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by Margaret Taylor
07 October 2021
Speculate to innovate: An interview with Professor Dame Anne Glover

Speculate to innovate: An interview with Professor Dame Anne Glover

Professor Dame Anne Glover has held numerous coveted positions across academia and government, but it is her current role as chair of the Glasgow-based Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC) that gives her greatest cause for excitement.

One of seven innovation centres established by the Scottish Funding Council almost a decade ago, the IBioIC has been tasked with growing Scotland’s industrial biotechnology sector into a £900m industry by 2025. To achieve this, it helps join the dots between industry, education and government, and offers funding, scale-up facilities and talent development resources to companies operating in the sector. The aim is to have 200 viable businesses to promote onto the world stage by the end of the target period.

The scale of the ambition may be exhilarating, but the innovation centre is particularly exciting, Glover says, because it is enabling a range of businesses to generate the “jobs of the future” at the same time as “solving problems and improving lives, the environment and the economy”.

“The centre uses plant material or waste products to substitute for fossil fuels to make valuable products such as medicines, high-value chemicals, packaging and energy,” she explains. “This is central to a successful and sustainable future and relies on our prowess and imagination in biotechnology.”

Picture:David Anderson

A microbiologist by training, Glover’s research interests have been many and various, incorporating studies of the microscopic life of soils and the invention of sensors that can monitor those soils to detect environmental pollution. Other studies have focused on the impact of stress on the human body, particularly in relation to ageing, with Glover’s quest for knowledge being driven by a sense of discovery that was first piqued when she was a child.

“I always think that everyone is born a scientist and then something happens [to turn them away from that],” she says. “We are all very curious as children, always asking questions and wanting to know how things happen and how things work. Most people are like that, but for me it never went away.”

Glover believes one of the main reasons it never went away is that she received endless encouragement from her mother, who if circumstances had been different would almost certainly have pursued a career in science too.

“My mother would have been a scientist if she’d had the opportunity,” Glover says. “She was a secretary and worked in one of the big hospitals in Glasgow, working for a man doing research into human blood groups and blood transfusions. The way things happened then, she typed up his research manuscripts and spoke to him about them.

"She wasn’t a naturally bold woman but there were some final year medical students coming in to see her professor to talk about blood typing and he said to my mum ‘you talk to them’, and she did because she found it so fascinating.”

Despite the flair she showed for the subject matter – and despite her employer trusting in her ability to accurately represent his academic research – Glover’s mother was obliged to give up her job when she chose to get married. In post-war Britain the idea that a woman, regardless of her abilities, could be both a wife and an employee remained largely beyond the pale.

I remember thinking ‘you’re a really stupid man because you’re spending all this time educating me but you think I won’t use all this specialist knowledge so why are you doing it?’

Things had moved on by the time Glover enrolled to study biochemistry at the University of Edinburgh, though only incrementally.

“I went to university in the 1970s and of the classes I was in, very often I would be the only woman,” she says.

“I was in a tutorial group in the year prior to my final year and I remember the tutor – a very eminent scientist – going round everyone in the group asking them what they were going to do when they graduated. He came to me and he said ‘I know what you’re going to do, you’re going to get married and have children’.

"I remember thinking ‘you’re a really stupid man because you’re spending all this time educating me but you think I won’t use all this specialist knowledge so why are you doing it?’.

The tutor was right that Glover would go on to get married, though she waited close to two decades after graduating before doing so – a PhD at the University of Cambridge and a lectureship at the University of Aberdeen came first.

He was not right about her having children and he was demonstrably far from correct about a university education being wasted on her. The leaps she has made since her undergraduate days have been significant – the first-ever chief scientific officer to serve the Scottish Government, the first chief scientific adviser appointed by the European Commission, the second woman (after astrophysicist Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell) to hold the presidency of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) – and she has used those platforms to try to ease the way for those who have come after her. It has not always been entirely plain sailing.

Take her presidency of the RSE. Having succeeded Bell Burnell in 2018, Glover developed an exhibition to celebrate a range of female members of the institution, which describes itself as “Scotland’s National Academy” and says it “contributes to the social, cultural and economic wellbeing of Scotland through the advancement of learning and useful knowledge”. Established in 1783, it remains a traditional place and the majority of its fellows are men.

The point of Women in Science in Scotland was to show it has female members too and that the work they are doing is just as ground-breaking as that being done by their male counterparts.

“The exhibition went on tour to places like [music festival] Belladrum and we had it in the foyer at the RSE for about six months; it was extremely well received,” Glover says.

“In one of our annual strategy meetings a fellow put his hand up and said ‘I can see this has been a great success, when is there going to be a men’s exhibition?’. Since 1783 there have only ever been images of men in the foyer, but the RSE is for all of Scotland, it’s not just for the fellows.”

Glover says the fellow in question was probably only partially serious, but the attitude belied by his comments remains prevalent within the RSE and, ultimately, led to Glover relinquishing the presidency earlier this year.

