Chemical Interactions: Through a lens darkly

“The scientific mind does not so much provide the right answers as ask the right questions.” – Claude Levi-Strauss.

A recent RSC survey on public attitudes to chemistry reveals many fascinating and unexpected answers, but are the questions being asked really the best to help bridge the gap between science and the public?

One obvious conclusion can be drawn from the Public Attitudes to Chemistry survey: Chemists have staggeringly little idea of how the public perceive them. A gratifying 84% of people agreed chemists contribute positively to society – only 12% of chemists predicted this result. Two thirds of the public believe a career in science would be rewarding – just one third of chemists anticipated this opinion. [1]

These are very positive results, but what of the negatives? What can we learn from this and other surveys to improve public/science relations?

While the public view chemistry far more positively than many of us believed, general interest in the subject is poor and confidence levels, particularly amongst women, in chemical discussions are low. As such, people are put off from engaging with the subject from the start. The world’s greatest orator achieves nothing preaching to an empty room.

The first port-of-call when looking to solve these shortfalls is education. But if children come out of the education system lacking confidence in science, where is that system failing?

The demographic correlation with the level of education received in this country is a sad but unavoidable truth. A quick look at the Nobel Prize winners of the last decade (21 white males out of 27), a glance down the corridors of chemistry or physics at your local university, or the continued necessity of female orientated post-doctoral funding, betray a demographic that has dominated, and continues to dominate, scientific disciplines.

Black, Bangladeshi and Pakistani children all underperform at KS3 science and are underrepresented in degree level physical sciences. Similarly, while the majority of university students are women, a split of 57/43% male/female chemistry undergraduates, while encouraging, is still misrepresentative. At doctorate level there is a 2:1 gender divide and underrepresentation across almost all minority ethnicities. And in physics the situation is even more dire.[2]

But this is not such an issue of race or gender as it is of class. The level of social interaction requisite for academic success is worlds apart from anything the average working class child has experienced. Conferences, meetings and networking require the kind of confidence amongst peers and superiors that can be challenging even for those practiced in such a lifestyle. And this is reflected in the statistics. The 2-year drop-out rate from university comparing the most to the least deprived backgrounds, shows a nearly threefold increase,[3] and only 29% of ‘white working class boys’ continue education past GCSE level.[4]

When viewed through the lens of the working class, any form of higher education, seemingly dominated by old white men and with no obvious immediate benefit to themselves, can be a daunting and alien thing. There is a prevalence, particularly within the red-brick universities, to hold on to archaic rituals and traditions that almost seem designed to frighten off the working class and the less well off, those people who are very aware of their background and social standing. Science is not for my gender, not for my culture, not for my class. Nick Barker, outreach coordinator at Warwick University, has seen first-hand the evidence of these factors and the difficulties we face in solving them.

“By bringing the widest range of backgrounds into any endeavour you bring the widest range of perspectives, motivations and feelings.  We won’t solve the biggest problems unless we work as a great big team which can look at the issue from every perspective imaginable,” he says.

It is not enough to say that, as individuals, these problems are out of our control, because the average scientist is just as much at fault. We are seen as standoffish, as secretive. The accepted wisdom of reducing science to a level the untrained will understand, only reinforces the belief that science is something difficult to access. It is our place to break down these walls of race, class and gender, not in society, but within academia and within ourselves, and demonstrate that scientific understanding is accessible to anyone, to show children that abilities and intellect are not defined by background or society’s expectations.

A great deal of good is already being done with outreach programs like that at Warwick, bringing children of all ages and walks of life onto campus to get practical experience in real chemistry labs. For many of the children we work with, this is their only chance to interact with the subject on a physical level, away from the abstraction of the whiteboard.

Of the positive results outreach has afforded, Frankie Bryan, a teacher at Bishop Walsh Catholic School, Sutton Coldfield says “Chemistry bursts to life every time the outreach team talk to my students, leaving them enthused and passionate for this great subject.”

Nick Barker continues: “I hope our outreach programme has allowed PhD students to meet completely different types of people, has shown academic staff how brilliant young people can be and has made teachers feel proud of the work they do and of their students.  I know that it has inspired people to study chemistry but that is not really the point.  The point is that chemistry has at its disposal the power to change someone’s perception of themselves by affording them experiences and challenges to try.  Chemistry can make young people think better of their ability and believe that they can do something great for other people.”

Science Burrito is a direct result of this sort of outreach program. Here I want to show as many people as I can, from all walks of life, that they can enjoy and understand science at a level they might not have thought possible, to make it accessible without stigma or judgement, and to show everyone that they are intelligent enough and capable enough to engage, not just with science, but with all subjects, as much as they want.

For a more positive attitude towards science, we must not ask ‘How does the public perceive chemistry?’ but ‘How are we colouring the public’s perception of themselves?’ Without being engaged with science as children, it is unlikely we will be as adults. If we cannot convince children of all walks of life that they are intelligent and capable of understanding and enjoying science, that science is not just the regime of well-off, white men, then there will always be a gap to bridge between cutting-edge research and the general public. And we cannot begin to convince these children of their full potential until we learn to accept it ourselves.

[1] C. Ceci et al. Public Attitudes to Chemistry, Royal Society of Chemistry, 2015

[2] Representation of Ethnic Groups in Chemistry and Physics, Royal Society of Chemistry and Institute of Physics, 2006

[3] C. Crawford, Socio-economic Differences in University Outcomes in the UK: Drop-out, Degree Completion and Degree Class, Institute for Fiscal Studies, 2014

[4] White Working Class Boys from Poor Neighbourhoods Unlikely to do A-levels, Sutton Trust, 2015

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