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Calls to Improve Representation in STEM

The Commons Science and Technology Committee has called for more action on underrepresentation in STEM (Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) in a new report.

In a new report, the Commons Science and Technology Committee has said that the STEM sector “provides many of the key building blocks of modern society” and is keen to press forward with plans that will “truly move the dial” in relation to ensuring that it is a better-represented sector.

The reason for these calls by the Committee is because of evidence that the following groups of people are under-represented in STEM education, research and employment:

  • Girls and women
  • People with disabilities
  • People from disadvantaged backgrounds
  • People who identify as LGBTQ+
  • People from certain ethnic backgrounds

The issue is seemingly rooted in the education sector, with the Committee’s findings showing that fewer children from Black Caribbean backgrounds undertake triple science at GCSE level than any other ethnic background.

The issue isn’t just with students, but with teachers too. It is estimated that around 15,655 additional black teachers are needed to bring teacher diversity in line with that of pupils. The domino effect of this is also evident in postdoctoral research – as there isn’t a single black male postdoctoral physic researcher in the United Kingdom.

There is also a gender issue when it comes to STEM representation, particularly in Physics, Maths and Computer Science. On average, only 23 percent of an A-Level Physics class is made up of girls, while the figure is even lower at 13 percent for computing. Beyond school, only 29 percent of Biology professors and 11 percent of Maths professors are women.

The Committee’s Chair, Greg Clark MP, has said:

“Despite many well-intentioned efforts from Government, research funders, universities and civil societies over the years, STEM still has a diversity problem. No one intervention can solve this, it is a complex challenge that requires a systemic solution. As well as better data, we need targeted interventions that really make a difference.

“The nascent Department for Science, Innovation and Technology must take up this mantle to achieve its goal of making the UK a science and technology superpower. We are clear that diverse backgrounds, perspectives and ideas don’t just make business sense, they are essential to the fair and just society we want to live in.”

Committee recommendations for STEM education

As part of the report, the Committee set out the following recommendations to improve STEM representation in education settings.

  • Ofsted inspectors should start collecting data and report on the “disparities in subject take-up and attainment across gender, ethnic background, and socio-economic background characteristics”. This committee argue that this should be part of the inspection criteria for every school.
  • An update to the national curriculum to include more diverse examples in teaching materials, such as highlighting female scientists more frequently.
  • A target for every child to be taught STEM subjects by teachers with qualifications in that subject by 2030. This is due to the fact that some schools in disadvantaged areas don’t have subject-specialist teachers.
  • Widen access and introduce a requirement that all students have to continue with Core Maths and Core Science post-16.
  • A government intervention on the fact that current STEM-focused bursaries don’t do enough to address longstanding teacher shortages in physics and computer science. Within the report, analysis found that two third of people doing a physics degree would need to go into teaching to meet current government targets.

Committee recommendations for STEM research

There weren’t as many recommendations from the committee for research despite finding evidence in the report that many individuals within this area face systemic discrimination. Acknowledging that this evidence was of “deep concern”, their recommendations for eradicating this were as follows:

  • UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) should set and meet targets to reduce underrepresentation in funding awards and decision-making bodies.
  • Greater diversity should be achieved by appointing on potential, rather than on past achievements.
  • The Government, UKRI and other research funders should make funding available for research facilities undertaking reasonable adjustments to ensure they are fully accessible.

Final thought

It has been evident for around 50 years now that there is a representation issue within STEM yet here we are still seeing government committees pushing forward new recommendations. The fact that things haven’t significantly improved over the years is a blight on every single government that has been in power in the United Kingdom.

All we can hope for is that the latest set of recommendations, which look potentially impactful on paper, see a breakthrough in the longstanding issue and that people in all backgrounds can enjoy long and prosperous careers in STEM.

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