An Open Letter to The Toast

15 October 2013 by Tania Browne, posted in Uncategorized

Hi Mallory and Nicole,

You don't know me, and to be completely frank there's no reason why you should, but my excellent friend Gary Bainbridge recently pointed me in the direction of your website, The Toast, to tell me that you were looking for female science writers. Gary is a decent chap and knows how much I love science. I freely admit it's the first time I'd heard of you but I started looking the site over, loved the attitude and dry sense of humour, and felt that writing for you was something I would enjoy hugely. I'm a reasonably new science blogger, just a couple of years experience, but I've been published on The Guardian website a few times and the Nature Publishing Group have been very kind and supportive of my work here, so with respect I didn't feel you guys were out of my league.

But today you published a more detailed call of what you were looking for, and I found I was wrong.

Now I've said how much I love the wry sense of humour you have, and I stand by that comment. But I don't have a PhD or an expensive education, just an enthusiasm for science and half decent writing skills, and reading a blog title like that immediately says to me "you don't belong". How many other working class women like me, women who had to give up on education because Life Happened, or because they couldn't afford to continue, or even because university tracks didn't suit them, were put off by that? "See science? Science is Not For You" is what it says. "Science is for women who could afford years of expensive education. Middle class women."

I can't stress enough that I know that's probably not what you're aiming for. You just want to get the Science Facts right. But do you realise how specialised the average PhD education is? Go look at the titles of some PhD theses and that will give you a clue. Why is someone studying, for instance, the qualities of graphene or coatings of glass used in skyscrapers, any more qualified to comment on a new cancer drug than I am? I can read the peer reviewed papers with a critical eye too. A scientific education, the more advanced it becomes, is not a wide education. Science is a big place. Some of my scientist friends even claim that to communicate science effectively to non-scientists it's good NOT to be too specialised - what you see as "the basics" may go right over someone else's head.

I'll be honest, you're clearly in favour of diversity of all kinds. Women of colour, queer women, trans* women - all should see The Toast as a safe space where they can write, read, comment and exchange ideas. I love that. So is it necessary that all of those women have doctorates In history, gender studies, or whatever they write on? Do you not see that these are the very women who might have missed out on an education due to their circumstances? It seems a little odd.

I'm a working class British woman who loved science from an early age, but missed out on a degree first time around due to mental health issues as a result of rape. I'm now happily studying for a degree and want to do a Master's in Epidemiology, after spending 20 years as a chef. I, in the words of Elise Andrew, fucking love science. I've already written elsewhere about my friend Dallas Campbell's reasoning that you don't have to be a qualified musician to love and talk about music. Does everyone who writes for the NME have a music theory PhD? I doubt it. So why do we have to be "qualified" to talk sensibly about science?

I want to stress this isn't sour grapes. You also say that you want someone who's read The Toast for a while so I realise even if the PhD part was optional, I'm probably not who you're looking for. I have a huge amount of  respect for the way you stress writers are paid and valued for their work. You probably know from the recent fiasco concerning Danielle Lee, a brilliant woman of colour who incidentally writes a great deal about disadvantaged kids being excluded from science, how important that is. But it frustrates me that I can think of some fantastic science writers and communicators you'd be missing out on because they never had the chance or the money to put three little letters after their name, and to be honest it's your loss.

It's a bit ironic to me that, even if in jest, this attitude comes from an inclusive online publication when I have had nothing but enthusiasm, warm wishes and welcomes into the science blogging community of which I'm proud to be a part. When I've pitched, nobody so far has ever asked me about my qualifications to write about science. They've simply looked over my writing and my ideas and judged me on the merit of my work. Thank goodness.

Today is Ada Lovelace day, a day that celebrates women in science and, to me, the idea of inclusivity in general. Needless to say, Ada did not have a PhD. What a shame to find exclusivity, not within my science blogging circle of friends, but from a website that's trying to learn more.

with love and respect,

Tania Browne (LoS - that's Lover of Science)


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