A recent piece of research carried out in association with the Ambition AXA awards found that children from lower income families are more likely to reject a future in science.1 Just 27 per cent of children from skilled manual working families say they would aim for a career in science, compared to 39 per cent from higher income managerial families. This is in spite of the fact that being a scientist is found to be one of the careers young people from poorer backgrounds would feel most proud of, second only to being a doctor.
Considering the oft-mentioned success of UK science, one could conclude that these findings do not give cause for concern. After all, Britain is responsible for more original research than any other country in the G8. Nobel Prizes are not scarce, considering our size. It is not necessary that all children have a burning desire to take up science as a career and at present, it seems that we have plenty of research scientists.
Below the surface, however, the picture is not quite so rosy. To start with, many careers which have a secondary science component or which require technical skills as well as science knowledge – such as managing a lab in the pharmaceutical industry or indeed, teaching physics - are very undersubscribed, so there is a real shortage of potential recruits. The other factor to concern us is the finding from the survey that family background plays a significant role in making the choice away from science.
Lack of confidence
A lot of work has been done in unpicking the careers information piece, and in looking at when young people make career choices, their influencers and so on. The Association for Science Education (ASE) has done much work recently on practical and outdoor science which helps teachers to locate school science in the real world, providing context and meaning.
But the survey seems to indicate a lack of confidence in opting for science and a self-doubt in the ability of the young person. Twenty two per cent of the young people questioned from less well-off families said they were not clever enough to carry on with science, compared to just 14 per cent from higher income managerial families.
In my view, addressing this lack of confidence, which is particularly evident in young people from a less advantaged background, is a concern that we should address urgently. This is a tremendously exciting time for science, it is communicated well and attractively through all manner of media and it would be a shame to leave behind some of those who might want to be a part of it.
Good science teaching is hugely important in this. Excellent teachers are skilled at bringing out the best in every young person in their charge and providing a rich mixture of the challenge to thinking, the creative and the practical, set in meaningful contexts. The ASE works hard to promote this vision which we share with others throughout the year and at our internationally respected annual conference.2
Young people also gain confidence through science activities in which they interact in smaller groups and as individuals. Competitions, such as the Ambition AXA awards and enrichment activities such as the CREST awards are examples of these. In these situations, rich interactions can take place between young people and adults which are not as easy in the classroom and these can lead to improved confidence and an increased likelihood that the young person will decide that science is ‘for me.’
The study into ambition in young people was commissioned to support AXA’s initiative: the Ambition AXA Awards. The £200,000 awards scheme for 11-18 year olds was launched in April to reward young UK talent and achievement in Enterprise, Science, Community, Sport and The Arts. Five talented young people could each win a bespoke mentoring prize worth up to £40,000 (a total prize fund of £200,000). The winners will be announced on 30 November 2011, after which the judging panel will help the winners to create a development package that will help them to achieve their goals. See www.ambitionaxaawards.com 
2 ASE Annual Conference is at the University of Liverpool from 5-8 January 2012