The macho world of scientific research

When I was interviewed for a lectureship at Oxford, where my husband worked, I was advised that a junior position would be more appropriate as it would enable me to go home and cook dinner.

I have spent over forty years in science and, I hope, have made a significant contribution to our understanding of the relationship between our genes and disease, particularly in relation to Duchenne muscular dystrophy. But it very nearly wasn't so.

Upon graduating from Oxford University with a vocation for science, I initially decided to fulfil it through teaching. This, I had been advised, was the only scientific career I could reasonably combine with my husband's: he was a scientist who would move from institution to institution, and I would be expected to follow him.  Fortunately, the education professor who interviewed me thought otherwise. Teaching, he said, would be a waste of my talent. He urged me to do a PhD instead.

My interviewer was right. Research was my true passion, and I embarked on a successful career in science.

A career in science is never an easy choice, however, and particularly not for a woman in the 1970s. When I was interviewed for a lectureship at Oxford, where my husband worked, I was advised that a junior position would be more appropriate as it would enable me to go home and cook dinner. When I had a child, I could no longer work the long hours that were often expected. Without a supportive partner - and, crucially, a sympathetic employer - my career would have been short-lived.

The challenges I faced were not unique to me and nor are they entirely a thing of the past. The environment has improved, but as a report published by the Wellcome Trust shows, there is still some way to go: more women than men still drop out of research, and earlier in their careers. The reasons they cite chime with my own experiences.

Like many professions, science requires hard work. By its nature, it also requires robust challenge from your peers. Too often, though, this can translate into a culture where long hours are felt to equate to productivity, and where macho and adversarial behaviour is rewarded. This can be difficult for good researchers of both sexes, but the report finds that men and women feel it disadvantages women more.

Science needs a working environment that better recognises that individuals' personal circumstances and approaches to research differ, in ways still compatible with excellence. Collaboration is the lifeblood of science, but this need not always mean early-morning meetings or after-work drinks that don't suit the nursery run. When I was the mother of a small child, commuting from Oxford to London, I proved that it is quite possible to deliver first class research without working late into the night. It is too often assumed, wrongly, that it can't be done.

Women in science also need positive role models and, critically, mentoring and career support. I try to give advice where I can. Be aware of your limitations, I tell them, but above all be confident and give it a try - it nearly always works out. Those of us who have shown what can be done need to share our experience more widely. The young researcher struggling to balance research against family often needs only to see what is possible, and to be encouraged not to give up. Her enthusiasm and drive will do the rest.

Science is an exciting and fascinating field to work in. It needs diversity of talent to provide diversity of thinking. I have been fortunate enough to have lived and worked in a supportive and encouraging environment. I want this to be the same for today's scientists.

Dame Kay Davies is Deputy Chair of the Wellcome Trust and Professor of Anatomy at the University of Oxford

Women in science still face prejudice. Image: Getty
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French presidential election: Macron and Le Pen projected to reach run-off

The centrist former economy minister and the far-right leader are set to contest the run-off on 7 May.

Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen will contest the run-off of the French presidential election, according to the first official projection of the first-round result.

Macron, the maverick former economy minister, running under the banner of his centrist En Marche! movement, is projected to finish first with an estimated 23.7 per cent of the vote, putting him marginally ahead of Le Pen. The leader of the far-right Front National is estimated to have won 21.7 per cent, with the scandal-hit Républicain François Fillon and the left-winger Jean-Luc Mélenchon tied for third on an estimated 19.5 per cent each. Benoît Hamon, of the governing Socialist Party, is set to finish a distant fourth on just 6.2 per cent. Pollsters Ifop project a turnout of around 81 per cent, slightly up on 2012.

Macron and Le Pen will now likely advance to the run-off on 7 May. Recent polling has consistently indicated that Macron, who at 39 would be the youngest candidate ever to win the French presidency, would probably beat Le Pen with roughly 60 per cent of the vote to her 40. In the immediate aftermath of the announcement, he told Agence France Presse that his En Marche! was "turning a page in French political history", and went on to say his candidacy has fundamentally realigned French politics. "To all those who have accompanied me since April 2016, in founding and bringing En Marche! to life, I would like to say this," he told supporters. " 'In the space of a year, we have changed the face of French political life.' "

Le Pen similarly hailed a "historic" result. In a speech peppered with anti-establishment rhetoric, she said: "The first step that should lead the French people to the Élysée has been taken. This is a historic result.

"It is also an act of French pride, the act of a people lifting their heads. It will have escaped no one that the system tried by every means possible to stifle the great political debate that must now take place. The French people now have a very simple choice: either we continue on the path to complete deregulation, or you choose France.

"You now have the chance to choose real change. This is what I propose: real change. It is time to liberate the French nation from arrogant elites who want to dictate how it must behave. Because yes, I am the candidate of the people."

The projected result means the run-off will be contested by two candidates from outside France's establishment left and right parties for the first time in French political history. Should Le Pen advance to the second round as projected, it will mark only the second time a candidate from her party has reached the run-off. Her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, reached the second round in 2002, but was decisively beaten by Jacques Chirac after left-wingers and other mainstream voters coalesced in a so-called front républicain to defeat the far right.

Fillon has conceded defeat and backed Macron, as have Hamon and the French prime minister, Bernard Cazeneuve. "We have to choose what is best for our country," Fillon said. "Abstention is not in my genes, above all when an extremist party is close to power. The Front National is well known for its violence and its intolerance, and its programme would lead our country to bankruptcy and Europe into chaos.

"Extremism can can only bring unhappiness and division to France. There is no other choice than to vote against the far right. I will vote for Emmanuel Macron. I consider it my duty to tell you this frankly. It is up to you to reflect on what is best for your country, and for your children."

Though Hamon acknowledged that the favourite a former investment banker – was no left-winger, he said: "I make a distinction between a political adversary and an enemy of the Republic."

Mélenchon, however, has refused to endorse Macron, and urged voters to consult their own consciences ahead of next month's run-off.

The announcement sparked ugly scenes in Paris in the Place de la Bastille, where riot police have deployed tear gas on crowds gathered to protest Le Pen's second-place finish. Reaction from the markets was decidedly warmer: the euro hit a five-month high after the projection was announced.

Now read Pauline Bock on the candidate most likely to win, and the NS'profiles of Macron and Le Pen.

 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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