The UK ambitions for a high skill science and innovation economy will fail if we cannot attract people to science careers. The scale of the challenge is daunting: estimates of the numbers of new STEM skilled employees vary from 324,000 by 2014 and then upwards to 500,000 or more, with 20,000 each in the health and environment sectors. There are already documented shortages in some areas, particularly for technicians. There is a positive message about the wealth of career opportunities at all levels in science, from science, as a scientist, and using science. So it doesn’t make any sense that the sector faces problems recruiting.
At a time when we need to attract more we are just about treading water on the numbers. For some reason, today’s young people don’t want to join the ranks of scientists and engineers even though there is evidence that they accept that scientists play a valuable and important role in life. The ‘not for me’ response has been with us for ten years or more so I think it’s time we did some honest self reflection in the science community about why this is still happening.
Recently I chaired the Science for Careers Expert Group which published its report in March. There are lots of external issues that seem to have an impact on recruitment, including educational pathways, but in the report we concluded that it was possible that we should stop ‘blaming’ others and look at whether we had created a profession that now seemed unattractive and unwelcoming in today’s working world.
If you hold a mirror up to the science and engineering community you will not see a reflection the 21st century social diversity. We have deep-seated gender and diversity issues that we need to address and should not put off any longer. In some parts of the science and engineering community we have got so used to seeing few women or ethnic minorities that there is a sense of having given up on trying to make change happen. Almost all other professions are doing better, and as someone who has come from outside science and engineering, I am sometimes shocked and embarrassed at what I find and what I hear. So challenge number one has to be to tackle this and begin to recruit fully from the whole of society.
There is plenty of evidence that one of the key ‘myths’ that keeps people away from studying science beyond 16 is the perception that it is more difficult. In the science community we complain loudly about this but so much of what we do makes this self-fulfilling. I wish I had a pound for every time I hear a physicist or chemist or biologist say that their subjects is evidentially more difficult than other subjects such as English, history or modern languages. There is an arrogance in the community which talks about science students being the ‘brightest’ or ‘top’ students and views science as self selecting for high achievers only. Exclusivity? Elitism? Self-congratulatory? Whatever way you look at this, it is off-putting and discouraging to those ‘outside’ – especially politicians and media and parents who have such an influence on communications and career choice. It isn’t cool or attractive to be arrogant or brainy and this approach is fuelling the response from young people that says science isn’t for me; it’s a competition; I’m not clever enough; I might fail.
I would welcome a well-informed debate as to whether science subjects – for example physics – really are more difficult, or whether they need different innate skills or even that they may be assessed and scored more harshly. We need to understand whether these subjects are only for a self-selecting top stream of students or whether they have potential for a mixed ability approach that encourages more people to give them a try for longer and give them the chance to find the enjoyment and commitment to do well. One head-teacher has referred to their head of physics as an ‘ayatollah’ who would not accept anyone for A level physics who didn’t have the top grade at GCSE. Clearly such an approach fuels the concept of physics as only for the top stream but also absolutely limits those who can go on to an engineering career or other physics-dependent careers. I am often asked why people can’t do ‘enough’ physics to be an engineer, or environmental scientists or similar.
Nearly half of all graduates with a STEM degree don’t take up STEM related employment (and the data includes those entering financial services and related occupations as using the ‘M’ of mathematics). Why is that? Did we miss-sell the degree and do graduates then find employers don’t value it as a STEM degree? Did you get a 2:2? Lots of leading science and engineering employers say it’s only worth employing 2:1 and above in STEM. But you would rarely ever hear someone say you’re unemployable with a 2:2 in another discipline. Or perhaps there something that today’s graduates find off-putting about some of the leading STEM employers – too aggressive, lacking diversity, poor work-life balance, competitive, not altruistic enough? That’s another debate worth having.
It is a competitive world out there for all of us – for employers and employees alike. If we want to attract young people to science careers then I believe the challenge lies with us in the science community to understand what we need to change to get them queuing at our doors.