By Orna Herr, Communications Officer at the British Science Association


Google the world’s top inventors and you will be inundated with lists that routinely feature Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Benjamin Franklin, and more besides; White men from the annals of history who invented everyday objects we still use to this day(the electric light bulb, telephone and bifocals respectively).

In 2022, modern-day inventors should be a diverse list, coming from all backgrounds, genders, geographic areas and ethnic minorities. Sadly, the reality is not so progressive. The Centre for Economic Performance released a new report in July of this year which found that:

“Women, minorities and individuals from low-income backgrounds and certain geographic regions are under-represented among innovation leaders including start-up founders, patent inventors, and venture capitalists.”

Unfortunately, this fits into the pattern of many groups, other than White men, being underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) workforce. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Diversity and Inclusion in STEM* found this across the board in their Inquiry into Equity in the STEM Workforce.

Necessity, the mother of invention?  

Aside from the point that, in the name of a fair society, every person should have an equal opportunity to pursue a career in STEM if they want to, the lack of diversity among innovators has a knock-on effect for us all.

The report found not only that “individuals from high-income families are more likely to become inventors”, but also that being from a high socio-economic background has an impact on types of inventions scientists work on.

“Innovators from a high-income family are more likely to create products purchased by high-income consumers. For example, people from high-income families are less likely to get a patent or start a firm within a “necessity” industry like food, but are more likely to do so in a “luxury” industry like finance.”

People from high-income backgrounds do not necessarily work on innovations that solve problems faced by people from lower-income backgrounds, problems they have possibly never faced themselves, an issue which the report found “can lead to reduced growth and greater cost-of-living inequality”.

Innovation is an area of STEM where diversity of background, and therefore perspective, could not be more important. The report found conclusively that “social experience has a causal effect on the direction of innovation”.

The disadvantage gap

This inequality and underrepresentation of groups in society in STEM exist and persist for a multitude of reasons. One of our recent blogs explored the issue of disadvantaged school students being overrepresented in the lowest fifth of GCSE results, and being much less likely to go to university, meaning from a young age they are set on a path unlikely to lead to a career in innovation.

Fixing the disadvantage gap in education is a complex issue, with recommendations from the Education Policy Institute (EPI) that, among other things, targeting funding at deprived schools would be effective for moving towards equitable opportunities.

Academic studies also find that “one reason why some children lose interest and confidence in science in middle childhood is because they begin to view the possibility of “being a scientist” as incompatible with their identities”. The children they found this most pronounced in was ‘girls, members of some racial and ethnic minorities, and children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds’.

To think like a scientist

While issues around funding cannot be ignored, working with students on self-efficacy and showing them that they have the capacity to be scientists, whatever their background, is vital. CREST Awards, the British Science Association’s (BSA) education programme, is an effective vehicle for instilling confidence in school students by encouraging them to think like scientists and engineers and lead the investigation on projects that have real-world applications and reflect their interests.  

We recently spoke to Andrea Simms, a science teacher at Northgate High School, which has a high percentage of children from disadvantaged backgrounds, about how her students have benefited from completing CREST projects.

Andrea runs a STEM club and the members worked on Bronze CREST projects over a number of weeks, presenting their final projects as part of British Science Week. When asked how this has changed their perceptions of their abilities around science, she said:  

“We started on a Discovery Award in September and then from January worked on the Bronze Award and their confidence in their practical capabilities and the way they communicate has definitely improved, and also the pupils that come to our science club have managed to transfer those skills into science lessons.”

Watch the full interview here.

While Andrea had great success running CREST as part of an after-school STEM club, open-ended investigative projects also align with the curriculum, and so CREST can also be run during lessons. Using CREST in this way takes some lesson-planning pressure off teachers and allows the whole class to experience student-led science projects, which encourage them to think like scientists and engineers.

Find the resource for embedding CREST into the curriculum here.

The idea that science is for everyone, and the BSA’s vision of a future where science is more relevant, representative and connected to society, are not just nice sentiments in the name of fairness, they have tangible impacts. Scientific innovations affect us all, and if we want innovations that cater for everyone, not just the privileged few, we need all facets of society to be represented in the STEM workforce.

*The British Science Association is the secretariat for the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Diversity and Inclusion in STEM.