University College London has slammed the "profoundly insulting" portrayal of two of its scientists in a Daily Mail column, where it was suggested the two female academics were chosen to appear on a BBC programme because of their gender and ethnicity.
The Mail's Ephraim Hardcastle column said that Newsnight's "Guardian-trained" editor Ian Katz was "keen on diversity", adding: "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."
The pair, highly-qualified scientists, were invited onto Newsnight to discuss the Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization 2 (Bicep 2), a specially designed telescope at the south pole. Described as the "Holy Grail" of cosmology, the machine detected gravitational waves, an echo of the Big Bang, the universe's cataclysmic birth almost 14 billion years ago.
Sky at Night presenter Maggie Aderin-Pocock and astronomer Hiranya Peiris on Newsnight
David Price, the college's vice-provost for research, has written an angry letter to the Daily Mail, to "express my deep disappointment in the insinuation in your newspaper that Dr Hiranya Peiris was selected to discuss the ‘Big Bang’ breakthrough on Newsnight for anything other than her expertise."
"The implication that anything outside of her academic record qualifies Dr Peiris to discuss the results of the Bicep2 study is profoundly insulting. She is a world expert on the study of the cosmic microwave background, with degrees from Cambridge and Princeton.
"Dr Aderin-Pocock is a highly-qualified scientist and engineer with an exceptional talent for communicating complex scientific concepts in an accessible way," Price wrote.
"It is deeply disappointing that you thought it acceptable to print an article drawing attention to the gender and race of scientific experts, suggesting that non-white, non-male scientists are somehow incapable of speaking on the basis of their qualifications and expertise."
Dr Hiranya Peiris, who is a reader in Astronomy at UCL and a Royal Astronomical Society award-winner, said: “I deeply pity the sort of person who can watch a report about ground-breaking news on the origins of the universe and everything in it, and see only the gender and skin colour of the panellists.
"I am disturbed that he has even erased the contributions of all of the non-white and non-male and non-American scientists involved in the discovery at the same time.”
Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock, an honorary research associate at the university, said she now pictured "the Newsnight team flipping through their rolodex, saying ‘too white, too male… ah, 2 ethnic minority females, perfect!’.
"Monday was a very busy day for me, receiving 10 requests for news interviews, I was able to do Radio 4’s PM program, 5 Live, Channel 5 News and Newsnight. I believe that the requests were made for my ability to translate complex ideas into something accessible, rather than my gender or the colour of my skin.”
A Newsnight spokesman told the Guardian: "We ask people on to Newsnight because we think they know what they are talking about and have something interesting to say."