Collaboration is better than weapons of division, argues Prof Ottoline Leyser, in the #Newnham150 inaugural lecture

From climate change to the Covid pandemic, divisions in society prevent us tackling global problems as effectively as we could. What causes these divisions, and how can we overcome them?

In a thought-provoking and witty opening lecture for our 150th Anniversary, Prof Dame Ottoline Leyser re-opened the classic debate of ‘The Two Cultures’, updating it for our pandemic times. Prof Leyser is one of the UK’s leading developmental biologists, and is currently the head of UKRI, the UK’s main research and industry funding body.  

The original ‘Two Cultures’ lecture, given by novelist and scientist C P Snow in 1959, argued that researchers and policy-makers were failing to tackle global problems because of a split between ‘the sciences’ and ‘the humanities’.

Prof Leyser agreed that the split between the sciences and wider culture remains today, 60 years on – and that the division is as destructive as it ever was. However, she argued that the cause is not simply the British education system, but a far more fundamental aspect of human nature.

Her argument built on Henri Tajfel’s research into the nature of prejudice, and the human urge to create ‘in-groups’ and ‘out-groups’. We identify ourselves with a group, treat that group preferentially, and denigrate our ‘opponents’. This behaviour reduces insecurity and the fear of the unknown. One of the many wonderful things about the college system, she noted, is that brings you together with people studying many different subjects – but none the less, divisions spring up.

Prof Leyser argues that this is why people are so willing to accept a division between scientists and non-scientists (or ‘boffins’ and ‘people’). We all experience immediate psychological benefits by assigning ourselves to a group – even if at a deeper level, we are fundamentally harmed by it.

‘a security blanket in an environment with many layers of insecurity’

For scientists, assigning yourself to an in-group which portrays itself as intelligent, powerful and logical is immensely reassuring – particularly, when dealing with what Prof Leyser describes as the fundamentally ‘terrifying’ attempt to do research, which is by definition a ‘stepping into the unknown’. The belief that you are progressing in a straight line to ‘the truth’ is a ‘security blanket in an environment with many layers of insecurity’. And yet this false perception damages the process of science.

Meanwhile, non-scientists are encouraged to perceive themselves as people without agency, who can neither tackle global problems such as cancer or climate change, or, more worryingly, cannot critically assess evidence and put forward hypotheses for action. While this dichotomy of scientists and non-scientists can lift responsibility, it is deeply disempowering.

Science, Prof Leyser argues, is a method of finding things out, in a way which is fundamentally part of human nature: a codified approach to the way in which children develop their understanding of the world. We make observations, we become curious, we hypothesise what might be happening, we try it out…

Part of this process is facing challenges to our assumptions. Good science, she argued, involves ‘being consistently and repeatedly wrong’. Whatever issue we are trying to address, she says, we should approach it in the spirit that ‘discussions with all kinds of people will be useful, especially if they disagree with me.’

Science will “save the world”, she argued, not by the ability to create cancer-curing drugs, but by encouraging people to assess evidence, build mental models with explanatory and predictive power, and navigate uncertainty.

Science cannot stand alone when it comes to tackling global problems: instead, many different skills, contributions and opinions are needed, in order to collectively and collaboratively make the best decisions.

‘collaboration is better than weapons of division’

So, Prof Leyser concluded, if our 1908 suffrage banner proclaimed the slogan ‘wisdom is better than weapons of war’, perhaps a banner for 2021 should read ‘collaboration is better than weapons of division’.

In planning the #Newnham150 lecture series 18 months ago, we had imagined a lecture theatre packed full of people, and a candle-lit dinner in College Hall to follow. Instead, over 300 people from all around the world joined us via Zoom – supplying their own Friday-evening drinks. We were delighted to welcome Heads of Houses from the other Cambridge Colleges, local Councillors, current and former students, staff and Fellows from around the world, and representatives from women’s universities worldwide. It was a truly remarkable occasion, and all our thanks go to Prof Leyser for her outstanding opening to the next year of celebration.

The lecture will be made available to watch again in the coming week.

Our next online lecture, in the ‘Wicked Problems in a Complex World’, welcomes alumna Sian Kevill (NC 1979) talking about The Great Green Wall – Filming on the frontiers of Climate Change (Monday March 1st, 6.00pm).