Athene Donald's Blog

Reflections on working at the physics/biology interface, being a senior woman scientist, and anything else I feel strongly about

Eureka! -Choosing the 100 Most Influential People in British Science

Posted by Athene Donald on October 7, 2010

This piece also appears as a guestblog on the Times’s Science blog “Eureka Zone” (behind the paywall).

When an invitation to join the panel to help draw up the Eureka100 powerlist in science arrived in my inbox, my fancy was certainly tickled and I readily accepted. However, as the process evolved it became clear in just how many different ways the phrase ‘ most influential people in British science’ can be interpreted. Does it mean simply practicing scientists? Certainly my first assumption was these would represent the majority of entries.  Over what time period did influence need to have been exerted; in other words were we trying to produce a list of ‘old farts’, to use Will Carling’s memorable phrase, or those at the peak of their profession now whose influence would continue to increase? Or perhaps we should be searching out those who were clearly upwardly mobile but perhaps not yet reached their peak. How widely were we to spread our net beyond actual practicing scientists? Should it include politicians, policy makers, captains of industry and those associated with the media? These may well not be scientists, may not even have studied science beyond GCSE/O Level but that definitely does not preclude them from wielding power and influence within the sector. Each of us came to the table with different internal weightings of these sorts of factors, and that led to some lively banter and discussion as we tried to draw up an agreed ranking. Throw the need for good journalistic copy into the mix and things only got more complex. Ultimately the ‘editorial decision is final’, as they say.

So at the end of the process am I satisfied the list does justice to all, and that it really does represent a meaningful take on the UK today?  Well no, I think we could have produced many variants of this list each of which would have been equally valid. There simply isn’t a single figure of merit that can be accurately quantified for this purpose. We have produced a list of spurious accuracy – as I described it at the time – and the scientist in me is worried by a measurement that may look precise but is so inherently inaccurate. Unfortunately I am also used to ranking other imprecise things, grants and departments come to mind, and so rather too well-used to having to compare apples and oranges in ways that can also make one feel very uncomfortable. There will be many people on the list whom readers will think ‘why on earth are they there'; for me that group would include Prince Charles and Heston Blumenthal.  There will be other names which some readers will see as dreadful omissions – insert your own favourite omission mentally here. Everyone reading Eureka would have created a different list according to their own internal weightings, prejudices and knowledge.

However I am quite sure that there will be some people, such as our number 1 Paul Nurse,  about whom everyone can agree. He clearly should be there or thereabouts; furthermore, he is a prime example of someone bucking the apparent brain drain that has been hitting the news in recent weeks.  We also got it right about Andre Geim , ranking him high even before Tuesday’s announcement about the Nobel Prize More debatable is whether George Osborne should have been on the list – he was very high up at times, and then in the final iteration simply banished to the politicians’ list, along with Vince Cable and David Willetts.  From my contribution to the Fight Debate, it will be clear that I was not that keen on public communicators being high up on the list. People like Brian Cox zoomed up and down the list; he eventually settled at number 24, with David Attenborough somewhat higher at number 7.

There was a debate (initiated by Evan Harris as I recall) about whether we needed a woman in the top 10. I argued against any such tokenism (I’ve written previously about the pros and cons of women-only prizes here). Women had been proposed on merit, and were placed as accurately as the males. That’s how it should be.  In the end the top-ranked woman, Nancy Rothwell, came in precisely at number 10, just below her Manchester colleague Geim.  Had women mysteriously not been put forward at all I would have adopted a very different position about this, but the number overall in the list strikes me as reasonable if hardly impressive at 12. We must hope that if the process were to be rerun in 10 year’s time the position would be significantly different.

In the end I think the list has probably downplayed the influence of government advisors such as John Krebs and Adrian Smith in favour of individual scientists, although I am delighted to see my Cambridge colleague David MacKay well regarded because of the importance of his role as CSA at DECC  – see my comments on him here (scroll down, but behind the pay wall). I am not entirely comfortable that the CEO’s of the Research Councils are separated out to another list (with the exception of the outgoing chief of the MRC Leszek Borysiewicz , because he doubled up as the incoming VC of my own university), but Mark Walport seemed to be regarded entirely differently as head of the Wellcome; no one else had problems with this but I saw it as a slightly artificial distinction.

I could go on; we all had pet issues that made us nervous, so don’t ask us to defend the detail of the outcome.  But then, what do you expect if you ask a committee to produce a list like this? To adapt Nietzsche “You have your list. I have my list. As for the right list, the correct list, and the only list, it does not exist.”

Added 1145 am Oct 7 2010: See also fellow judge Alice Bell’s blog on the meaning of ‘influence’.

Added 1300 Oct 7 2010: It has been brought to my attention that the full list of the 100 names has been published at the UCL STS blog without a paywall, and including some comments.

4 Responses to “Eureka! -Choosing the 100 Most Influential People in British Science”

  1. Owen Dunn said

    My very first reaction to this was “influential on whom?” What influences politicians will be very different from what influences the people holding (or even awarding) the grants, and the difference between those lists would be fascinating. (And/or depressing.)


  2. Evan Harris posted this comment on the Times version of this post.

    Great post Athene!

    As I recall the thorny question of the placing of women was one where we all argued against tokenism as this is a problem that needs to be kept exposed and then solved in the real world.

    We did all agree when I spotted that it would be wrong to have all the women on the list appear below the inventor of viagra!

  3. Oliver M said

    Sad that Prince Charles, someone who is passionately anti-science, was included in the list. Is this a ranking of influence, both good and bad? It reminds me of when Eureka included Wattsupwiththat in their list of good science websites.

    • As my post said, I would certainly not have included Prince Charles myself. However, he does have influence (unfortunately), as the debate that followed his comments about nanotechnology and grey goo made plain some years ago . His entry into the list was an example of the editorial desire to stimulate debate rather than based on anything more positive about HRH’s support for science itself. His name certainly stirred up debate within the panel itself!

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