Science diversified: Starting young

Scientists at one research institute are heading back to school to inspire the next generation of researchers.
Dom Byrne is a freelance radio and podcast producer based in Brighton, UK.

Search for this author in:

Children from a local school attending the Crick’s “Really Reactive” workshop that investigates chemistry.

Credit: The Francis Crick Institute

Back to school we go: Dom Byrne sees how education outreach teams can help to challenge scientific stereotypes.

Many young children have little or no exposure to working scientists and the types of jobs that they do. So the idea of pursuing a career in science is not on their radar.

But that can change when you invite scientists to spend time with a class of lively pupils from a socially and ethnically diverse community. They plant a seed, in which the idea of pursuing a career in science can take root.

This is what the education outreach programme team of London’s Francis Crick Institute aims to do. The team hopes that building ‘science capital’ in those crucial early years will lead to a more diverse scientific workforce.

This episode is part of Science Diversified, a seven-part podcast series exploring how having a more diverse range of researchers ultimately benefits not only the scientific enterprise, but also the wider world.


Each episode in this series concludes with a follow-up sponsored slot from the International Science Council (ISC) about how it is exploring diversity in science.

Paid content: International Science Council (ISC)

The International Science Council is exploring diversity in science. How can we make science genuinely inclusive? How can we support diversity in the workplace, and be a better ally?

We’ll hear stories of those championing diversity, and celebrate different perspectives.

In episode 1, the ISC’s CEO Heide Hackmann outlines the Council’s mission to be the global voice for science, and its stance on combatting all forms of discrimination.

And Professor Anthony Bogues argues that we must first acknowledge the issues of race that are intimately bound up with the emergence of modern science, in order to really take action for change.

Find out more about this type of paid content.

Nature Briefing

An essential round-up of science news, opinion and analysis, delivered to your inbox every weekday.


Back to school we go: Dom Byrne sees how education outreach teams can help to challenge scientific stereotypes.

David Payne 0:05

Hello, I'm David Payne, careers editor at Nature. And this is Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast.

In this seven part series, Science Diversified, we're exploring how the scientific enterprise truly benefits when you have a team of researchers from a broad range of backgrounds, disciplines and skillsets.

Each episode ends with a 10 minute sponsored slot from the International Science Council about its work on diversity. So let's kick off. In this first episode, we're going back to school. We're seeing how scientists at the Francis Crick Institute in London are challenging stereotypes and broadening science's appeal to young children, many of them from deprived backgrounds.

Pupil voices 0:50

I'm Hebe and I am 10 years old. I want to be a fashion designer because I like piecing outfits together.

Hi, I'm Adie and I'm 11 years old. When I'm older, I would like to be a physiotherapist for humans and animals.

My name is Aurea. And I'm 11 years old. When I grew up, I want to be a footballer.

Clare Reynolds 1:12

So we're in a very diverse part of North London. You know, we are really lucky that we have such a mixture of ethnicities, and religions and cultures all under one roof. And I think what works so well about us is that we're so different here.

My name is Clare Reynolds, and I am the science lead and teacher at Gospel Oak Primary School, which is in North London. It's a school that starts at nursery, so around three years old, and goes all the way up to 11 years old.

We're just a mixture of all different children from all different walks of life. And I think what unites them so well is that they all have that love of the Crick and that love of wanting to learn science when they are here. We get loaned in a sense a group of scientists for the week and it is such a highlight for everybody, staff and children. Everybody is buzzing . The Crick week is about to begin.

These scientists will turn up with their equipment, their lab coats. They look incredibly professional. And they are kind of dispersed throughout the school.

Clare Davy 2:26

Hello, I'm Clare Davy. I'm the Education Manager at the Francis Crick Institute. But before I took on that job, I got a PhD in molecular virology and then worked for the Medical Research Council for 15 years in their viral oncology lab.

I was the first person in my family to go to university and end up working in science. So I've always been interested in how I made that journey, and how I can help other young people to get there as well.

So the Crick is a large biomedical research institute in central London. It's dedicated to understanding the fundamental biology underlying human health and disease. We have an education outreach programme at the Crick that works with young people, their teachers and their families.

And what we're trying to do is encourage them to aspire to careers related to science. So we know that the environment that young people have when they're growing up really influences whether they aspire to careers in science, and the people and opportunities can often really influence young people's decisions.

So we are trying to provide opportunities for local young people to access Crick scientists and Crick resources so that they can start their own journeys into careers in science.

When we started the project we engaged mostly schools in our local neighbourhood of Somers Town. That's one of the most deprived areas in London, and indeed the UK. But over the years, we've been able to expand out and now we engage all of the schools within our local borough of Camden. But it's those kinds of schools where either they wouldn't be choosing to engage with organisations like the Crick, or they couldn't do it because the offer wasn't suitable for their young people.

