In a recent post I described a visit by a local MP, Labour’s Chris Leslie, to the School of Chemistry at Nottingham. I was able to arrange the visit thanks to the pairing scheme RSC LINKS run by the Royal Society of Chemistry. As a result, I was invited to this year’s Parliamentary Links Day in Portcullis House. The Links Day is an annual event, currently organised by the Society of Biology, which brings together UK scientists and engineers with politicians of all parties. There is always a specific theme to the day and this year it was Science and Diversity. The formal part of the Links Day included panel discussions and keynote addresses by David Willetts and Shabana Mahmood, the serving and shadow Ministers for Universities and Science. This post summarises the day, which outlined the problem(s) around diversity in science and engineering and what might be done to rectify it. A Storify of tweets from the day was posted by the Society of Biology after the event. [Note: for brevity I’ve used “science” in most of this post when much of the day’s discussion also related to engineering and mathematics; to those engineers and mathematicians reading, please accept my apologies].
Science in the UK is simply not diverse. From conference programmes to academic staffrooms and the higher echelons of industry, science and engineering remains dominated by white, middle age men. If we aspire to possess a science and research community that reflects the society from which it emerges, then we are failing. Science should be accessible to everyone but there are many who feel like the odd-one-out in the research environment.
“Recruitment, Retention and Progression”
The debate about science and diversity often focuses primarily on encouraging and supporting women. Perhaps this was why nine of the ten panellists on LINKS day were women, although at least this rebalanced previous speaker line-ups. However, Julian Huppert declared that science and diversity is “not just about gender” and most of the panellists were in agreement. As Shabana Mahmood put it, the barriers confronting women are reasonably well understood; whereas those faced by lower socioeconomic groups and certain ethnic minorities are not. There are also groups whose contributions to science risk being overlooked entirely, including LGBT (for example, why is no scientist on this year’s World Pride Power List?) and those with physical or learning disabilities. At least the professional bodies are taking equality and diversity seriously, as evidenced by the current president of the RSC, Lesley Yellowlees, making it the cornerstone policy of her tenure.
Statistics and sound-bites abound, but if one mantra stands out it is “Recruitment, Retention and Progression”. As catchy as this may be, it conceals a complex reality. Some disciplines, for example physics, struggle to attract girls to study beyond sixteen, but others, such as the biosciences, are more balanced between the genders even at postgraduate level. Yet all are afflicted by a “leaky pipeline”, with women in particular disproportionately “dropping out” of science later on in their careers. Consequently, senior positions in industry and academia remain unrepresentative- only 16% pharmacology professors are women (up from just 2% in 2002) and 99% of chemistry professors are white. Progress is being made, but slowly. Do we, as one panellist suggested, now need legally-enforced positive discrimination?
It all begins at school?
Education is critical in ensuring knowledge intensive subjects like science and engineering are accessible to all. Routes into STEM careers outside higher education still exist, but degrees and increasingly postgraduate degrees are necessary to rise to the top of the career ladder. To encourage young people into science we need teachers and school facilities fit for purpose, visible role models and higher education institutions that are perceived as being open to students from all backgrounds. The culture in schools must not promote the notion that certain subjects suit one gender more than the other; can anyone be satisfied that nearly half of all secondary schools have no girls studying A-level physics?
Good teachers and enjoyable lessons inspire people to study science, yet too few secondary school science teachers own degrees appropriate for the subject they are teaching. Maths and the physical sciences are particularly affected and the problem becomes more acute at primary level. To entice highly qualified scientists into teaching, it must be seen as an attractive and valued career choice. It is not only the quality of the teachers that is important, but also the quality of the facilities and equipment they work with. As Jon Bercow described in his opening remarks, it is shameful that science lessons are still taught in classrooms that are no different to when he was at school.
Engaging children in science and engineering is about more than teaching. This is why the hugely successful STEMNET scheme, which now has over 20,000 ambassadors on its books, is so important. Teachers and schoolchildren often struggle to understand the career opportunities open for scientists and engineers, and STEMNET ambassadors can be important role models. The creation of smaller, targeted communities such as Science_Grrl, formed after the “Science, it’s a Girl Thing” debacle, are also to be applauded. Finally, the role the financially-threatened museum sector plays should not be underestimated.
Moving in the wrong direction
Sadly, a recent report on social mobility suggests that the UK’s research intensive Russell Group Universities have become more, not less, socially exclusive over the past decade, a worrying trend if we want to create a representative science and engineering workforce. Even in the 21st Century, the same old story is true– state school students fail disproportionately to achieve the necessary grades, while some of those who do are put off from applying. The risk of higher tuition fees discouraging even more students from lower income backgrounds means the widening participation industry will undoubtedly grow, but how much are Universities responsible for social mobility?
It was apt that the House of Parliament, which has struggled for years to become more representative of the society it serves, should host a discussion on Science and Diversity a day before the Comprehensive Spending Review was announced. Currently, science and engineering are being pushed as the basis for economic growth and sound political decision making. It is, therefore, crucial that the science community shows it is serious about putting its own house in order. There may be a strong economic case for a diverse workforce but, fundamentally, it boils down to whether as scientists, mathematicians or engineers we are happy working in an environment that many talented individuals decide is “not for them.”