Bottles of antibiotics line a shelf at a Publix Supermarket pharmacy August 7, 2007 in Miami, Florida. Photo: Getty Images
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What next, when the drugs won’t work?

The government has made progress on the urgent crisis of antimicrobial resistance, but sustained public pressure is still needed, says Zac Goldsmith.

On accepting his part of the Nobel Prize for the discovery and isolation of penicillin, Alexander Fleming warned: “There is the danger that the ignorant man may easily underdose himself and by exposing his microbes to nonlethal quantities of the drug make them resistant.” From the moment these miracle drugs became available, there has never been any doubt about the link between misuse of antibiotics and resistance to them. But despite that, we have spectacularly failed to heed Fleming’s warning, and as a consequence we now face the prospect of losing modern medicine as we know it.

Dame Sally Davies, chief medical officer for England, has described an “apocalyptic scenario”. She has warned of a return within 20 years to a “19th-century environment”, in which routine operations carry a deadly risk. The World Health Organisation has said that we are hurtling towards a “post-antibiotic era”. 

In 2006 there were just five cases where patients failed to respond to even so-called last-resort antibiotics, but last year that number was 600. Clearly we must hope new antibiotics are developed, but there is no escaping that the principal cause of this crisis is our industrial-scale misuse of the antibiotics we already have. Even in this age of irresponsibility, it is hard to imagine anything more reckless. 

Now that the medical establishment has sounded the alarm, you’d expect this, perhaps the greatest single threat to our health, to top the political agenda and dominate the tabloid news. If only. 

In fairness, the Department of Health has issued stronger guidance to GPs and hospitals. But very little is being done to limit misuse of antibiotics in agriculture. In many nations globally, the use of antibiotics for animals exceeds the amount used for human medicine. A 2012 report produced by the Soil Association suggests that the overall use of antibiotics per animal on UK farms increased by 18 per cent between 2000 and 2010. The problem is even worse in the US, where non-government studies have estimated that upwards of 70 per cent of antibiotics are used on farms.

At the same time, we are fast losing our traditional antibiotics to resistance: penicillin for staphylococcal wound infections, ampicillin for infections of the urinary tract and ciprofloxacin for treating gonorrhoea. We are increasingly having to use reserve antibiotics and, worryingly, seeing the spread of resistance to them as well. 

The link between misuse and resistance is not disputed, and so we have to ask why emergency action isn’t being taken. There is no philosophical or ideological reason why any of the mainstream parties should be reluctant to engage. After all, the solutions involve responsible use of what drugs we have, and the promotion of science. 

So why aren’t the newspapers hounding ministers for action? Why aren’t MPs being bombarded by angry letters? In short, what makes this crisis different, and less important to policymakers than the Aids crisis of the 1980s, which successfully galvanised drug companies and the authorities? 

One answer perhaps is that there is less focus – there is no single infection to fight, no single drug to be found. But more significant, I believe, is the influence of vested interests. If intensive farms have grown dependent on antibiotics, then their removal would require significant changes. Not surprisingly, the resistance put up by agribusiness lobby groups is immense, and I believe that explains a lack of urgency in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

It would be wrong to suggest there has been no progress. Last year I initiated a debate in parliament on the matter and, in response, a UK health minister told me: “Routine prophylactic use of antibiotics in both humans and animals is not acceptable practice. I am writing to Defra to ensure that existing veterinary guidance makes that very clear.”

Then last year, the Cabinet Office confirmed it would look at resistance as a national security issue. The government subsequently announced a “Five-Year Antimicrobial Resistance Strategy”, which was published by the Department of Health and Defra. The Prime Minister has also openly described the issue as “an extremely serious problem”.

However, we still lag far behind many other countries in terms of concrete steps. The Netherlands, for instance, has endorsed a 50 per cent reduction in livestock antibiotic sales from 2009 levels by 2014. The bottom line is that governments here and elsewhere must prioritise human health over short-term vested interests, and that, I believe, will be achieved only with sustained and intense public pressure. That will happen, but we must hope it does so before a crisis sets in.

Zac Goldsmith is the MP for Richmond Park (Conservative)

Zac Goldsmith is the Conservative MP for Richmond Park and North Kingston.

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.