By Liliana Shymanska, Corporate Communications Officer at the British Science Association


This week marks a pretty big milestone in many people’s diaries as England’s lockdown restrictions ease further, opening up a raft of new freedoms.

Though many of us are looking forward to dusting off a gym card or booking a staycation, as we shift back to normality, we can’t ignore that the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted and compounded existing inequalities in our society. From our recent blogs alone, primarily focused on the science and science engagement sectors, we’ve reported:

Although we cannot escape the overwhelming reality of the impacts of inequality, we can and must learn lessons from the pandemic, applying them to the reopening of society. As a result of lockdowns, many of us have (consciously or not) adopted some inclusive practices such as being more flexible and adaptable, or hosting events online. By actively continuing to be more inclusive, we may start to address – and hopefully, lessen the effects of – some of these inequalities.

Here are a few reasons to be hopeful and some suggestions to take with you, whether or not you work in science or science engagement sectors, as we move towards a new, more inclusive “normal”:

Access to research

COVID-19 has demonstrated just how fast and open scientific research can be done and disseminated. Researchers began to share data more openly throughout the pandemic with a surge in COVID-19 related studies being published on preprint servers. This has meant research has been whisked to formal publication in record time, as researchers from across the globe rapidly peer-review the studies. So, even as borders closed, international collaboration in research thrived. News reporting from research on preprint servers has also increased exposure and transparency. Most publishers even made their COVID-19 related articles - new and old - free to access.  This improved access to data, coupled with an appetite for coronavirus knowledge, means the general public – those outside of academia but curious – can themselves find out about COVID-19 developments in (almost) real-time.

Levelling the playing field

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a rapid rise in online conferences, training sessions, and community events. Though some may see these as less engaging than traditional physical events, it could actually increase participation and engagement. This may enable attendance from carers or those with childcare commitments, disabled people, those living in more rural areas or people who might find in-person networking overwhelming (e.g. early-career professionals).

A continuation with online events and digital engagement methods could be key in finding new audiences. This allows institutions to increase their reach beyond metropolitan areas and industry hubs, reducing barriers to access for people and communities traditionally underrepresented in science.

However, rather than maintaining a ‘business as usual’ format online, this could be an opportunity to prioritise inclusivity by ensuring that the speaker line up is as representative as possible, events are recorded and that they are accessible (e.g., adding captions). It’s important to understand your audience and remember that while remote events may increase participation in groups such as those mentioned above, this may not always be the case. For those living in areas with poor broadband or who have trouble sourcing the required technology, digital events may still be inaccessible.

Being flexible and adaptable

The turbulence of the pandemic has meant a lot of change to our daily lives. As a result, many of us have had to become more flexible and adaptable, whether in our schedules or ways of interacting with others. These skills can be taken further by actively asking underrepresented audiences what would improve their engagement with science and what changes they’d like to see. Having a flexible approach could include engagement in different settings, such as virtual or outdoors, or using different channels of communication, such as zines or social media. The National Theatre are an example of an organisation that has achieved exactly this.

In April 2020, they launched ‘National Theatre at Home’ on YouTube, streaming full-length performances online. By adapting their programming and reallocating resources, the theatre was able to reach over 15 million people around the world, reaching audiences they wouldn’t usually because of their location or cost of attendance.

Closer to home, the British Science Association trialled a new ‘COVID-19 Community Innovation Grant’ scheme back in September 2020. By recognising how resourceful community organisations had been in responding to their user’s needs, we supported them in adapting their way of running science engagement activities in the wake of COVID-19.

The relevance of science is more prominent in many people’s lives

In line with our mission, we want to help make all aspects of science more relevant, representative, and more connected to everyday life.

According to our audience model (below), before the COVID-19 pandemic, science seemed too distant or far removed for many people, with a quarter of the UK population (25%) seeing science as ‘not for them’.

The COVID-19 pandemic, however, made armchair epidemiologists of us all, illustrating how important science is in our daily lives. Science is now seen by many as something everyone can talk about and use. We’ve even recorded a marked uplift (37%) in young people considering a scientific career as a result of COVID-19.

The science and science engagement sectors must nurture this interest by continuing to encourage people, who prior to the pandemic wouldn’t typically talk about medical research and virus mutations over dinner, to keep asking questions. We need to find out and understand what is relevant to the wider public, and what people want from science.

Despite the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on science, the science engagement sectors and beyond,  these lessons prove there is potential for positive change, with a more inclusive world waiting for us on the other side.