Ahead of the launch of a report on Regional STEM Skills Inequity, the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Diversity and Inclusion in STEM held a meeting on 27 April 2023 to discuss the provision of STEM skills across the UK. It brought together the Group’s members, sponsors, and other stakeholders to explore place-based barriers to gaining STEM skills, and links between mobility and STEM access.  

The meeting was opened by Baroness Brown of Cambridge, an Officer of the APPG, who welcomed the participants and presented key findings from the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee’s inquiry into People and Skills in UK STEM. 

In the context of the UK’s ambition to become a science superpower, the inquiry found that urgent actions are needed to address the UK’s skills gap. The four areas explored in the inquiry are: 

  • Immigration policy for STEM talent – visa costs for skilled workers and scientists are too high compared with the UK’s competitors (e.g. Germany, US). To attract top talent, more support is needed to help individuals navigate the UK visa and settlement process. 
  • Understanding and quantifying the skills gap – the UK needs a good national understanding of what skills are in deficit, but the quantitative data is lacking. Apprenticeships are an important part of training a skilled workforce, but enrolment has declined in recent years. We’re expecting apprentices to be local, and not offering apprentices the chance to be mobile. This only opens up opportunities in their immediate area, which could fluctuate over time, or not align with a student’s aptitudes or interests. 
  • Recruiting and retaining science teachers – government needs to look at differential pay. Schools generally have an egalitarian view of how funding should be spread amongst teachers, so differential pay would need to be centrally directed and funded. Science teacher CPD helps with retention.  
  • Precarity and attractiveness of STEM academic careers – the short, fixed-term nature of most contracts contributes to the precariousness of careers for postdoctoral researchers. This particularly affects women and those from less well-off backgrounds. Better career advice for PhD students and postdocs, and longer contracts at postdoc level, are needed. Initiatives that allow PhD students and postdocs to spend time in industry should be expanded. 

Panel discussion  

After the opening remarks of Baroness Brown, we held a panel discussion on regional STEM skills inequity. The discussion was chaired by Hannah Russell, Chief Executive at the British Science Association, and the panellists were: 

  • Carol Monaghan MP; 
  • Dr Mark Richards, Senior Teaching Fellow at Imperial College London; 
  • Natalie Desty, Director of STEM Returners; and 
  • Stephen Stewart, Head of Skills at the Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult. 

The following points were highlighted during the discussion: 

What are the place-based challenges to gaining STEM skills? What are the positive things we can do to make a change? 

  • STEM Returners has helped 380 engineers return to STEM. There are 75,000 who are keen to return to STEM, but the percentages of women and people from ethnic minorities who return are far lower than the amount reflected in workforce. How do we create more opportunities and explore the diversity and inclusion of bringing people back into the workforce?  
  • Apprenticeships are an important part of increasing diversity within STEM. The starting point is to attract apprentices from beyond the local area, but low salaries and a lack of companies which offer relocation allowances are some of the challenges. 
  • Creating a sense of belonging by building cohorts and networks helps make STEM more inclusive. The Blackett Lab Family was created by Mark Richards at the physics department at Imperial College London in 2006. Because of the lack of diversity among physics students, Mark realised that Black students were important to those who considered studying physics. By aggregating these individuals and creating a critical mass over the years, the Blackett Lab Family is now in a position to lead the conversation on diversity in physics and inspire a new generation of Black physicists.  
  • In Scotland, you can’t be taught STEM by non-specialists, which presents a different set of challenges. Generally, young people in Glasgow go to a university within their localities. For many people from disadvantaged backgrounds, staying near home and within Scotland is in their mentality. 
  • The biggest barrier to returning to STEM seems to be age. More than half of over 55s report that they have experienced personal bias, compared to 23% in younger age groups. 
  • STEM can be a key driver for social mobility. STEM skills are transferrable and extremely valuable in industry. However, this can lead to talented graduates leaving the STEM sector for better paid jobs in the financial sector, for instance. We need to think about how STEM can retain its people. 

To what extent does remote working offer solutions for careers in STEM? 

  • After a career break, STEM professionals face different recruitment challenges and subsequently lose confidence. A lack of flexibility to allow for childcare responsibilities is a significant barrier. Changes forced by the COVID-19 pandemic presented some opportunities: it allowed parents to work flexibly from home. Unfortunately, many companies are now starting to implement less flexible working arrangements.  
  • Remote working presents opportunities as well as barriers. For many young people who are starting their careers, it is very important to be mentored in-person and interact with colleagues in physical spaces. 
  • Hybrid learning and working have allowed apprentices to access different courses, but there is a limit to how much they can learn online. It also distorts their understanding of what it is like to be full-time in a working environment. Within companies, it has become more culturally acceptable to work from home, which has had a positive impact on employees. 
  • People need different working environments at different points in their life. For some, not being in an office can make for a less engaging experience. For young people, it is important to be in a working environment amongst others. For parents, there are other barriers in place, e.g. having meetings later in the day, or a generally dismissive attitude towards job-sharing from employers. There are many preconceived notions in the workplace that need to be questioned. STEM employers should be mindful of the various wellbeing needs of their workers. 


If you could ask the current government for one thing, what would it be? 

  • When it comes to returning to STEM, the North of England and Midlands are underrepresented. STEM Returners in partnership with Women Returners have recently been awarded funding from the UK Government Equality Hub to deliver the STEM ReCharge project which aims to enable experienced professionals with tech and engineering backgrounds in the North of England and the Midlands to return to their careers after caring-related career breaks of a year or more. 
  • Progress has been made on engaging smaller businesses in apprenticeships – these efforts and associated funding need to be sustained. 
  • We need to look at where the public funding is going. An annual diversity report on who receives research funding should be published by Government. This would provide a starting point in understanding which groups are underfunded and overlooked in STEM. 

How can agencies and organisations work with children from a very young age and encourage them to learn about STEM? 

  • By the time they leave primary school, young people have excluded many subjects. The British Science Association helps young people to learn about STEM through their education programmes, e.g. CREST Awards. This should be scaled up, so that all children can do a project similar to the offering from CREST, which take science beyond the classroom and make young people think like scientists. 
  • Sometimes it is easier to inspire young children than to inspire their parents, they can be apprehensive about how hard it could be to pursue science as a career. Parents have the biggest influence on young people’s lives and they should be included in the conversation about careers in STEM. 
  • Using technologies such as VR can help excite children about science. It allows them to have an experience that otherwise would be difficult due to, for example, restricted access to physical spaces. 
  • Companies often do not see value in spending time with the younger generation at schools. This needs to change – a mechanism to support aspirations needs to be put in place as well as communication of their work, and engagement with it. 
  • It is not enough to just inspire young people to take the first step into STEM. They need to be supported throughout this journey once they’ve made that decision.