I believe that chemistry and its related activities hold the key to great improvements in both the quality and quantity of human life. As a consequence, it is critical that a vibrant and successful country has a breadth and depth of chemistry expertise. That should mean that the best scientific talent is identified and nurtured to become our leading researchers. This should lead to reward and recognition for those brilliant scientists. You might imagine then that evidence that this has not happened and is still not happening would be something that you might want to keep quiet or else make damned certain you are actually addressing before confessing to. Sadly, the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) has once again announced to the UK that the discipline of chemistry continues to fail the nation. They announced their prizes and awards recently and here’s the thing: they give away almost £200K every year in prizes.
If, back in 1980 (when the RSC was formed), you had suggested spending the prize funds in such a way that it would be 2017 before more than 20% of that money went to women, I hope that you would have been sent away with a flea in your ear to think again. And yet, here we are, it’s 2017 and for the first time the proportion of money going to women (among awards going to individuals) has just crept above 20%. You have to believe some strange things about the abilities of the genders to not view this as an admission of failure. As far as I can tell, since 1929 there has only been one female recipient of the Pedler award, none of the Perkin prize (since 2008) and none of the Robert Robinson award (since 1964). While I cannot quibble with the selection of the recipients of these prizes (I have enjoyed working with several of them), this is a damning indictment of the discipline. If the RSC can really think of nothing better to do with £200K every year than to keep on advertising how chemistry is failing the UK then I am deeply worried.
Back in 2014 when I first took notice of the list of prizes, I wrote an email to the RSC on the subject and received a vaguely reassuring response (both published in the RSC news magazine). I was sufficiently annoyed by the following year’s published list that I threw it away in disgust. I have kept the 2016 and 2017 versions and have analysed them along with the 2014 list. I am happy to make the spreadsheet available. It is interesting that female recipients receive a slightly higher proportion of the money than of the prizes, although I think this just represents the over-representation of men in all of the prizes and there are fewer prizes that receive £1K or less. I also acknowledge that I have assigned genders on visual appearance from the accompanying photographs and names. It is also true that gender is a more fluid property than has long been assumed. However. To use any of that as an excuse or distraction would be inappropriate.
I note that in the UK parliament session beginning in 2001, there were 118 female MPs (18%), which had dropped slightly from the previous parliament. This caused sufficient concern and embarrassment that the law was changed to permit positive steps to be taken to change the situation. This has seen a slow but steady increase to the current parliament, which has 32% of female MPs. I am afraid that unless chemists collectively take positive steps to change their situation that similar governmental intervention might be required. We are not living through a period of time that can indulge a comfortable club for the boys controlling a vital national resource.