Innovation: New ideas and new people

On Monday 12th June 2023, the EPC was honoured that Prof Dame Athene Donald DBE, FRS HonFInstP delivered a public lecture as part of the Engineering Academics Network Annual Congress 2023 in the stunning surroundings of Hereford Cathedral.
Dame Athene has kindly permitted us to share below the script of her lecture titled ‘Innovation: New ideas and new people’, which fitted perfectly with the Congress theme ‘New models’ and with her new book, ‘Not just for the boys: Why we need more women in science’

Innovation: new ideas and new people 

Innovation literally means a novel change, something new being introduced, so the topic sits centrally in the ‘new models’ title of this whole conference. But of course, it’s not just about the what – it’s about the how and the who. And that’s what I’ll be talking about today. 

Ask a schoolchild what an engineer does, and the answer may be somewhat disappointing. Not that they change the world, but that they mend the TV or the washing machine. Or that they build bridges and wear hard hats. But the diversity of options open to a child who chooses to pursue engineering – or indeed any other of the so-called STEM subjects, Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics – is vast, and there is a crucial shortage of skilled individuals in many of these subjects. If children really knew what opportunities were open to them if they opted for engineering, physics, design or computing, would they be less likely to aspire, unrealistically, to be a pop star or social media influencer? 

Economists talk currently about the productivity paradox. Our economy has been close to flatlining more or less continuously since the 2008 financial crash, while other Western economies have recovered much more effectively. We can blame all kinds of reasons beyond our control, such as Brexit, the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, but in reality our economy was stuttering before any of these came to pass, and other countries are having to face up to many of the same problems, even if not the downsides of Brexit. So, what has gone wrong? Why is the UK economy so particularly sluggish? 

A plethora of different reasons can be advanced to try to explain our sluggish economy, ranging from the tail of underperforming small companies to a lack of skills in school leavers, but undoubtedly our inability to innovate, to take ideas from conception through to successful delivery, are part of the problem. We like to boast that we are great at inventions and our universities are well regarded. However, as a nation we are frequently lambasted for not successfully exploiting the ideas we come up with – think hovercrafts, monoclonal antibodies or graphene as the relevant length scale is decreased. Although there are those who would dispute this oft-repeated trope, nevertheless we have undoubtedly not managed to capture some of the markets we maybe should have, or set up robust and innovative supply chains. Engineering sits at the heart of so much of this. We need novel ways of working – and novel ways of educating our young, enabling them to see, not just that being a whizzkid entrepreneur who appears on Dragons Den is an attractive career choice, but that being a skilled pair of hands contributing to novel processes, speeding up production or tweaking something to produce, figuratively, a better mousetrap, is an exciting opportunity for the individual as well as being good for the wider world. 

 

Battle between arts and sciences/engineering 

I believe that part of the reason for our shortages, lies in our societal attitudes. People seem to imagine a discontinuity between the STEM subjects and the arts, loosely interpreted, finding it necessary, too often, to pit the two against each other as if they are two sides in a battle. This dichotomy can, at least in part, be attributed to ideas of class in Victorian society. It is no accident that many of the 19th century scientists were of relatively humble birth. Think of Michael Faraday, or Thomas Huxley, who was always very conscious of his background. Both these illustrious scientists had received their education outside what was then the norm of Oxbridge; Faraday started out as a bookbinder’s apprentice; Huxley, very much an autodidact who trained in medicine through various short-term apprenticeships or, as I guess we would call them now, internships with family members.  Additionally, there were class distinctions arising from the idea that ‘making things’ was not something gentlemen did. This harks right back to the ancient Greeks, who distinguished between episteme, roughly translated as natural philosophy or knowledge, and techne, translated as craft. So craft, making things and making things work, appears always to have been seen as less pure, less worthy, possibly simply because it involved getting your hands dirty. Engineering certainly falls, in this categorisation, into techne and so comes lower in the pantheon of educational skills than, say, philosophy. It was true for the Victorians and I suspect is still true in the minds of many in the 21st century. 

