Lacking Diversity – House of Commons Science and Technology Committee 2017

Source: Twitter

What’s that you can hear? That is the sound of scientists across the UK slamming their heads against a desk repeatedly, because today the House of Commons announced the members of the Science and Technology Committee, and it doesn’t look good.

The Science and Technology Committee is in place to inform governmental policy and decision-making, and to ensure that these processes are founded on good science and evidence. You can imagine that for such a committee, devised to lend their expertise to critique and hold government to account surrounding matters concerning science in the UK, the House of Commons would be expected to gather MPs with scientific experience from diverse backgrounds. This would be the logical answer, to ensure that the issues facing science in its lack of diversity, climate change and Brexit, are properly addressed with careful consideration and experience. However, the Science and Technology Committee that was revealed today was as a sea of men, with only two committee members having any experience of science.

The committee made up of Norman Lamb MP, Bill Grant MP, Darren Jones MP, Clive Lewis MP, Stephen Metcalfe MP, Neil O’Brien MP, Graham Stringer MP and Martin Whitfield MP, lacks the diversity and background that is required to properly fulfil its role. With one of the main problems facing STEM industries being the lack of women, how can we expect this committee to consider this issue and value this concern when there isn’t any women sitting on the committee to provide this voice?

Another great issue facing science (and the world) is climate change. Therefore we should all feel safe in the knowledge that one of the newly announced members of the Science and Technology Committee is a climate change denier. Despite Graham Stringer, Labour MP, constituting 50% of the scientifically trained members on this committee, with a degree in Chemistry, Graham also is a trustee of the Nigel Lawson’s Global Warming Policy Foundation, a group that deny the dangers of climate change.

The reveal of the new committee isn’t reassuring, in the face of the threat of Brexit on STEM industries and the issues within science (such as the lack of women), the presence of a diverse and experienced committee would help to reassure STEM workers that the industry’s best interests would be looked after. However, this is not the case.

With a committee lacking the knowledge needed to fully understand science in the UK or the barriers that lead to inequality in STEM, how can we be sure that the Science and Technology Committee can do its job effectively? I am certainly not convinced.

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What is it like to be a young professional in Wales?

I’m going to take a break from the normal ‘women in STEM’ blog content to talk about something that has been on my mind for a really long time.  I want to talk about what it’s like to be a young professional in Wales, because as someone who is trying to shape a career, I face a dichotomy between wanting to have easy access to the routes to success and a passion to keep talent in Wales.

Wales doesn’t lack talent, we nurture it and built it (and then it leaves via the Severn Bridge and never comes back again).

There is a predictable career timeline for young people in Wales, as we grow up here, are educated here, and then move away for work. Because, as a country Wales struggles economical, with over a quarter of the Welsh population living in poverty and Wales has one of the highest youth employment rates in the UK. Shaping your career here is hard, and myself and my friends have often worked in jobs outside of our field whilst we wait around for relevant employment. When searching, there are often perfectly suitable jobs, or even amazing opportunities, in science communications, but they are all based in London and I categorically refuse to move to London.

This utter denial of London life is only slightly the result of a distain for the cramped and dusty city, and is mostly because, as a Welsh person, I want talent to be kept in (and drawn into) Wales. Building a career in Wales can be a bit of a battle, especially if you in a niche area like science communication and have the aspiration to become a science TV presenter; it would be easier to gather up my things and move to London where the opportunities are fruitful. But I really don’t want to be a part of the perpetual cycle of talent leaving Wales and talent seldom being attracted.

It’s not a ground-breaking statement to say that everything happens in London, and this certainly is true for my industry. My ultimate career goal is to present and work on science TV programmes, and a sizable proportion of science magazines, production companies and STEM organisations are based in and around London. Because of this, it would make sense to move to London as this would grant me access to a greater number of opportunities, but with a potent cocktail of a stubborn nature and a desire to stay in Wales, I have written off this option – at least for now.

