UCL open letter to Paul Dacre, Editor of the Daily Mail

20 March 2014

Professor David Price, Vice-Provost for Research at UCL, has written an open letter to Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail, to raise concerns about an article commenting on the race and gender of UCL academics appearing on Newsnight. The contents of this letter are reproduced in full below.

Hiranya on Newsnight

Dear Mr Dacre,

I am writing to express my deep disappointment in the insinuation in your newspaper that Dr Hiranya Peiris was selected to discuss the ‘Big Bang’ breakthrough on Newsnight for anything other than her expertise.

In Ephraim Hardcastle’s column on 19th March, he asserts that Dr Peiris and Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock were selected based on gender and birthplace because ‘Newsnight’s Guardian-trained editor, Ian Katz, is keen on diversity.’

The implication that anything outside of her academic record qualifies Dr Peiris to discuss the results of the BICEP2 study is profoundly insulting. She is a world-leading expert on the study of the Cosmic Microwave Background, with degrees from Cambridge and Princeton, so is one of the best-placed people in the world to discuss the finding. Dr Aderin-Pocock is a highly-qualified scientist and engineer with an exceptional talent for communicating complex scientific concepts in an accessible way.

I deeply pity the sort of person who can watch a report about ground-breaking news on the origins of the universe and everything in it, and see only the gender and skin colour of the panellists.

Dr Hiranya Peiris

Mr Hardcastle also wrongly states that the discovery itself was made by ‘white, male American’ scientists, when in fact the study was conducted by a diverse group of researchers from around the world. For the record, I have added an attachment setting out the extensive academic credentials of Dr Peiris and Dr Aderin-Pocock.

It is deeply disappointing that you thought it acceptable to print an article drawing attention to the gender and race of scientific experts, suggesting that non-white, non-male scientists are somehow incapable of speaking on the basis of their qualifications and expertise.

I look forward to your reply and would ask that the Mail rectifies the insinuations made about Dr Peiris and Dr Aderin-Pocock at the earliest opportunity.

Yours sincerely,

David Price

Professor David Price, Vice-Provost for Research at UCL


Dr Hiranya Peiris, Reader in Astronomy at UCL, said:

“I deeply pity the sort of person who can watch a report about ground-breaking news on the origins of the universe and everything in it, and see only the gender and skin colour of the panellists. I am disturbed that he has even erased the contributions of all of the non-white and non-male and non-American scientists involved in the discovery at the same time.”

Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock, Honorary Research Associate in the UCL Department of Physics and Astronomy, said:

“I find Ephraim Hardcastle’s idea very interesting, I now picture the Newsnight team flipping through their rolodex, saying ‘too white, too male… ah, 2 ethnic minority females, perfect!’. Monday was a very busy day for me, receiving 10 requests for news interviews, I was able to do Radio 4’s PM program, 5 Live, Channel 5 News and Newsnight. I believe that the requests were made for my ability to translate complex ideas into something accessible, rather than my gender or the colour of my skin.”

Links

  • The Daily Mail article in question appeared on page 17 of the print edition on 19th March and can be viewed here
  • The Daily Mail column following Professor Price's letter appeared on page 17 of the print edition on 20th March and can be viewed here.
  • A truncated version of Professor Price's letter was carried in the Daily Mail letters page, page 52, on 24th March. The letters pages are not published online.
  • The Daily Mail published a correction on page 2 of the print edition on 28th March to acknowledge the diversity of the international BICEP2 team, here.
  • A supportive statement from the Royal Astronomical Society can be viewed here.
  • Dr Peiris' column in Times Higher Education can be read here, and her letter to The Times here.
  • The issue was covered by Sarah Morrison in the IndependentRoy GreensladeJon ButterworthJames Meikle, and Dreda Say Mitchell in the Guardian, Bart Chan in the VoiceIan Steadman in the New StatesmanHolly Else in Times Higher Education and Jessica Elgot in the Huffington Post.
  • UCL University College Union (UCU) have launched a petition to demand a public apology, which can be viewed and signed here.
  • Brief summaries of the academic careers of Dr Peiris and Dr Aderin-Pocock are provided below for reference. 

Dr Hiranya Peiris

University of Cambridge: MSci in Physics (1998)

Princeton University: PhD (2003); Merit Fellowship in Natural Sciences and Mathematics; Harold W. Dodds Honorific Fellowship;

Space Telescope Science Institute: Hubble Post-Doctoral Fellowship

University of Chicago: Enrico Fermi Postdoctoral Fellowship

Science and Technology Facilities Council: Advanced Fellowship; Halliday Prize

US National Academy of Science: Kavli Frontiers Fellow

UCL: Lecturer in Cosmology and STFC Advanced Fellow in the Astrophysics Group.

Royal Astronomical Society: Fowler Award for Early Achievement in Astronomy

American Astronomical Society: Member

Institute of Physics UK: Member

Astronomy Magazine (July 2013): one of Astronomy’s 10 Rising Stars 

Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock

Imperial College London: BSc Physics (1990); PhD Mechanical Engineering (1994)

DERA Farnborough: Development Engineer (1994–1997)

DERA Chertsey: Project and Technical Manager (1997–1999)

SIRA Technology Ltd/SSTL: Senior Project Manager (2004–2006)

PPARC: Fellowship (2006–2008)

STFC: Fellowship (2008–2010)

The Sky at Night, BBC: Presenter (2014–)

UCL: Project Manager and AIT Scientist, UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory (1999–2004); Research Fellow (2006–2013), Science & Technology Studies; Honorary Research Associate, Physics & Astronomy 

Image

  • Dr Hiranya Peiris on Newsnight (credit: BBC Newsnight)