Let’s Talk International Day of Women and Girls in Science

Let’s Talk International Day of Women and Girls in Science

Written by George Mitchell, Programme Executive

Take a moment to think about what a scientist looks like to you. The picture I have in my mind is an individual wearing the trademark lab coat and safety spectacles. While trying to decide whether he looks more like Walter White or Emmett Brown, I am struck by the fact that my scientist is undoubtedly a man. Despite the most influential scientists I worked with at university being women, I cannot shake the stereotypical image I was immediately drawn to. I believe this is an unfortunate reflection of a field in which women continue to be overlooked and underrepresented.

Science is supposed to be paving the way for the future and yet, when it comes to gender equality, it is stuck in the past. At present, less than 30% of researchers worldwide are women and with a lack of role models and equality in the field, only 30% of women choose to study STEM subjects at university.

Today is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science and, to mark the occasion, I would like to highlight three incredible scientists who made ground-breaking discoveries in the world of science and healthcare.

Rosalind Franklin (1920 – 1958)

Rosalind Franklin was a chemist and x-ray crystallographer who, in May 1952, captured an image that would quite literally change the DNA of biological and healthcare research. The seemingly uninspiring and blurry ‘Photo 51’ would lead Watson and Crick to discover the DNA double helix, for which they won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962. Since then, we have sequenced our genome, increased our understanding of genetic disease and even learned how to edit our DNA.

Franklin died in April 1958 from ovarian cancer, possibly caused by exposure to the very x-rays which led to her discovery, something for which she was not recognised until the years following her death. With the Nobel Committee still unwilling to award posthumous prizes, Franklin remains one of the greatest unsung heroes in the history of biology and healthcare research.

Tu Youyou (1930 – Present)

During the Vietnam War, malaria claimed the lives of more Vietnamese soldiers than the war itself. Tu Youyou is a pharmaceutical chemist who, in 1969, was appointed the leader of the ‘Project 523’ research group, tasked with finding a cure for malaria. In 1972, after turning to traditional Chinese medicine for a cure, Tu discovered that sweet wormwood had been used 1,500 years before to treat symptoms of malaria.

Tu had discovered the antimalarial medication, artemisinin, which is still used to treat malaria today. Her discovery saves 100,000 lives in Africa every year and has saved an estimated 3 million lives this century alone. However, Tu was not acknowledged for her discovery until 2007 and she would become the first Chinese woman to win a Nobel Prize in 2015, 43 years after her lifesaving work.

Jennifer Doudna (1964 – Present)

60 years after Rosalind Franklin captured Photo 51, American biochemist Jennifer Doudna discovered CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing, argued to be the most significant discovery in the history of biology.

Doudna’s breakthrough has opened the gates to a new era of healthcare research, with endless possibilities and implications, one of which could be finding cures for genetic disease. In recognition of this monumental achievement, she was a runner-up for Time ‘Person of the Year’ in 2016, missing out to a certain President, Donald Trump.

These three scientists achieved their healthcare breakthroughs in a male dominated field, without role models or recognition. The current landscape is unfortunately not as balanced as it should be, and we need to better communicate the achievements of women in science and healthcare to inspire the next generation and possibly, the next great discovery.

Net Zero, electric vehicles and the power of a publicly stated target

Net Zero, electric vehicles and the power of a publicly stated target

On Tuesday the government launched a consultation on bringing forward the ban of petrol, diesel as well as hybrid vehicle sales forward from 2040 to 2035. The idea is likely to be welcomed by environmental organisations as a welcome and necessary next step. At the same time, Tesla recently became the second most valuable automotive company, with a trading value of over £76.7bn. Does this suggest that the market also sees EVs dominating domestic vehicle innovation and consumption in the next 10 years?

There are some who feel that the government’s shifting the target is simply virtue-signalling: on its own this is not powerful enough a mechanism to deliver the required up-take in demand for electric vehicles that would help contribute to the UK’s goal to be carbon neutral by 2050.

The current size and growth trend of the electric vehicle market provides a bit of a reality check for the government target. While the demand for hybrid and electric vehicles has risen considerably over the past few years, the market share of electric vehicles is still only 1.6% in the UK. To reach the target of 100% electric vehicle sales in 2033 or even 2040, our analysis suggests that seriously accelerated growth (see graph) is required.

Hybrid

The reality is that significant logistical and demand-side barriers still stand in the way of such growth. Despite technical innovations increasing EV driving range and lowering costs, the government and industry leaders must tackle the lack of charging infrastructure to give consumers confidence that they won’t be left high and dry when they need to re-charge. Emotive consumer barriers that relate to the familiarity and attachment to the driving experience of petrol vehicles need to be addressed as well.

It’s worth noting auto manufacturers have also cried foul claiming the government has “moved the goalposts” and have accused the PM of setting a “date without a plan” but we’ll save their particular objections for another time.

The paradox is that this transition should be win-win for all. The Committee on Climate Change published a remarkable chart in their recent Net Zero report, which shows huge net benefits are quickly realised from making this switch to EVs.

Hybrid2

Progress to realising these benefits is currently too slow. Targets are often derided but can also have the effect of focusing the mind. It remains to be seen whether this will drive the more concerted and integrated action is required from industry and government to develop the charging infrastructure and better understand public acceptability barriers for a ban on the sales of petrol, diesel and hybrid cars to be workable by 2035.

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