Committed to science and open to the world

A neuropharmacologist renowned for her research into Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s in her Oxford laboratory, Susan Greenfield enjoys moving off the beaten track and getting involved in what is going on in society. A regular figure in media debates as a member of the British House of Lords – holding the title of baroness – she is also the author of popular books on the increasingly intimate marriage of man and technology.

Susan Greenfield “Neuroscience is not equipped to explain the existence of the spirit, or the very particular state of consciousness of the human being, but it allows us to approach in a serious way its development, the way it works and the factors that can influence it.” © Stuart Clarke
Susan Greenfield “Neuroscience is not equipped to explain the existence of the spirit, or the very particular state of consciousness of the human being, but it allows us to approach in a serious way its development, the way it works and the factors that can influence it.” © Stuart Clarke

Your knowledge of neuroscience has inspired two books in which you explore the foundations of human identity. More precisely, in terms of identity, would you say of yourself “I’m a scientist”, or rather “I’m a woman scientist”?

You’d never pose this somewhat odd question to a man, and according to the rules of scientific rigour, I ought to adopt the neutral formulation. But I know that this is a very formal formulation. Yes, I experience myself first as a woman. It’s my ‘birthmark’. Because, however important science is for me, my life is filled with other things. I therefore opt for the second choice: I’m a woman scientist. When I’m on the radio or TV, it’s as a woman that I’m perceived. Journalists often tend to be interested, for example, in my family life, to know whether I have children. I doubt whether this sort of question even crosses their mind when they’re interviewing a man.

Recognised as both a scientist and a mediator of science, you’re part of that the minority of women who have penetrated the glass ceiling. How did you do it?

I would be tempted to reply more precisely that I’m also a woman scientist without children. Because it’s clear that to have children or not is the major question facing any woman with a scientific vocation. Being a researcher and at the same time the mother of a six-month old child, between the age of 20 and 30 – and beyond – means being confronted with a permanent dilemma. Even if active fathers can help a lot, the inevitable burden of maternity is added to the daily difficulties of the status of young researcher, dependent for most of the time on bursaries or temporary loans, which have to be renewed. You have to respond to calls for offers, apply for grants, try to get yourself invited into teams which are proposing projects and, as quickly as possible, publish. If you’re a young woman researcher in the lower echelons of research, you’ve every chance of staying there, either because you bid farewell to your ambitions or – if you decide to stick in there regardless – because you’re at a disadvantage in the advancement stakes compared with your male colleagues.

What I’m saying here applies, in any event, in the United Kingdom. Earlier on in my career I spent a year as a host researcher at the Collège de France and was surprised at the facilities available to French women scientists, in the form of crèches and flexitime, for example. Here women researchers are a lot less well off. Continental Europe is a place to visit to see what works better elsewhere.

When a woman scientist opts to have children and to devote the necessary time to them, an essential aspect is the question of returning later to full-time activities. We need to think up new systems. I’m thinking here, for example, of what we in English call ‘ringfencing’ – special funds dedicated to women returning to science. In cooperation with sponsorship initiatives from the very feminist company L’Oréal, a handful of such back-to-science bursaries have been allocated in the UK by the Royal Institution. But this is no more than a drop in the whole ocean of questions facing women scientists.

One of these is the more insidious quasiinstitutionalised sexism in science. I believe there’s an unspoken tendency to ‘under-value’ women’s responsibilities in research. This is particularly harmful as women themselves believe it. We notice, for example, that in certain fields like physics, there are fewer female candidates lining up for the available jobs than there are men.

This was not your case… And in your career as a researcher you also combine a double responsibility – political and institutional.

What counts most for me is my life as a researcher. I wouldn’t want, for anything in the world, to give up the days I spend every week in my Oxford laboratory. But I’m no longer a young female researcher, the lone fighter I have just described here. I have help, I can delegate. When those ‘men in grey’ – that’s what I call them – approached me to suggest putting my name forward for the House of Lords – this corresponded in my mind to the question I was pondering myself, which concerns the grip that science will be taking increasingly on people’s minds and on their very identity. There are not many scientists in the House, though it often deals with subjects related to the place of science and innovation. But I am also in the House of Lords (1) as a woman, and with a woman’s viewpoint.

The books you have written on this ‘grip of science on people’s minds’ describe a rather frightening, pessimistic future…

The field I’m exploring delves ever deeper into how the human brain works, its development, its plasticity, its chemistry and inter-connections, and its way of perceiving, interpreting and organising the ‘messages’ which give it its meaning and its own history, as well as the influence of genes. What I ask myself concerns the impact of the technologies that increasingly command our perception of the real world, received by the brain and the individual inside it. Passing from the real to the virtual, acting on the chemistry of our neurons and manipulating our sensorial capacities, we enter into a sphere which affects the building blocks of the human spirit. Neuroscience is not equipped to explain the existence of the spirit, or the very particular state of consciousness of the human being, but it allows us to approach in a serious manner the way it develops, the way it functions and the factors that can influence it.

This is what I’m trying try to put across, in a very free way, in my books. (2) I’ve been accused in these books – and in the case of the first of them, Tomorrow’s People, not totally unjustly – of insisting on the threats inherent in the technologies that are invading the field of the human spirit. This I did not out of pessimism, but by way of warning. I am persuaded of the inexhaustible creativity of the spirit, but I also see its fragility.

Have not the philosophers, for thousands of years, and the anthropologists of the 20th century, already said and written all that there is to be said and written on this subject?

What’s new is that science can propose, in its own way, a physiological approach which sheds new light on the surprising and complex alchemy of the human being. This fascinates me and I try to explain it. There are different potential angles of approach to this subject. These days, in science, everyone tends to be chasing after the most specialist knowledge and technologies in their particular field, without ever taking time to ask the ‘big questions’. No time. We already have our hands full, with funding to be found, specialised (not always) publications to write, teams to be put together, etc. For me personally, that’s not enough. I’m of course up to my neck in science, but I wish to express the questions it arouses in me. Even if I realise that that these questions can upset people and that there are not necessarily any answers. But the least one can do is to ask them properly.

Interview by Didier Buysse

  1. Susan Greenfield is also the President of the Royal Institution, which is both a museum and a place of reflection and communication on both science and society. A venerable institution, the RI is housed in the workshops where Faraday discovered electromagnetics.
  2. Susan Greenfield, Tomorrow’s People, Penguin Books, London, 2004. Susan Greenfield, The Quest for Identity in the 21st Century, Sceptre, London, 2008.