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High-quality network puts focus on women researchers

The Wellcome Trust and Royal Society of Edinburgh have become partners of AcademiaNet, a fast-growing, Europe-wide online database of women researchers.

The database, launched in Germany in 2010, hosts some 1,300 profiles of researchers from a range of disciplines, up from about 1,000 in February this year. All researchers on the list were nominated by well-known research organisations. The criteria for nomination are rigorous, which, according to Ingrid Wünning Tschol, who set up the network, is essential to its purpose.

“It would be worth nothing if people could create profiles of themselves,” she says. “This way it means that if people say they couldn’t find a woman to be a speaker at an event, or that there are not enough, we can say here is a database of excellent, well-qualified female scientists. It’s a really useful tool.”

Wünning, senior vice-president at the Robert Bosch Stiftung, a foundation supporting research in Germany, knows from experience how useful the network could be. She struggled to book women scientists when involved in the steering committee of the Euroscience Open Forum a few years ago, an event that ultimately drew criticism for its male-dominated line-up of speakers. “We had indeed asked women to be speakers but many of them declined, at which point we asked men instead,” she says.

“I thought there was a need to have a place, a database, where it would be easy to find women who were successful enough academics to speak at conferences or be on committees. Often famous female scientists are inundated with requests,” Wünning says.

The idea eventually led to the establishment of AcademiaNet, which was set up with funding from the Robert Bosch Stiftung in partnership with the Nature Publishing Group.

This month, the Wellcome Trust nominated 105 profiles for the site, says Shewly Choudhury, deputy head of basic careers at the charity. “A commonly cited issue in the progress of women’s careers has been the visibility of female role models,” she says. “When we first saw AcademiaNet, we thought it would be an easy way to identify women for leadership.”

Wünning says she cannot yet be sure whether the database will have a positive effect on the number of women researchers invited to speak at conferences. However, she says: “I know that top organisations use it and managers ask people to use it. And Brigitte, a popular women’s magazine, has profiled some of the scientists in its pages.”

In the future Wünning wants to see the network become more international but retain its European focus. Some 60 per cent of the researchers listed in the database work in Germany. “More profiles from the UK would be good,” she says. “UK organisations are the missing link.”