However, I fear that this passion to keep working in Wales has an expiration date, especially will the potential ramifications of Brexit on the Welsh labour market. If building a career in Wales or keeping talent in Wales was hard before Brexit, I don’t know what it will be like when our economy isn’t supported by European funding. (So please don’t blame me if you see me ignoring my moral compass and moving to London in a few years’ time.)

I suppose this blogpost doesn’t achieve anything, it is merely a rant about the difficult career choices young people face in Wales. Because as I continue furthering my career in science communication, I feel that I am not only having to hurdle barriers facing women in science, but I feel like I have to ultimately face up to whether I want to sacrifice my morals and my passion for keeping talent in Wales to get there.

(If you weren’t a fan of this non-STEMinist talk, don’t worry, normal broadcasting will now resume.)

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Welsh Government new apprenticeships fail girls

Today, the Welsh Government announced that they are helping to support 1,000 high-quality apprenticeships, providing young people and adults a ticket to a graduate-level career, many of which are within STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths). Although these new apprenticeships are an excellent opportunity for 1,000 people, and offer a great alternative route into STEM careers, the Welsh Government has failed to even consider the barriers that face girls in apprenticeships – especially in STEM.

These new opportunities, made available by the Welsh Government with the support from the European Social Fund, include employment in a wide range of disciplines within STEM industries, including associate scientist, ICT and computing and engineering, but fail to put in place initiatives to ensure good female uptake of these high-quality STEM apprenticeships. This is a disappointing mistake, as girls are consistently underrepresented in STEM apprenticeships, making up under 4% of engineering apprenticeships in Wales. Because of this well-established lack of girls in STEM apprenticeships, frameworks need to be put in place to help address this, and the Welsh Government has failed to consider this.

There are several very complex reasons why girls don’t tend to take up apprenticeships outside of the stereotypical topics such as childminding, education and beauty. These reasons include a well-ingrained ideas of apprenticeships themselves, as typically apprenticeships are associated with boys, as they are considered hands-on, which girls are taught that they are not. And although apprenticeships offer a great alternative route into STEM, especially for student who don’t consider themselves as suited for an academic environment, they sadly are often thought of as something for ‘naughty boys’. This association is obviously harmful for apprenticeships in general, but that association ultimately excludes girls.

Not only does the gender gap in apprenticeships occur through indirect means, but also through the loss of equality in careers advice. Research by the City & Guilds Group found that only 17% of girls were encouraged to take an apprenticeship in school and that boys are twice as likely to take up an apprenticeship role.

Therefore the lack of this being taken into consideration when the Welsh Government announced these new opportunities, is thoroughly disappointing, especially after I gave evidence to the National Assembly for Wales in 2014 for their STEM inquiry. One of the points raised during the inquiry being the importance of STEM apprenticeships in filling the gap and how crucial it is to ensure equal engagement of girls and boys in STEM, which is a point that I feel has been looked over in this announcement.

By working with the organisations and businesses hosting these apprenticeships, and making them conscious of the lack of girls in STEM, as well as working closely with careers advice officers, the government could have helped to increase the number of girls who would take up these high-quality apprenticeships.

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Why do I want to give up my blog?

[Disclaimer:  there are so many amazing people in science who have been fantastic, but sadly its often the negative comments that affect you most]

For a while I have been struggling with feelings of wanting to delete everything, remove my blog, take down my YouTube channel, and resign myself to a non-sciencey job that I am not passionate about. Now this isn’t some huge existential crisis, where I am crumpling under the pressures of wanting to achieve, but the reason I feel like throwing in the towel on science communication and equality in STEM is honestly due to science itself. I feel exhausted by elitist attitudes.

