Women who have beaten the odds to find themselves in the upper echelons of science face a further hurdle—visibility. Female scientists are less likely to sit on science advisory boards, receive awards, and give invited talks at conferences. However, a new study suggests that the reasons women appear less often on the podium are complicated.
Reporting in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology, Julia Schroeder of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany and Hannah Dugdale of the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom found that only 16% of invited speakers at the European Society for Evolutionary Biology Congress between 2001 and 2011 were women. The total—66 of 430 individuals—was half of what would be expected based on the number of senior female scientists in the life sciences.
The dearth of women is not because they aren’t being invited. Instead, female scientists were twice as likely as their male counterparts to turn down an invitation to talk in slots reserved for presenting original and important work. At the same time, the number of female presenters of posters and uninvited talks was almost at parity with men.
Evolutionary biologist Trudy MacKay of North Carolina State University in Raleigh says that relatively short notice and a tight budget contributed to her decision to decline an invitation to talk at the congress in 2011. Women also turn down talks because they receive too many invitations each year and are anxious about balancing the demands of family and work, says Jeanine Olsen of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, who headed one of Europe’s Seventh Framework Programme’s Gender Action Plans aimed at promoting gender awareness. Younger women also tend to do less self-promotion, Olsen adds.
Finding ways to address those issues is next on Schroeder and Dugdale’s agenda. And the first step is to contact scientists to find out why they declined invitations. “Then we [will] know what can be done to change their minds,” Schroeder says.
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TORONTO, CANADA—German scientists have pulled out of an international research project with Canada that was attempting to find ways to minimize the environmental damage caused by exploiting Alberta’s oil sands. The move comes after political pressure forced Germany’s largest scientific organization, the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres, to rethink its connections with an industry that many consider to be environmentally destructive.
The scientists who are part of the Helmholtz-Alberta Initiative (HAI) will no longer be involved in developing technologies that improve Alberta’s crude oil or treat the toxic effluent from the oil sands projects. Instead, the scientists will focus their efforts on the initiative’s remaining research avenues, such as carbon capture and storage and mine site reclamation.
It is a change in focus, Stefan Scherer, the managing director for the HAI, tells ScienceInsider. HAI, founded in 2011, is a partnership between the Helmholtz Association and the University of Alberta “designed to find solutions to the pressing environmental issues facing energy projects such as Alberta’s oil sands in Canada and coal production in Germany,” according to the project’s Web site. “I don’t anticipate laying off scientists,” nor will money be withdrawn from the project; the initiative is not collapsing, Scherer adds. That sentiment was echoed by a spokesperson for Alberta’s Environment Minister Diana McQueen, whose department donated CAD $25 million to the project 2 years ago.
Of the four Helmholtz institutes involved in the partnership, only one, the Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) in Leipzig, has suspended its work in Canada. The institute’s supervisory board voted in December to impose a moratorium on UFZ’s involvement in the project. This decision is a “small hiccup”, explained Lorne Babiuk, the vice president of research at the University of Alberta and co-chair in the initiative. He added that the initiative’s focus can easily be redirected because much of the technology being developed for use in the oil sands is relevant to other carbon industries. “We will reorient the initiative,” agrees the other co-chair, Reinhard Hüttl, scientific executive director of Helmholtz Centre Potsdam. “We won’t have projects directly related to oil sands.”
The German move was in part triggered by ongoing debate over a possible amendment to the European Union’s fuel quality directive that would restrict the use of “high-polluting” oil within Europe. Germany, the largest market for fuels in Europe and the fourth largest in the world, has so far blocked the move along with the United Kingdom, but public opposition to importing Albertan oil remains high. The Canadian government has been lobbying German politicians at both the national and the European level to continue blocking the ban. That lobbying, along with Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol, prompted several German politicians to ask the Helmholtz Association pointed questions about the Alberta project.
“It was seen as a risk for our reputation,” Frank Messner, Helmholtz’s Environmental Research Centre head of staff, told a European news Web site. “As an environmental research centre we have an independent role as an honest broker and doing research in this constellation could have had reputational problems for us, especially after Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol,” he said.
An independent assessment into Helmholtz-Alberta Initiative environmental credentials will report its findings in June.
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TORONTO, CANADA—The Bank of Canada has issued an apology for expunging an Asian-looking scientist from a new $100 banknote after some Canadians objected to the figure. The bank’s governor said that the bank will review the design process for new currency in light of the ensuing public outcry.
