Karen Folkes describes recent developments
This year we enjoyed a bigger and better Big Bang Fair in March. More sponsors, more media coverage, more visitors than ever before - and I would say also more diverse in terms of the more than 56,000 visitors who flocked to the NEC in Birmingham and notably in the representation of females and people from a minority ethnic background winning the premier Young Scientist and Young Engineer awards.
Joint winners Wasim Miah and Jessica Jones from Cardiff, who took the Young Engineers of the Year Award with their invention of a device that tells expectant mothers that they are about to go into labour, are perhaps a good sign that we too are ‘delivering’ on the diversity agenda in science and engineering.
‘I can’t believe I’m the first girl to win the UK Young Engineer of the Year,’ said Jessica. ‘It makes the achievement all the more amazing. It would be great to see more girls enter into the field of engineering as there is no reason why we can’t compete against men.’
This is a view emphasised by our Department’s recently-appointed Chief Scientist Professor John Perkins who, as part of National Science & Engineering Week, gave the keynote speech at Equality for Women in Science - sometime, now, NEVER? conference hosted at the International Space Innovation Centre in Harwell.
Professor Perkins outlined how increasing the diversity of the scientific workforce was important to growth and the economy. He said that progression was the key. Different challenges affected different sectors, and he welcomed ideas on how to tackle them.
These observations also resonate with a fruitful discussion that was had later in March at the Royal Society’s STEM Diversity Conference at Chicheley.
PE for good governance
For me, improving diversity in STEM sits alongside improving the opportunities for a diverse public to engage in dialogue on science and engineering. A recent Sciencewise report, Science, Trust and Public Engagement,1 highlights the importance of public dialogue, and challenges those involved to ensure that public engagement is part of an overall approach to good governance and not a stand-alone activity.
Through a review of previous public dialogues, the project suggested three distinct models for how public dialogue can be used to inform policy making process. These are the Upstream Model (allowing the public to contribute to blue skies thinking), the Honest Broker Model (helping mediate between controversial positions) and the Issue Advocate Model (giving the public a greater voice on certain topics).
In addition it identified several cross-cutting challenges (which science engagement veterans might find a touch disappointing). These are the relative lack of public trust in government to act in the public interest; a public sense of feeling excluded from decision-making; an unease in the pace of scientific and technological development compared with the capability for ethical and regulatory oversight; and a question as to whether the culture of science discourages scientists to voice concerns over potential risks and uncertainties or to reflect on wider social and ethical considerations.
The report provides some observations on emerging trends in public engagement. It identifies the value of listening to ‘uninvited engagement spaces’ (such as the blogosphere); more distributed and open forms of innovation (such as opensourcing, crowdsourcing and co-design); institutional redesign towards openness, transparency and accountability; the development of voluntary codes of conduct as an alternative to purely regulatory or top-down audit; and the continued evolution of ethical codes of conduct and ethics review committees.