Tag Archives: research blogging

Thatcher, Scientist

Margaret Thatcher was a chemist, don’t you know?

It’s one of those little facts that pops up in UK science policy discourse every now and again. Just this week, in a debate the Royal Institution on the structure of scientific careers, Evan Harris joked ‘how do we keep more women like Margaret Thatcher in science?’ (i.e. and out of politics…).

We don’t necessarily expect women to be scientists, or politicians. Neither do we expect politicians to be scientists. That Thatcher was all of these things occasionally pops up as a little titbit of trivia. It seems to fit a nice little sideline when discussing Tory science policy, or as a thread to the various stories surrounding the odd glamour of Thatcher’s public image. Newton invented the catflap. Einstein wore odd socks. And that ‘Margaret-Thatcher Milk-Snatcher’? Well, she was one of the boffins behind how to put extra air in Mr Whippy ice-cream! There was a wink to it in the a recent BBC drama about about her early political career. I wonder if it’ll make the movie?

For all it’s mentioned, the idea of Thatcher as a scientist is never really explored though. Until now, as historian of science and technology, Jon Agar has bothered to do a bit of digging on this, published this week in Notes and Records of the Royal Society.

The paper has two halves. Firstly, Agar talks about Thatcher’s pre-political career as a scientist. He then goes on to talk about her time in politics, in particular the ways in which her first-hand knowledge of the mundane, material, practical life of the working researcher framed decisions she made in the early 1970s, whilst Secretary of State for Education (minister holding science brief at the time).

Thatcher was a scientist for about a decade, at least if you include training as time spent as a scientist (which I guess you can). She studied science at school and then, in 1942, moved on to a chemistry degree in Oxford, working with Dorothy Hodgkin, and Janet Vaughan. Apparently she was a ‘good’ chemistry student, competent but more enthused by politics, and happy to admit that she probably should have studied law. After graduation, she worked for four years as an industrial chemist (at British Xylonite Plastics and  Lyons). He stresses that she was, as an industrial food chemist, in many ways a more ‘typical’ twentieth-century scientific figure than iconic characters like Albert Einstein. This overlapped with the start of her political career, and a photo of a lab-coated Miss Margaret Roberts (before her marriage), surrounded by bottles in a lab and pouring something into a conical flask, was used in a publicity campaign for the 1951 election.

That story about the airy icecream? Not true. Or at least Agar can’t find any evidence for it. It sounds like she mainly did theoretical work on soap making, and possibly some cake-filling quality testing (Agar, 2011: 4-5).

(Boring historians with their evidence, spoiling everyone’s fun. I’m pretty sure Newton didn’t invent the catflap either by the way, and the thing about Florence Nightingale and piecharts seems pretty dodgy. I have no idea about Einstein’s socks. Personally, I like to think he knitted his own, and don’t want to burst the illusion by actually checking).

However, Agar’s pulled out a narrative that’s a bit more intellectually nourishing than trivia about ice cream. And no, I don’t mean the cake-filling testing, though obviously I’m super-curious about that. He takes a story from reasonably early-on in Thatcher’s political career: science policy reforms proposed in 1971 by Lord Rothschild (himself, a biologist by training, and later research director at Royal Dutch-Shell) which stressed market forces, articulating the government as ‘customers’ and research communities as ‘contractors’. Thatcher, the minister with the science brief, was initially against these reforms, but changed her mind, a shift which Agar suggests may be part of the story of her move towards what later became known as ‘Thatcherism’.

The changes were not liked by the scientific establishment. The Royal Society argued they should be consulted, not just as a relevant professional association but because, as scientists, they should have autonomy from political direction. Framing Thatcher’s view on this in terms of her developing political philosophy, Agar argues that for her, science represented the best of the public economy: research councils were, along with grammar schools and Oxbridge, places where the public economy worked. Moreover, she saw it as a source for wealth, which for her, justified public spending. But this same justification made it a test case for her emerging views on economic liberalism: ‘If markets could work for science policy, they could work anywhere’ (Agar, 2011: 12). Moreover, because Thatcher had worked as a scientist, she understood it at a very mundane level; its nuts, bolts, labcoats, conical flasks and theories of soap production. As such, she was impervious to lobbying that of science as a special case, with special features, incapable of being understood by outsiders. As Agar concludes: ‘Thatcher, who lived both worlds [science and politics], saw no separation, in principle and in practice.’ (Agar, 2011: 13).