The kerfuffle began several years ago, when currency designers showed focus groups the proposed design for a bill highlighting Canada’s contributions to biomedical science. The bank has declined to release that original image, which apparently showed a woman with Asian features using a microscope. But some members of the focus groups expressed concerns that “Asian should not be the only ethnicity represented,” and that the image “stereotype[d] … Asians [as] excelling in technology and/or the sciences,”
according to a report published by the Vancouver Sun. The bank then redrew the image to appear more Caucasian, which has ruffled feathers. An editorial in the Calgary Herald, for example, complained that the bank’s actions =”#ixzz24d9hqsla”>”
unwittingly reinforced the bigoted notion that white skin is neutral, [and] that ethnicity is a quality white people don’t have.=”#ixzz24d9hqsla”>”
Ted Hsu, a former physicist and member of Canada’s Parliament, also criticized the bank’s actions. “I don’t think there is anything wrong … with the original image having too clear an ethnicity,” he says. “Canada is a diverse country; I think it is okay to have people of different ethnicities represented on our currency. … The Bank of Canada should not have responded to feedback [from focus groups] about how someone looked,” he adds, but should have instead left the design to the artist.
The new plasticized banknotes, which went into circulation this year, are more secure, cheaper, and greener than existing bills. In addition to the female scientist, the $100 note also includes a picture of a vial of insulin, which represents the discovery of insulin as a treatment for diabetes by Canadian scientists Frederick Banting and Charles Best (along with non-Canadian John Macleod). An image of an electrocardiogram alludes to the 1950s invention of the pacemaker, and a twist of DNA represents Canada’s role in sequencing the human genome. The significance of the controversial figure at the microscope is less clear.
“At least it’s a woman,” quips Paul Dufour, a science policy specialist at the Institute for Science, Society and Policy at the University of Ottawa. The bank got one thing right, he says: It tried to promote the role of women in science.
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To the mournful tune of a lone saxophone scientists marched through the streets of Ottawa and onto Canada’s Parliament Hill to protest a glut of cuts to government research labs and — they say — a lack of evidence-based decision making in the Canadian government.
The 10 July rally drew an estimated 2000 scientists, graduate students and their supporters to the sunny capital, many of them dressed in white lab coats; smaller protests took place in other cities across the country including in Regina, Guelph and Calgary.
The protesters accuse the Harper government of shutting down Canadian scientific agencies because they threaten to expose the environmental impact of fossil fuel extraction, particularly from the Alberta oil sand, and of mining on Canadian lakes and rivers.
“That’s a story that [Canadian Prime Minister] Stephen Harper doesn’t want you to hear,” said Maude Barlow, the National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians, an advocacy organization that works to promote green water and energy policies, in her speech outside the Houses of Parliament.
Cuts to the Canadian federal budget this year have meant the closure of various scientific programs, including the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), a 44-year-old research station that houses a system of 58 lakes in northwestern Ontario. ELA provided the first evidence for acid rain, and diagnosed the effects of mercury pollution and synthetic hormones on aquatic life.
“Society has learned a tremendous amount [from these lakes],” said Jeff Hutchings, a biologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax and the President of the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution. “It [will] be tremendous loss, and not just to Canadian society, because [the lakes] generates knowledge of importance to any country with lakes,” he told Nature.
The cuts are imminent. The first of Canadian government scientists will lose their positions at the beginning of August , and the closure of the ELA is slated for April next year.
“The government would like to have universities take over this facility, [but] in this time frame that almost certainly won’t happen…[the facility] will [therefore] presumably be moth-balled, taking with it decades of internationally renowned research,” said Hutchings.
In response to today’s protest, Gary Goodyear, Canada’s minister of state for science and technology, released a statement that claims the Canadian governments commitment to supporting science. “Our government is investing in science and research that is leading to breakthroughs that are strengthening our economy and the quality of life of all Canadians.
“While the government is returning to a balanced budget, science, technology and innovation remain a strong priority with an added $1.1-billion investment over five years,” he said.
But Ian Rutherford, Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society based in Ottawa points out that the protest is not just about a failure by the government to fund science. “There is an insidious campaign to muzzle scientists, to keep science out of the news, to… make science unimportant,” he says. “I think it is wrong. The scientific community has to stand up and say this is nuts.”
