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Scientists ‘angry’ about Donelan’s ‘wokeism in science’ claims

Image: UK Government [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr


Academics back open letter decrying Conservative pledge to “kick woke ideology out of science”

Over 1,900 academics have signed an open letter expressing “anger and disappointment” in response to the Conservatives’ promise to “kick woke ideology out of science”.

At the Conservative Party conference last week, science secretary Michelle Donelan promised that her party will “safeguard scientific research from the denial of biology and the steady creep of political correctness”.

Donelan said the issue lies with the conflation of gender and biological sex in scientific research in “everything from population studies to medicine, to sport”, as she claimed “university bureaucrats” are telling researchers they cannot ask “legitimate research questions about biological sex”.

Many in the R&D sector, as well as leading Labour MPs, were left dismayed by Donelan’s strongly worded speech, with researchers saying there is no evidence to support some of her claims. They also expressed concern that the comments will negatively affect LGBTQIA+ academics.

Now, 1,939 academics and stakeholders across the R&D sector have weighed in, signing an open letter to Donelan and prime minister Rishi Sunak, saying they are “extremely concerned” about the speech and what it says about the government’s views on science policy and inclusion.

Scientists have ‘never been so angry’

Katharine Hubbard, a researcher in biology education at the University of Hull, and one of the authors of the letter, told Research Professional News that signatures are still coming in and she is “confident” the number will reach 2,000.

She added that she decided to write the letter—which was published on 5 October—with fellow academics as she has “rarely seen scientists on social media as angry as they were following Donelan’s speech”.

“The vast majority of scientists I know want science to be a welcoming and inclusive space, where researchers of all backgrounds can be themselves and contribute to excellent research.

“I also wanted to challenge the use of ‘biological’ arguments in the increasing hostility to trans and non-binary people driven by the government.”

‘Dog-whistle politics harms marginalised groups’

Hubbard explained that her research looks at the impact of scientific racism, ableism and eugenics on biology education.

“The abuse of ‘biology’ in the name of oppression has a long and very dark history, and what we are seeing is a direct continuation of that legacy.

“Discredited reductive and over-simplified ‘biological’ models have been actively used to justify discrimination and human rights abuses, and this pseudoscience has no place in modern scientific inquiry or society.

“We cannot claim to be standing up for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) unless we challenge the way our science is being misrepresented in ‘dog-whistle’ politics that cause real harms to marginalised groups of people.”

EDI ‘integral’ to science

The letter said it “assumes” that the “wokeism” and “political correctness” comments refer to Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion initiatives in science.

EDI initiatives are “not some fringe ideology”, the letter says, as it points out that they are “key priorities” for many prominent science institutions such as national funder UK Research and Innovation and the Royal Society.

Research has shown that diverse scientific teams are “more productive and have higher impact than homogenous groups”, the letter highlights.

“This is not political correctness. It is integral to ensuring UK science is inclusive of talent from a diverse range of backgrounds and can maximise its contribution to the UK economy and global scientific standing.”

It adds that “inviting hostility” to efforts to diversify science goes against the government’s own R&D People and Culture Strategy, which was launched in 2021. The strategy aimed to address the lack of diversity in science and to “encourage more, and more diverse, young people into research and innovation careers”.

The letter says that Donelan’s position puts her department’s ambition to make the UK a so-called science superpower “at risk”.

The letter also takes issue with Donelan’s claim that the government is responding to the “legitimate concerns of the scientific community”.

“The views expressed in the Secretary of State’s speech do not reflect the view of UK scientists. On the contrary, many are appalled, saddened and angry that the government claims to be speaking for science in this way.”

The letter adds that research in “many contexts does not need to, nor should, restrict itself to a binary definition of sex or gender, and can be inclusive of intersex, non-binary and/or trans participants without losing scientific rigour”.

Research Professional News has approached the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, the Cabinet Office and Michelle Donelan for comment.

Donelan ‘far from depoliticising science’

Donelan promised to “depoliticise” science and launched a review that will investigate the use of sex and gender questions in scientific research and statistics, including public bodies.

But the letter says: “Far from depoliticising science, this policy appears to be driven by ideology. The government is attempting to dictate how questions of sex and gender are addressed by academics.”

At the Labour Party conference on 9 October, shadow science minister Chi Onwurah echoed this sentiment.

“The idea that what is wrong with our country right now is that science is too woke is not only fundamentally wrong, but it is an impediment to unleashing the power of science to address the challenges that we face,” she said while speaking at a fringe event.

“You cannot depoliticise science by dragging it into your culture wars. That is not a road we are going to be following Michelle [Donelan] down.”

A version of this article also appeared in Research Fortnight