Susan Greenfield

Labour Party

I have followed the Susan Greenfield story with a heavy heart.  The Royal Institution, for a long time famous for little other than being a stuffy old boys’ club, had appeared with Susan’s appointment to see the light.  A top scientist and superb media performer, she hit the spot.  The image of the Royal Institution was transformed and science made interesting for ordinary mortals.

Yet she has been removed from her post of Director, made redundant supposedly in order to save money.  Susan’s decision to sue for sex discrimination is a brave one. I, and I am sure many other women, are right behind her.  I somehow doubt if she would have been treated in such a fashion had she been a man, a member of the stuffy old boys’ club.

At the time Jaqui Smith was facing undue and unjust criticism in her role as Home Secretary but before her expenses problems became public, I blogged that I believed she was being hounded because she was a high profile woman and that the charges against her would never have been made against a man.  I cited two other examples of such sexism which I had seen at close quarters during the 1990s – Ros Hepplewhite, the first Chief Executive of the Child Support Agency and Director of Public Prosecutions, Barbara Mills.  Both these women resigned after campaigns against them which seemed to me to be very unfair.   

Now it’s Susan Greenfield’s turn.  It certainly seems as if there are those within the august Royal Institution who want her gone.  Although not voiced openly, I’m sure jealousy is at work somewhere.  Susan has built a media profile and become almost a household name, something I doubt the majority of her detractors could do.  The fact that she has put their formerly dusty organisation on the map and brought science to the people is neither here nor there for such fuddy-duddies.

I speak from some experience.  I ran a professional body, the Association of Chief Officers of Probation, in the mid 1990s, an organisation which, incidentally no longer exists as it was deemed to be unnecessary after the government reorganised the probation service.   Not having a background in probation, I was an outside appointment given the task of getting more media coverage.  This I did, and then met with hostility rather than thanks for doing the job I was asked to do.

It’s still very tough for those women who do make it to the very top.  It’s tough to get there and tough to stay.  Try being good at your job and ruffling feathers and you may end up saying goodbye to the very position you worked so hard to get.  Susan, you have my wholehearted support and I wish you all the luck in the world.

5 thoughts on “Susan Greenfield

  1. I am afraid the situation regarding Susan Greenfield and the Royal Institution is more complicated than being an issue of sexism and jealousy. That the Royal Institution has been facing financial problems has been known about for some time. Susan Greenfield has come in for sustained criticism concerning her views on Facebook and other social networking sites. The critical problem has been her unwillingness to submit her ideas in the form of a testable hypothesis to a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Ben Goldacre has documented this here: http://www.badscience.net/2009/05/professor-baroness-susan-greenfield-cbe/

    This is not the first time that Susan Greenfield has been embroiled in controversy. Her statements on cannabis, and her promotion of a computer program that had not been tested against adequate controls have led to the feeling that as director of the Royal Institution she was failing to fulfil the role of promoting the public understanding of science. The science blogger Gimpy has given excellent historical context to this sorry state of affairs here: http://gimpyblog.wordpress.com/2010/01/11/baroness-greenfield-the-royal-institution-and-science-communication/.

    What is lamentable about this is that the now-defunct post of Director of the Royal Institution could have been the perfect platform to promote scientific literacy and a greater understanding of the scientific process among the general public. Instead discussion seems to be more concerned about sexism rather than the extent to which Greenfield satisfied the requirements of her role.

    P.S. Many scientists (male and female) would object strongly to your description of the Royal Institution as being “famous for little other than being a stuffy old boys’ club”. Humphrey Davy invented the lamp that saved the lives of miners. Without Michael Faraday’s research and the work of a collective of scientists and engineers you would not be sitting by your computer writing a blogpost criticising the Royal Institution. I haven’t even mentioned the fourteen Nobel laureates that have worked there…

  2. Debashish Sharma, I take you point about my use of the phrase “stuffy old boys club” and am grateful that you remind me of some of the very distinguished members of the Royal Institution.
    However, I still stand by my main points regarding Susan Greenfield. I would especilaly like to say that from my own experience I would very much doubt whether the Institution’s financial problems emanate from one individual alone. Surely all plans for expenditure would have to have been approved by the Institution’s governing body after thorough investigation?

  3. maryhoneyballmep, like you I feel that Susan Greenfield cannot be held wholly responsible for the RI’s financial mess. However, that is not to say her redundancy is unjustified on other grounds. As a science communicator, especially in the later years, she has been a failure and has actively contributed to the dissemination of scaremongering theories that lack a scientific basis to the detriment of the public’s understanding of science. Also, she has, dubiously, used her official positions to plug a commercial product of unproven efficacy.
    It appears she has made large numbers of enemies both within and without her field, criticisms of her abilities and achievements have long been heard in academic circles. This is not due to sexism, it is because her academic achievements are out of all proportion to her awards.
    Her gift was for communication and she has squandered that in recent years. As a communicator of science, if you extend your arguments beyond the evidence base then you fail in your objectives. She took to doing this too often and this is why she finds herself with little support.

  4. How do you have all these opinions on Susan Greenfield and the RI without knowing a blind thing about it? I suppose this is what qualifies you to be a politician.

    How come the “stuffy old boy’s club” of the RI appointed Susan Greenfield to its plum job in the first place? Where’s your evidence of sexism? Read Susan Blackmore’s article “Goodbye to a not-so-good scientist” about Greenfield in Tuesday’s Guardian.

  5. Susan Greenfield clearly did not achieve the goals she set herself and persuaded the august body to invest in. That is a good reason for resigning.

    It is always sad to see a woman get ousted from her job. Sometimes it is due to sexism, sometimes it is down to incompetence and sometimes it is politics. When it is sexism we should all be up in arms. However, Susan held this job for 10 years. An august body like the RI would have demonstrated its sexism before now.

    And under Susan’s dominion, a lengthy queue of women employees felt inclined to leave. Was that sexism?

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