The same debate continues. For instance, Larry Summers – whatever his other faults – neatly summed up the feeling that society collectively seems to think it is OK to be ignorant about science, but not literature for instance. In his 2001 inaugural address as president of Harvard, Summers said  

We live in a society, and dare I say a university, where few would admit — and none would admit proudly — to not having read any plays by Shakespeare. It is all too common and all too acceptable not to know a gene from a chromosome.”  

Our current Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, may be all in favour of more schoolchildren persisting with maths post 16  – as am I. There is no doubt a good grasp of handling numbers, data and statistics will be valuable in almost all jobs beyond the most menial, but it is an ill-thought through policy, given there simply aren’t the teachers to make this possible, and so seems to have done little more than raise hackles without changing attitudes. 

Does any of this matter? I think it does. Whether you like it or not, science is pervasive and each and every one of us is going to have to make judgements about scientifically-based matters at a personal level.  We saw this vividly during the height of the pandemic. Individuals had to make decisions about how to adjust their lives in the face of rampant infection. Their individual attitudes – indeed their understanding – towards what was too often called ‘the’ science, as if even all scientists agreed, around wearing face masks and, in the early weeks, how the virus was transmitted, impacted all of us collectively. Knowing all the science, even when it is as cast-iron as it can be, is inevitably going to be impossible, but making informed judgements based on the level of evidence you can access ought to be a desirable end. For us as individuals, and for us as society – not to mention for politicians.  

Let me return more explicitly to the shortage of skilled hands to work in the STEM disciplines. When talking to the directors of SMEs they complain that, even in places of low employment, the local youth do not want to become machine operatives, they’d rather go elsewhere and enter retail or office work. Whether high skilled or low skilled, engineering work simply doesn’t attract people in the numbers we need. And, consequently, our economy suffers. Living as I do in Cambridge, I am particularly concerned about the Fens, but wherever you are from you will probably recognize that there are issues. The challenges for the left behind regions may vary according to whether they are depressed coastal towns or industrialised cities that have lost their core industries or, as around here, fertile agricultural land with no longer the same need for workers in the fields. But let me start by focussing on the Suffolk coast and its hinterland, being relatively local to my own place of residence. 

Felixstowe has been identified by the Government as one of the planned Freeports. Already a huge container port, its website states that ‘It will be a hub for global trade and national regeneration as well as creating a hotbed for innovation that will have impact across the UK.’  Innovation.  This will need a skilled workforce, and one we don’t have, or at least not in sufficient quantity and in that part of the country. The regional distribution of skills matters, as I hope I’ll illustrate.  

Another story in the news, and one directly relevant to the green economy, are the plans by Scottish Power to build a 100MW green hydrogen plant also at Felixstowe, to provide fuel for the expanding fleet of lorries that the freeport will require to transport goods from the docks, as well as to fuel machinery on site. Excellent in theory. However, the port itself is already struggling to recruit workers with the right set of skills, a problem that can only be exacerbated – in the absence of a better supply of people – by the creation of a new plant on this scale competing for the same sorts of people with technical expertise. Yet such a plant, aiming to be able to fuel 1300 trucks when at capacity, is sorely needed to reduce emissions from lorries on our roads (or trains). As if that wasn’t bad enough, it’s not that far along the coast to Sizewell. Next year, building work on the new power station Sizewell C should start. If all these three projects, massive important infrastructure projects and not just for the region but for the country, get fully underway, where are all the people to do the construction and installations of necessary equipment going to come from and then to keep them running optimally? The region is sparsely populated and not well served with FE Colleges, let alone universities. 

