The NIH director is tired of all-male panels at scientific conventions. So he’s doing something about it

Posted at 8:25 AM, Jun 13, 2019
and last updated 2019-06-13 10:25:47-04

If you’re going to invite Francis Collins to speak on a panel at your conference, you better get on the phone with some women, too.

That’s because Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, is done with all-male panels, and he’s announced he will no longer be a part of ones that don’t include women.

“It is not enough to give lip service to equality; leaders must demonstrate their commitment through their actions,” Collins said in a statement, titled Time to End the Manel Tradition.

Collins said he wanted to send a “clear message” that the all-male speaking panels traditionally featured at scientific conferences — often called “manels” — needed to come to an end.

“Too often, women and members of other groups underrepresented in science are conspicuously missing in the marquee speaking slots at scientific meetings and other high-level conferences,” he said.

“Starting now, when I consider speaking invitations, I will expect a level playing field, where scientists of all backgrounds are evaluated fairly for speaking opportunities. If that attention to inclusiveness is not evident in the agenda, I will decline to take part.”

He then challenged other scientists to do the same.

“Breaking up the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) bias that is preventing women and other groups underrepresented in science from achieving their rightful place in scientific leadership must begin at the top,” he said.

Collins, a physician and geneticist, has been thedirector of the National Institutes of Health since 2009 and oversees the work of the largest biomedical research agency in the world.

It’s not just a science problem

Others have spoken out about the scourge of all-male panels before. Esther Ngumbi, a scientist from Kenya, decried the low numbers of female panel participants at the Paris climate conference in 2015.

“We are fed up. The lack of women — whether in peace negotiations, high-level conference panels, or boards — is alarmingly common,” she wrote in an opinion piece she co-authored with women’s rights advocate Elsa D’Silva for CNN.

The problem extends beyond the scientific community.

Variety had to apologize in 2018 after planning a TV writers panel that included only one woman.

The Consumer Electronics Show added female speakers in 2018 after it initially announced a series of male keynote speakers.

And the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, has been criticized in the past for thesmall number of womenwho attend the annual gathering of elite politicians, central bankers and financiers. Men dominate most of the panels at the influential summit.