Hannah Russell started her role as Chief Executive of the British Science Association (BSA) in October 2022. Hannah came to the BSA from the Association of Science Education (ASE) and has previously held roles at the Biochemical Society and Wellcome, so she’s no stranger to the organisation or the world of science engagement.

As we approach her two-month anniversary, we sat Hannah down for a Q&A to welcome her to the BSA…

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Thank you for taking the time to chat to us, Hannah. It must have been an interesting few weeks for you.

Firstly, what made you want to work for the BSA?

The BSA provides the perfect blend of science engagement and education, bringing together the main areas I have focused on throughout my career. I’m passionate about the importance of engaging people of all ages and backgrounds with science – particularly those who are currently underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) – and building our knowledge and expertise around how best to do this.

Major global challenges of our time such as climate change and COVID-19 have shone a spotlight on the need for everyone to be able to use science as a tool to ask questions, support understanding and be able to make informed decisions about its impact on our lives. It has also highlighted the need to secure a strong and more diverse future pipeline of scientists, technicians, medics and engineers.

The BSA has huge expertise in how to achieve this and, as well as being an organisation of such historic importance, remains at the cutting edge of knowledge and best practice in this area. I can’t wait to work with the team and partners across the sector to drive forward this important work.

Hannah Russell with Anne-Marie Imafidon

Hannah (left) with Anne-Marie Imafidon, BSA President 2022/23

Part of our mission is for science to be more connected to society. How would you describe your own connection to science?

As someone who has spent most of their career facilitating science and engineering in one form or another, I would say that I have a very close connection to science. That certainly doesn’t mean I have an encyclopaedic knowledge of science, but I’m confident to engage with ‘scientific’ issues, strongly believe in the power of science to transform people’s lives and, as you’d expect, am incredibly interested in how to engage others.

In reality, of course, we use science all the time and not just when we talk about science-related topics. For instance, when we want to understand how something works (or why it doesn’t) or how to make it better.

Improving this sense of connection can help to break down some of the barriers children, young people and communities face to engaging with science, as well as dispelling some of the lines often drawn around it. For example, where science becomes pitted against the arts despite both being intrinsically creative endeavours.

A recent BSA poll found that around 1 in 5 young people (17%) aged between 14 and 18 don’t think science is ‘for them’*. This is comparable to a poll conducted by us in 2020 where only 20% of young people agreed with the statement 'Science is for me'.

Why do you think that 'connection' to science isn’t as strong for some people?

It’s a really complex issue. School science clearly has an important role to play. In addition to issues around curriculum content and assessment, persistent difficulties with teacher recruitment, retention and access to professional development are also relevant here as we know that teachers play a critical role in young peoples’ experience of science.

There's evidence that students would like to do more practical work. According to Wellcome's Science Education Tracker, of the students who stated they would 'prefer to do more' practical science a higher proportion are eligible for free school meals (66% compared to 60% who don't qualify) and live in areas of higher deprivation (63% in the top Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index quintile versus 56% in the bottom quintile). So any widespread reduction in practical work – such as that seen in the pandemic – will likely disproportionately impact these two groups, removing key opportunities for them to engage with science and make that 'connection'.

This also speaks to the critical issue of inclusion. As just mentioned, it is clear that some young people experience significantly more barriers than others to engaging with science. In addition to addressing the lack of diverse role models (in the science curriculum, in teaching and the wider STEM workforce), we also need to break down other barriers such as regional differences in access to science engagement and how we talk about ‘who’ science is for. This involves challenging deep-set, outdated and often unconscious stereotypes, such as science being difficult or physics being for boys.

Of course, there are many influences on young people and so we also need to look beyond the classroom. The BSA’s community engagement programmes show how this can be done effectively at a community level. And we also need to think about how young people receive information about science, for example, where they access the news, the power of influencers and the impact of wider media.

There is much to do…!

Find out more about our Community Engagement work

There’s work to be done indeed! So, following on from that, do you have any books, podcasts, exhibitions or similar – related to science – that you'd recommend for people who might not necessarily consume ‘science content’ to enjoy?

I have always adored David Attenborough’s books and as a child would pore over Life on Earth for hours – I can still picture many of the photographs. His documentaries are also incredibly powerful, both informative and captivating. Many of them are available for UK audiences on BBC iPlayer.

Currently, I’m being inspired to further develop my tech skills through our President, Anne-Marie Imafidon’s, new book, She’s In CTRL. Her guide explores how women can take back tech to communicate, investigate, problem-solve, broker deals and protect themselves in a digital world.

As a busy working parent, I’ve become a complete convert to podcasts. I particularly love the biographical approach taken by BBC Radio 4’s The Life Scientific where leading scientists talk about their life and work, what inspires and motivates them, and what their discoveries might do for us in the future.

I also enjoy The Curious Cases of Rutherford & Fry – my current favourite episode being around the teenage brain, which has also been helpful in understanding my own 16-year-old…

And I’m also bit of a gardening geek – or certainly would be if I had more time! – so will happily settle down with a cup of tea and a book about plants.

Great recommendations there, which I’m sure others will love too.

Onto Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) now; championing EDI is at the heart of the BSA’s work. Why is this important for the science sector? And what do you think the role of the BSA is in supporting our audiences to improve their EDI practices?

Championing EDI – and equity – is crucial for the success of the science sector. From a science education perspective, the need is clear – both in terms of ensuring a strong future STEM workforce and equipping all young people to be able to use science as a tool to understand and make decisions about the world around them.

But those needs aren’t restricted to young people, and it is crucial that we also champion EDI practices more widely, for example, through community engagement. Not only does this work benefit the underrepresented communities involved, it also benefits the researchers who take part and the wider science sector itself.

If we want the UK to remain at the forefront of science and technology, then we need to bring together people with different backgrounds, different perspectives and different ideas to help create an environment where creativity and innovation can flourish.

What do you consider the biggest challenges in the BSA achieving its mission and vision? How could we overcome those?

The last couple of years have been a challenging time for many charities, particularly with the impact of the pandemic and the cost of living crisis. The BSA has ridden the storm well, continuing to support its diverse audiences while also responding to changes in the environment and developing and sharing best practice.

Looking forward, the biggest challenge in achieving our mission and vision will be having the capacity to deliver all the work that is needed. We can’t do this alone and will continue to welcome working in partnership with others as we seek to broaden our reach and maximise our impact.

Finally, what are you most looking forward to in your role as Chief Executive?

Pretty much everything! Working alongside the staff team, trustees, Presidents, Honorary Fellows and wider stakeholders to deliver our programmes, building new partnerships and advocating for the changes we need to see in order to deliver a future where science is truly more relevant, representative and connected to society.

Thanks, Hannah. It was a pleasure! We’ll be hearing from you soon, of course.

*According to a survey commissioned by UNBOXED and the British Science Association of 1,000 14-to-18-year-olds in October 2022.

Find out more about the British Science Association

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