New Scientist Live: climate science gets personal and why there are still so few women in STEM

23 Sep 2016   lucyejwoods

The New Scientist Live four-day event kicked off at the London Excel Exhibition Centre yesterday. With its giant inflatable microbes, cute blinking teacher-robots, the fastest cars on the planet and nonchalant astronauts, there are intriguing science exhibits galore. Here is a small excerpt of some of the discussions taking place.

Focusing on climate science on the Earth Stage, climate scientist Alice Larkin made the audience suitably uncomfortable with some emissions-per-person facts.

Climate science gets personal

“Climate change has implications for everyone in this room,” Larkin said, in a presentation titled ‘How to stop (more) climate change’.

As much as 50% of global carbon emissions comes from just 10% of the population, the University of Manchester professor told the audience.

This 10% includes climate scientists like Larkin; academics and professionals in developed countries, that travel by air often. “We,” Larkin said, addressing an audience of many academics and professionals who travel by air often, “are the elite.”

“A high standard of living means a high rate of emissions per capita,” said Larkin.

In 2014, the UK was ranked as having the highest rates of carbon emissions per person in the world. To keep emissions low enough to prevent a 2C raise in global temperatures – or what climate scientists simply call ‘dangerous’ – “you have to challenge lifestyles” says Larkin.

Aptly pinpointing the tension in the room, Larkin said, “we don’t want to make changes now because it makes us uncomfortable.”

The problem for policymakers, said Larkin, is emissions closely track economic growth. Entire global economies that are dependent on fossil fuels will have to change, and change fast, to prevent climate change catastrophe.

To date, policymakers around the world have hesitated on definitive and effective climate change action.

On solutions, Larkin bluntly states “all the options” need to be considered. “Before I might have championed one [renewable energy] technology over another, but now, as it is so late, now we need all of them.”

“We need massive amounts of renewables and huge changes for transport.”

Larkin explained how using everyday appliances requires producing 133 units of energy for every 10 units usefully consumed; a result of inefficient appliances, inefficient transmission, and the prevalence of huge thermal power plants that are roughly 30-50% efficient. (Hydro power plants are 80-95% efficient, nuclear is roughly 80%, wind and solar 15-40%.)

But what about technologies such as nuclear fusion, or even something that hasn’t even been discovered yet? Larkin challenged this common line of argument heard in climate policy debates: “because carbon dioxide emissions remain [in the atmosphere].”

“It accumulates. Whatever is emitted now, has to be compensated for later.” Future targets set for, say, 2040 or 2050, require much quicker and radical action as emissions accumulate, said Larkin. With this ‘wait until later’ mindset, carbon budgets are being spent like “a monthly wage in a few days.”

Delaying action; relying on new, ‘negative emission’ technology (for example, growing and burning trees, capturing the carbon emissions in a chimney, and then burying it deep underground), is “a very risky plan, we don’t know that it will work,” said Larkin.

Larkin drove home her key message: that humans have the power to choose and effect the future, but for a future without more climate change, “we need a radical plan.”

“We need leadership, courage, engaged teams, citizenship and participation.”

Larkin also mentioned the UK science skills gap as a barrier to substantial action on climate change. The skills gap was also a corner stone of a presentation delivered by Aston University professor of cognitive neuroimaging, Gina Rippon.

Science needs more people – so why are women still being discouraged?

Rippon presented research on the effects of negative stereotypes on the brain, with a focus on gender stereotypes. Rippon said that in the US and the UK “we have fewer girl scientists than we need.”

This is in large part due to the prevalence and strength of the ‘male’ and ‘female’ brain myth. The stereotyping of women and men as having starkly different, set brain chemistry, has led to girls as young as 9, in the UK and the US, “saying they are not going to study math because it is a boys’ subject,” said Rippon.

That other countries (such as Saudi Arabia and Iran), have a high participation of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) fields, demonstrates that this gendered-brain myth is not hard wired, but cultural, explained Rippon.

One solution to the gendered, cultural divide of women and girls from STEM subjects in the West, “is a need for more female role models,” said Rippon.

Continuing on the theme of women’s exclusion from science, Daniel Glaser, science gallery director at King’s College London, gave a talk titled; ‘What does AI look like?’.

Glaser identified current AI development as lacking, because it is being “driven by white men and the problems that they face.”

Glaser explained that this conclusion was reached by looking at learning and intelligence in humans, specifying two particular observations.

First, Glaser said, humans learn morality and collaboration before language or mathematics. “The first thing children learn is how to play nice.”

Whereas, in AI development ethics has been a secondary afterthought; the UK government has only just begun to seriously consider ethical standards in AI development.

Then, Glaser told the audience about the results of an MIT study on group intelligence. The research found that the easiest way to predict collective intelligence, is the number of women in a group. Researchers attributed this gender link to an improved ability to read eye movements. The women in the study were more effective at gauging the moods and emotions of the team, resulting in better collaboration, resulting in higher group intelligence – regardless of individual intelligence.

“The future of AI will have a face and feelings” said Glaser, “AI will be much more female and much more collaborative than today.”

The New Scientist Live event continues today, with discussions on surviving the Anthropocene age, geoengineering and how to cut waste using new materials.


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