Our third meeting was on Tuesday 11 September. Below is transcripts and summaries of the speeches and points from attendees.

Mhairi McCann

19-year-old scientist and Scottish Ambassador for the Young Scientists Journal

There are several issues faced by students in areas that are rural or less densely populated. I know this from living in Scotland and can hopefully give you a bit of an insight as to how your postcode can impact both positively and negatively on the accessibility of STEM.

In smaller schools, subject choices are limited. I wasn’t able to fit biology into my school timetable alongside physics and chemistry, so I had to teach myself in my own time. When it came to studying Advanced Highers in my final year of school the local schools worked together in a consortium arrangement to allow students to access the widest range of subjects possible. While in principle the concept is good, of my four subjects, only one was in my own school, and I spent a lot of my time in a total of 18 taxis weekly getting between three schools to attend classes, which just didn’t work well. Where schools have small numbers of pupils, or don’t have enough funds, this narrowing of subject choices can hamper young people in accessing a broad curriculum, including STEM subjects.

Young people in small schools with fewer pieces of equipment and no local universities are not able to benefit from the visits to labs, or tours around departments that their peers within larger towns and cities are more able to access. This makes it difficult for students to put their learning into context, which is vital for their ongoing engagement with STEM.

When participating in national programmes such as the British Science Association’s CREST Youth Panel or the Royal Society of Biology’s Student Curriculum Group, I’m often the only Scottish person in the room. More opportunities need to be made available for people in the local area.

An example of good practice is The Young Scientists Journal, an international scientific journal written, edited and published by 12-20-year olds – for the past year or so, I’ve been part of the outreach team as the journal’s Ambassador for Scotland but will very soon be taking on the role of Chief Editor. Distance is no boundary in the Young Scientists Journal- though most of the team are based in and around south east England where its roots lie, there are team members from all over the UK, as well as people across the globe including places like Germany, China, Australia, Pakistan, Nigeria, the USA, and Canada…This goes to show that distance doesn’t need to be a barrier and that we can produce brilliant results while working remotely.

I think that it is really important that we embrace the differences that exist between regions, particularly within education, as it can be hugely beneficial to be able to relate what you are learning to your locality. But celebrating difference is not the same as solving the regional disparities that exist. When we’re talking about this theme of regional disparity, we need to exercise caution that we do not confuse ‘difference’ with ‘disparity’. ‘Difference’ is about distinction and uniqueness, but ‘disparity’ has synonyms of ‘imbalance, inequality, disproportion’, where you’re actually being disadvantaged by the differences that exist in your region. It’s important we bear this in mind.

The local authority council where I live is also one of the most deprived, with 44% of residents in the most deprived fifth of Scotland’s population. With poverty being so prevalent, high percentages of young people being the first in their families to pursue higher education, and STEM often being seen as quite prestigious, it can seem an inaccessible career path to many young people. We need to change the face of STEM to help young people realise that people like them can succeed in it.

Local industries can have an impact on how STEM is perceived and can make finding relevant work experience easier or more difficult. If you live in an area with little in the way of industry that matches your interests within STEM, the lack of local work experience opportunities can in turn disadvantage you when it comes to job/apprenticeships/college/university applications. Though young people could look further afield for work experience, it is not usually paid, so in an area of poverty, you are then possibly more likely to opt for a more local (but less relevant) placement without the transport costs, rather than pursue a STEM based one further away that will leave you out of pocket.

And in terms of more casual engagement in STEM, when you look at areas that are a bit ‘out of the way’ like Inverclyde, large public engagement events don’t take place locally. But disadvantaged by both poverty and location, a lot of people can’t afford to travel to the nearest city to attend them, and so don’t get to benefit from them.

My suggestions

So, if those are all the challenges, what might the solutions be?

  1. Firstly, we need to create flexibility in the education system to account for and counter the regional challenges that exist, and also to allow students to put their learning into context with meaningful real life examples. This could also have a wider impact when it comes to making education more accessible to all.

  2. Organisations, like professional institutions and national initiatives, should vary the locations of face to face interactions, and build in methods of remote participation. I welcome the fact that that BSA took up my suggestion of having a method of contributing remotely to this meeting, and I hope that will continue to be a feature of future meetings of this All Party Parliamentary Group.

