to be incorporated in the work of other groups which we consider to have, if anything, a wider reach than the UKRC. I am thinking of, for example, the big bang fair, the national science and engineering competition, the research councils UK fellowships, STEMNET—to which I have already referred—and the national academies. Much is being done to draw on the expertise of the UKRC so that greater progress can be made on diversity, and we believe that better value can be realised through those broader activities and the better direction of existing diversity projects.

We continue to believe that mainstreaming the work of the UKRC is the best way forward, but I can report that we are making progress through the range of initiatives that are under way. I was struck by the evaluation of the 2010 big bang fair, which demonstrated that 48% of those who attended were girls and that the full range of socio-economic neighbourhoods were represented, with 30% of attendees coming from the lowest socio-economic quartile. As for the national science and engineering competition, 45% of both entrants and winners have consistently been girls. I was in Birmingham for the results of the competition, and I observed that girls and young women were very well represented at all levels of the school and academic process.

We think we can ensure that the expertise of the UKRC is mainstreamed, while also ensuring that there is diversity in other dimensions through a commitment to equality that involves ethnic diversity and opportunities for people from a wider range of economic backgrounds. I salute the support for women in science that has been expressed by those who have spoken this evening, and I will of course continue to listen to their advice and engage with them. I am sorry not to have been able to address their specific concern about the UKRC, but I fully accept the challenge of continuing to be held accountable for ensuring that we do indeed mainstream the expertise developed by that organisation.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.