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UCL calls out Daily Mail for complaining that women of colour can’t be scientists

BBC's Newsnight relied on two British experts to help explain this week's momentous discovery of primordial gravitational waves – but the Mail thinks they could only have been chosen for “diversity” reasons.

The panel on Monday's Newsnight. L-R: Dr Peiris, Dr Aderin-Pocock, Jeremy Paxman, Associate Professor Pryke. (Image: Screengrab)
The panel on Monday's Newsnight. L-R: Dr Peiris, Dr Aderin-Pocock, Jeremy Paxman, Associate Professor Pryke. (Image: Screengrab)

The discovery of primordial gravitational waves by the Bicep2 experiment this week has set physics tongues a-wagging with talk of how it important it is. Newsnight covered it on Monday evening with three guests, all experts in the field: associate professor of astrophysics and cosmology at the University of Minnesota (and co-author of the study) Clement Pryke; reader in astronomy at UCL Dr Hiranya Peiris; and Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock, research associate of UCL's Department of Physics and Astronomy, and co-host of The Sky At Night.

Notice anything strange about that list? The Daily Mail’s Ephraim Hardcastle - a pseudonym used for writing celeb gossip and judgement by other writers at the paper - certainly did:

Newsnight's Guardian-trained editor, Ian Katz, is keen on diversity.

So, two women were invited to comment on the report about (white, male) American scientists who’ve detected the origins of the universe – giggling Sky at Night presenter Maggie Aderin-Pocock and Sri Lanka-born astronomer Hiranya Peiris.

It’s a rubbish bit of right-wing “PC-gone-mad” crap, focusing entirely on the ethnicity and gender of the two scientists. So full marks to UCL’s vice-provost for research, David Price, for writing this excellent response calling it out:

Dear Mr Dacre,

I am writing to express my deep disappointment in the insinuation in your newspaper that Dr Hiranya Peiris was selected to discuss the Big Bang breakthrough on Newsnight for anything other than her expertise.

In Ephraim Hardcastle's column on 19 March, he asserts that Dr Peiris and Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock were selected based on gender and birthplace because 'Newsnight's Guardian-trained editor, Ian Katz, is keen on diversity.'

The implication that anything outside of her academic record qualifies Dr Peiris to discuss the results of the BICEP2 study is profoundly insulting. She is a world-leading expert on the study of the cosmic microwave background, with degrees from Cambridge and Princeton, so is one of the best-placed people in the world to discuss the finding.

Dr Aderin-Pocock is a highly-qualified scientist and engineer with an exceptional talent for communicating complex scientific concepts in an accessible way.

Mr Hardcastle also wrongly states that the discovery itself was made by 'white, male American' scientists, when in fact the study was conducted by a diverse group of researchers from around the world....

It is deeply disappointing that you thought it acceptable to print an article drawing attention to the gender and race of scientific experts, suggesting that non-white, non-male scientists are somehow incapable of speaking on the basis of their qualifications and expertise.

I look forward to your reply and would ask that the Mail rectifies the insinuations made about Dr Peiris and Dr Aderin-Pocock at the earliest opportunity.

Yours sincerely,

David Price

Both of the scientists added their own comments to the letter, too. Dr Peiris said: “I deeply pity the sort of person who can watch a report about ground-breaking news on the origins of the universe and everything in it, and see only the gender and skin colour of the panellists. I am disturbed that he has even erased the contributions of all of the non-white and non-male and non-American scientists involved in the discovery at the same time.”

While Dr Aderin-Pocock said: “I find Ephraim Hardcastle’s idea very interesting, I now picture the Newsnight team flipping through their rolodex, saying ‘too white, too male… ah, 2 ethnic minority females, perfect!’. Monday was a very busy day for me, receiving 10 requests for news interviews, I was able to do Radio 4’s PM program, 5 Live, Channel 5 News and Newsnight. I believe that the requests were made for my ability to translate complex ideas into something accessible, rather than my gender or the colour of my skin.”

Comments like Hardcastle’s (whoever they are) are the kind that reinforce two damaging stereotypes about science at the same time – that it’s for men, and that it’s for white people. A report from the Institute of Physics, published in December 2013, found that on average only 20 per cent of pupils choosing to study physics at A-level were female, compared to the 53 per cent average for all subjects as a whole. Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee published the results of a inquiry last month which detailed a range of barriers to women to choosing STEM (that's science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers: everything from gendered research (for example, many biological studies take the male body to be the default, from rats to humans) to institutional sexism in hiring policies (only 17 per cent of professors in STEM subjects in the UK are women).

A 2011 study by the Equality Challenge Unit found that BME academics face a range of discriminatory factors in work, and they are often compounded if they are also women. It found that “both BME and non-BME female staff are less likely to have personal influence at all levels than their male colleagues”; “both BME and non-BME women are less likely to be involved in service activities, for example, have served as a peer reviewer, a member of a national/international scientific body, or an editor of a journal/book series”; and that “while some institutions appear to feel they do not have a problem because they do not have many BME staff, it is precisely the absence of BME staff that constitutes their problem”.

Challenging theses systemic issues isn't helped by national newspapers printing tired clichés straight from the Jeremy-Clarkson-shrugging-and-looking-annoyed-about-something literary tradition.