Fundamental questions arise from Schrödinger at 75

Why is science struggling to deal with issues of diversity and wellbeing?

Earlier this month, many great speakers, and even more listeners, filed into the National Concert Hall in Dublin to consider the legacy of Erwin Schrödinger’s lectures at Trinity in 1943. His philosophical thought experiments in the realms of biology sparked ideas and set a challenge for coming generations of researchers. With six Nobel laureates and other distinguished experts in their fields lined up to speak, this conference was set to be a once in a lifetime intellectual event, for the undergraduate, postgraduate, and professor alike.

Schrödinger at 75 was indeed a mind-blowing scientific experience. The diverse talks were so packed with information that I found ideas returning to me at random points. I found myself pondering parallel universes, where I delved into a research career in the many different subject areas discussed. However, there were no suggestions at the conference in how I might be able to do that.

The talks were diverse not only in their content, but also by those presenting. Some speakers were funny, some hugely animated, others were shy or even nervous. Speakers differed by age – many would perhaps be retired in another profession. The biggest difference from the 50th anniversary conference was noted by Luke O’Neill, who commented that the speaker line-up was then comprised of twelve white men. As Mary Robinson exclaimed during the opening of the conference, “thank goodness we’ve made progress”.

But perhaps we need more progress. As a young woman entertaining the idea of a scientific career, there are still some fundamental issues with the way in which we “do” science. Schrödinger at 75 was intended to be a representation of current research, as well as future predictions, but I left concerned about current issues, and faults to address for the future.

“As a young woman entertaining the idea of a scientific career, there are still some fundamental issues with the way in which we “do” science.”

Luke O’Neill pointed out that diversity of gender had improved since the 50th anniversary conference, from no women to 40% women. Ethnicity has also improved, at the last conference there were only white speakers, but this time there were four speakers of Asian ethnicity from the 23 scheduled. However, there is still room for improvement. It was notable that some of the female speakers made a special effort to emphasise innovations made by themselves, or other female researchers, as proof almost that women indeed have a place in science. The fact that they felt it necessary to do so is a stark reminder of the challenges that women in science still face.

As a conference drawing on the knowledge of experts from around the world, it was noticeable that there was no black representation in the speakers, despite the global black population being estimated at 20%. Even the Asian representation at 17% of speakers is low, considering 60% of the world is Asian. This is not so much a fault of the organisers but a reflection of the wider need to diversify science. This may be a result of lower investment in research institutes in Africa, South America, and some Asian countries. It most definitely points to societal and social barriers which remain in western countries for people of non-white ethnic origins to enter into STEM.

Many issues in science return to one of the most fundamental building blocks in academic research: the supervisor-student researcher relationship. Recruitment processes for lab positions can affect representation in science, with intrinsic or extrinsic discrimination playing a part. Recruitment is the starting point for representation in academic science, so it is a point at which there is opportunity for changing who can become a scientist. Working environments in labs are also crucial, as these influence who remains in a career in science. The lab environment is set primarily by the principal investigator, and can have huge effects on the health and wellbeing of those conducting research within it, be they PhD students or post-docs.

The supervisor-student researcher relationship, by its very nature, has a massive power imbalance, where the supervisor can hold the key to a future career in science. This leaves the student researcher vulnerable to exploitation. This can take many forms – overworking is a problem, but unfortunately bullying and harassment seem to also be common problems that are not commonly discussed. Minor ripples have occured this year in some scientific institutions in relation to bullying and harassment, including the Max Planck Institute in Germany, and the Salk Institute of Biological Studies in California.

“The supervisor-student researcher relationship, by its very nature, has a massive power imbalance, where the supervisor can hold the key to a future career in science.”

A comprehensive study in the US by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that sexual harassment is rife, but that current mechanisms do nothing to prevent it or deal with it. The pervasive nature of harassment, likely in all institutes globally, and probably right here in Trinity, means that countless numbers of scientific careers are stopped or harmed needlessly, because we aren’t dealing with the issues properly.

“The pervasive nature of harassment, likely in all institutes globally, and probably right here in Trinity, means that countless numbers of scientific careers are stopped or harmed needlessly because we aren’t dealing with the issues properly.”

The science community, in combination with universities, needs to stop and reconsider how it can better support student researchers. Conversations and even conferences on the scale of Schrödinger at 75 must happen, to directly deal with issues that remain unresolved in the pursuit of grant winning research.

The future of science is exciting, but that future is jeopardised by the current inability of universities and institutions to deal appropriately with misconduct in research environments. Steps have been taken in the right direction, but the next step needs to be the breaking of silence on this issue, and the creation of a framework which effectively deals with the problems. Mary Robinson made the point that “science drives human development”. We must drive science to do better for all of its researchers at every stage of their career.

Visionary meetings, such as Schrödinger at 75, can only reach their full potential when the scientific community addresses issues that have thus far been avoided. Before continuing to explore philosophical questions, such as “What is life?”, we must ask fundamental questions such as “Can we safeguard our scientists?”  

Maeve McCann

Maeve McCann is the current Deputy Scitech Editor of Trinity News. She is a Senior Sophister Genetics student.