That's where we think we can have the most impact in providing equity of access to opportunity for their pupils. We've been working with Gospel Oak School for about three years now. They are typical of a lot of Camden schools. They have about half of their children having English as a second language, they've got fairly high levels of deprivation as measured by children's eligibility for free school meals.

We've been working with them on a number of different projects. So the pupils within that school have been taking part in Crick workshops.

Pupil voices 5:30

My favourite thing about when the Crick visits is the fun experiments that they do. My favourite one was in year five, when we got to dress up as atoms and do circuits. Near the end of itwe got to make drones and fly them around.

My favourite theme of the Crick visits is the experiments, because they're really fun and engaging.

Clare Reynolds 6:03

One of the experiments that they do while they're here is a laser experiment, thinking about how light travels. So the question is kind of put to the class, you know. How does light travel? And children will hypothesise what they think. We'll have a big discussion.

But you know, with science it is always about proving your ideas and proving what you're thinking. So then we kind of discuss how can we do that. And it's light, you can't really prove it until obviously, the Crick have this amazing razzle dazzle that it gets out.

So they set up a giant water tank within the classroom. And the idea is that they shine a laser beam through this water. Now already, lasers and water, the children are just absolutely enthralled. And we can't really see where the light is still. So then we have a look at all of the equipment that they've got with them. And the idea is that the children try and work out with the goods that they've got, how they would be able to see the light travel, and it's through Dettol or another kind of antiseptic-type brand. And kind of add the drops to the water, shine the laser through, and through the particles the children are able to see rays of light, you know, light travelling through the water, and then we're able to manipulate it through the use of mirrors, and give it a brand new course to run through.

It's phenomenal. It's so so interesting to watch. And also just how engaged they are by the whole process is fantastic. By the end of it, they literally feel like they are scientists.

Pupil voices 7:23

I like the fun experiments that they do because, like I said, it could turn out wrong or right and either way it's super fun. It can make you feel very important. And it makes you feel like a real scientist.

They do exciting experiments. My favourite was trying to light hydrogen peroxide, which caused an explosion. The science is different from normal school, because there are loads of fancy equipment and real scientists to talk to.

Clare Davy 7:57

One of the main things that the Crick do really well is kind of push the idea of, or smashing the idea of that stereotypical scientist. And I think that's one of the things that I love about them is the diversity within the Crick. So you know, when you've got that image of a scientist in your head, you're thinking of somebody who is wearing a lab coat, you tend to be a man, you tend to be a bit older. And what you find with the Crick is that they're not those things.

And I love that. I think that actually inspires the children more than anything else, because they don't fit that stereotype. So what you find is you've got a variety of different ages, different genders, different ethnicities, that are all scientists, rock up, and the kids just think they are the coolest thing in the world. So the little ones do wear the lab coats because they are obsessed with them. But what you find is, the more they go throughout the school, the less they try to conform to those stereotypes of the scientist.

Pupil voices 8:53

Before the Crick came into our school, I used to think science was just teachers telling us things, in a lesson.

I liked it when the scientists visit. And because it is very, very fun. And I learn a lot and it's interesting,

Clare Reynolds 9:10

...and make them I think, what's so brilliant about the Crick, they really make the children feel like what they have to say is valid, and that it's important. And no question is ever a silly question. And one of the best things that they do with them is they help them understand that to be a scientist, all you really need to do is ask a question and be willing to make a mistake. And I think that's such a powerful message, you know, in a time where everything has to be perfect.

What they're pushing is it's okay to make mistakes, keep making them until it's right. So I love that. I think it's great.

Clare Davy 9:53

So we think the young children are really positive when they experience the Crick. So when we go into schools, they're excited to see us, they remember us often by name, they can remember what they've done with us in previous years.

They sometimes see us out in the street, my team sometimes get mobbed by groups of small children running up and sort of clinging on their legs and things. And when the children are aged roughly nine or 10, and that year group, they come and visit our lab, so they spend the day actually at the Crick. So they come in, and they do some electronics work making sort of crazy circuit contraptions.

They do some mystery powder chemistry investigations. And it's that act of coming in the building and putting on lab coats and doing science actually in the Crick that we think is really important for them to be able to visualise themselves in the future doing this kind of role.

So having them in the building is a real joy. And we see that they really enjoy. And then when they're slightly older than that, so sort of 14 to 18, we can start actually getting them in the main part of the building where they can take work experience positions, so we have about 90 young people a year come in.

And they could be working in the labs, or they could be working in our operations teams, experiencing lots of different aspects of the Crick, and hopefully finding something that they want to do in the future.

So science can kind of think of it as a collection of knowledge, skills, experiences and attitudes that a person has towards science. And we know that it's very much affected by things in their background. So whether that's their gender, or their ethnicity, or their social class, who they've been educated by and with, opportunities they've had, maybe from where they live.