Despite ‘skills’ being a word tossed around liberally by politicians, delivering the education and training that is needed in schools, FE colleges and on-the-job in order to provide a workforce which can deliver and which is recruited from the local area (not imported from other areas which may already be thriving), doesn’t appear to be considered holistically by the government. ‘Skills’ has to be more than just another slogan which isn’t thought through or invested in. FE colleges can only be effective it they are properly funded, as well as well-connected to local enterprises. The responses to the Augar Review and the Levelling Up white paper in the last couple of years, were both lacking in robust plans on this front. Our current skills minister, Robert Halfon, may believe in degree apprenticeships passionately, but there are 50% of the population who do not go to university and for whom apprenticeships of the non-degree kind as well as other sub-degree qualifications, are vital if they are to get on, feel satisfied and contribute to the economy. We need these people. 

Our politicians are fond of slogans, and I was amused by the title of a report from the House of Lords last year. You don’t have to read beyond the first few lines of its summary to recognize they are sceptical about the Government’s direction of travel when it comes to research and innovation. Indeed, the title rather gives the game away: “Science and technology superpower”: more than a slogan?’ With a long-standing commitment to raising spending in the UK to research and development to 2.4% of GDP, the report spells out that ‘Despite welcome steps and laudable rhetoric, we are concerned that the Government is not on course to meet its ambitions.’ This equally  applies to Rishi Sunak’s post-16 maths plans and for those putative developments in Suffolk, for which no one has sorted out where the necessary people are to come from or by whom and where they will be trained. 

I was involved with a report produced by the Royal Society last year looking at the regional distribution of absorptive capacity. That phrase – absorptive capacity – means the ability to understand and apply new ideas and approaches within a particular environment. This could occur through the development of a new technology that permits the creation of some new or differentiated product, or through the adoption of a new process that improves efficiency. In either case, the availability of people with the right skills is a key factor, and they have to be in the right location. The analysis carried out, of various clusters of job types involving engineering and technology, indicated significant unmet demand in a range of occupations relevant to the concept of absorptive capacity. Clearly this is immediately relevant to my discussion of the potential situation in Suffolk, which shows exactly how this may come about, causing significant problems for the organisations involved.  

However, contained within all these people I’m referring to are a class that are under-represented across almost all the STEM professions: women. 9% is not enough, was the clarion call of the Institution of Engineers and Technologists, a short while ago, highlighting the desperately low numbers of women amongst their members. It may have crept up a little since then. Computing and Physics likewise have few women progressing up the career ladder. The problems start early, essentially from birth, with stereotyped attitudes apparent in everything from toy advertisements to clothing. Children pick up social cues from a really early age, even if they are non-verbal, and T shirts that stress Love for girls, but say Adventure is out there for boys – of course appropriately coloured in pink and blue respectively – convey a message that’s easily internalised. 

There is much society can do to change these stereotypes, and it needs all of us to do our bit. I’m sufficiently frustrated by the situation, which I have watched over the past 50+ years as I have moved up the academic Physics ladder, always in a minority, often uncomfortably so, that I have just written a book, published last month, called Not just for the boys: Why we need more women in science. As I say in my preface  

It is not a book written  solely for women, to help them understand the hurdles they face  or might face if they enter the STEM professions. Crucially it is also  written for men to read and consider their own actions: how these may be influencing the women they work with, what they might  do to improve the work environment for all, and how they personally can support women’s progression. Furthermore, it is not  a book written solely for the practising or would-be scientist, but also for parents, policymakers, and employers, whose decisions impact on how girls make disciplinary choices from an early age and what atmosphere they subsequently encounter at university and in the workforce. 

 

Young girls trying to decide what choices to make about GCSEs or A Levels have to do this at an age when peer pressure is most significant. If they are told – by family, teachers, their contemporaries or through the media, social or otherwise, that it is a bit odd to want to be an engineer, the impact on the choices they make may be substantial. The numbers of girls taking Physics A Level has hovered stubbornly around or just over 20% ever since the time it was removed as a requirement for Medical School decades ago. Decisions based on that message of stereotype and bias is manifest. 

Last year the Commons Science and Technology Committee ran an enquiry into Diversity and Inclusion in STEM. As ever, they called multiple witnesses, one of whom was Katharine Birbalsingh, head teacher of a successful secondary school in North London. 

