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London, United Kingdom
I am an engineering academic at University College London where I work on the sustainability of urban water systems. I am interested in the role of engineers and technology in sustainable cities.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Love, fear and science

The older I get, the more I find the anger and outrage of my youth replaced by sadness. It was with sadness that I listened to Sir Tim Hunt's apology on the radio for his terrible little speech and have watched some of the fall out, including his resignation from an honorary post at UCL. My sadness is in small part sympathy for Hunt the person. This is an ignominious business. He messed up royally, and I feel sorry for him. Mostly my sadness is just the usual disappointment that these things even happen. It is not a surprise that an eminent scientist at the end of his career has made such a schoolboy error in remarks to a professional gathering, nor is it a surprise that he holds such views, but it is disappointing nonetheless. This is nothing new to me or to any woman in science and engineering, but there is something unusual in this case that has made me reflect again on the deeper problems of gender in science. The problem of love.

Hunt's main problems with women seem to be about love. In his view it is bad for science if scientists fall in love with each other. Workplace romances make life complicated in all sorts of sectors, but the idea that science works best without love is heartbreaking. Hunt and other scientists insist that science is objective and therefore works best when it is undertaken without emotion. Love is the most complicated and powerful of all emotions, and therefore a most dangerous force in the lab. This representation of science not only discourages lively, passionate human beings, including women, from engaging with important and exciting work, but it is inaccurate. Laboratories are full of emotion. Unfortunately the dominant emotion in too many laboratories is fear.

Laboratories run by great and powerful scientists in elitist, competitive institutions, driven to raise large amounts of funding and achieve external prizes and recognition, are too often very fearful places to work. Students and postdocs on precarious employment contracts live in fear of their livelihoods and careers. Workplaces where 'scientific brilliance' provides immunity from the norms of basic human decency can too easily condone bullying and harrassment, creating cultures of fear which induce many more tears and are far more dangerous to science than love.

Love and fear go deeper in science than workplace culture - in many ways they shape science itself. A lot of science is based in fear, particularly research associated with military and security applications, or driven by a desparate race to boost 'international competiveness'. Other research is founded in love, particularly research that aims to improve human health and happiness or probe the deepest wonders of life and the universe.

Which leads us back to the gender problem in science and engineering. Women seem to be more attracted to workplaces that are free of fear and research areas that are founded in love. Of all the complex reasons why women are still under represented in science and engineering, perhaps the answer is simply love.