Scientist (PhD in astrophysics) shocked by reference to her ethnicity as Daily Mail accused of insulting female experts on Newsnight


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The Independent Online

A respected scientist has attacked the Daily Mail for implying that she was chosen to speak on Newsnight because of her gender and skin colour – saying it has put her off ever appearing on television again.

Dr Hiranya Peiris, a reader in Astronomy at University College London (UCL), is a world expert on the study of the cosmic microwave background. She told The Independent that comments in the Ephraim Hardcastle diary column about her appearance on the BBC2 programme caused “a lot of emotional suffering” and undermined efforts to encourage more women leaders in science.

“It was deeply upsetting,” she said. “I don’t think I need to say I have the qualifications to speak about the result on Newsnight. But he managed to reduce my career to my gender and skin colour.”

She added: “It has discouraged me from going on TV. I am far from the only woman who has been attacked and it’s usually based on personal appearance that is irrelevant to experience. It shows an underlying sexism.”

Dr Peiris appeared on the flagship BBC news programme on Monday night with her colleague Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock, an honorary research associate at UCL’s Physics and Astronomy department, to discuss the discoveries from the Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarisation 2 experiments – hailed as a major breakthrough for the Big Bang theory.

But on Wednesday, the gossip column, notorious for its acerbic tone, took a dig at the BBC’s quest for diversity, writing: “So, two women were invited to comment on the report about (white, male) American scientists who’ve detected the origins of the universe – giggling Sky at Night presenter Maggie Aderin-Pocock and Sri Lanka-born astronomer Hiranya Peiris.”

A representative from UCL wrote an open letter to the Daily Mail editor, Paul Dacre, attacking the “profoundly insulting” piece that appeared to question the credibility of the scientists.

Dr Peiris said: “There is a problem of getting women into senior positions [in science]. Part of that reason is constant feedback from society that we don’t belong there.” Dr Aderin-Pocock added: “There is a lack of female experts and we need to get them out there. It’s disappointing because other women might see this and think, ‘we’re not going to go anywhere near this.’”

A Mail spokesman said the paper fully accepted that the women were highly qualified in their field and that that was the reason they were chosen for interview. Yesterday’s Ephraim Hardcastle column stated: “I accept without questions that both ladies are highly qualified.”