Professor Julia Goodfellow, CBE

(Elected 2004)

Professor Julia Goodfellow is the Chief Executive of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the government body responsible for an annual research portfolio of £300 million, funding projects at over 100 universities. She took up this post in 2002 after more than 20 years at Birkbeck, where she became Professor of Biomolecular Science in 1995. She also served as Head of Crystallography and as Vice-Master of the College.

‘It feels fantastic to become a Birkbeck Fellow,’ she says. Her enduring memory of the College is ‘the amazing dedication of the Birkbeck students who came to my lectures, many after a long day at work’.

As the head of the BBSRC, Professor Goodfellow says it’s more important than ever to encourage young people into science careers. As well as a shortage of men and women in the physical sciences, the lack of women and ethnic minorities in senior scientific posts remains a concern.

‘Sixty per cent of undergraduate biology students are female, and at PhD and post-doctoral level this figure is 50 per cent – which is fantastic. However, there are far fewer women at lecturer level (25 per cent) and only 10 per cent at professorial level.’

She says the BBSRC is exploring why women do not continue in the same numbers through the system.

This work is crucial in an environment where some hold the view that men outperform women in maths and science due to their ‘innate superiority’ in these subjects. ‘International studies have shown that in many countries, men outperform women in maths and science. However, the differences between countries are far greater than between men and women within one country. Surely this is due in major part to cultural values.’

‘Also, it is worrying that in the UK, more women than men are going to university aged 18. If we continue to believe that men are intrinsically better in some subjects, we will not see the problems that exist for many men who are not achieving as well as the women in this age group.’

As the first female chief of any UK research council, she says she realises that it’s important to be visible as a woman. ‘There are very few women in the meetings I attend, but there are a lot of fantastic senior women scientists in the biosciences and this should be recognised more widely.’

She is also keen to recognise the hard work of this year’s new postgraduates of Birkbeck. ‘I am amazed by their commitment and endurance. They’ve done fantastically well, and I hope their families are really proud of their achievements.’

Note: Since this profile was published, Professor Goodfellow has moved on from the BBRSC to become the Vice Chancellor of the University of Kent.