She said “physics isn’t something that girls tend to fancy. They don’t want to do it, they don’t like it,” and went on to say “I just think they don’t like it. There’s a lot of hard maths in there that I think they would rather not do”. And when pressed “The research generally, the people say.. that that’s just a natural thing…I’m not an expert at that kind of thing”. In reality, that isn’t what the experts say, and she clearly had never stopped to wonder why only 16% of A-level physics students at her school were girls, a figure significantly lower than the national average of 23%. Analysis done by the Institute of Physics indicates that girls in single sex schools – state or private – are 2-3 times more likely to progress to Physics A Level than in coeducational ones. To my mind, that says it isn’t a case of girls not liking Physics, it is that something in the school environment that causes the discouragement. One can argue what precisely that is: teachers, boys in the classroom or more nebulous but pervasive attitudes which make no attempt to counter stereotypes, but it strikes me as insufficient to say simply that ‘it’s natural’. 

The upshot of attitudes like this is that the engineering profession, indeed all the physical and technical sectors, are losing out on a significant proportion of 50% of the population. This matters because these people are anyhow in short supply, as I’ve spelled out. Equally, it matters because girls are losing out on careers that might have been just what they are looking for, and our society loses out too. As I put it in my book 

 

“science is done best when it is approached from as many different angles as possible.  Following in a straight line, directly on from what has gone before, may lead to new insights but equally may fall into what one might term ‘group-think’ and be little more than incremental science. Diversity of views—just like diversity in the Board Room—tends to lead to more novelty, creativity and innovation. A US study on PhD recipients and their dissertations across three decades, found demographically underrepresented students innovated at higher rates than majority students, but their novel contributions were discounted and less likely to earn them academic positions” 

 

Innovation, that key word again. If we are to deliver novel technologies, improve our health and well-being, move to a net zero-carbon economy and ensure that everyone has clean water and sufficient food, there is a lot of innovation to be done. A diverse pool of workers will approach a new problem with a diverse range of perspectives, allowing lateral thinking as opposed to the usually fatal group-think. Of course, this applies to any kind of minority perspective, be it from a different culture or ethnic background, be it arising from some sort of disability or a socio-economically deprived background. All these are relevant, but it is the 50% of the population who are women who have been most studied in relation to the STEM subjects and who we are losing in unacceptably high proportions from the talent pool. 

Of course, it isn’t just about getting women into Physics A Level that matters, although that impacts on choices around engineering, it is making sure they get onto all the relevant courses that currently are overwhelmingly populated by men. One of the most successful apprenticeship schemes in the country is that run by the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in Rotherham, attached to Sheffield University. When I last heard, they were only able to attract 7% of young women onto their courses, despite their best endeavours, a far worse percentage than on A Level Physics courses. Girls, unfortunately, are too often persuaded to head off to hair dressing or retail. It’s back to stereotyping and the messages received from the world around them. 

However, let me now turn to the case of what happens once a woman does start on a STEM career. As with so many professions, it turns out the field is far from level. Sadly, I have plenty of personal experience of this, albeit I think I have been very fortunate in my sponsors and mentors and have not had the misfortune to be sexually assaulted or particularly badly harassed. Nevertheless, like many another woman, I have felt bias. In general – although I’m sure not always – this has acted against me.  

I, like many others, may not always have been aware when that bias impacted. When I was mid-career  – and in my case that was when I was already a professor and an FRS, a Fellow of the Royal Society – was actually when things were worst. Many women find the harassment more of a problem in early years, but at that stage I found people were willing to accept me more than later. It was as if I became some kind of threat. My own field of physics, soft matter physics looking at the everyday world rather than the cosmos or searching for the Higgs Boson, perhaps also offered itself to hostility. When I talked about my research on starch, I was challenged that this was just domestic science, mere cookery. This happened to me after I’d given an invited talk at a conference, when a senior scientist in the field seemed to think it would be funny to make a mockery of my science in the bar after the conference dinner. I guess his inhibitions were reduced due to the alcohol he had consumed. He was vile and eventually, having patiently tried to explain to him why what I did was entirely proper physics, I walked out. Apparently his diatribe continued to my male colleague after I’d gone, with him expressing the view that ‘it must be awful to work with a woman like that’. 