Poking at the idea that simply getting scientists and those with ‘an understanding of science’ (whatever that is) in parliament will necessarily serve the scientific establishment is, I’d argue, a much more interesting outcome of researching Thatcher the scientist than QI-style discussions of any involvement she may or may not have had in the production of cheap icecream. It also helps dispel the idea that politically engaged science in the UK is necessarily left-leaning (even if groups like Save British Science or individuals like JD Bernal might make it seem so). Scientists come in a range of guises. Thatcher had hers and it coloured her view. In many ways it’s a rather typical one even, if it doesn’t fit everyone’s preferred image of the scientist.

You can read Agar’s paper for yourself, there’s no paywall (edit: at least for this week). Moreover, it’s a very readable bit of scholarly writing, with a fair amount of dry humour and the odd moment of dramatic characterisation. There’s also an accompanying video podcast where Agar introduces the paper (because even publications in Notes and Records of the Royal Society have trailers these days).

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Does my brain look big in this?

According to an oft-cited paper by Marcel LaFollette, a 1926 magazine once introduced an eminent medical researcher as a woman whose mahogany furniture “gleams”. From the same study, but a 1950 magazine, a senior figure in the Atomic Energy Commission was praised for sewing her own clothes. Later, via Dorothy Nelkin, Maria Mayer (Nobel physics prize, 1963) was described as “a tiny, shy, touchingly devoted wife and mother… her children were perfectly darling” and Barbara McClintock (Nobel prize in medicine, 1983) introduced as “well known for baking with black walnuts”.

In today’s more enlightened times, we see women scientists in an entirely different light. No longer do we look past the prizes, publications and other achievements to a gleaming kitchen table. No, we look at the woman herself and er, um… well, maybe we linger too long on certain other features of her femininity which similarly obscure her professionalism. I am referring, of course, to the emergence of scientific ‘totty‘ (or hottie, if you’re on the other side of the Atlantic).

To give you a flavour of what I mean, the following are descriptions of women scientists, from profiles of them written in the British press in early 21st Century:

shoes of teetering altitude […and a] miniskirt of dizzying brevity [she] may be Britain’s leading authority on the brain, but it is her physique that turns heads

We must mention the makeover […] accessorised, a sparkling intellect doesn’t get you in on to the pages of Vogue

She looks like an off-duty Bond girl, but she’s actually a physicist […] given the chance, plenty of viewers would happily experiment with [her]

Lab coats, safety googles – and killer heels […] getting teenagers all steamed up over science

The above quotes (and historical examples) were all snaffled from a recent paper by media scholars at the University of Cardiff, Mwenya Chimba and Jenny Kitzinger. Part of a larger project considering the representation of women scientists in UK media, this paper notes the attention given to women scientists’ appearance compared to men, as well as the slightly different places women are used to talk about science. This is a topic discussed by many science bloggers last July, following a thoughtful post by Sheril Kirshenbaum, but it’s interesting to see systematic research on the topic too.

Chimba and Kitzinger’s research was rooted in an analysis of 51 interviews with scientists, 8 of which were with women, pulled from a sample of 12 UK national papers between January and Jun 2006. They also explored profiles of Susan Greenfield and Kathy Sykes in more breadth. In addition to this content analysis, they collected data from 86 female scientists about what they liked and disliked about media representations as well as their own experiences of working with the the media (questionnaire, follow up interviews and six focus groups).  Finally, they explored emerging findings with more scientists, as well as journalists and communication professionals (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 611-2). I personally wasn’t entirely sure of a focus on profiles as representing representation of women in science across media, especially considering the stress on Greenfield and Sykes. However, I can also see why they took that approach and the other side of the research helps them broaden their scope very neatly. Moreover, I think if you remember the context from which these profile analysis came, they are still worth thinking about.