One environmental scientist, Kringen Henein of Carlton University in Ottawa, told Nature: “I’m really depressed… I just became a grandmother…and what is my grandson’s country going to be like in forty years if this is the way we are going?”
UPDATE: An earlier version of this blog stated that 5000 participated in the march, according to an organizer’s count. The revised figure of 2000 is based on a police estimate.
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The UK government has pledged £50m towards developing spin-off technologies from the super-strong material graphene.
The announcement comes exactly a year after two Manchester-based scientists were awarded the Nobel-prize for its discovery.
The money is hoped to give researchers more bench space to explore the material’s commercial potential.
Funds will be available in the next few months, said the UK science minister.
Graphene, the “miracle material” of the 21st Century, is so far the strongest material known to science, and better at conducting electricity than copper.
It could have a large number of potential application; scientists say it could find uses from transparent touch screens to solar cells, from aircraft wings to optical communication systems, like broadband.
The Chancellor, George Osborne, in his speech at the Conservative Party conference said: “…We will fund a national research programme that will take this Nobel Prize-winning discovery from the British laboratory to the British factory floor.
“We’ve got to get Britain making things again.
“Countries like Singapore, Korea, America are luring [researchers] with lucrative offers to move their research overseas,” he added.
The funds for graphene R&D are in addition to £145 million “earmarked” for the establishment of more UK-based supercomputers, along with funding to support more computer-scientists and facilities to house them, the University and Science Minister David Willetts told BBC News.
He said: “I’m very happy; even in tough times we are investing in science”.
In response to the announcement, Professor Sir Peter Knight, President of the Institute of Physics, said: “We’re delighted that the Government recognises the role science can play in creating a vibrant, diverse economy for the future of the UK – investment in science delivers great returns economically and intellectually”.
“We applauded the Government’s decision to ‘invest intelligently’,” said the director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (Case) Imran Khan in a statement.
However, he cautions: “These new investments are coming in the wake of enormous cuts to the nation’s science and engineering base.
“Last month [Case] released an analysis showing that £1.7bn will have been cut from research and development funds by 2014-15.”
Without a long-term strategy to put science and engineering at the heart of the UK’s economic recovery, said Mr Khan, home-growth discoveries like groundbreaking research into graphene could be a thing of the past.
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As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is busy girding itself for a fight over new greenhouse gas emissions rules, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments today in a case on whether lawsuits over climate ought to be permitted.
At stake is whether greenhouse gas pollution may be considered a “nuisance” under U.S. law. The case stems from two 2004 federal lawsuits brought by seven states and several land-trust groups alleging that emissions from five major power companies could cause harm by contributing to global warming. Rising sea levels, loss of water in the Great Lakes, and reduced hydropower were among the injuries alleged by the plaintiffs; the lawsuits have since been combined, and two states have dropped out since the original suit was filed. The district court subsequently said in its decision that the case brought up a “political” question that the other branches of government, not the judicial branch, should consider, but an appeals court reversed that ruling. When the power companies appealed, the Supreme Court took the case.
In other pollution cases, the Supreme Court has supported suits claiming that pollution caused harm as a “nuisance” under common law, most often interpreted to prohibit noise and light pollution. The 80 minutes of occasionally spirited argument at the high court this morning focused on the two main issues in the greenhouse gas litigation: For the case to go forward, the plaintiffs must prove that the case has legal standing (they must show that the court is the right venue for resolving this dispute), and that the common law definition of nuisance can support suits over greenhouse gases. On the issue of standing, the court could rule that Congress or EPA is a more appropriate body to deal with pollution control.
The Obama Administration opposed the suing states in this case largely on grounds that they lack standing, marking a rare instance in which the Administration finds itself at odds with environmentalists on a major legal issue. (Environmentalists urged the states to try this legal strategy.) U.S. attorney Neal Katyal told the justices that the complexity of the issue suggests that the executive branch, namely EPA, is a better venue for controlling such an expansive type of pollution rather than the courts. “In the 222 years that this court has been sitting, it has never heard a case with so many potential perpetrators and so many potential victims,” he said in his opening remarks. “There are billions of emitters of greenhouse gasses on the planet and billions of potential victims as well.”
