Pride in science

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This post was first published in the collaborative SUSU LGBTWessex Scene and The Edge magazine, produced for LGBT History Month 2015.

Science and the LGBT community cannot be said to have always had the most simple relationship; reflecting contemporary attitudes, the field has not always been on the right side of history.

Though it’s illegality was abolished in the UK in 1967, psychological study continued to define homosexuality as a mental illness until 1973. This view had been steadily changing in parallel with the larger LGBT rights movement, with Alfred Kinsey’s research in the 1950s showing that the spectrum of human sexuality was more diverse and normal than ever before thought. Following that, Havelock Ellis’ 1963 research suggested that while homosexuality did make you clearly different, its only psychological ill effects arose from people repressing their normal sex behaviour.

In the modern day, as ever, science loves to quantify. Studies have been carried out, taking a global census of attitudes to homosexuality. In 2013 the Pew Research Centre posed a simple question: “Should society accept homosexuality?”. Britain was the sixth most positive country on the list, with 76% of people answering ‘Yes’, and with increases of 10-20% in positive responses from South Korea, the United States and Canada in the past seven years, attitudes can be conclusively said to be changing for the better.

But what is it like to be part of both the LGBT and scientific communities today?

In science, and often academia as a whole, you are judged first and foremost on the quality of the research you produce. This can in theory be a blessing; that it is a field where it is not your personal qualities which are the most interesting thing about you, but rather your work. Where scientists are just scientists, and their gender identity and sexual orientation is irrelevant.

But this invisibility is not wholly good. It could even be considered damaging, when a lack of communication makes academia an uncomfortable place for minorities, and the field is not so much accepting, as running on a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy.

This is why role models are so important. As in the sporting world, where the LGBT community is a largely invisible minority, prominent athletes coming out can touch lives; Tom Daley’s coming out in December 2013 went hand-in-hand with his Olympic achievements, aiming to inspire younger generations into becoming confident, happy sportsmen and women.

University of York chemistry professor David Smith asks, “Does it matter that I am a gay scientist? It certainly doesn’t make me a better or worse scientist, but I believe it matters that people know.” He makes the choice to actively talk about his sexuality, on both Twitter and in his professional biography. He has even drawn inspiration for some of his research from his husband’s health problems, developing new chemical alternatives to blood thinning drugs with the potential to save lives.

In this way, there has been huge effort to get people within the scientific community talking about these issues, with organisations including the National Organisation of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals (a self-confessed mouthful, which also goes by NOGLSTOP, pronounced something like “nah-goal-step”’) offering networking and support.

However, perhaps the most important reason why we should try to avoid thinking that nothing except an academic’s scientific output matters is that it undervalues us as individuals.

Science and technology, perhaps more than any, is an increasingly global field. Researchers work in teams both within their own institutions and across the globe, interacting with diverse scientists with come up with novel ideas and concepts. In our modern world nothing is insular, let alone discoveries and technologies with the potential to affect everyone. We cannot allow outdated prejudice to prevent their development.

If we care only about the results of science, and not those who do it, we are at risk of forgetting that scientific innovations affect us all, and that they have the ability to bring us closer together than ever before.

Science, for all of its facts and figures, is carried out by people.