This may be breaking news to you, but I don’t have a PhD and I don’t have a Masters in science. I did an undergraduate degree in neuroscience and loved it, and when I graduated I was walking into a competitive world where if I wanted to do a PhD, I would probably need a Masters degree. And a Masters costs £9,000. For some people, £9,000 is nothing, and they could find that in their back pocket. For me, someone from a working-class background, that is a lot of money, and therefore postgraduate education seemed inaccessible to me, and despite my passion for science I decided that academia would not be achievable. So, I now work in writing, PR and communications – some in science and some outside of science (because I need to pay my bills).

Because the letters after my name stop at BSc, I find (or at least I feel) that other people look down on me or judge me. I feel pressure to say, ‘my background used to be in neuroscience’, because despite adoring this area of research and writing about it, I feel like by not working in research that I am not entitled to say that my area of science is neuroscience.

A stand-out moment for me that summarises all of these feelings, was after a talk I did at a university about how we can help encourage young girls into science and keep women in STEM. At the end, students and staff from the university came up to me to discuss the lecture and ask me questions. One of the university staff asked me what area of science I worked in, and I responded with my typical ‘my background used to be in neuroscience’ response, feeling compromised and embarrassed about my lack of doctorate. And she responded with ‘used to be?!’ and a facial expression that was a potent cocktail of quizzical and disgust.

This interaction has stood out to me for several reasons:

  1. It made me feel like I wasn’t good enough to be part of the scientific community.
  2. It hit a nerve, as I feel insecure about my role in science.
  3. I feel passionate about science, and about sharing science through communications as well increasing the number of women in science – but this left me feeling like I didn’t deserve to do that.

This hasn’t been the only interaction that has left me perplexed about my role and my relevance in science.

I love communicating science and I love talking about science. After resigning the idea of academic research as a potential career, I decided to follow my passion of talking about science and began working towards a career in science journalism. I will be as bold as to say that I want to be ‘the Brian Cox of brains’.

In pursuit of this, I have created a YouTube channel and have written for science magazines, but my ultimate goal is to present or produce science documentaries. In stage two of my plan to infiltrate this industry, I contacted a production company with an idea of a science documentary – and I was so pleased when they liked my idea and invited me to talk about it further. During the exciting conversation, where it was mentioned how I was a brilliant and natural presenter, and the discussion about the documentary idea was full of compliments and enthusiasm from all sides, a comment was said to me that crushed me.

“The thing is, you don’t have a PhD so no one will take you seriously as a woman.”

And as ridiculous as that statement sounds, I get what they meant. As women, we need to work harder to be believed and we are often less likely to be taken seriously as an expert. But as someone who was just about to start this career, which was an alternative to a PhD, this shattered all of my hopes.

Is science only reserved for people with PhDs? Because, from what I have experienced, a lot of scientists feel like it is.

I am (at least for now) a stubborn enough person that I won’t be giving up on sharing science, trying to increase the number of girls in science, or helping to shape policy to support women in STEM. But is it incredibly disheartening to see elitist attitudes in science, when I am trying to open science up to more people.

Have you experienced something similar? If you have and would like to share your experience with me, please get in touch on mindfulofscience@gmail.com.

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Girl Scouts will ‘be prepared’ for careers in STEM

The Girl Scouts of the USA are encouraging their scouts to ‘be prepared’ for careers in STEM, by adding 23 new badges to be earned in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. With a severe lack of girls taking on STEM subjects after compulsory education, this is a fantastic move from the Girl Scouts. The new badges can be earned through programming robots, writing code, designing model race cards and being environmentally friendly during camping trips. This initiative was put in place by the Girl Scouts CEO, Sylvia Acevedo, to improve the exposure of STEM subjects to young girls, helping them to realise their potential in the areas.

In the UK, the equivalent of the Girls Scouts are the Brownie and Girl Guide groups, who can earn badges in many areas including cooking, crafts, world cultures, safety and science.

Traditionally these girl’s groups are often associated with crafting and community activities, and it is amazing to see that they are changing to encouraging young girls to interact with science. Young girls are equally as excited about science at a young age, but simply don’t see themselves in the industry and often aren’t inspired to pursue that career. By bringing science into their everyday lives, it helps to cement their confidence in their STEM abilities and help them to see their potential in these careers.