The attorneys for the power companies and the Obama Administration argued that the greenhouse gases case is fundamentally different from previous nuisance cases in which pollutants have played a central role. A landmark ruling by the Supreme Court in 1907, for example, found that a judge could stop a Tennessee copper company from polluting the Georgia environment under the nuisance doctrine. Such cases, Katyal said, “are essentially: A pollutes a river or something and hurts B.” But in the case of global warming pollution, he said, “A here is the world and B is the world, and that is such a difference in scale and scope to pose enormously difficult questions” about whether such suits should go forward.
If this case is allowed to proceed, asked the justices, should subsequent cases be limited to big polluters like the five targeted in this suit? “Your briefs talk a lot about how these are the five largest [U.S.] emissions producers, but I saw nothing in your theory to limit it to those five,” Justice Elena Kagan asked New York state attorney Barbara Underwood, who spoke on behalf of the six states in the suit. “Is there something that you think limits it to large emissions producers rather than anybody in the world?”
The states have argued that the larger the greenhouse gas emitter the stronger the connection linking pollution and potential harm. “These defendants,” Underwood said, speaking of the five polluters, “produce 650 million tons a year or 10% of U.S. emissions, and individually they produce amounts ranging from 1 to 3.5% of U.S. emissions.”
Those who challenged the states also suggested that courts would be ill-equipped to make the complex judgments that big regulatory agencies staffed with scientists and other experts make on a routine basis. Judges lack “the resources, the expertise” to be a “kind of super-EPA,” said Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
But Underwood said courts could make such judgments—which could include determining how “substantial” an emitter must be to be found culpable—by relying on standards set by the agencies. She pointed to a cutoff set by EPA that limits regulated greenhouse gas polluters to those that emit 100,000 tons or more per year. “According to EPA’s own technical data, there would be at most a few thousand potential defendants.”
Because Justice Sonia Sotomayor recused herself—she sat on the panel that reviewed the issue in the appeals court—only eight justices heard the arguments. A 4-4 tie would mean litigation against the polluters could go forward, because that would leave in effect the earlier decision by the appeals court. While the tone of the questioning was largely skeptical toward the idea that such suits ought to go forward, divining a final ruling from the rough-and-tumble of oral argument can be difficult, especially because justices often ask tough questions of those they’re inclined to agree with—just to test their counterarguments. Eyes were squarely focused today on Justice Anthony Kennedy, often the swing judge when decisions are split 5-4 in favor of conservative decisions. Kennedy raised a concern that federal law, and EPA’s efforts to use that law, would necessarily “preempt” the common law. The court’s three liberal members, Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Kagan, seemed skeptical on this issue, too.
At least one knowledgeable observer said a 4-4 tie was unlikely. “In short, this particular lawsuit seemed doomed, with the court’s biggest task figuring out how to say so without shutting the courthouse door entirely to such claims,” said longtime Supreme Court reporter Lyle Denniston.
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For women in engineering, workplace climate issues are pervasive and continue to be a key reason they leave the field, reports a new survey of more than 3700 women engineering graduates from 30 U.S. institutions. One in three women who have left the field report working in uncivil, disrespectful environments, where colleagues and supervisors frequently undermine their work, the National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded study found.
The survey — aimed at trying to understand why 20% of engineering school graduates but only 11% of practicing engineers are women — asked women in engineering jobs and those who had left the field about their job experience, training and development opportunities, and work climate.
Of those who left (1086 women):
- Nearly half said they left because of working conditions; they report experiencing too much travel, low salaries, and a lack of personal advancement.
- One-third report leaving because of the work culture; including treatment by boss or supervisors, and more generally a lack of female-friendly culture in the workplace.
- Independently of those categories, 25% of the respondents reported leaving their jobs to spend more time with their family.
Of those who stayed (2099 women):
- Most say that they have supportive supervisors and co-workers.
- Women who report that they are undermined by their co-workers and work in cultures characterized by condescending, patronizing treatment are the least committed to staying.
- Women who report that they are overworked both at home and work, and who were treated in a condescending manner, report experiencing considerable work-life conflict.
The report, published by the Project on Women Engineers’ Retention (POWER), was careful to underscore that there was no difference between groups in their interests, confidence in their abilities, nor in their expectations of positive outcomes from performing a task.
The report’s authors, Nadya A. Fouad and Romila Singh, of the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, suggest that organizations and companies must find ways to better recognize positive contributions from women in engineering, root out undermining behaviors in the workplace, and foster an environment where colleagues and supervisors support women. Fouad and Singh suggest that changing the workplace environment could be done through formal mentoring programs and by providing forums for informal mentoring.
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