One clear difference emerged from studying the 51 profiles: the attention given to the appearance of women scientists. Half of the profiles of women referred to their clothing, physique and/or hairstyle whereas this was only true for 21% of the profiles of men. Such references might seem fairly innocuous, especially when located within a generally positive article, but Chimba and Kitzinger stress the ways in which references to a man’s appearance carry a different tone. For example, while women might be described as having a ‘mane of blonde hair’, the focus for men is more likely to be on a beard, with rather different connotations: ‘His full white beard is worn more in homage to Charles Darwin than the Almighty’ (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 612-3). It’s not just journalists doing this: hunting out a line about ‘the Nigella of science’, they found it was sold to an editor by a television company’s PR agency (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 617).

References to hair and heels, etc might be welcomed as a way of showing off a generally unseen glamorous side to science. Chimba and Kitzinger also note the way in which a headline such as ‘Blonde hair, short skirt, big brain’ could be a mater of a journalist playfully deconstructing the various stereotypes  on offer; challenging images of boffin and bimbo at once (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 613). At the same time, however, we shouldn’t forget the ways a focus on female scientists’ appearance can have very negative consequences. It may draw attention away from the scientist’s professionalism, and there may be the implicit accusation that she is being manipulative and using her sexuality to attract attention (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 614).

For me, the most important finding was the way in which Chimba and Kitzinger draw attention to  the difference in places women are used in science coverage. For example, one publicity officer for a major science organization explained that if they were dealing with a ‘real heavy-weight current affairs programme’ they would go with a white middle-class male, where as BBC breakfast shows would ask specifically for a young, attractive woman (see Boyce & Kitzinger, 2008, pdf). Another of their research subjects reports that she had trouble moving from kids television, where her tomboy image fitted fine, to adult programming, because she couldn’t suit an image of ‘thinking man’s crumpet’ (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 620). Men may signal an aura of gravitas in science, whilst women are used when the science is being made ‘accessible’ or ‘sexy’; a possible divide between real scientists and scientifically flavoured ‘eye-candy’ (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 616).

The paper also stresses that women aren’t just the objects of media representation, they are active creators and negotiator of their own image, even if they do not always have control over this conditions of this (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 616). They noted an ambivalence in some of the interviews, and sense that they were in processes of negotiation. For example, one spoke of it as a matter of ‘walking a tightrope’; how much do they use it for their advantage, ‘or is that getting in bed with the devil?’. Further, such a representation would a woman more than just professionally. One mentioned being personally flattered as well as personally and professional offended. Another said she gave up because of the personal pressure on image (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 619).

Men on television get letched over too, of course, and this can make them feel uncomfortable too. Whether it has the same impact on their career is debatable though. It’s difficult being a scientist-populariser at the best of times, but Chimba and Kitzinger suggest, it is especially risky for women, especially as sexuality gets folded into this. Playing with the term ‘media whore’, they quote Laura Barton in saying ‘even in the intellectual world there are slags [a derogatory term for  promiscuous women] and there are studs [an admiring term for promiscuous men]’ (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 614).

Personally, I don’t mind the odd bit of glamourous science media, but it shouldn’t become a dominant theme. Scientists should not feel as if they have to play up a glamorous image in order to do any public work. Neither should we sort our media scientists into serious debate with men of gravitas on one side, and a bit of girlie chat/ tickle your fancy on the other. If nothing else, it’s limiting; for audiences as well as scientists. I think we should be aiming for a diversity of voices in our science media (and I don’t mean diversity simply in terms of gender).

  • Chimba, M., & Kitzinger, J. (2009). Bimbo or boffin? Women in science: An analysis of media representations and how female scientists negotiate cultural contradictions Public Understanding of Science DOI: 10.1177/0963662508098580

What do you think?