Although at the time I thought this was a uniquely personal attack, it seems that women speakers in the academic world are far more likely to be interrupted during their talks, and to receive hostile comments, not to mention comments relating to their appearance more than the content of their science. This also applies to women who try to use podcasts or, even more, videos to reach out to the public, with sometimes vicious comments appearing online, including via social media. It is hard for women to put themselves publicly out there, to share their science or to act as role models, if all they get is abuse. 

However, in my case there were two positive aspects of that episode in the bar. First, my male colleague had not just been collared afterwards to be told how awful I was, but had also heard the whole thing. He was able to reassure me the next day that, no, I hadn’t brought it on myself. Victims often believe, somehow, they deserve the hostility – something too commonly true in the much worse situation of domestic abuse – and he was able to reassure me that this was not so. That helped me come to terms with the situation. But, secondly, together we wrote to the organisers of the meeting, which at the time was trying to make itself more inclusive and get a larger number of women to attend, pointing out the unacceptable behaviour of this senior scientist. The organiser acted and the man never received another invitation to attend. Too often organisers or institutions look the other way and I’m very grateful that my concerns were acted upon. The stories one hears of HR failing to deal with bullying and harassment in universities are harrowing but only too common. Because I speak up about these issues, for instance on my personal blog, I find people write to me quite often sharing their experiences, although there is little I can do. 

As I say, at the time, 20 or more years ago, I thought this was something that I uniquely had been subjected to. But no, this is commonplace. It’s just the same as the shouts I used to receive as a child when I walked to school from builders, for instance ‘cheer up, it may never happen’. For years I internalised this as meaning I had a particularly dreary face and there was something wrong with me. You only have to read Laura Bates or other columnists and authors to realise that this is simply a ubiquitous kind of ‘joke’ that is directed at many women, perhaps all. 

Something similar goes on with systemic issues within our universities when it comes to recruitment, promotion, salaries, space allocations, in fact anything that might be tied into what you might call status. I know it was at this mid-career stage in my life, when I was in my mid-late 40s, that I felt my voice did not get heard. I was, as it were, a senior professor, yet others were the ones whose words carried weight. Again, I thought this meant there was something wrong with me. I wasn’t sufficiently persuasive, I couldn’t marshall arguments as well as they could, or perhaps simply that I wasn’t deserving. Then, in 1999, a colleague at MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, sent me a report they had produced on what they called the ‘Status of Women in Science’. I found it deeply dispiriting because, for the first time I realised this wasn’t about me. This was systemic. MIT had sat down and looked into quantitative and qualitative measures of their female faculty in the sciences. As the then President of MIT put it 

 

I learned two particularly important lessons from this report and from discussions while it was being crafted. First, I have always believed that contemporary gender discrimination within universities is part reality and part perception. True, but I now understand that reality is by far the greater part of the balance. Second, I, like most of my male colleagues, believe that we are highly supportive of our junior women faculty members. This also is true. They generally are content and well supported in many, though not all dimensions. However, I sat bolt upright in my chair when a senior woman, who has felt unfairly treated for some time, said “‘I also felt very positive when I was young.”  

 

That entirely mirrored my own perceptions. When a young member of faculty I was treated well. Indeed, as the first woman in my department to be appointed to the permanent staff as a lecturer, who had consequently been the first female lecturer in the department to have a baby – in fact I had been pregnant when I took up my appointment, although even I did not know that at the time – I had felt entirely supported. People seemed rather proud they had managed to appoint a woman and a woman who was starting a family too. But by now, as a professor, as someone who had risen above zsome of them by being elected at a rather young age to the national academy, well now they didn’t feel at all supportive. Just the same as Nancy Hopkins, a highly successful biologist at MIT who had started the study into the situation there had found. 

