How best to retain women and the young in science?

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Copyright: Samir Mahmoud

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I first saw the city of Muscat in the Sultanate of Oman a few years ago from an altitude of around 40,000 feet, gazing out of my window on board a jet bound for the Far East. What I saw captured my imagination: a city nestled in a valley, flanked by jagged mountains, overlooking a peaceful bay beyond which sparkled a turquoise sea. It was a country I hoped I would one day see closer up.

I finally got my chance a couple of days ago when I emerged from a different plane at Oman’s International Airport for this year’s TWAS (The World Academy of Sciences) 25th General Meeting. I found that, on the ground, I could add a fresh ingredient to my first romantic impressions: the charm and open hospitality of the Omani people, eloquently described by TWAS president Bai Chunli in his opening address as “generous, gracious and warm”.

From day one it became apparent that the meeting was going to focus on the importance of two dimensions in the academy’s overarching vision of building scientific strength in the developing world: how to provide opportunities for young scientists and how to get and retain more female scientists. In setting the scene for the former, Bai quoted an old Chinese saying: “We must respect not only our elders but also our youth”. This was a sentiment echoed by another speaker who reminded us that “the wealth of a country is to be measured by its children”.

Leafing through the programme, I was gratified to see that in keeping with these words, an entire afternoon was devoted to presentations from the TWAS ‘young affiliates’. Topics ranged from ‘data protection through optical encryption’ to ‘climate-smart’ rice production.

Just then, a delegate leant over and whispered to me that the sad thing about high-profile events such as this was that senior members often neglected to turn up to watch their younger colleagues present. Why, I wondered?

It has to be said that many of the topics looked interesting. But on the whole the presentation titles lacked seductive sparkle. And this in turn left me wondering: how are these young scientists going to reach out beyond the TWAS audience and succeed in making an impact in the twenty-first century if they can’t even get their elders to show up?

Surely some elementary communication skills are required here. That, and a healthy dose of youthful vigour.

Then, as questions were being asked during a session on the first day that looked at cultivating and supporting young scientific talent, a young woman sprang to her feet. She spoke with urgency about the need for the academy to do something about the problems she and many of her contemporaries face over the lack of scientific instrumentation. This is a serious problem that is driving young talent away from developing countries to seek better facilities elsewhere, she said.

Marvadeen Singh-Wilmot, a chemistry lecturer at the University of the West Indies, had a suggestion. Perhaps TWAS, through its influence and networks, could facilitate the recycling of equipment, from richer labs — where it was no longer needed — to resource-poor labs, such as hers in Jamaica.

This burst of passion had a ripple effect. And here’s the heart of the matter: that speaker was a young scientist, who also happened to be a woman.

Which brings me to the issue of more female scientists. I was told by one of the organisers that women make up only ten per cent of TWAS membership. Why this figure should be so low is unknown. In developing countries, women typically produce high-quality PhD research and yet few are to be found working in science institutions.

How to overcome this obstacle? “Through support,” says South African epidemiologist Quarraisha Abdool Karim. She won this year’s prestigious TWAS-Lenovo Prize and has devoted her life to research into medical and social strategies against HIV and AIDS.

She explained that most of her support had come through her husband, a fellow researcher. Getting support from a spouse is a blessing and an advantage. But from the women I’ve met at this meeting, I’d say it needn’t be a prerequisite.