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

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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Over a Martini with my mother, I decide I'd rather not talk Brexit

A drink with her reduces me to a nine-year-old boy recounting his cricketing triumphs.

To the Royal Academy with my mother. As well as being a very competent (ex-professional, on Broadway) singer, she is a talented artist, and has a good critical eye, albeit one more tolerant of the brighter shades of the spectrum than mine. I love the RA’s summer exhibition: it offers one the chance to be effortlessly superior about three times a minute.

“Goddammit,” she says, in her finest New York accent, after standing in front of a particularly wretched daub. The tone is one of some vexation: not quite locking-yourself-out-of-the-house vexed, but remembering-you’ve-left-your-wallet-behind-a-hundred-yards-from-the-house vexed. This helps us sort out at least one of the problems she has been facing since widowhood: she is going to get cracking with the painting again, and I am going to supply the titles.

I am not sure I have the satirical chops or shamelessness to come up with anything as dreadful as Dancing With the Dead in My Dreams (artwork number 688, something that would have shown a disturbing kind of promise if executed by an eight-year-old), or The End From: One Day This Glass Will Break (number 521; not too bad, actually), but we work out that if she does reasonably OK prints and charges £500 a pop for each plus £1,000 for the original – this being at the lower end of the price scale – then she’ll be able to come out well up on the deal. (The other solution to her loneliness: get a cat, and perhaps we are nudged in this direction by an amusing video installation of a cat drinking milk from a saucer which attracts an indulgent, medium-sized crowd.)

We wonder where to go for lunch. As a sizeable quantity of the art there seems to hark back to the 1960s in general, and the style of the film Yellow Submarine in particular, I suggest Langan’s Brasserie, which neither of us has been to for years. We order our customary Martinis. Well, she does, while I go through a silly monologue that runs: “I don’t think I’ll have a Martini, I have to write my column this afternoon, oh sod it, I’ll have a Martini.”

“So,” she says as they arrive, “how has life been treating you?”

Good question. How, indeed, has life been treating me? Most oddly, I have to say. These are strange times we live in, a bit strange even for me, and if we wake up on 24 June to find ourselves no longer in Europe and with Nigel Farage’s toadlike mug gurning at us from every newspaper in the land, then I’m off to Scotland, or the US, or at least strongly thinking about it. Not even Hunter S Thompson’s mantra – “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro” – will be enough to arm myself with, I fear.

The heart has been taking something of a pummelling, as close readers of this column may have gathered, but there is nothing like finding out that the person you fear you might be losing it to is probably going to vote Brexit to clear up that potential mess in a hurry. The heart may be stupid, but there are some things that will shake even that organ from its reverie. However, operating on a need-to-know basis, I feel my mother can do without this information, and I find myself talking about the cricket match I played on Sunday, the first half of which was spent standing watching our team get clouted out of the park, in rain not quite strong enough to take us off the field, but certainly strong enough to make us wet.

“Show me the way to go home,” I sang quietly to myself, “I’m tired and I want to go to bed,” etc. The second half of it, though, was spent first watching an astonishing, even by our standards, batting collapse, then going in at number seven . . . and making the top score for our team. OK, that score was 12, but still, it was the top score for our team, dammit.

The inner glow and sense of bien-être that this imparted on Sunday persists three days later as I write. And as I tell my mother the story – she has now lived long enough in this country, and absorbed enough of the game by osmosis, to know that 17 for five is a pretty piss-poor score – I realise I might as well be nine years old, and telling her of my successes on the pitch. Only, when I was nine, I had no such successes under my belt.

With age comes fearlessness: I don’t worry about the hard ball coming at me. Why should I? I’ve got a bloody bat, gloves, pads, the lot. The only things that scare me now are, as usual, dying alone, that jackanapes Farage, and bad art. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain