By Orna Herr, Communications Officer (Education) at the British Science Association


Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock was inaugurated as President of the British Science Association 2021/22 at the British Science Festival earlier this year. At the Festival, Maggie gave her Presidential Address to a live audience at Chelmsford’s Civic Theatre. We published a summary of the first half of Maggie's address on our blog last month. What follows is a report of the interview that Maggie then gave with journalist, Nitya Rajan, as part of her Address


As part of her Presidential Address at this year’s British Science Festival, President of the British Science Association Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock sat down with journalist Nitya Rajan for a ‘fireside’ chat about her background, career aspirations and hopes for the future of space travel.

Nitya began by picking up on Maggie’s point from opening remarks the she gave before the interview, where she ventured that space should not be a playground only for the rich, and asked how this could be overcome.

Maggie explained that it’s a problem we’ve seen before; computers were once the size of a room, now almost everyone carries one in their pocket. Similarly international flights were once financially inaccessible for most people, but they are now more affordable. Maggie said she sees a similar trajectory for space travel, and that soon all of us will have access to close-Earth travel if we want it. Although she did also reference climate change – a damaging consequence of human innovation from over the last few centuries. She hopes that space travel could in fact help the climate crisis, offering that if more people saw our planet from afar, and reckoned with how vulnerable it is, they might be more conscious of our environment.

Nitya then went on to ask Maggie about her childhood experiences of learning with undiagnosed dyslexia, a tough challenge for any young person to deal with, but one that, Maggie believes, helped shape her into the person she has now become. She received a lot of support from her father, she explained, who instilled in her the idea that, with enough belief, she would be able to achieve whatever she wanted. A sentiment she has carried with her throughout her career. “Dyslexia is a challenge,” she said, “but it’s also something that makes you think differently, and people thinking differently is what society needs”.

The conversation then turned to the COVID-19 pandemic, with Nitya asking Maggie for her thoughts on the media coverage. She mused that one of the challenges of science communication is that one style of messaging may work for one community of people, but not for another. “I think there was a failure”, she said, in terms of coverage on how we should protect ourselves and each other. “I think there are lessons to be learned,” she surmised. One way this could potentially change, said Maggie, is by having more diverse voices included in science communication of all kinds.

On the topic of diversity, Nitya asked Maggie if she had ever “felt the brunt of racial discrimination”, to which Maggie directly answered, “Yes”. She added that she doubted there are many people in the UK from an ethnic minority background or other marginalised groups who haven’t experienced discrimination of some kind.

Maggie spoke about her own experiences as a Black woman working in science, facing stumbling blocks and not knowing if they were caused by racism or sexism; “it’s a multifaceted problem.”

A recent chapter of Maggie’s career was to be one of the commissioners for the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities. The commissioners comprised a group of eminent professionals spanning different disciplines, including science, who investigated race and ethnic disparities in education, employment, crime, policing and health in the UK.

Among the findings of the Commission’s report was that social class and family life had a more significant impact on how people’s lives pan out, than race. The report reads: “Put simply we no longer see a Britain where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities. The impediments and disparities do exist, they are varied, and ironically very few of them are directly to do with racism.”

It was also suggested that the UK is a beacon of a successful multicultural society. These findings were interpreted by many activists and politicians, along with swathes of the general public, as a denial of the institutional racism that plagues the UK. It was also a topic that the BSA reflected on with staff and colleagues.

Nitya broached this subject with Maggie, asking, “Given the conclusions that the race report had, could you understand the backlash that followed it?”

“Yes and no,” was Maggie’s measured response.

Maggie explained that, while she understood that for some people, “if you’re in a council flat and you can’t get your child into a school, you might not feel that the UK is a beacon”, and that people will rightly feel anger if the report didn’t draw the same conclusions as they would have done. But, she is keen to push the message that children from ethnic minority backgrounds shouldn’t feel that there is no point trying.

“I think we do need our kids to know that yes, they can achieve, they can move forward. If you’re going to move forward, there are challenges to face, but I don’t want them to start off thinking there’s no point and they’re doomed from the start – that it’s never going to work. Because it can work,” she explained.

She also highlighted that the report includes 24 separate recommendations, that include developing resources to advance fairness in the workplace and increasing accountability of stop-and-search practices through body-worn cameras. The hope was that these recommendations, she added, “would change the playing field and make a more level playing field”.

She continued: “The idea that the UK is a paradise and racism doesn’t exist just doesn’t stack up with the challenges many people face. The recommendations we were making were trying to take on the challenges that show that racism does exist and something needs to be done about it.”

Nitya followed up by asking if, with hindsight would she have done anything differently. Maggie pointed once again to the recommendations, saying highlighting them on releasing the report might have been beneficial, as she feels they got left “by-the-by”.

The interview was rounded up with talk of Maggie’s plans for the coming year. She spoke about her excitement about her role as President of the BSA.

“I think it’s working together and collaborating and taking on those big problems, such as equality and diversity. And that’s just what they [the BSA] do. Perhaps we can do this together.”