Guest post by Emily James

On Wednesday 30th October, I attended the CaSE debate, hosted at the Royal Society. David Willetts (minister for universities and science), Julian Huppert (MP for Cambridge) and the freshly-appointed Liam Byrne (shadow minister for universities, science and skills) sat in good position to debate the future direction of science and engineering in the UK. The BBC’s Pallab Ghosh led the discussion, with pre-selected questions from the audience.

David Willetts, Liam Byrne & Julian Huppert at the CaSE debate (C) The Royal Society/Big T images

I couldn’t help but notice that despite the name of the event, there was a slight lack of hearty debate. My own desires for things to get a bit heated were met with held tongues – I blame the run up to the 2015 general election. However, perhaps consensus is not such a bad thing if you consider the cross-party agreements made on policies that act favourably on STEM education and industry.

Indeed, the underlying topic that stood out for me was the coverage of STEM subjects in education. All three MPs agreed that to close the STEM skills gap, the excitement of science should start in school. Huppert wants subject specialists in schools, who convey that ‘science is fun, not just a list of facts’. Byrne is not only in support of improving the careers service to draw STEM students into the workforce, but also a fan of the technical baccalaureate and more students becoming registered science technicians. Hands-on practical science was also a theme Willetts rode on, stating that to meet the supply for well-trained scientists we need to change the perception of British scientists being exceptionally paper educated, to that of using this knowledge to get our hands dirty.

Speaking of training, Willetts is disappointed in the number of part time students. I’m disappointed that he didn’t mention anything about part time postgraduate study, specifically support for those returning from work to academia. As a scientist who is doing just this, I did indeed consider studying for my PhD part-time. However after weighing up the options, a seven-year PhD, with the combined stress of two jobs didn’t really appeal to me. Besides, the engineering and physical sciences research council (EPSRC) funding website for part-time studentships not part of a doctoral training centre is rather vague. Huppert came out on top for me here, advocating the Open University and that anyone should be able to re-train at any point in your life.

As the conversation predictably turned to student loans, Huppert said he wanted to prioritise bursaries for living expenses and scrap tuition fees. However, he admitted he had no idea where the money was going to be sourced from when Willetts put forward that a reduction in university fees ultimately means cuts in science – a position Willetts is against. Further to this, Huppert’s solution to the advancement of blue-skies research is to convince people to do science for the love, not just the money; study what you’re interested in and don’t just focus on the financial return. This could work, if you also love to sleep on your lab floor because your research doesn’t pay the bills at home. If everyone bought into this thinking, we might even save the housing crisis!

The panel also broached a very hot topic, and one of my areas of interest: diversity in STEM. Ghosh opened the topic with a terrifying fact that half of the state schools in the UK don’t have a single girl studying A-level Physics. Willetts followed this up with another shocking statistic: that only a quarter of female A* physics GCSE students carry the subject onto A-level, which is half the number of boys that do. Biology represents a very different picture, with 60% of girls going on to study it at A-level.

So what’s happening early on in the lives of our future female scientists? Willetts had a thought-provoking theory: girls are aspiring to become doctors of medicine. To do this they study the biological sciences, but then if they don’t get through the fiercely competitive application process to study medicine, they can only use these subjects to choose an alternative career path. Unfortunately if they didn’t study physics at A-level, they can’t convert back to it at degree level to become engineers or physicists. Basically we are sending girls up a blind alley – they specialise too early. I agree with this, but I had to drop physics at A-level due to a timetabling issue – I couldn’t take five A-levels.

Fortunately the panel were in agreement on the obvious solution is to improve the careers service. Byrne also added his solution to focus on role-models in the classroom, getting female graduates back into schools to inspire the next generation – a comment I heartily agree with as I had a role-model myself: a female chemistry teacher with a PhD (in a state school!). I was actually quite impressed by Byrne’s contribution to the whole discussion, despite only being in the position for 3 weeks and his initial comment on ‘only being here for enthusiasm and excitement’.

Huppert rounded off the discussion by (finally) pointing out the irony of the panel’s diversity. Although comic, it does rile to see three white, middle-aged men discussing diversity related issues, as is often the case. As Huppert put it, we need to break down stereotypes; it’s not just about women, but also people from different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds.

Although armed with big ideas, the panel offered no advice on what voters can do to go about this. The panel wants an unbiased STEM education that starts early on. In my opinion, this needs to begin at home. The public need to understand and confront gender specific ideas. At least, buy your kids science toys regardless of how they are branded. Speak out against those who say that STEM is ‘just for boys’ and show your children diverse role models. Anyone can be a scientist; it’s up to you to prove to the next generation that they can too.

You can watch a video of the debate below. I recommend a viewing, especially for the discussion on ring-fencing science funds and to see Willetts’s genuine surprise that anyone had actually read his BIS innovation and research strategy paper – let alone Byrne!

Emily is on the Royal Society of Chemistry graduate scheme and currently works in the Chemistry World team. She feels strongly about challenging the public’s perception of science and what it takes to be a scientist. A medicinal chemistry graduate, Emily will return to academia in 2014 to begin life as a PhD student. No doubt she will continue to talk about science in her daily life and campaign for @RSC_Diversity

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