By Katherine Mathieson, Chief Executive of the British Science Association


A little over two weeks ago, the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities published its long-awaited report, which set out to establish a road map for achieving “racial fairness” in the UK. Since then, I have seen and heard from many colleagues, partners and collaborators who have expressed their disappointment with the report. For many, it has failed to acknowledge the continued institutional and structural racism that people are facing in their day-to-day lives and careers.

Two of the focus areas of the report – science and education – are directly relevant to the work of the British Science Association (BSA) and our current mission of transforming the diversity and inclusivity of the sectors we work with.

Over the past four years, the BSA has worked on delivering that mission. We have evolved our programme of activities to better serve the people who are currently underrepresented in science and who would adamantly say that science is not for them – including those from ethnic minority groups. We have worked with a wide range of communities all over the UK, offering them guidance, support and mentorship to enable them to become actively involved in science, research and innovation in a way that is relevant to their lives. But that process has taken time. We have had to build a level of mutual trust to enable those communities to feel welcome, included and listened to. At no point on this journey have we seen or heard anything to suggest that systemic racism and discrimination have been eliminated in the UK. The opposite is true in many cases.

Moreover, the anger and disappointment about the report has also been expressed by my own colleagues at the BSA – their lived experiences do not chime with the narrative that the UK should be seen as an “international exemplar of racial equality”. The assertion by the report’s authors that they could find no evidence of systemic racism has caused a lot of hurt.

Not only do the lived experiences of my colleagues and our networks demonstrate that structural racism is an ongoing issue, the data backs this up too. As part of the BSA’s role as secretariat for the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Diversity and Inclusion in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM), we have been gathering evidence on the UK’s STEM workforce as part of the latest inquiry. While it is a complex picture, and the full results of that inquiry won’t be available until later in the year, the initial data analysis we conducted showed that people from most ethnic minorities are underrepresented in the STEM workforce – particularly women and those with disabilities. There can be no denying that there are still significant barriers in the STEM sector which prevent certain people from building a career in it.

In my time as Chief Executive of the BSA, the organisation has changed and evolved significantly. We have introduced a new audience model which allowed us to focus our work on the people who most needed our support. We have developed a more robust evaluation method to have a better understanding of the audiences we are (and are not) reaching. We have transformed our internal capacity and capability with regards to equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI), and have shared our learnings with the wider science engagement sector. We have introduced and kept to an ambitious and challenging EDI action plan to ensure that equality remains a key priority for our organisation in the years to come.

And we have also started to acknowledge and speak openly about our own organisation’s historical role in institutional racism and discrimination. There is still more for us to do here, but one significant step we took earlier this year was to change the name of our thought leadership event, the Huxley Summit, to For Thought. This decision was not taken lightly. In 2016, we named the Summit for Thomas Huxley, a prominent British scientist who helped shift the public's understanding of evolution at the BSA's annual meeting in 1860, we chose it because we wanted to emulate Huxley's forward-thinking, challenging spirit in our programme.

Huxley's views on race and genetics were then brought to light in the book “Superior” by BSA Honorary Fellow, Angela Saini. Though not unusual for the time, his opinions on race directly contradict the ethos of the event we had developed, which had become known for its inclusivity. I'm very proud of all that the Huxley Summit has achieved in the last five years; by renaming it we didn't set out to erase our history, but instead acknowledge a decision made without all the information, address it and move forward, confident it now truly reflects our values.

On reflection, I think this is one of the main stumbling blocks of the report published by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities. In an attempt to move the conversation forward, the report fails to acknowledge the mistakes and hurt that are still having an impact on people’s lives today. And although it is true that the UK has come a long way from the overt hostility seen in previous decades, it is equally true that we, as a society, still have a long way to go before racism and discrimination are eradicated in this country.

My colleague, Tariq Shabazz, summed this up perfectly in a recent conversation between BSA colleagues about the report when he said, “How can we really achieve proper positive change if we're not willing to address the real issues at hand? Without doing so, any change achieved will be minimal and ineffective. Real change only comes about when we are willing to confront our fears, anxieties and discomfort.”

I hope that we, as a society, can proceed on our journey to eradicate racism and discrimination in all its forms, and that we can use some of the learnings from the Commission’s report as well as the lived experiences of our colleagues, partners and beneficiaries to catalyse that change.