Community engagement is at the heart of what I do and it is important that even as the science community works towards a more science literate society, we do not ignore residents living outside city hubs. This article was initially published for the Research research on why science engagement is biased.
Universities and societies stage few events beyond their home patch. A little wanderlust would help make science more diverse, says festival organiser Hephzi Tagoe.
I’m a woman, I’m young, I’m an early-career researcher, I’m black and I live in Basildon. For the first four of these categories, I have organisations and individuals championing my interests and representing me at the decision table. But speaking personally, of all the minority boxes that I tick, my gender and ethnicity do not hinder my access to opportunities as much as my location does.
I love science, but I struggle to attend events, mainly because hardly anything goes on in my region. I usually have to travel to London or Cambridge if I want to hear a lecture or attend a café scientifique. I’m willing to make that trip, because my interest is strong enough. But it represents a high threshold to engagement.
Most people in Basildon will not be likely to make that investment. Most will not even know what they’re missing. You won’t find central London or Cambridge organisations advertising their events on an Essex train or at Lakeside in Thurrock. At best, information may get circulated to schools, but not every child will take that information home, and not every adult has a child in school.
Even when invited, big-city institutions seem reluctant to get involved in smaller towns. Last year, I organised the first Basildon Street Science Fair, building on a similar event held in Chelmsford. I’m now planning this year’s event.
I have been working to involve universities and learned societies, which usually have resources dedicated to supporting these types of events. But in my experience, they are not interested in coming to Basildon.
For universities, charity seems to begin and end at home. One institution told me that it owes it to its communities to prioritise engagement in its home city.
Learned societies and science charities seem to pick and choose what events they send their teams to. It is usually not the ones that happen in small towns. Posting out leaflets is usually the best I get.
I know that these organisations face multiple calls on their finite resources. But there needs to be a realisation that some communities are missing out and that not every town puts on a national event. Smaller events in towns that don’t have universities or science centres need support, too.
A study by the British Science Association, published in 2016, found that science communicators are particularly thin on the ground in the northeast, Wales and Northern Ireland, emphasising the need for big-city organisations to cast their net more widely.
The lack of diversity in science is a longstanding problem. It was one theme of the remarks made by Jo Johnson, the universities and science minister, and Mark Walport, the government chief scientific adviser, at this month’s launch event for UK Research and Innovation.
Yet while the problem is widely recognised, it is far from being resolved. One reason is that a focus on identity has threatened to overshadow the contribution of geography.
Another reason for the failure to make science more diverse is that the underrepresented groups are so, well, diverse. Each faces different problems with potentially different solutions.
On the other hand, every region contains women, disabled people, blacks, Asians, LGBT people, and low-income and working-class families. You can’t necessarily expect large numbers from these groups to come to the science, especially if it means travelling to a city-centre location. So the science ought to make more of an effort to go to them.
I would love to see the British Science Festival come to Essex, or have a Royal Institution public lecture held at the Towngate Theatre, or to come across the University of Essex hosting an event on the front at Southend.
Earlier this month, the Financial Times published an article titled Science Communication: A graduate’s guide to a growth industry, celebrating the UK’s efforts in engaging the public with science. It was nice to read about the science gallery due to open near London Bridge next year. But it would have been even more exciting if the gallery was opening in Basildon—or Luton or Blackpool.
The UK’s science communication industry will not be doing its job if it results in the usual suspects engaging with the usual suspects. There need to be opportunities for the residents in science-free zones to engage with science. Researchers and their institutions need to review their strategy for widening participation and diversity, and be prepared to get on the train and into the small towns.