This article is written by Heather Mendick, Maria Berge and Anna Danielsson. It is based on their article ‘A critique of the STEM Pipeline: young people’s identities in Sweden and science education policy’, published in the British Journal of Educational Studies. It draws on the project ‘Power, Knowledge and Identity in Science and Technology Classrooms’ funded by the Swedish Research Council.

In the wake of the Brexit vote and Trump’s election, there has been much talk about a white working class who have been left behind economically and culturally. Science, of course, is intimately intertwined with both, economically linked to labour market opportunities and culturally to a broader public sphere. In this post, we ask what people working in science engagement can learn from the Brexit vote.

The problem with the left-behind narrative

As Danny Dorling points out, ‘Contrary to popular belief, 52% of people who voted Leave in the EU referendum lived in the southern half of England, and 59% were in the middle classes, while the proportion of Leave voters in the lowest two social classes was just 24%’. Trump’s victory too owes more to the US’s white middle class than to its disenfranchised. There is a UK and US working class who have suffered economically since the 1970s. But they are not just white. And, there are problems with how this group is depicted by media and political elites as lacking, as victims of fake news, as racist and sexist, while ignoring middle-class support for Brexit and Trump and middle-class complicity in alienating large sections of the population.

We can see this alienation in people’s relationships to science. A 2014 survey of public attitudes to science found, not a science/arts split, but one between the ‘engaged’ and the ‘disengaged’. The two-thirds of those surveyed who’d undertaken science-related activities in the past year were more likely to have taken part in other cultural activities. So there’s ‘a single group of people who typically go to all sorts of cultural activities … rather than two different sets of people who immerse themselves either in science or in arts-related’ stuff. They also found a group who are disengaged, and who they feel ‘present a particular challenge for those attempting to involve the public in decision-making’. These ‘less affluent’ people, strong advocates of public engagement, tend to be ‘the most cynical about public consultations, and among the least likely to want to get involved themselves’. This report’s judgement of this group as a challenge parallels the judgements of the white working class as lacking and responsible for Brexit. Science engagement work needs a more nuanced analysis of social class. We develop this in the next section through a case study.

The ideal subject of science engagement is middle class

Ester is a highly successful student who describes her time at school as a combination of ‘fun’ and ‘stress’. She is what Angela McRobbie calls a ‘top girl’ whose new-found ‘equality’ is a metaphor for the determination, graft and ingenuity needed for education and career success. Alongside science and mathematics, she chooses drama, theatre, and music for ‘variety’, and in her final year, she focuses on social sciences, explaining ‘I wanted to try everything I could study at school’. Her extra-curricular interests include Egyptology, palaeontology and psychology, alongside forest excursions, visiting the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, and working two to three nights a week as a personal assistant. Her decision to study psychology is based on talking to psychologists, reading blogs, and discussions with her four parents/step-parents. She also read a psychology textbook which ‘weighs a ton’. She has ‘a thousand backup plans if the psychologist doesn’t seem to work out’, is getting an apartment, and has discussed with her boyfriend moving cities in future ‘to study Egyptology’. Although she says, ‘I’m not really picky in life, so I uh, I live a bit minimalist and then everything will sort itself out’, she is tightly planning to ensure that everything sorts itself out in line with her desired identity. Ester’s orientation to her self as site of development and of investment in the future is historically, as Bev Skeggs shows, a middle-class one.

In speaking about her future, she talks twice about being ‘interdisciplinary’, studying something that cuts across natural and social sciences. ‘I sit on YouTube and search for everything between heaven and earth. … I do not think I ever will only work with one thing in life, but I think I will always like to sprawl’. Ester’s desire ‘to sprawl’ excludes the specialisation of full-time science, but supports a continuing relationship to science: ‘if I don’t study chemistry maybe I read a bit in some book in my spare time … I think I will never let it go’. Ester says that studying science has helped her cooking and other aspects of ‘everyday life’: I often hear from my relatives and I have my partner constantly, well, points out that I can give some logical explanations for everyone’s everyday problems. … When they talk about why the freezer is so difficult to open the second time, then I just “no, no, no, no, no” and tell them why it is’.  Ester seems to epitomise what science engagement wants to create – the active amateur who enthuses others about science.

Ester’s science engagement derives from her middle-class family’s science capital, the social and cultural resources they bring. All her parents/step-parents are teachers, across sciences, social sciences and humanities, providing spaces to create an interdisciplinary identity. They bought her a psychology textbook for Christmas and secured her teaching work experience through which she met a psychologist. Yet when asked from where she gets her science interest, Ester says: ‘Not from my parents, I think. I think a lot was that I got those magazines when I was little, like Illustrated Science and I think it gave a lot and to see those nature films, with David Attenborough on the BBC … and we had a great science teacher’. She ignores who purchased Illustrated Science magazine and how, if having the right teacher is so critical, having four across her two homes helps her. The idea of maintaining an interest in science beyond school, relies on a relationship to culture that is normatively middle class. In Ester we see an image of non-professional engagement with science that is assumed in much science engagement work. If we want a more democratic science we must acknowledge what Ester cannot, that it relies on privilege.

Towards a democratic science engagement

More people voted in the EU referendum, than in the last UK General Election. So people are not disengaged but some things don’t engage them. Science engagement organisations are filled with people like Ester. As such they largely reproduce the diet of museums, panel discussions and festivals that engage them. However, there are other models. For example, the BSA’s community grants programme provides small grants to run science events in atypical spaces, including council estates, mosques and community gardens, and among under-represented groups, including looked-after children, people with learning disabilities and those from economically-disadvantaged backgrounds. Through this programme, the BSA put their resources at the disposal of communities, allowing them to define their own projects and demanding little in the way of application and evaluation.

This is grassroots science engagement, but the bulk of science engagement funding still goes to the big science fairs, museums and other projects that support people like Ester and try to draw her back into science study. We need something more radical, mirroring the transfer of power in the arts that happened in London in the 1980s. Back then an annual 5 million pound arts budget that had traditionally gone to five so-called centres of excellence was redirected to community and ethnic arts projects. The funding criteria were not just aesthetic but also social and political and those giving out the money ‘weren’t assuming that we knew what was good’. Similarly, London’s economic policies in the 1980s sought to decentralise power, and to support community expertise not replace it. We need similar shifts in science funding today.