Science Corner: Finding the Levers in Biomedicine

Photo of a row of metal levers in a control panel

If only more things in life were controlled with labeled knobs, dials and switches. (Photo by PIRO4D)

Recently I wrote about a webinar with Francis Su in which he discussed his career and the wisdom he has shared with students and peers. He mentioned the idea of finding the levers in your field, the opportunities to effect change. Last week, NIH Director and BioLogos founder Francis Collins announced that he would no longer accept invitations to conferences with all-male panels. Even though it will likely require minimal effort on his part, given his position he can likely apply significant leverage with a decision like that. Of course, that’s exactly how levers are supposed to work.

Both for his scientific contributions and his Christian witness, I have a lot of respect for Collins, so I am inclined to view this announcement charitably. At the same time, it does come alongside and in response to survey results indicating roughly 20% of NIH employees have experienced harassment of some kind on the job, including but not limited to gender-based harassment. As the leader and most visible member of the organization, does Collins bear some responsibility for those outcomes? I don’t believe there is any reason to think he has actively encouraged such behavior. The NIH is so large that I’m sure many employees do not have an opportunity to take direct cues from his personal actions and example. Still, I expect as with many leaders he feels some responsibility for what happens on his watch.

Obviously the gender balance at future conferences does not redress what has already happened at the NIH. I expect there will be further internal responses there to more directly deal with harassment and any cultural dynamics which enable it. By comparison, an announcement of this sort could be read as largely superficial. Nevertheless, Collins is also one of the few people who could get stories in the New York Times and Washington Post about gender equity at science conferences. I think there’s something to be said for using opportunities that are uniquely available to you.

I am thus less concerned with what Francis Collins should or shouldn’t do and more concerned with what opportunities I have to effect change. I don’t get invited to conferences, and the ones I attend regularly feature women speakers. Just going by the numbers, the public health workforce is more gender balanced overall than some sciences, although not necessarily in all places and at all levels. I’m sure there is more to do to achieve full gender parity, but a specific approach focused on conference panels isn’t available to me.

In another arena, namely this one, I have already identified one change I can make. I realized earlier this year that my book discussions and reviews skewed strongly towards male authors, so I’ve been making sure I read and discuss more books by women. I hadn’t mentioned it before, partly because I was embarrassed that I had created the situation in the first place and partly because I don’t want to congratulate myself for doing what should be done. I only mention it now in case it sparks ideas for anyone else.

One other concern I’ve had is if I’m getting in the way of anyone else sharing their perspective. In my mind, there’s plenty of room on this blog for other science writers and we’ve been blessed with quite a few over the years. Still, I thought it was worth reiterating that contributions about science from folks who aren’t me are always welcome. Even if you think you’d like to write something but are not sure what or how, I’d be happy to explore possibilities with you. Leave a comment below, or message me on Twitter or Facebook if that’s more comfortable.

Don’t miss these opportunities for student scholarships to the upcoming ASA meeting! And check out these handy summer reading guides from around the ESN blogosphere for faculty and grad students.

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. His book Faith across the Multiverse is available from Hendrickson.

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    Kelly Seaton commented on June 19, 2019 Reply

    Thanks Andy!

      Andy Walsh commented on June 20, 2019 Reply

      Thank you, Kelly, for your written contributions to the blog and your support and encouragement. I am glad that this post was received positively.

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