New research carried out for British Science Week (11-20 March 2022) reveals that most young people think that scientists do not represent them and are not doing enough to reach them. Compared to adults, the next generation are feeling disconnected from science and scientists, despite an uptick in interest in pursuing scientific careers since the start of the pandemic.

A representative sample of 2,000 UK 14-to-18-year-olds and 2,000 UK adults were asked about their perspectives on science, scientists, trust in different groups within society and the ongoing pandemic in mid-February 2022. The poll found:

  • Nearly one quarter of adults think scientists are speaking directly to them when engaging with the public, yet only 15% of 14-to-18-year-olds share this sentiment

  • 14% of UK adults can think of a scientist that looks like them, almost twice as many (8%) as young people polled. In addition, over a fifth of adults think scientists represent their views and values, compared to only 12% of young people

  • The appetite for knowledge and engagement persists, with nearly 4 in 10 (37%) young people wanting to hear more from scientists during the pandemic and 41% more likely to consider working in a scientific field than before the start of it

  • Friday 11 March 2022 marks the start of British Science Week, an annual ten-day celebration of science across the country, aiming to engage people of all ages – and particularly the next generation – in science

When asked if they think scientists represent their views and values over a fifth of adults (22%) agreed, yet only 12% of young people did. This disparity is also evident in views on relatability and approachability; 25% of adults agree professional scientists are vs just 16% of the young people. Interestingly, more 14-to-18-year-old boys (19%) than girls (14%) think scientists are relatable and approachable.

Of the adults polled, 23% think scientists are speaking directly to them, yet only 15% of the 14-to-18-year-olds say the same (this breaks down as 12% of girls vs 17% of boys). Worryingly, also, when asked whether they could think of a scientist who looks like them only 8% of young people could.

Promisingly though, more young people than adults think that science has increased relevance to them now, compared to before the pandemic (33% adults vs 36% 14-to-18-year-olds). Both groups agree that scientists should communicate more with the public than they currently do (38% adults and 37% young people).

Christina Adane, Chair of Bite Back 2030 and British Science Association Honorary Fellow, says:

"The results of this poll are unfortunately very consistent with my personal experience of engaging with science as a young person. Young people must feel that scientists are including them in the conversation, especially as the enthusiasm to engage is already there. Organisations must do more to ensure we feel represented.”

The proportion of young people trusting scientists to be truthful about, as well as provide relevant and accessible information on, the COVID-19 pandemic has increased over the past two years. In a similar poll commissioned by the BSA in 2020, 37% of 14-to-18-year-olds trusted scientists to tell the truth about the COVID-19 pandemic, and this rose to 47% in 2022. In 2020, 30% trusted scientists to give relevant and accessible information about COVID-19, climbing to 48% in 2022.

Our polling of young people in 2020

Christina Adane, Chair of Bite Back 2030 and British Science Association Honorary Fellow, says:

“It is becoming increasingly important for young campaigners like myself to have access to the latest information, bringing fact-based arguments to the forefront and debunking misinformation that is often fed to us instead.

“Trust is essential to ensure the next generation of scientists contain the brightest minds from many diverse backgrounds, and accessibility to information is necessary to equip us with the tools we need to fight for the world we want to live in."

Despite this increase in trust of scientists, fewer than 1 in 5 (15%) of young people polled in February 2022 think that scientists are directly addressing them. And even though this group feel somewhat excluded by scientists in their interactions with the wider public, nearly 4 in 10 (37%) say they would like to hear more from scientists during the pandemic.

These findings suggest a gap between the appetite for involvement in science, and the actual interactions young people experience. 14-to-18-year-olds, in spite of not feeling particularly ‘seen’ by scientists, want to pursue careers in this sector and are keen to hear more about it (41% are more likely to consider working in a scientific field now than before the start of the pandemic).

British Science Week is the UK’s largest grassroots celebration of science, technology, engineering and maths. It provides an opportunity for scientists in institutions, industry and beyond to talk to the next generation about their work. The increasing interest in ‘real-life’ science over the past two years has created a generation who, in the face of disinformation and misinformation, seek out reputable sources such as scientists themselves.

Science engagement activities are taking place up and down the country during British Science Week. Many community and school groups who apply for funding to host such events invite scientists into their lessons, a popular and effective way to bridge a dialogue between professionals and young people. This offers an opportunity for working scientists to listen to questions, concerns and ideas from the next generation, something which is often missing from interactions that do happen between ‘experts’ and young people.

Find out more about British Science Week

Katherine Mathieson, Chief Executive of the British Science Association (BSA), says:

“The results from this survey are interesting, but not a huge surprise. Through British Science Week and other programmes run by the BSA, we often see young people who are really enthusiastic about science. Whether the topic is the climate crisis, the pandemic or future technologies, young people want to learn, share their ideas for solutions and think about their future careers. The science sector should recognise this ‘golden opportunity’ to engage the next generation and enable their participation in science.

“From this research, it’s clear that young people regard scientists as trusted voices in society, more so than politicians, journalists or influencers. Those in science could even strengthen this relationship by reaching out to young people, listening to their opinions and concerns when making important decisions affecting the next generation. Other sectors should consider this too.

“We encourage science institutions, big or small, to look into ways they can interact with the young people. This can be done digitally, with webinars and social media, or in-person, by hosting events or visits.

“British Science Week is a key date in the calendar for many schools, community groups and science centres and since 2015, an estimated 77,000 people have taken part in activities funded by the British Science Week community grant scheme. We would love more organisations in the industry to get involved by looking to their local communities for inspiration.”

George Freeman MP, Minister for Science, Research & Innovation, says:

“Britain has long been a science powerhouse - respected globally for the world class quality of our science: from the invention of the jet engine, World Wide Web and Covid vaccine, to the British Antarctic Survey discovery of the hole in the Ozone layer.

“Our science leadership represents huge global influence and “SoftPower” - which is why we have announced the biggest increase in Government science research & innovation funding for a generation. 

“This is a hugely exciting time to be a scientist in the UK - with huge career opportunities for young scientists and innovators, which is why we are reforming career paths to make it easier for bright young people from all backgrounds to follow their curiosity into exciting new careers whether as virologists, engineers, micro-biologists, physicists behavioural scientists and a range of increasingly important interdisciplinary science.

“That’s why British Science Week is so important: helping promote science, boosting the dialogue between scientists and the public, industry and young people, to inspire the next generation of world class British scientists.”

Notes to editors

For interviews, requests to see the full data set or other queries, please contact Louise Ogden, Head of Communications or Anissa Alifandi, Corporate Communications Manager.

The survey was carried out by OnePoll. A nationally representative sample of 2,000 adults and 2,000 14-to-18-year-olds across the UK were surveyed.

Take me to the British Science Week website

Read more about how young people felt about scientists at the start of the pandemic

British Science Week is supported by principal partners, UK Research & Innovation and science-based technology company, 3M.