Yet, nearly 25 years later, we still don’t seem capable of recognizing systemic bias, or at least not to the extent of doing enough to eradicate it. I should stress, this is not me having a go at the men in the audience; women show all the same signs of bias that men do. A much-reported study looked into how male and female faculty reacted to fictitious CVs supposedly from someone wanting to apply for a lab manager post. The CVs were identical except some were sent under a female name and some under a man’s. The man was far more likely to be offered the job, with on average a higher salary and, to my mind surprisingly, even more offers of mentoring. Men and women were just as prone to this kind of bias. Similar studies have shown that if names suggesting different ethnicities as well as male or female are used instead there is a clear pecking order in which people will be preferred for a given role, with white men coming out at the top of the pile, whatever that pile may consist of. 

Now for the engineers and scientists in the audience, let me use a different kind of control study, which amounts to a striking example of a woman scientist’s experience and the equivalent control experiment for a man. You may wonder how you can provide an appropriate male control to match against a woman, the answer is—find a transgender scientist. The late American neurobiologist Ben Barres, born Barbara, is a striking example. I find his story compelling as evidence that bias against women lurks in many dark corners. After transitioning at the age of 40, he remarked: ‘Shortly after I changed sex, a faculty member was heard to say: ‘Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but then his work is much better than his sister’s.’ Same person, same science, different verdict solely because of the change of gender. 

Bias lurks in many parts of our system, in ways that may seem mysterious and in ways that need further investigation. I am always struck by a quote from Goethe which plays out in this sphere. Two hundred years ago, this German author and poet wrote, in a very different context, “Girls we love for what they are; young men for what they promise to be’. In other words, we are prone to give men the benefit of the doubt but not women. How does this translate in practice in an engineering sphere? I saw it play out in a committee judging individuals for a sort of promotion. Two candidates were considered in the list who had patents to their name. Of the man it was sufficient to note that he had patents; this was taken as proof of his competence. But for the woman, further questions were asked. Had the patents been put into practice and made any money? One of the committee members, a man as it happened, noticed this double standard and the additional questions were scrapped.  

Double standards can be hard to spot. What made this particularly tricky in this case is that these two candidates were well separated in the list being worked down. The double standard could so easily have been missed, but it taught me an object lesson to look out for this sort of thing which I hadn’t previously appreciated. I’ve seen equivalent practice on other committees.  

I could bore you with many similar examples of systemic bias but I won’t. I’ll merely point you in the direction of my book, which I may as well plug: I believe it will be on sale afterwards and I’ll be happy to sign copies. The point is no one is consciously trying to act in a biased way, but again our stereotypes, our cultural norms and values, seem to make them crop up all over the place. 

So, if we are to do the most innovative work, if we are to ensure our economy recovers, we need to think a lot harder about how our collective actions deter a large proportion of the population. Not just women, but that is the group I have studied most closely.  

If we, as a society, are to solve the multiple problems we face where science and technology are crucial, and if we are not going to sleep walk into disasters, be they arising from climate change or AI or wherever, we need to make sure we have the talent we need, whatever part of the population it is to come from, and that they are able to access the skills training and education they need. We have a long way to go. 


 

Prof Dame Athene Donald DBE FRS HonFInstP is one of the world’s leading physicists, specialising in ‘soft matter’ – a field that spans the gap between Physics and Biology – and has held posts at Cornell University and at the world-famous Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University, where she is currently Master of Churchill College. In 1999, she was elected a Fellow 0f the Royal Society and was appointed a Dame in 2010. In 2019, Times Higher Education presented her with a lifetime achievement award.  

She is the author of multiple books, the most recent of which is Not just for the boys: Why we need more women in science. It is available from book shops at £16.99 and Amazon. You can read her blog at occamstypewriter.org/athenedonald/.

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