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People-centred science will attract more women to field

The Vancouver Sun By Claire Cupples 15 March 2011

For more than 20 years I have encouraged young women in my research lab and in my science lectures to consider a career in science. Almost to a woman, they have expressed their disinterest, sometimes when they are still undergraduates and sometimes when they are close to finishing their PhDs. The reason they all give, in one form or another, is that they “want to work with people.” Science, in their minds, does not offer them that opportunity.

It is certainly true that, of all the academic disciplines, science is the only one that is not human-centric. Medicine, law, the arts and humanities, even engineering, are all concerned with people: our health, the structure of the societies we live in, the many creative ways in which we express our view of the world, the infrastructure that we create to sustain our lives and lifestyles.

In contrast, the stuff of science, from atoms to solar systems, is independent of us.

However, I suggest this lack of human focus in the sciences is not what young women find unappealing. Many are as fascinated as the young men are by the beauties of the natural world, both animate and inanimate, and by the experimental approaches and intellectual creativity that scientists use to understand how the world works. The lucky ones have experienced the magic, gender-neutral moment when all the learning and observation finally fall into place, and a scientific puzzle is solved. Students of science can see the link between scientific discovery and the quality of human life. Women in particular, though, find the long time delay between discovery and application frustrating.

A career in science is certainly not lacking in human contact. The image of the solitary scientist spending a lifetime in a windowless lab making endless minute measurements is no longer accurate, if indeed it ever was. Today’s scientist is almost always part of a team, the members of which may be in the same lab, just down the hall, across the campus or around the world. Scientific collaborators meet in person over coffee and at annual conferences, or through email and the Web. Friendships develop. University scientists are particularly fortunate in that they get the chance to meet and mentor thousands of students in the course of their careers.

So what is it that differentiates a career in science from one in most other academic disciplines or professions?

I suspect it is the culture of science. The message in graduate school is loud and clear: If you don’t do science almost to the exclusion of all else, you cannot be taken seriously. Indeed, to succeed as an academic scientist, research must take priority at all times, even over teaching and administration. Those who change their focus, even temporarily, risk being regarded as failed scientists, not worth funding with scarce research dollars. Family, friends, hobbies, other professional aspirations must take second place. This single-minded focus on science is almost monastic. Many women and a significant number of men find the lifestyle unappealing.

Science is intensely competitive. In contrast to other disciplines there is often a right answer in scientific research because the laws of the universe are independent of human observation and interpretation. There are no prizes, literally, for getting the wrong answers to such central questions as what causes cancer, what is the origin of the universe, what controls the Earth’s climate.

Big science requires big money. Thus, a certain level of self-promotion is a prerequisite for success in science. Even as team science becomes more common, the emphasis on individual excellence remains. In my experience, many women are not as interested in, or as comfortable with, intellectual posturing as men are.

The culture of university science is changing as teaching, a people-centred activity, regains some of its status. One could argue about the impact that will have on science, but it may result in more women building careers in the discipline.

Claire Cupples is professor of molecular biology and biochemistry and dean of science at Simon Fraser University.