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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Hilary Benn has been sacked. What happens now?

Jeremy Corbyn has sacked Hilary Benn, effectively challenging his critics to put up or shut up.

Hilary Benn been sacked from the shadow cabinet, following an article in the Observer reporting that the former shadow foreign secretary had told Labour MPs he would challenge Jeremy Corbyn should Corbyn lose the vote of confidence in his leadership that the PLP are due to discuss on Monday.

Anti-Corbyn plotters are convinced that they have the numbers to pass the no confidence motion in Corbyn’s leadership. Passing that motion, however, would not formally trigger either Corbyn’s resignation or a leadership challenge.

The word from Corbyn’s inner circle is that he would remain in post even if he were to lose the confidence vote, and dare his opponents to collect the 50 names they would need to trigger a leadership challenge.

Should that come about, Corbyn’s allies are certain that they would triumph over whoever ran against him. As one senior source said “they lost really badly in September and that’s not gonna change”.

Labour’s rebels are convinced that they have the numbers necessary to trigger a formal challenge to Corbyn’s leadership.

What happens next is fraught as the relevant clause in Labour’s rulebook is unhelpfully vague: 

“ii. Where there is no vacancy, nominations may be sought by potential challengers each year prior to the annual session of party conference. In this case any nomination must be supported by 20 per cent of the PLP. Nominations not attaining this threshold shall be null and void.”

The question that no-one is certain of the answer to: whether the challenged leader would have to seek nominations as well or if they would be on the ballot as by right. My understanding is that the legal advice that Corbyn’s critics have is that Corbyn would not automatically have a place on the ballot. But Jolyon Maugham, a lawyer who writes regularly for the New Statesman, looked over the clause for us and believes that he would.

More important than the legal basis, though, is what the party’s ruling National Executive Committee, which would rule on whether Corbyn had to seek nominations to stand, believes.

Although Corbyn has received the backing of 12 of Labour’s affiliated general secretaries, a well-placed source tells me that they are confident the NEC would rule that Corbyn will need to seek nominations if he is to stand again.

But control over the NEC is finely balanced, and could shift decisively towards Corbyn following this year’s elections to the NEC; one reason why Corbyn’s opponents are keen to strike now.

In that situation, Corbyn’s allies believe they can secure the 50 nominations he would need – the threshold has been raised due to a rule change giving Labour members of the European Parliament the same nominating powers as their cousins in Westminster – thanks to a combination of ideological support for Corbyn and pressure from the party’s grassroots. Senior sources believe that once Corbyn reached shouting distance of 50 nominations, the bulk of the shadow cabinet would quickly fall in line. Another estimates that the “vast majority” of the PLP accept Corbyn requires more time and that the plotting is the result of “a rump” of MPs.

But Corbyn’s critics believe that the European result, which saw Labour voters reject the party line in large numbers, has left Labour MPs with large majorities in the party’s ex-industrial seats more spooked by their voters than by their activists, putting them in the same group as those MPs with small majorities. (The two groups who currently pose the biggest danger to Corbyn are MPs who are old enough to be eligible to collect their pension at or before the next election, and MPs with majorities of under 2,000.) 

Who's right? Much depends on the disposition of Labour's 20 MEPs. Prior to Britain's Brexit vote, they were believed to be the most sensitive to the concerns of the party's activists, as Labour members vote on the order of the party's list, making anti-Corbynites vulnerable. Now all 20 MEPs are out of a job at, or before, the next European election regardless, the question is whether they decide to keep Corbyn off the ballot, or try to curry favour with Corbyn's supporters in the membership prior to making a bid for seats at Westminster. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.