Consulting Online: The Way to a Woman's Heart?

A new report on the current role of women in science presented to the House of Lords' inquiry into "Science and Society" reached a troubling conclusion. Despite attracting almost 300 participants over the course of a 4-week-long online Internet consultation held last November, the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology (POST) found that there simply aren't enough hard statistics on which to base new policy.

Organisers of the consultation hoped to synthesise a wide range of opinions into a concrete plan of action to improve the status of women in science. So they turned to the Internet. "We wanted a much wider group involved, other than we'd reach through traditional consultations," explained Caroline Fox of the Women in Higher Education Register and the Athena Project. And it worked. The moderated online discussion attracted 270 registered participants, including men and several overseas contributors. Although the majority came from an academic background, Fox claimed that an interesting selection of opinions was raised, and no single group seemed to dominate.

The debate centred around three main issues: education as a potential barrier, scientific career structures, and scientific culture and gender imbalance. Each week's discussion was kicked off with a keynote address by a leading figure from education or science. The discussion was then opened to anyone with Internet access. The discussions usually started slowly in the first week, "but once we'd got one [message] up ... no more steering or management was necessary," observed Fox. "On the whole, people's contributions were well controlled. We wanted it short, and not full of pages of references" as it followed closely on last year's Nature debate.

No consensus was reached by the participants, primarily because they lacked any hard statistics on which to base new policy. In an attempt to fill the statistical void, a report compiled by POST asks universities and professional societies to collect data to quantify the situation of women scientists.

So, will we see any action? "That's a difficult one," according to Nancy Lane, who moderated the Nature discussion, because real change depends on adequate funding, and this in turn depends on the government fully recognising the value of science and the economic consequences of the huge wastage rate among women scientists. For the time being, POST is keeping the list open, so that it can continue to spark discussions.

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