By Amy MacLaren, Director of External Relations at the British Science Association

During the first couple of weeks of lockdown, at our daily morning catch-ups, our team spoke a lot about the lack of diversity of the spokespeople on the Coronavirus pandemic in the UK. We talked about how frustrating it was that, at a time when science was so high on the public and media agenda, the scientists and medics in the public eye were reinforcing narrow societal stereotypes (of scientists) and that the communications approach was largely top-down (neither things that we, as an organisation seeking to transform the diversity and inclusivity of science, would associate with best practice). 

We discussed speaking out, calling for more diverse spokespeople to be profiled; not just in the Government briefings, but on the airwaves and beyond. But we didn’t say anything, partly because we felt that the scientists and medics at the forefront of communicating to the public were doing a good job – giving clear messages, providing reassurance – and partly, I suspect subconsciously, because we didn’t want to cause friction.

As the news pieces began to appear – about the public health messaging not successfully reaching all communities in the UK, and the first signs that people from the UK's ethnic minorities were more likely to die of the virus – we started to take tentative steps. In blog posts we questioned who was missing from the public conversation, we commissioned a survey of young people’s views (who overwhelmingly felt overlooked), and we sought viewpoints from people in our Community Engagement Network.

The BSA is in the early stages of a long journey to transform the equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) of our organisation and of the wider science engagement sector. As a staff team, we have been undertaking an expansive and stimulating programme of EDI training, led by Dr Doyin Atewologun and Tinu Cornish and their colleagues from Delta Alpha Psi, with modules addressing speaking confidently about race; privilege, advantage and becoming an ally; and equality change methodologies. We know that change does not happen overnight and we are committed to putting EDI at the very heart of all that we do.

Yet still, we have not been as bold as we would like on the lack of diversity of COVID-19 spokespeople and the failings of not involving people and communities from under-represented groups in the communications and engagement around the virus. We have talked about bringing science engagement sector leaders together to discuss what, collectively, we should be doing to make a positive change and how science engagement post-COVID-19 cannot resume to ‘business as usual’, but not yet done so.

The coronavirus pandemic has had an impact on our organisation, as it has many others; our plans for the year ahead are uncertain and some of our funding too.  We were advertising a range of vacancies to expand the team (both roles our External Relations team and other roles across the organisation), in the weeks before the COVID-19 outbreak in the UK, but have paused recruitment for a few months and furloughed some staff who work on live events that are postponed until next year.  This has affected our capacity, and perhaps our confidence too.

This week, the Black Lives Matter protests have thrown this into even sharper focus. We are faced with the challenge of crafting an authentic voice for our organisation – with all the historical baggage that Victorian founding fathers and a Royal Charter brings; of acknowledging our privilege and owning the fact that, as an organisation, we could have done more in the past.

While the BSA was relatively early in appointing its first female President (Kathleen Lonsdale in 1967, a mere 136 years after our inception…) and has had six female Presidents in the last nine years, you can count the number of Presidents and Chairs from minority ethnic backgrounds on one hand. We now have an EDI Advisory Group, appointed to support our efforts to mainstream EDI into our core purpose and strategy and hold our progress on our EDI action plan to account – and we have our first Black chair, Gisela Abbam (who last year was awarded the title of Black British Businessperson of the Year). We will be asking these individuals to support us in crafting and strengthening our voice on EDI. If we believe that this moment is the catalyst for social and societal change, we must now put our heads above the parapet and take a bolder, more proactive stand. 

Racism is structurally embedded across society and public life in the UK. If you do not speak out, you are part of the problem. And therefore, the BSA must be resolutely anti-racist.

Currently, those involved in science (as professionals or as actively engaged public audiences) are more likely (than the general population) to be white, male, middle class, highly educated and economically advantaged.  This is something we want to change. If science and science engagement does not better reflect our society, it cannot possibly represent all of society’s needs, ideas and concerns.

We will stand with #BlackLivesMatter by becoming bolder and finding an authentic voice that demonstrates the BSA’s commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion. We will challenge the structures that result in inequitable access to science education, careers and engagement. We will continue to share the challenges and successes of our EDI journey, and use our platforms to raise up missing voices, to challenge, and to learn.