On Friday 1 March, the British Science Association (BSA) hosted a panel discussion on diversity and inclusion in the life sciences at Newcastle’s Life Science Centre.

Being in the North East, it was only fitting that Chi Onwurah, Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Diversity & Inclusion in STEM, BSA Honorary Fellow and MP for Newcastle Central, host the event. The BSA provides the secretariat for this APPG.

Alongside Chi, our panellists were:

  • Linda Conlon (chair), Chief Executive at Life Science Centre, Newcastle
  • Professor Muzlifah Haniffa, Senior Clinical Research Fellow and Interim Head of Cellular Genetics at the Wellcome Sanger Institute
  • Kate Barclay, Skills Strategy Consultant at the BioIndustry Association
  • Karen Burgess, Learning and Development Specialist at CPI

Across the panel discussion and the subsequent question and answer session, the speakers covered a lot of ground. We’ve brought together some of the highlights:

Representation and inclusivity

In her opening remarks, Chi spoke about the health workforce being the most diverse within STEM. Within health there is the highest proportion of disabled, women and racially minoritised employees. However, this likely masks inequity in career progression, for example people from racially minoritised backgrounds are actually underrepresented in senior positions in the NHS.

Linda brought in her own experiences of overseeing the Life Science Centre, and emphasising that trust is a requirement for truly inclusive environments. Science can be off-putting for some, and feel exclusive by default. It is the role of those in the sciences to ensure the spaces they occupy are welcoming to people from all backgrounds who are being exposed to it.

Designing programmes with the end audience at the forefront can, and does, improve representation and inclusion in the sector. Muzlifah reiterated the importance of role models as 'you cannot be who you don’t know and cannot see’, as well as mentors who can provide tailored support to address the unique barriers faced by those in underrepresented groups in STEM.

Both Kate and Karen brought the media’s role to the conversation; the media perpetuate stereotypes of those who work in science. We have to undo these images of who a scientist is, what a scientist does and promote stories of people from a range of backgrounds contributing to motivating careers in STEM. 

Muzlifah adds that talking about how science is part of our everyday lives can normalise it, and encourage people to be part of it. We should demystify science and scientists, she says, it's relevant to every one of us.

Solving the STEM skills shortage

The shortage of skilled workers was discussed at length. Geographical, social, financial and other barriers prevent people from currently underrepresented groups in STEM pursuing a career in a scientific field.

Kate advocated heavily for the role of apprenticeships, and the excellent training they provide, developing a STEM workforce who have practical experience as well as the scientific and technical knowledge for working in their field. She added that providing financial and pastoral support for apprentices is essential to supporting them to fulfil their potential in the workplace.

To ensure apprenticeships continue nurturing STEM workers, Kate recommends supporting employers in the process of developing highly valuable apprenticeship programmes, stressing the importance of sustained funding. Without funding behind such standards, we won’t be able to facilitate social mobility.

Making use of transferable skills, and retraining people later on in their careers, is another effective way to address the STEM skills shortage. Kate references a tool used in the Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult, Career Converter, which compiles an individual’s skills from across their working lives – science related or otherwise – and identifies what can be utilised. For example, if someone were a chef, skills such as team work, working under pressure and following protocols would be highlighted.

Health inequity

Health inequity is a national problem. There are hot and cold spots for investment in healthcare infrastructure, and they can be within miles of each other, as seen by Chi in her own constituency.

She referred to a community health initiative which was specifically designed to identify issues experienced by marginalised groups, and tailored healthcare services to meet these needs. Chi spoke about another data-driven healthcare program which reduced disparities in access to essential services in disadvantaged communities. Data and smart digital tools could therefore make a real difference in addressing the health inequities seen across the UK.

The issue of trust arose again when the panel discussed the importance of data sharing. Considered and careful approaches, with direct, sustained and culturally-sensitive community engagement is essential for informed decision-making that could lead to improved health outcomes.

Culture and systems change

In order to attract workers from diverse backgrounds, organisations must approach equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) as strategically as any business decision, according to Karen. Chi added that leadership that is authentically committed to better EDI practices is essential to cultural change, which then leads to a system that truly values the diversity of its people. Muzlifah stresses that we mustn’t give up; this is valuable work that needs to be done for the good of STEM, and moreover, wider society.

Kate went on to say that although organisations have a responsibility to bettering EDI in their workplaces, we as individuals are also accountable. “Could you become a mentor?” she asks. What are you doing to support other individuals who may be facing challenges in their career journeys?

During the panel, our speakers also shared some recommended reading/listening:

Find out more about the APPG on D&I in STEM, chaired by Chi Onwurah MP