When I was younger, I was part of the local Brownie group and left fairly quickly as I found it completely uninspiring. I was a creative and an artistic child, but really wanted to learn new things and I think I would have enjoyed learning outdoor skills like map reading – it is certainly something I wish I knew now. Back then, girls didn’t really join the Scouts, and (in my experience) Brownie groups mainly did arts, crafts and put on plays for each other, which didn’t give me any new skills or put me in new roles outside of the stereotypes for girls. So I am so pleased to hear that the Girl Scouts and Girl Guide groups are making such an effort to encourage girls to think outside of typical gender roles, and work towards earning badges in science, technology, engineering and maths.

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The ‘Little Girl in the Room’ Phenomenon

“Be a love, make me a cup of tea.”

You could be the most qualified person in the workplace, but you can guarantee that someone will assume that you are the secretary, PA, or receptionist. As a result they will talk down to you, ignore your input, and ask you to do menial tasks like photocopying and making tea. Regardless of your ranking in the room, regardless of the insight you can offer to the discussion, you will always be the little girl in the room.

Being belittled, ignored, or being treated like you are a ‘delicate little flower’ is a pretty common experience for women. They either find themselves biting their tongues in the face of this form of institutionalised sexism, or risk their faces turning blue by having to constantly reinforce their position in boardroom meetings. As a woman in STEM I can often finds myself as the only woman in the room, and particularly as a young woman, this experience is definitely all too familiar for me. I am constantly made to feel like a ‘little girl’ in the workplace. I am not appreciated for my intelligence or the insight I could lend to discussions, because I am automatically assumed to be on the lowest end of the professional ladder, or that I lack professional responsibility.

Not only are women less likely to be in the boardroom and have to battled to get our place at the table, but when we get there we are assumed to be the one taking the meeting minutes, and we are the ones less likely to be listened to.

Research shows that women are less likely to be believed than men, even when we say the exact same statements. Our perceptions of women’s authority is shaped by gender stereotypes. Women are painted as these unstable, emotional and air-headed creatures, and although you may think that you have a positive attitude towards women, we often subconsciously make assumptions about women and their ability to make good decisions – especially in realms like business.

Society would love to believe that it treats people on merit, that if you work hard and achieve well, you will earn your spot in the boardroom. But that is not the case for women. Gender stereotyping still forms a huge barrier for us to be taken seriously, and unconscious bias can stand in the way of our agency.

To draw attention to these attitudes that can often be unconscious, we need to be unafraid to stand up to them. If someone asks you to take the meeting minutes, assign the role to someone else more suitable, and if someone asks you to make them a cup of tea, remind them where the kettle is.

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Detective Dot

“It’s not magic,” said Dot. “Just code.”

Nine-year-old Detective Dot is a secret agent for the CIA (the Children’s Intelligence Agency), exploring and questioning the world around her, using code to complete her missions.

The funny and informative children’s book (written by Sophie Deen) introduces concepts of coding through story telling. It gets children thinking about coding, applying what they learn in schools, and grounding what they are learning in applications and ideas for uses of code. The beautifully illustrated story book (illustrated by Nathan Hackett) touches on themes to encourage children to question the world around them, including issues like ethical fashion.

The book is designed to be read at home, are can even be used by teachers. In schools, children are now being taught coding from 5 years old, and therefor teachers can use Detective Dot as a teaching tool – which is especially helpful for teachers who lack confidence in teaching STEM subjects.

The book can be bought on its own or in a Megapack, which comes complete with a CIA Membership card, seven fun coding-based missions and an adorable personalised letter from the CIA.

Not only does this book get kids into coding but it helps address the lack of equal representation in media, specifically in children’s books. Last year I wrote a blogpost, Starting a new chapter for gender representation in children’s books, discussing my concern over the lack of good representation in the books children are reading, especially STEM story and educational materials. In the blogpost, I encouraged you to look at what you are buying your children and look at who is featured in the books they are reading. Because the world those books may be opening up to them on the pages, may be reinforcing the fact that that world might not include them.

