On Friday 24 March 2023, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee (STC) published the final report on its inquiry into diversity and inclusion in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).

The aim of the inquiry, launched in 2021, was to investigate the extent of underrepresentation across the industry, and what can be done to address it.

The British Science Association (BSA) gave evidence to the inquiry which was cited throughout the report and our former Chief Executive, Katherine Mathieson, was one of the witnesses to the inquiry. We also published a series of recommendations and responded to evidence provided by the then-Chair of the Social Mobility Commission and headteacher, Katherine Birbalsingh.

We have been following the inquiry closely and welcome the report as a starting point for the Government’s new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology to lead sector-wide efforts to ensure diversity and inclusion are embedded in and across STEM.

Read the full report

Our reflections on the key points

The STEM sector is not fully representative of our society

The report concludes that there has been a lack of diversity and representation across the science workforce for a long time. It acknowledges work has been done to try and better the situation, but there has been little significant progress. The BSA’s  evidence to the inquiry goes further, stating that underrepresentation is systemic, present at all levels and society-wide, making it particularly challenging for single policies or interventions to make a substantial difference.

The report calls on education and research institutions within STEM to “follow the Government’s lead and take a systemic approach to the challenge” of improving diversity and representation. However, it is not wholly clear which Government policies this refers to and, as mentioned, attempts to affect change so far have fallen short.

The creation of a Department for Science, Innovation and Technology sends a positive signal around the Government's commitment to scientific research and innovation. At present, science is not accessible to all and by that argument, society fails to benefit fully from the science and innovation sector due to missed potential. As the Royal Society’s submission to the inquiry states:

Any lack of diversity in the scientific workforce represents both an absence of talent that the UK could be benefitting from and a lack of opportunity for people in the UK.

This inquiry received over 100 written submissions; the 2014 ‘Women in scientific careers’ inquiry received over 90. It’s plain to see that the lack of diversity in science has been, and continues to be, a concern. The scientific community wants to see changes spearheaded by Government.

Women in STEM education

The inquiry rightly highlights that a perceived lack of diversity in STEM has a negative impact on the next generation. The example the inquiry gives numerous times is the lack of women scientists in the curriculum resulting in young girls and women not having role models to relate to. However, the report also reveals that “many of the conclusions from a […] 2014 report on women in science could still apply today”. That report, published nearly 10 years ago, found that women made up only a fraction of the workforce and were underrepresented at senior levels across all disciplines.

Vast amounts of resource and attention have been concentrated on increasing the proportion of women in STEM over the past two or three decades. Despite this, men still make up 73% of the STEM workforce.

The inquiry makes clear that disabled people, people from certain ethnic backgrounds such as the Black Caribbean community and people who identify as LGTBQ+ are among other marginalised groups underrepresented in STEM.

The shift to approaching underrepresentation through an intersectional lens – the accumulation of factors affecting an individual's experience, encompassing their race, gender, sexual orientation and other characteristics – is welcomed by the BSA. Nonetheless, we must learn from the ‘women in STEM’ years. We must ensure any future actions and initiatives are more effective in moving the dial for those from all underrepresented groups.

Data dilemma

The inquiry asserts that “improved data collection and the application of lessons from it are key to addressing under-representation”. Across the STEM labour force and in science education, data collection and the quality of any data available is extremely varied. Higher education institutions, for example, are mandated to collect employee data about specific characteristics and some learned societies are progressing towards more robust data procurement within their disciplines.

An inquiry into equity in the STEM workforce by the All-Party Parliamentary on Diversity & Inclusion in STEM (for which the BSA provides the secretariat) helpfully points out that this is not possible across the board. For example, it is not feasible for all small- and medium-sized enterprises to carry out this work. Comparing data across STEM therefore provides a challenge, which means there’s no full picture of the extent of underrepresentation, and a lack of understanding as to how intersectionality affects individuals’ opportunities and outcomes.

For effective, system-wide change, interventions must be based on the workforce and the situations underrepresented groups and individuals face. The BSA agrees that it is imperative that a realistic data collection strategy is developed, which focuses on consistency and completeness. This is necessary for the future success of any actions to improve STEM diversity and inclusion.

Next steps

This inquiry is an essential step towards improving diversity and inclusion practices in the STEM sector, ensuring we welcome everyone, regardless of background, nurture those contributing to the UK’s research and innovation advancements and develop the strongest future STEM workforce. The publication of the report comes at a critical time as the UK and the rest of the world face a climate crisis, threats to food and energy security, global health risks and more.

The BSA will continue  to advocate for diversity and inclusion to be placed at the heart of science; for us this goes beyond education and the workforce, covering communities and the wider public too. Our partnerships with key stakeholders across education, community engagement, business and policy are crucial to achieving our vision of a future where science is more relevant, representative and connected to society.

We look forward to hearing from the new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology about how they will build on the Science & Technology Committee’s recommendations, cultivating a diverse and equitable science sector that serves all of society by opening up opportunities to people who will be at the forefront of solving society’s future challenges.

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