Though her term was due to end in March, the governing council had asked members whether they wanted to vote on extending it for a further year due to the disruption caused by Covid. The vast majority said yes, but a small group who objected to some of the changes Glover had made – such as establishing a finance committee – dissented, citing an arcane rule first written down in the 18th century that prevents changes to the society’s constitution even being contemplated. Amid the row that ensued, Glover felt it best to walk away.

Though it rankles to have been ousted by a small group of men “who are no longer employed, have all the time in the world and were looking for something to do,” Glover says the most infuriating aspect of the whole situation is that it ended up being one of the few occasions the society has featured in the press.

“Science is never seen as the sexy issue to talk about,” she says. “If you look at all branches of the media it tends to focus on celebrities or scandals. I don’t remember the press writing articles about Scotland’s National Academy before, but because it was a fight they were interested.”

Glover sees this kind of indifference to science everywhere. On BBC quiz show University Challenge, for example, while the host Jeremy Paxman is horrified if contestants are unfamiliar with an artist’s date of birth or fail to recognise a sonnet by Shakespeare, he reacts with equanimity if their scientific knowledge is found to be lacking. This, Glover believes, normalises the idea that science is not for everyone and therefore does not matter.

If we ever get to a safer, sustainable planet it will be because of science, engineering, technology and the social sciences, not because of Shakespeare’s literature

“Science never stops because there are always so many discoveries - it’s so wonderful but is seen as so ‘other’ and scientists are seen as so different,” she says.

“With Paxman, he’s saying it’s okay not to know about science, but it’s not okay not to know about Shakespeare. What we are doing is not other; it’s what our world is based on now and what our future world will be based on.

"If we ever get to a safer, sustainable planet it will be because of science, engineering, technology and the social sciences, not because of Shakespeare’s literature. I still want that, but science is culture too and it’s one of the most creative things you can do with your life.”

Most worrying for Glover is the way the notion that science does not matter is propagated by the political classes, seeping into government policymaking as a result.

As a firm believer in evidence-based legislation, she has long been at odds with the Scottish Government’s stance on genetically modified crops, which were banned by the SNP administration in 2015. The party line was that there was not enough evidence to say genetically modified food is safe; Glover’s position is that “all the evidence would say that because of the enormous amount of regulation around genetically modified food it is safer than other foodstuffs”.

And then there is the debate around reform of the Gender Recognition Act (GRA). The Scottish Government, and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in particular, have made it clear they will brook no debate on whether sex is binary and will press ahead with controversial changes that will allow transwomen to legally self-declare themselves biological women and transmen to self-declare themselves biological men.

The aim is altruistic – to give transgender people the right to live their own authentic lives while ensuring they are recognised and included in society on the same terms as everybody else. But for Glover the stance makes a mockery of science.

“I’m not gender critical, I’m a sex realist […] and there are only two sexes – that sticks with us and predisposes us to certain diseases,” Glover says.

“[A transwoman] is different because she was born sexually as a man – it’s the denial of that that makes me concerned. It doesn’t concern me that transwomen and transmen want to have their rights verified – that’s completely valid – but the denial of basic biology and the psychology of women, particularly those that have gone through trauma, makes no sense to me.”

Picture: David Anderson

Glover says the way the government appears to have shut down debate on the issue is particularly troubling. Sturgeon recently told a radio programme that concerns GRA reforms could give biological males access to female-only spaces were “not valid”. This, Glover says, is illogical because it inherently denies the science at the same time as ignoring what governments are able to do regardless of the science.

“It’s valid for the first minister to say that often when developing policy there are different types of evidence,” she says. “Science will be part of that but there will be moral, economic, philosophical and political arguments as well.

"Why would the first minister say that scientists might be well meaning but wrong? I don’t know where the authority comes from to reject that specialist knowledge and say ‘I’m right’. It would be legitimate to say I accept the scientific evidence but for moral, ethical or political reasons I’m still pursuing the GRA. That’s valid, but you can’t pick and choose science.”

The underplaying of science is, Glover believes, a worrying trend that, paradoxically, became ever more obvious during the pandemic. Though Sturgeon repeatedly told the electorate her decision-making was based around “following the science,” unlike in other nations her chief scientific adviser was absent from all media briefings.

The public may have become all too familiar with national clinical director Jason Leitch, but Sheila Rowan, who was chief scientific adviser until June, and Julie Fitzpatrick, who succeeded her, are not household names. That should concern everyone who shares the first minister’s ambitions to see Scotland become independent, Glover says.

I feel very uncomfortable about the current government giving so little prominence to science because without question it’s our biggest global asset

“The first minister stands for a party that’s prioritising independence for Scotland,” she says. “If there was an independent Scotland it would only thrive on the basis of being smart. We are brilliant at science and if there was an independent Scotland it would be science that delivered a future that’s vibrant and successful. If she’s saying science doesn’t matter then she’s dismissing a possible successful future for an independent Scotland.”

She adds: “I feel very uncomfortable about the current government giving so little prominence to science because without question it’s our biggest global asset.”

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