I won’t accept the excuse that schools aren’t producing enough good women and minority students – not when the university system is clearly failing so many. However, there are problems earlier on too. Black pupils are still less likely to take A-level physics than any other group while the number of women studying undergraduate degrees in engineering has remained at virtually the same level since I first came to Imperial to study electrical engineering in 1984. Working class pupils, meanwhile, are less likely to have specialist science teachers and will do up to 25% worse in science examinations as a consequence.
How do we change this? Initiatives such as Black History Month can help by showing the true diversity of our scientific heritage. Books and films – such as Hidden Figures, which did so well at the box office a couple of years ago – can inspire millions by telling untold stories. There are many fantastic groups from Let Toys Be Toys to the Association for BME Engineers who are working to overturn perceptions among young people that science is for the pale and male and privileged. And properly funding schools – as Labour will do by reversing Tory cuts and ending the wasteful free schools programme – will help give more young people a proper start in science, whilst our National Education Service will ensure access to science education for everyone from the cradle tothe grave.
But to make the science sector truly inclusive we need a comprehensive, sector-wide approach. That’s why the next Labour Government will introduce a Diversity Charter Challenge to ensure all companies and sectors take diversity seriously. This will involve tying diversity targets to salary and rewards, ensuring that diversity is embedded in everyday practice.
And it’s also why I have set up the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Diversity and Inclusion in STEM with the support of the British Science Association. It has already attracted a huge amount of interest from parliamentarians, academics, businesses and concerned citizens. The APPG will help put diversity and inclusion in STEM high on the agenda, to move the sector in the right direction. This means all kinds of diversity – not only gender, but also race, religion, sexual orientation, disability, socio-economic status and age.
For a long time the science sector hasn’t recognised the true importance of diversity, but things are beginning to change. Last month’s award of a $3 million physics prize to Jocelyn Bell Burnell, overlooked for the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics in favour of her male colleagues, sparked a renewed interest in diversity from the media and wider science community. Let’s take this opportunity to make a truly diverse and inclusive science sector a reality.
This piece also appeared in the October issue of Voice magazine.