  3. Higher education institutions and organisations who do science outreach work should explore using technology to facilitate different methods of remote engagement- initiatives like ‘I’m a Scientist’, and ‘I’m an Engineer’ ‘Get Me Out of Here!’, and social media campaigns are good examples of science engagement where distance is no barrier. We need to increase and diversify the availability of such projects.

    It’s important to embrace the differences that exist within the UK, but it’s vital that location doesn’t present disadvantage and we take steps to mitigate barriers that exist through using equity to create equality of opportunity.

  4. And finally, it is worth remembering that because of the regional differences and disparities that exist, the implementation of government policy in a one size fits all approach is unlikely to be effective. It is vital that regional disparity is combatted through local initiatives, and the direction of such initiatives are driven by the people who will benefit from them. I said right at the beginning that I’m no expert, but that I believe that everyone is an expert in their own experiences. It is capitalising on this that will make huge strides towards reducing regional disparity in STEM.

Anna Round

Senior Research Fellow at IPPR North

There are several economic reasons why STEM skills are important for the UK’s regions. STEM skills are foundational. They help people enter careers and also understand policy and manage our own lives. We need to change the cultural attitude to STEM by embedding it into the culture and foundation of our communication. The mainstreaming of science needs to come through in education and our regular discourse.

Why do STEM skills matter? The Royal Academy of Engineering has looked at the value of STEM to the economy and calculated that £370bn in Gross Value Added comes from engineering sectors. Math sciences research adds £240bn. Pharmaceutical adds £2.4bn.

STEM also brings huge potential for regional economies. £17.5bn of Northern Gross Value Added comes from health science. Medical technologies thrive in Yorkshire and pharmaceuticals in the northwest. This is forecast to grow by 30% by 2030.

All of this depends on STEM knowledge and skills among workers and policy makers.

Another area of potential for the north is in green energy. IPPR published A Northern Energy Strategy last year. The north could create 100k green jobs, but these depend on embedding STEM in our culture and education system.

The digital revolution makes this even more important. Digital skills will become important in every job. Currently, 90% of jobs need some degree of understanding of digital technologies. Those digital skills are becoming ones that sit along numeracy and literacy. We need to be able to communicate digitally alongside writing and maths. Without those skills we risk digital divides.

Research from Newcastle University suggests that children are really interested in science. They love it, but something falls off around the age of 10.

But pathways – how do I get from a general interest in science to a real career in science – might not be hugely obvious. Visibility of science in careers is not always clear. We need to get school science leaders to work with local businesses and local careers.

Educational structures, subject boundaries and the curriculum are far too rigid, and this makes it difficult for teachers to put the context of STEM into the core of their teaching. Links to everyday lives are often made as the add-on to the curriculum.

Alex Norris MP

I represent a poorer community and I am constantly battling the narrative that we’re not a creative community. I’m chair of governors for a school on a tough estate, and the kids are incredibly creative. But there’s a point at which the world comes down on them. They lose the sense that there’s a place for them in science. STEM is not just a subject or school, it’s part of your life.

We have valuable partnership with universities and industry but they need scaling because they are usually with schools that are well networked. It’s not woven in as a core part of trying to raise attainment and expectation.

Collaboration is so important – science is all about collaboration. Being able to work online is a strong message for our young people to hear. We need to work with communities to stimulate curiosity.

Carol Monaghan MP

I helped to develop the Scottish curriculum and during the process, someone said we wanted to encourage certain attributes in physics and creativity wasn’t one of them. They didn’t think that physics was a creative subject, which is absurd!

Scotland has a more flexible curriculum – expectation is on the teachers to make more decisions than in England.

Industry and academia can play a more important role, it’s not for lack of effort and enthusiasm. We need to start measuring the impact of these activities. It’s not about big one-off events, it’s about developing relationships with teachers and young people that are sustainable. There needs to be ongoing engagement with STEM so it becomes normalised.

We need to move away from the current picture to something else to see improvements. We just need to think long term.


