This has been quite a week for science with Philae sucessfully landing on comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. I like to think this is a week that will inspire a new generation of scientists and the coverage that Rosetta/Philae and the European Space Ageny have had is brilliant, however there are several other stories that have either stemmed from the coverage of Philae or have been lost in the media scrum surrounding it. They highlight a few of the difficult challenges scientists face, ranging from a lack of evidence based policy, coverage for their research area or the hot button topic of sexism in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths). So I thought I would bring a few to your attention in case you missed them.
Sexism in science
A much discussed topic, recently a paper was published that apparently solved the problem of the leaky pipeline in STEM (the loss of women as you move higher up the academic ladder). There was a very strong reaction to this paper and analysis such as this one followed. The more I learn about this problem the more I understand how lucky I was to grow up with the belief I could study and work in a STEM field if I chose to, but I’m also increasingly aware that whether or not I stay in academia may not be entirely my decision. It may be influenced by the difficulties women seem to come across in securing higher level positions, here at Leicester I have some brilliant role models to aspire to, so for now I’m confident, but back to this weeks news. The point I’m eventually getting to is: #shirtgate. Alongside the twitter storm of news and images from Philae #shirtgate began to pop up. What is #shirtgate? Well have a look for yourself here and here, both blogs show images of a scientist from the ESA wearing a particular shirt, deemed by many to be offensive to women. This has raised some fierce debate (just check out the comments on the second blog) ranging from; this shirt is offensive and drives women from STEM, to men aren’t allowed to comment on womens clothes so why should anyone comment on this guys shirt. My personal take on this is that as a general rule we scientists dress on the casual side of things (jeans most days), however when required to be professional we should be capable of this, a plain shirt, or even plain t-shirt would do the job better than a busy shirt whatever the pattern. It’s a shame this is (if only mildly) detracting from a scientific accomplishment as huge as landing on a comet, but at the same time #shirtgate could quite easily have been avoided by someone, anyone, realising this shirt might be a problem…
Science policy in the EU
I personally believe leaving the EU would be a terrible idea, but I also believe the EU president has just made a terrible decision. The European Commission’s Chief Scientific Adviser, the most senior scientific postition, from January, will no longer exist, despite the EU president previously stating that EU activities should be based on sound scientific evidence. For the full in’s and out’s you can read about it on the Guardian’s website. The news was, quite cleverly, announced while the world was busy preparing to watch Rosetta and Philae. So all at once this week became a great week for science but a terrible week for ensuring that EU decisions are based on rigorous scientific evidence. One step forward, two steps back comes to mind.
Access to understanding science-writing competition 2015
This is slightly off the topic of news stories but is about scientific writing all the same. The concept of this competition is a brilliant one, getting scientists to write plain english summaries of research papers. This makes science considerably more accessible to the public, therefore improving engagement and understanding. What’s not to love? I saw a link on twitter and thought this looks really interesting. I checked out the website and read the quick intro about what you do and what you can win and then got to the selection of 12 articles you could write about. Then I was disappointed. Of the 12 articles 3 were on cancer, the only nod to infectious diseases at all was one article on Plasmodium falciparum a (protozoan) causative agent of malaria. I’m not saying cancer and malaria aren’t important, of course they are! What I was disappointed by was the lack of anything relating to bacteria or viruses. Ok yes, we are all baised by what we work on and I do work with a bacterium, but hear me out. Two very real threats facing the human race, two very newsworthy and publically important topics are 1. Ebola (caused by a virus) and 2. Antibiotic resistance. While I will admit the articles may have been chosen several months ago before Ebola really became worldwide news ignoring bacteria and viruses altogether seems like a ridiculous idea to me. Again I’ll say that yes I’m probably biased and yes they can only include 12 articles, but I will stick to my guns here, bacteria and viruses are important to understand for us and the public.
So there’s my round up of this week. The success of Philae and the ESA was huge this week and makes me proud to work in a STEM field but don’t forget about the smaller stories some of them may have a bigger impact on your lives.