Detective Dot addresses this issue. It’s not only a great way of getting kids into coding, but also the main character is an inquisitive young girl, with endless intelligence. And she isn’t white, becoming an even greater role model for children, and helping young girls from all ethnicities to identify with her and realise their full potential.

All children can bond with the storyline, and the character helps to open up the world for children who are often excluded from coding and STEM subjects through stereotyping. This book is inspiring the next generation of coders, and it’s helping to ensure that the next generation of coders is more diverse and equal.

Find out more about the book HERE.

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Pint of Science is coming to Cardiff!

Do you like science? Do you like a pint? Well good news! The UK’s largest science festive, Pint of Science, is coming to Wales for the very first time – bringing some of the best scientists Cardiff has to offer to your local pub to share their knowledge. Come grab a drink and get geeky, listening to talks on topics from climate change to cancer research!

The festival is happening in 25 cities across the UK on 15th – 17th of May, bringing logic into your local, showcasing cutting-edge Welsh science. Pint of Science is making science accessible so that you can get to grips with a range of topics, hearing from some of the best in the industry; so that you can get to know more about things you are interested in or you can learn something completely new.

The line-up is looking amazing, with a range of fascinating science being shared – all you need is a ticket and a pint.

Cardiff Versus Cancer – Dr Matt Smalley and Professor Andrew Godkin – Half of all people in the UK will develop cancer during their lifetime and exciting research is being conducted into combatting this disease. Find out what Cardiff is doing about it!

Urine-ka! Recent Discoveries with Kidney Research UK – Dr Timothy Bowen and Professor Donald Fraser – Putting the ‘Pee’ in ‘Prognosis’, using urine for a cheap, non-invasive diagnosis method for early detection of chronic kidney disease.

Battling the Superbug Apocalypse – Dr Mark Toleman and Dr Cerith Jones – Keeping us with the Kardashians? More like keeping up with antibiotic resistance, amiright? Come along to O’Neills on St Mary’s Street to find out what Cardiff is doing to stop this.

Impacts of Past and Present Rises In CO2 – Professor Paul Pearson and Dr Sindia Sosdian – Cardiff University School of Earth and Ocean Sciences is a world leader in the study of past Earth climate to help predict the future of human-induced climate change (a topic that a certain President could do with learning a bit more about). Pop in to this talk, and get informed!

Changing Tropical Marine Ecosystems – Dr Jocelyn Curtis-Quick and Dr Phil Renforth – Do you get excited about ecosystems? Or are you a fan of Sir David Attenborough’s Planet Earth? Become immersed in the biology and chemistry that can help to keep our ocean ecosystems.

Shaking and Sliding: How the Earth Moves – Dr David Thompson and Dr Claire Earlie – While the cocktail shakers are shaking, get a low down on the quakes and shakes of planet Earth.

Science of the Tiny – Dr Niklaas Buurma and Professor Philip Davies –  Up and atom! This talk is looking at how things work on a microscopic level.

What Would Life Look Like On Other Planets? – Dr Chris North and Professor Nigel Richards – If the talk about climate change has got you a little nervous, this talk also might be a follow up. Because before we think of moving out of Earth, it’s a good idea to see what life is out there on other planets.

An Element of Danger – Dr Ian Fallis  and Dr Joseph Beames – Explore the darker side of chemistry, from air pollution to chemical weapons.

Curious Connections – Dr Matthias Gruber and Professor Liam Gray – Get to know your neurones and connect with your connections. How can brain circuitry effect our everyday life?

A Trip Down Memory Lane – Dr Adele Pryce-Roberts and Professor Kim Graham – Our brain is a mysterious and delicate organ, with some of its features beginning to fail us is conditions like Alzheimer’s. Cardiff University is world-leading in Alzheimer’s research, come to the Little Man Coffee Co, Bridge Street, to see what they are doing to find out about future cures.

