By Gisela Abbam, outgoing Chair of the British Science Association

When I first took on the role of Chair of the British Science Association (BSA) in January 2019, the organisation was emerging from a period of reflection and growth, which led to a revised focus on tackling the equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) issues faced by the science engagement sector.

As the first Black Chair of the BSA, it felt incredibly fulfilling to join the BSA at this vital point in its history. Our mission and vision then was for science to be at the heart of society and culture. Through an EDI lens however, we knew we had to dig deeper into what we meant by ‘society’ and ‘culture’.

Reflecting on the last three years, I am very proud of the progress our organisation has made on its EDI journey. We have a clearer understanding of the audiences and communities we want to reach with our programmes, and a better appreciation for the challenges we are facing to achieve our goals.

COVID and the BSA

COVID-19 was, of course, one of the biggest challenges we faced, not just as an organisation, but as a society, during my term as Chair. The team at the BSA responded with such willingness to the changes we made to everyday working practices, such as shifting our programmes and stakeholder relations online. It was wonderful to see colleagues supporting each other both personally and professionally.

On a national and international level, the pandemic has been devastating to people’s health and livelihoods. It has also exposed the existing inequities in society for people of particular ethnicities or socioeconomic backgrounds who are more adversely affected by societal restrictions on ‘normal’ life than others.

At the BSA our work then took on a different slant, given the unique position of our networks to interact with and convene those who are too often excluded from policy conversations and decision making. We were able to reach out to and champion the voices of young people, bring together cross-sector leaders to debate solutions to future crises, as well as supporting educators as they navigated unfamiliar environments.

A young woman, working on her laptop from a kitchen table

COVID beyond the BSA

In 2020, the BSA announced Professor the Lord Ara Darzi of Denham as its incoming President. In his address, Lord Darzi called for more clarity between those who provide advice and those who make policy, as the pandemic led to a meteoric rise in the profiles and influence of government scientific advisers. Lord Darzi also commented that the evidence base should always be made public, to enable proper scrutiny and peer review, a good example being the daily coronavirus briefings.

"Following the science" then became an everyday phrase as clinicians and researchers started to understand the virus better. Televised briefings helped engaged some people as they, like ministers, were able to see the evidence and think about the impacts of the virus on our daily life, debating ways to combat this.

Giving the public visibility of 'the science', and building into that the impact of the pandemic on other areas people experience on a day-to-day basis, such as education, housing and the job market, helps present the ‘bigger picture’. This in part contributed to more informed decision making on an individual and community level though, understandably, a global pandemic preys on fear and distrust, creating a perfect environment for disinformation to spread. Governments around the world must take this into careful consideration in ending future public health crises.

Community matters

By bringing more community voices into the conversation and actively seeking out groups in society who were typically ‘missing’ from high-level decision making, we were really able to show people who didn’t think science was ‘for them’ that it could be. We set up The Ideas Fund (with Wellcome) to do exactly that – I’m really looking forward to seeing what comes of the projects, led by community networks and supported by researchers, to help improve mental wellbeing in their local areas.

I’m really proud of how our community engagement work has flourished and evolved. Reaching audiences in such a wide range of geographies is a great example of how the BSA brings science to people who might not have access to further education institutions, museums or live events.

Read our community engagement impact report

Science engagement in action

It’s been a pleasure and privilege to work with the talented team at the BSA. Being part of a science engagement charity in the midst of a global pandemic has been eye-opening, as we explore how to deal with issues like (dis)trust in science and disinformation. It has also demonstrated the necessity to ensure science is conveyed in a range of ways that can be  comprehended by and resonates with every person and community.

As I say my last ‘goodbye’ I wanted to share one of my most memorable moments from the past three years. The first BSA-related event I attended was the launch of the Youth Industrial Strategy Competition where I was lucky enough to see, first-hand, the creativity and enthusiasm for science and technology from several groups of young people. Having worked on the Industrial Strategy with my corporate hat on, it was wonderful to see how our future generation of leaders and thinkers interpreted it and the breadth of solutions they had to offer.

Science is important, certainly, but  science engagement is just as valuable. The work carried out by the BSA and other science engagement organisations actively shows people that science is intriguing whilst having everyday applications.

I wish the BSA the best of luck in the future and I am confident they will realise their vision for a more representative and inclusive science landscape.

Read more about our search for a new Chair