  • We are not communicating to remote places and we are not using media/marketing/advertising as much as we could. Huge amounts of money are spent on one-off events but we could have a more powerful impact with marketing.
  • The Open University (OU) is a four-nations university and the social mission is all about some of the things we’ve discussed. OU academics working with the BBC on Blue Planet is a great example of ongoing engagement. OU can work with excluded regions because all their resources are available remotely. How do we do this better? How do we reach disadvantaged communities?
  • We need to employ travelling science teachers for primary schools with the expertise, knowledge and equipment (that they take with them) to conduct the science curriculum confidently.
  • Most remote engagement is conducted via the internet but not everywhere has superfast internet or phone signal, particularly in especially remote or rural locations.
  • Most of the people engaged in outreach are swimming against the tide. Universities are not incentivised to do outreach. Research councils concentrate funds in typically well-funded areas including SE England. Until there’s an appropriate system of incentives, academics aren’t going to be able to deliver the part of the bargain we’re looking for.

Anna Round– Why is outreach always seen as extracurricular for teachers and academics? Why is it always project-by-project rather than an ongoing activity stream? It needs to be funded and evaluated and we need to work out the cost of not doing it! Devolution structures such as Local Enterprise Partnerships can help us to organise this. On why people would invest in science careers – that’s really important – IPPR does lots of work on skills and something that comes up is a difference between young people going down a vocational track and an academic track. You have to make a bigger leap of faith for a vocational track, so if you are going into training for a specific career, for example nursing, it’s specific, but an English degree means you can delay commitments until later on. It’s so important that everyone has a sense of the range of things you can do with a STEM qualification. Getting that evidence to families is vital. Demonstrating how a STEM base makes you resilient in a changing world is really important.

Mhairi McCann– More role models are needed to explain their journey if it’s convoluted. You don’t need a science degree to work in science, or a science job if you do a science degree, or a degree at all! It comes back to the people in the community. Looking at how we access young people – there needs to be more through groups like Brownies and Scouts – STEM is everywhere and it’s not recognised in school.

  • In Sweden they spend 1% of their art budget on buying art to be put up in schools. I suggest we spend 10% of the STEM education budget on access. Somebody could map events and you could map the cold spots.
  • The cultural aspect is at the core of this. We need to support youth and community groups. We don’t have the equivalent for science. STEM outreach grants are much smaller than in the arts.
  • Maps exist of what percentage of people are going to university. We need to bring academics, community leaders, families, together. 60% of our young attendees to SMASHfest are BME, 60% are female. 50% of participants would consider working in STEM. We can have an impact and we need more resources!
  • It also comes down to a confidence issue. Schools often have a physics department of one physics teacher. Industry should get more involved in schools and show them that science is more than just going to university and has viable career options.

Mhairi– Too often young people are added onto the end like sprinkles – with co-design you bring the target group into the process of designing the activity. They get equal power to say yes and no, and they’re a fundamental part of the process. It’s vital if we’re going to address regional disparity or any other aspect of D&I in STEM, talk to the people that you’re talking about. Involve them. Don’t ask them for feedback, involve them from the beginning and allow them the opportunity to say if they really like it or not.

  • We need to talk about intersectionality and understand the cultures of the people we are dealing with. Bring them to the table at funding panels, at the Royal society, at decision moments and in the Government.
  • Policy needs to include discussions of Brexit – regional disparity might get worse. Shared prosperity fund might not be that helpful!
  • The most important thing is giving skills to rural schools – with two teachers in a school they’ll struggle to have a science specialist.
  • The Wellcome Trust Research Enrichment Fund provides funding to grant-holders for activities that make the scientific community more diverse and inclusive help to make sure that every great idea that could improve health thrives.

Online submissions

Online submissions were invited from people in different regions of the UK. Below is an edited selection of highlights from these submissions.

Sayara Beg, Hackney, London

The main issue is the lack of evidence in the long-term benefit for a person to consider investing their time and money in a STEM education because there is no clear career progression evidence after entering academia or industry. Academia and industry must publish diversity and inclusion statistics showing the pipeline for their STEM-educated workers rising through to leadership roles.