Sex, Drugs and Big Mutations – Professor Ian Jones and Professor George KirovWith 1 in 4 people being affected by mental health conditions during their lifetimes, treatment and understanding are more important than ever. How can recreational drugs treat these illnesses? And how is genetics linked to mental health?

For more information check out the Pint of Science website pintofscience.co.uk, or contact Cardiff publicist Michael Nairn, NairnMG@Cardiff.ac.uk.

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March for Science – Cardiff

April 22, World Earth Day, and the day tens of thousands of scientists all over the world took to the streets to March for Science. Scientists and supporters of science picked up placards and donned their white coats to join in the rally happening across the world, to address concerns for scientific research in the light of Donald Trump and Brexit.

I joined in the demonstration in Cardiff, starting at the Senedd in Cardiff Bay and marching to Techniquest Science Discovery Centre. First listening to some amazing speeches from science minds and the march’s organisers, addressing the issues that the community of scientists were here to support. The take home messages from Cardiff March for Science were:

Science in a global activity

“Science transcends boundaries, is it not a luxury but a global activity.” – Professor Richard Ketlow, Foreign Secretary of the Royal Society.

Everyone is interested in science and can bring us together, regardless of proximity. I thought this idea was particularly poignant in the light of Brexit and the triggering of article 50. Science depends on freedom of movement, as this allows scientists to work on the projects they are specialists in and that they can contribute to. As Britain leaves the EU, Britain moves into uncertain times for science. As science in the UK relies on immigration, and the potential for barriers in the movement of the science workforce is worrying.

Science in a global activity, and it thrives on collaboration.

Science and politics

Andrew Haigh, UKIP’s national organiser for Wales, sells a product called “Aerobic Oxygen”. It is an industrial-strength bleach product that is told to have health benefits if used when cleaning your teeth. This is a man who wants to influence policy in Wales, including science policy. This is obviously incredibly concerning.

The influence in science is crucial, as the miss-informed cannot create well-informed policies.

How can we expect politicians and policy-makers to form the best political frameworks for Britain, when they lack a full understanding of issues like climate change, research in health care and the science community? We need to integrate science research and policy-making, helping to make better political choices about the world we live in, which is shaped by science.

STEM the spread of incorrect information

We all know that bad news will spread more quickly than good news, and this has certainly been witnessed with incorrect facts spreading like wild fire. We all remember the so-called link between MMR and Autism, which now leaves many children with inoculations against measles, mumps and rubella.

Science should influence news and media, to prevent the spread of incorrect information and help generate an informed general public, who can make informed decisions.

Science and diversity

The number of women and girls in STEM has not changed, despite all the work that women in the science community are doing to help this. We need to continue striving towards equality and diversity in STEM, to better the workforce for women and help girls reach their full potential, but also better the quality of science research itself.

As hundred of marches for science happen across the globe, I hope this brings people’s attention to how misinformed politicians can lead to misinformed policies, which will not only impact scientific research community itself, but also how science research moulds our modern society.

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BBC Expert Women 2017

On the 31st of March, I took the train to BBC Television Centre, selected as one of 25 women for BBC Expert Women 2017. This was a call from the BBC Academy in conjunction with BBC News and Women in Film and Television UK to find women with particular expertise to appear on television, radio, and online as contributors or presenters.

The 25 women who were invited ranged in specialism from law to terrorism, from sex education to fashion. We got the opportunity hone our skills in radio and TV interviews, as well as meeting with programme editors.

As someone who would love to work in STEM journalism and make science documentaries, this was incredibly useful. Not only that, but I was left in awe of the amazing women I was surrounded by, from varying industries, who all show outstanding expertise in their field. More schemes like this need to set up to ensure that women can give their opinion on current affairs and increase the representation of female experts in the media.

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