This International Women’s Day, hear from some of the women behind our work at Protas.
Today, less than 30% of the world’s researchers are women. Meanwhile, in technology, women are also the minority, comprising less than a third of the global workforce in tech-related fields.
While there is much to be celebrated – just this week Nasa appointed a woman as its head of science for the first time – there is more to be done. This International Women’s Day, we spoke to the women working at Protas about what’s going well and what we can do to enable change.
Tell us about your career so far.
I actually started off as a scientist with a PhD in molecular biology, though it wasn’t long before I moved out of the lab. Since then, my career has been focused on policy and advocacy, with a particular interest in creating a better environment for health research.
My first role in policy was at the Royal Society of Chemistry. For most of my career – nearly 14 years! – I have worked at Wellcome Trust, a leading foundation for health research. I became interim Chief Strategy Officer last year.
My early career focused on the regulation of health research – how we can support high-quality research with regulation that enables rather than restrains innovation. Over time my work has become increasingly global and broader in scope.
What brought you to Protas?
I’ve known [Protas Chief Executive] Martin Landray and [Board Member] Rory Collins for most of my policy career, including working with them both at the Academy of Medical Sciences on a review of regulation and governance of medical research over 10 years ago.
My career has involved a significant amount of work both on the regulation of clinical trials and data privacy. I talked to them both a lot through this work.
More recently, Wellcome founded and hosted the Good Clinical Trials Collaborative within our policy team. Today, the Collaborative is hosted by Protas and we have a long-standing shared interest in how we create better governance and guidance for clinical trials.
I was very pleased to have been asked to join the Protas board of directors last year, so that I can bring my regulatory, policy and advocacy background to the work Protas does.
What inspired you to pursue a career in science policy and advocacy?
I enjoyed my PhD, but I was concerned about career progression. I also knew that I had strong communication skills and a broader interest in the relationship between science and society that I wanted to put to use. I did some teaching alongside my PhD and I really loved being able to see the details in the context of the bigger picture.
Science policy and advocacy really bring those interests together – I rather stumbled upon it, but I immediately knew that I was in the right place and I have loved it ever since.
What work are you particularly proud of?
I have to pick Wellcome’s work on research culture – our Reimagine Research campaign.
As a big funder of research, Wellcome has a significant role to play in shaping the culture and environment that researchers work in. Going back to 2018, we became increasingly concerned that we were inadvertently perpetuating problems in that research culture, like not supporting inclusive models of leadership that could help make the practice of research more diverse.
I’m proud of the work we took forward for a number of reasons. We cut through the complexity around research culture to come up with a clear diagnosis of what concerned us at Wellcome. We ran an engaging campaign to share these concerns, to test our thinking, and to encourage others to think about research culture in a similar way.
We also ran an online festival to build support for changes we wanted to see, which I believe to be the most inclusive event we’d ever led at Wellcome.
While Wellcome has started the work of changing our own practice, we’ve also seen other institutions such as the UK government taking action on research culture. It sent a powerful message that a big funder like Wellcome was willing to acknowledge that we need to do better and then strive to do something about it.
Above all, this is because we had an amazing, diverse team delivering this work across Wellcome who were a pleasure to work with. We set a high bar for ourselves, and it really paid off.
You were awarded an MBE in 2017 for your contribution to GDPR. Can you tell us a bit more about this work?
As the EU GDPR was being negotiated, amendments were tabled that would have been hugely damaging to research. Things like Biobank, big epidemiological studies and clinical trials would have been greatly impacted, and some studies would have become illegal.
I led a coalition across the EU to overturn the amendments. This combined very detailed policy analysis and recommendations on the specific changes we needed, with a programme of public affairs work with the EU institutions and member states.
This pan-European coalition came together in the best interests of research, eventually achieving a compromise that enabled research with personal data to take place under proportionate safeguards.
I worked on the legislation for four years and the research amendments really went down to the wire. The research clauses were contentious and weren’t resolved until the final night of negotiations. I walked into work the next morning apparently not looking well, because I knew the deal was done, but I had no idea whether we’d got the positive outcome we were looking for! It was a remarkable result.
What would you say to women considering a career in science?
Within science and policy, we need to include and represent the full spectrum of society, to make sure that we have diversity of perspectives and that our work reflects everyone.
Leaders have a responsibility to create inclusive environments that enable everyone to thrive, particularly for women of colour and disabled women who face some of the biggest hurdles.
Until we have the inclusive environments and more equitable world we need, women should push themselves forward and make their case for the roles we deserve. I hope this will speed up the change too.
We have to celebrate each other and our achievements. International Women’s Day is a fantastic opportunity to do just that.