A shortage of good teachers is worse in those areas that are less desirable to work and live. We can’t afford to pay enough to persuade the cream of the teaching profession to move to the poorest or most remote areas of the UK, especially if there is a culture of poor performance in exams. Teachers gravitate to those areas that are already doing well.

We fail to use technology to create teaching packages that would give equality of excellence to each pupil. If we combined the skills the BBC brought to its Planet series to all subjects, with video, computer based training and expertly devised classroom exercises, we could raise the quality of teaching for all. There could be packages for extra explanation for those who need it and extra information for those who can ride ahead of the average. Children’s education wouldn’t need to stop if a teacher was off sick. Teachers could be more fluid in the subjects they deliver.

Edward Vine, Essex

We have 60+ regional and local Science and Discovery Centres across the UK, each of which could bring in industry to support development and career opportunities.

Focusing solely on passing exams and neglecting creativity and skills like team working puts students at all levels off.

Stuart Macdonald, Paisley, Scotland

We have several regional issues in STEM: inconsistent engagement, disparity of opportunity, lack of skilled resource, generally poor mathematical skills in primary education, inconsistent corporate and SME engagement. There are too many ‘big bang’ events without ongoing engagement. Opportunity in STEM (as in other areas of life) is a lottery dependent on your postal code, gender, ethnicity, headteacher, teacher, youth worker, local business, local big employer and flavour of the month. 

Ian Galloway, Southampton

There is a lack of cohesion across the STEM subjects.  The lack of a clear vision for dealing with the shortage of young people working in STEM careers.  Nobody has set out what their understanding of STEM actually is beyond stating what the acronym stands for. A proper and fit curriculum should be addressing the skills agenda and not the subject agenda.

Rick Hall, Nottingham

"When Gordon Brown offered six cities in England the designation of Science City in his budget of 2005, Nottingham was the only one not to have either a major science museum or discovery centre (such as the Centre for Life in Newcastle, Millennium Point in Birmingham, or @Bristol), or a major science festival (like Manchester). What Nottingham had was a reputation for world-class scientific research, discovery and innovation, and continued investment in new STEM based start-ups and SMEs notably in BioCity.

It was a sound basis on which to grow the skills of the future workforce, and engage the citizenry in programmes of public engagement and science understanding; in effect to grow the Science Capital of Nottingham and its people.

There’s a but..

We who strive to raise expectations and opportunities for our neighbours and communities all too frequently encounter a deficit in confidence and willingness to participate and engage, and especially to try something new or different, characterised by the popular response, ‘no, you’re all right..’ when declining an opportunity to pause and engage.

This in turn gives rise to many further attempts to offer public engagement activities for young people, families and communities, (who are often defined as under-served, hard to reach, and within socio-economic indices of multiple deprivation or disadvantage).  And in times of cuts and austerity we turn to third sector support to shore up statutory obligations, including youth and play, community support and library services.

The barrier and inhibition to comprehensive and deep seated cultural change is the piecemeal nature of funding support across the STEM sector;  in my charity, Ignite!, we trawl over 100 learned institutions and trusts and foundations for their generally under £5,000 outreach and public engagement funding programmes.


In my report for my Churchill Fellowship, 2016, I identified four critical pathways which I argue should inform a progressive framework in the UK:

  1. building a long-term national consensus around the importance of Science learning within the context of widely agreed and respected strategies for comprehensive education in general. Such a consensus raises the importance of Science and Science education above party political debate and short-term funding cycles.
  2. embedding Science into the national culture, identity and ethos – as far as such culture can be defined – and by emphasizing the importance of creativity, imagination, curiosity and innovation as significant dimensions of Science learning and public engagement. Such emphasis highlights the importance attached to international comparisons like PISA league tables, and the economic benefits to be derived from Science discovery and technical innovation in a global market.
  3. investing in formal and informal Science education, and facilities that raise the profile of Science discovery. Museums, discovery centres and facilities in community settings are widely recognised in all four countries (of my Fellowship research, namely Finland, Ghana, India and South Korea) as integral to the perceptions of young people, their families and communities that Science IS for the likes of them.
  4. developing an infrastructure for the promotion of Science and Science learning, largely through agencies at arms-length from government, and which also cross sector boundaries.

