Research Comms Podcast: Dr Shaun O'Boyle

‘It’s okay for us to be troublemakers and to stir things up a little bit.’ LGBTQ+ activist Shaun O’Boyle, on the special responsibility of science communicators to fight for change in the STEM sector.


The below is a short excerpt of my interview with Shaun. For the full interview download the podcast.

How did you first get involved as an advocate for LGBTQ issues in STEM?

I was working as the research coordinator at the Science Gallery, looking at how you bring research into a public space, so a lot of stuff around setting up research ethics committees that understood the complexities of collecting data in the public space, and also the value of it from a public engagement perspective. But when I was doing that role I connected with a fantastic group based in the UK called Queering Museums, so I was very interested in how you encourage the LGBTQ people on your team to contribute to the content that you produce. I was very much inspired by that and I learned a lot from the museum sector and the work that people were doing across all different types of spaces to queer up those spaces and to highlight the queer stories amongst their collections, or to make those spaces more inclusive and engaging for LGBTQ audiences. Also around the same time I met a group online called Pride In Stem and then there was no turning back!

Why has it taken so long for the STEM sector to address the issue of lack of LGBTQ inclusivity?

I've seen this with lots of minority groups within science that you get this red herring when you bring up inequalities or lack of inclusion and it's this idea that “Science is objective, it's just about data, it doesn't matter who you are, all that matters is the data that you're collecting” and of course we know that that's not true. We know that every aspect of the scientific process is built upon cultural and societal constructs; we know that there are biases at play, we know that all of these things play into science as a field or as a job or as a pursuit. But also I think that science is so strongly embedded within academia and we've seen this sort of issue across academia, where minorities are just not listened to, so actually the conversation has probably been happening for quite a while but maybe now finally we're listening to people. Or maybe this shift in scientists becoming more visible, communicating more, being on social media, having more of a platform that they have control of, means that we have access to those conversations a bit a bit more easily now.

Critics might say that science should only be about data but if they looked at the data on this issue they’d find it pretty damning. I’m thinking particularly about a paper I saw that said 40% of LGBTQ people in STEM haven’t come out about their sexuality.

I think that was Yoder and Matteis. And the interesting thing for me about that paper is that those forty percent of people, it's not just that they're private, it's that they're actively hiding part of their identity. And we know the mental health impacts that that has from years and years of research. We know that actively hiding your LGBTQ identity causes severe anxiety and depression and increased risk of suicide, so for me things like that are actually a public health issue. And then within science what's interesting is that it's not that different from lots of other sectors but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't try and fix it. And actually it reflects lots of other aspects of diversity because today we're talking about LGBTQ people but all of these groups aren't mutually exclusive, there are queer women of colour, there are disabled people working within science who are also LGBTQ, and I think that when we separate them out for statistical analysis sometimes we lose that a little bit.

So, how was LGBT STEM Day born?

We set up this small network here in Ireland and we're structured a bit like an informal research network. We’re a bunch of people that mostly chat over Slack and if somebody's organising something in their university they might ask for advice or support from somebody else in the network, and so that’s been great. It’s connected people, a lot of whom actually aren't out to their colleagues, in a really safe way. But the other thing that it did was it connected us a bit more to the international community because all of the time there are these fantastic groups forming within science and academia for LGBTQ people and for lots of other minorities. But in late 2017 there was a conversation happening between a network of science centres and museums in Europe and the LGBTQ network at CERN, and they said “Let's try and organise something”. They had in mind something to mark the contributions of queer people in science with a particular day, so luckily I was asked to contribute to that and I said “You need Pride In Stem to come along to this” and then quickly lots of other groups got involved and then it became just this fantastic community-led, grassroots initiative to see what would happen if we focused one day on discussing issues, or celebrating queer scientists, or improving or increasing the visibility of queer scientists. So that was last year and it was bananas with her so much like I'm still finding out about things that happened on the day.

And what exciting things are planned for this year?

So, the fun thing about it is that I actually don't really know, because our job is to try and just coordinate as many people as possible and last year a lot of my work on the day was just acting as a matchmaker. Somebody would get in touch saying, “Hey I'm in San Diego and I'm interested in doing something” and then I'd remember that somebody else from San Diego got in touch a week beforehand and I'll put them together. We connected last year with almost fifty scientific organisations and learned societies; we had CERN and Wellcome, plus lots of different groups, and they would say, “We'd like to do something, what should we do?” and we were trying to guide the process a little bit. One of my favourite things that happened was in Detroit where there were voguing workshops for scientists run by black queer and trans youth within a science space, and it was like all of these fantastic things just happened because we were like, “let's just say that this day is for these things”, so hopefully there'll be more of that this year.

What are your thoughts on why so many young LGBTQ people are not considering a career in science?

Even from a young age you have a sense of the type of cultures that won't welcome you if you're part of the LGBTQ community and I suppose for some members of that community it's even more intimidating than others, so Trans people, for example, especially at the moment are just having a much tougher time overall. So, if you don't see yourself represented in the people who are on TV talking about science, the people who are writing books, the people who are writing in the newspapers, speaking about it on radio, if you don't see the people that are sort of safe and welcoming and supportive of you then you're going to get a sense, even if it's subconscious, that ‘this career might not be for me’. One of the most interesting experiences I had working at Science Gallery was to set up an ethics committee and it made me think about a lot of these things in sort of an ethical framework, like I was thinking recently about how often as scientists or science communicators, we go to schools or we speak to young people and we encourage them to pursue or consider careers in science but I think it would be useful to apply an ethical framework to that process, where you think “well, is a career in science going to be as easy or as welcoming to every kid in this room?” You know, for whatever aspect of their background, or of their identity, or their ethnicity, or lots of different things. Is science actually going to be welcoming to them? And should we be spending as much time dismantling those issues within scientific careers as we are promoting scientific careers?

Do science communicators perhaps have more freedom or greater ability to speak out about these kinds of issue more than scientists themselves?

I agree 100%, especially since becoming a freelancer, as now I'm not worried about anything I say reflecting on anybody but myself. And I think that science communicators, who are independent of academia - and this is why I enjoy listening to your podcast because you realise how diverse a bunch science research communicators are in terms of career types - but I think particularly for those of us who are independent and freelance, it's okay for us to be troublemakers a little bit, and for us to stir things up a little bit. And in my view it's our job to do that when we can, as long as it feels safe and comfortable, because that's what we're good at. We're good at starting conversations, at putting together events, at facilitating discussions across different disciplines and different types of people.

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Peter Barker is the Director of Orinoco Communications, which he started in 2016, having spent over ten years working in broadcast television as a documentary producer/director. 

He specialises in the digital communication of research in science, the social sciences, humanities and arts.