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blog Dec 21, 2016

I'm buying science presents for Christmas this year

Author: Jackie Hunter

It’s the last week before Christmas and a good time for reflection, to pause for breath and to think about what the next year will bring.

For me 2016 was a remarkably exciting year.  From a professional perspective BenevolentAI made incredible progress in developing a strong pipeline and patent portfolio, helped both by our internal programmes and the in-licensing of compounds from Johnson and Johnson. 

From a personal perspective, it’s been a steep and enjoyable learning curve for me – immersing myself in the world of artificial intelligence and fully comprehending the dramatic positive disruptive potential AI will have on accelerating 21st Century drug discovery and development.

I have also been reflecting on how far and fast gender diversity in the technology sector is moving – a reflection prompted a couple of weeks ago at TechCrunch Disrupt Europe 2016 where I was pleasantly surprised by the high percentage of female speakers.  Although still nowhere near 50:50, it was considerably higher than I had expected.  In a sector traditionally considered to be male dominated, the exciting projects and companies that these women were involved in, and often leading, was inspirational.  

I was pleased to see that InsideDNA were runners up in the Start-Up Battlefield competition as I had spoken to Anna Kostikova and Andrey Khmelevskiy, the two co-founders of InsideDNA, earlier in the day.  I was also blown away by the talk given by Samantha Payne a co-founder of Open Bionics which makes affordable, functional 3-D printed bionic limbs for amputees.  They have made hands specialised for one handed gamers and on their website, I see they are working with Disney and Lucasfilm on bionics for children - a Snowflake hand (from Frozen) and a light sabre hand (from Star Wars) respectively.

Whilst there are many organisations that support women in STEM subjects in general (e.g. www.wisecampaign.org.uk) and in technology particular (e.g. www.healthtechwomen.co.uk; www.girslintech.org), there is still a lot to do.

Approximately 10% of all partners at VC firms in the USA are women and this may explain why only 8% of VC-funded start-ups in 2014 in the USA were led by women CEOs (according to Pitchbook). Organisations like Astia (www.astia.org) aim to redress this inequality but individually we can all contribute by giving the names of excellent women candidates when asked to recommend people for Board or other senior positions in tech companies.

Of course, it all starts much earlier with many of our unconscious biases informing our choices of schools for our children, presents for nieces and nephews and the home environment.

Programmes like Girls Who Code aim to address the problem at a school level, driven, I hope, by the worrying trend down in women graduating in computer science – currently 18% compared to 34% in 1984 (https://girlswhocode.com/).

In the UK although 39% of pupils taking maths A level are girls, the percentage of girls taking computing is only 10%.  There are of course many areas of mathematics, bioinformatics, economics and other subjects where female participation is higher and coding is an integral part of the discipline so we should also be careful how we think about ‘tech’ as the technology becomes all pervasive and underpinning.  But we do need to start early.

To that end I have tried in a small way to do my bit for diversity in tech in the festive period and bought interesting science presents for my great nieces, nephews and the children of friends (not a spoiler as I doubt they will be reading this blog!).  So I would urge you to do the same (by the way Nature 7th December features some great science books for children).

From all at BenevolentAI have a very Happy Christmas and a Great New Year!