In order to develop these four critical pathways, I make the following recommendations:

  • DCMS should consider constituting a body to distribute Lottery funds for the public engagement and understanding of Science, including education programmes in out-of-school and community settings. A figure of £50m to build programmes in the long term is my suggestion. Such a function could be included in the constitution of the British Science Association.
  • BEIS should establish a strategic body (or department) promoting the link between STEM programmes and creativity, not simply for the long-term impact on economic growth through innovation and technology, but also to promote progressive cultural values.Responsibilities should include defining and promoting the STEM-based creative economy and human resources development

Lindsay Keith, London and regions

I am a research fellow into public engagement to STEM subjects and also the director of SMASHfestUK, the only STEM festival (to our knowledge) that was specifically founded and developed using a human centred design practice.

The main issues that we perceive stem from economic inequalities in regional areas. The data and evidence are clear that STEM attainment is negatively impacted by poverty. What is also clear is that high quality education can go a significant way to closing that gap however, especially in the regions, schools find it difficult to attract and retain teachers who can bring this level of excellence. London schools have overcome some of these effects in the last two decades by using a multi-factorial  collaborative inter-agency approach to support schools and teachers with increased finance, improved leadership and reduced need for “firefighting” which is something we see schools in the regions struggling with and something which negatively impacts their ability to bring improvements. This improvement then needs to be linked to sustainable higher/further education, social and economic activity within and around the region, ensuring that there is “creation and retention” of aspiration within the region.

The other major issue, based on the work of Archer et al from the Aspires Project (Kings College London) are that children living in communities with multiple indicators for poverty and low socio-economic status are likely to see STEM subjects as “not for me” (this is related to the above point, but it specific for STEM engagement).

People with low socio-economic status are less likely to seek out or travel to places where they will find informal science education (such as museums) even if access is free. The key to engagement is two-fold – the intervention must go to the community, and empowerment: the intervention must work with the community. Co-design and co-creation of interventions, and funding/resources are the key to this.

Policy recommendation: Resourcing of integrated multi-agency collaborations to assist schools in poverty who are "firefighting" and improve recruitment and retention of teachers (see London model report here)

Resources are needed to improve the diversity of engagement in the regions. We have shown through our work that it is entirely possible to engage the so-called “hard to reach” communities, but this is only successful by having the resources to go and work face to face with people in the community.  We also showed that it is possible to create a community festival/engagement activity even if an organisation is not based in that community.

Policy recommendation: Increased resourcing of engagement activities in the regions which include inter-generational learning and careers

This relies on the co-ordination and engagement of multiple local actors which SMASHfestUK has done under its SOMUCH model (Social Organisations, Museums and Universities as Community Hubs). This brings together practitioners from local organisations to help create community hubs who are then empowered to create their own engagement and progression activities. It is vital that careers information is integrated into these activities from an early age and that the visitors are able to see a diverse range of practitioners with whom they can identify, in order to create aspirations.

Policy recommendation: Resourcing of collaborations in the regions to provide the above engagement

The current landscape of higher education is creating a push towards isolationism with regional post-1992 institutions competing with Russell Group universities, (uncapped as to their numbers) to fill student places, in the face of a recruitment drop due to tuition fees and other economic pressures. If universities can be better encouraged to work on building proper (not lip-service, as so many currently are) links with local communities this could have the multiple benefits of increasing student recruitment locally for them, but also bringing local businesses together and attracting new businesses to the area so that this creates a synergistic reinvigoration for local economies. If businesses can rely on a local workforce of good graduates then this provides a good reason for them to invest in an area. Currently in many areas of local/regional poverty, there are also no businesses, so even if students graduate with a good STEM degree they are often forced elsewhere to work so the effort that goes into local engagement with STEM on a regional level has no effect ultimately on improving the economy because those that engage become socially mobile but then move away. Regions need a circular economy not a brain-drain.

Policy recommendation: Compel HE institutions to work harder in engaging communities locally, as well as beyond, and looks to collaborations with businesses to provide recruitment, a graduate workforce and reinvestment in the local economy by the newly socially mobile graduates."