Updated: Aug 28, 2021
Maja Horst is a Professor at Denmark’s Technical University, Chairman of the Board at the Independent Research Fund, Denmark and President Elect at EASST - European Association for the Study of Science and Technology. She holds a PhD in Science and Technology Studies.
Maja has a background in communication and political sciences. She chose this career, because she was interested in how we make shared decisions in society and she found the case of foetal diagnostics an intriguing case. It turned out that in the 1990's when Maja was a student, the mandated offer of fetal diagnostics in the public health care system was based on a so-called cost-benefit analysis from 1977. This basically argued that it was cheaper to offer foetal diagnostics to all women over 35 in order to find foetuses with Down's Syndrome and have them aborted, than caring for the same number of children born with Down's Syndrome. However, in the 1990's public values had changed, so economic arguments were seen as highly unethical as the basis for public decisions about the health care offer on foetal diagnostics. Maja found this discrepancy fascinating - and since then has never really left the area of public communication about emerging science and technology. Maja loved maths as a child and considers herself exceptional at it along with chemistry and physics. But sadly, she did not have very inspiring teachers, therefore she chose communication and social sciences, making her a member of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics). Maja says, that if she got the chance to go back and change her decision, then she would have definitely chosen a STEM oriented subject as her main choice, even though social sciences does fall into the STEAM category. One of her favorite social scientists has described how most new forms of power in a society comes from new STEM discoveries. She believes that if someone is interested in how to develop society towards a better future, it is a really good idea to study STEM subjects. STEM to Maja means, “a fantastic force which is shaping society in ways we cannot always imagine. The mutual shaping of science and society is extremely interesting and something I never get tired of investigating and discussing.”
Currently, Maja is doing research on the public communication of cloning, genetic therapy, stem cells, nanotechnology and synthetic biology, in order to find out how such emerging fields become seen as legitimate - or not. For instance, she studied the way in which the political regulation that allowed research on embryonic stem cell lines (for other things that improving in-vitro fertilisation) was dependent on a development in public debate that found such legislation to be good. Maja has also been studying how people think about the social responsibility of science using synthetic biology as a case. Everybody thinks science should be socially responsible, but people define this concept very differently. For some people responsibility means that science should be separate from the rest of society, so as not to be biased by special interests, money or power. Others think it is important to engage public actors in discussions and priority setting for science in order to make research responsible. Those two sets of opinions find it really hard to agree on how to exercise social responsibility in science. She is convinced that conversation is important, and we have to discuss such disagreements more in public. Therefore, in 2014 Maja (and a team of good colleagues) made a big installation to invite ”normal” people to participate in such a discussion. More information regarding this can be found on the following link: http://breaking-entering.dk/ . Maja is also working on the public communication of AI in order to see how it influences the innovation processes. On one hand, visions and high expectations are important to generate resources for the research field - on the other hand such visions can also fuel attention to negative impacts of the technology. Maja together with her research team, is looking at how not to find out how best to 'sell the idea of AI', but to more fundamentally describe and understand how public communication shapes innovation possibilities and vice versa. Another research Maja is working on is related to renewable energy and the increasing number of controversies over it e.g., wind turbine farms. In a specific project, they are trying to understand the role played by sound from wind turbines. Once this gets described as 'noise' the controversy is already unfolding and they are trying to understand how such controversies represent much more than just a question of decibels - but issues of power, control, respect and livelihoods. We are dependent on the infrastructure, but we need to invest in renewable energy in a way that strengthens social cohesion, not diminish it.
In terms of achievements, Maja is a woman who has professionally had many titles and is rightly deserving of them all. One of her great achievements is a recent one – she has been appointed Chair of the Independent Research Fund Denmark by the Danish Minister for Higher Education and Science. She is of course honoured for this title. Maja shared a little memory with us of how she has gone from being the outsider to the Chair(wo)man of the Board, “I remember when the Fund was created in this shape more than 15 years ago and I saw the first Chair was the economist Nina Smith. I admired her a lot and I thought it was really cool that she got this position. I have a very interdisciplinary track-record and for large parts of my life, I have felt that I was an outsider in the environment that I was in. This is not necessarily bad, but it means that I have always thought that I had to work harder for my achievements, because I was not the natural fit in many situations. That said, I have also had tremendous help from many great people - both women and men - who have supported me and helped me achieve things. But looking back, I think the young woman that I was would have been happy to hear that the outsider position could work out the way it has.” I believe, Maja’s story is a perfect example of how hard-work and dedication pay off at the end.
There are certain changes that Maja would like to see to make life easier for women in STEM, her top priority is to that she of course would like to see more women in STEM-related roles. It is evident from research that it is really difficult to be the odd one out. As soon as there are more women, it becomes easier for everyone. Maja also believes that there needs to be more and better conversation culture in STEM departments, so that it becomes less stigmatising to point out, that women do not want comments on being feminine, clothes style, cognitive abilities linked to gender and etc. This also means that we should stop talking about zero tolerance culture. We all say stupid things sometimes, but if others could just point it out, so we could apologize or at least try to change our ways together, then it would be nicer. There needs to be a shared culture of helping each other overcoming any form of bias. Men are also victims of biases, just as women also have biases towards women. When we stop thinking that we will succeed, but just trying to help each other become the best possible version of ourselves. It is also important to stop labelling STEM subjects as being difficult. Yes, they are difficult subjects, but nothing that a girl cannot overcome. Maja shared that Henriette Holmegaard from KU has some great views on how this singles out girls as a special group. Generally, people - not just boys and girls - are rather different and the more diversity we achieve the better we are at solving problems. Diversity in gender allows different perspectives to be taken into account during problem-solving, which is the best way to create more innovative solutions.
For young girls, Maja agrees that it is important for young girls to see women of all kinds in STEM subjects. Maja teaches BA engineering students and every time she draws a stick-person engineer, she tries to refer to it as “she” – and sometimes her students react to that. As long as this is the case – Maja’s own reminding and students reaction - we still have a problem. It should be just as normal for us to imagine a female engineer as a male. She would love for more women to become professors at Denmark’s Technical University (DTU) - and I think everybody at DTU shares that thinking.
Lastly, here are Maja’s closing words of encouragement for young girls who want to join a STEM field:
“Just do it - don't overthink it. Act as if it is no big deal that you are a woman - and if others make it into something of a deal - just tell them politely not to. And don't think more about it. Don't spend too much time worrying about what other people think about you. Just do what you enjoy and are good at.”
You can contact Maja Horst on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/maja-horst-7a4364/
I thank Maja Horst for taking part in this project and answering all the questions in a very informative manner. I hope, your experience and STEM story will inspire a young girl to join a STEM field and excel just like you have.