And so all of these kind of things come together in this sort of collected term called science capital.

And we know that people with high levels of science capital are more likely to aspire to careers in science. And so although we cannot easily change those underlying demographics, we can do things to help people who we would expect to have low science capital, to actually raise their levels of science capital.

Some of the teachers are often quite surprised at how children who they wouldn't really regard as sciencey back in the classroom, how they sort of behave and how they exceed the teachers' expectations when they're with us. And we think that that's really good. We think that science is for everybody and anybody, and that if we can help broaden science's appeal to those children, then we've done our job.

Pupil voices 13:11

I thought science was just numbers and not as much fun as, as I found out. It is from doing the science experiments with the scientists.

They definitely teach us more about the world around us, and they make us want to find out more after the lesson.

David Payne 13:34

That's all for this section of our Working Scientist podcast. We now have a slot sponsored by the International Science Council, which looks at why diversity is so critical to advancing science and the steps we can take to improve it. I'm David Payne, careers editor at Nature. Thanks for listening.

International Science Council podcast

Simone Athayde 13:51

It's fundamental, to have diverse perspectives.

Jayati Ghosh 13:57

When you come from a particularly different reality, you are more aware of the assumptions that need to be changed.

Adam Habib 14:03

What we have to do is teach beyond national and continental and institutional boundaries

Shirley Malcom 14:07

We can't unsee the challenges, we need to then respond to them.

Marnie Chesterton 14:19

What do we mean by diversity in science? Is it about ideas? About representation? The people who work in science and those who set the research agenda? Is it about what gets taught on science curricula? Or is it about the stories we tell and the people we celebrate?

I'm Marnie Chesterton, and on this podcast series from the International Science Council, we're exploring diversity in science, what it is, and why it matters.

Over the next six episodes, we'll hear from people who are pushing for change in science as a practice, in science systems, and science research.

We'll be celebrating different perspectives, and looking at practical steps to support diversity in scientific workplaces, and how we can make things genuinely inclusive for those who can find themselves in the minority in science settings, whether that's because of their race, gender, sexuality, class or disability.

We'll also be looking at what it takes to be a better ally. In this first episode, why does diversity in science matter?

We live in unprecedented times. From the COVID-19 pandemic, to the climate emergency, from the antibiotic resistance crisis, to addressing rising inequality. It's no exaggeration to say that as a species, we're facing threats on an existential level.

Heide Hackmann 15:57

Well, I think it's important to say that science has always been important, but never more so than now as humanity grapples with the problems of living sustainably, equitably, and of course, safely on planet Earth.

Marnie Chesterton 16:10

This is Heide Hackmann, CEO of the International Science Council, or the ISC. The ISC has existed in some form for almost a century, and aims to be a global voice for all types of science, including the physical, mathematical and life sciences, as well as the social sciences like economics.

Heide Hackmann 16:30

As a global voice for science, we seek to be an ally to the scientific community, and an advocate for the value of science on the global stage. Given the kind of complex global problems that we're grappling with, we need to ensure that our science is as strong as it possibly can be. And that means that it should be rigorous and relevant, addressing the needs and interests of different communities in all parts of the world, and that it is future proofed. So how do we strengthen our science? One essential way is to make sure that it includes the perspectives, insights, the ideas, the talent, the voices, if you will of all scientists. If science is to deliver on today's global demands, we need to draw on all the potential knowledge available in the world, we need to have at hand a global knowledge trust that is inclusive and diverse. And that's why diversity is so importantin today's context.

Marnie Chesterton 17:28

If we're to have any hope of meeting the challenges we face, we need a science that's fit for purpose, one that serves and represents people living across the world. But we're not there yet. According to a study done by UNESCO, fewer than 30% of researchers worldwide are women. In 2019, less than 1% of UK professors were black. Science systems and research questions today lack diversity across many dimensions, race, gender, geography, ethnicity, social class and age. Tackling this lack of diversity first requires us to recognise that there is a problem. And the roots of this problem can be traced back a long, long way.

Anthony Bogues 18:13

We first have to acknowledge something that sometimes we don't really acknowledge, because we think of science as kind of abstract system that science does have a history. And to understand science itself means that we need to begin to pay attention to that history.

Marnie Chesterton: 18:38

This is Anthony Bogues, Professor of Humanities and Critical Theory and Professor of Africana Studies at Brown University. Now humans have been asking questions about the world and experimenting right from our earliest beginnings. Modern astronomy is based on learnings from the ancient Babylonians. And indigenous knowledge systems have existed for 1000s of years. But Anthony argues that by studying the development of modern science during the Age of Enlightenment in Europe, as well as the social and cultural forces of that time, we can gain some valuable insight into how we've inherited the science we have today.

Anthony Bogues 19:15

The history of modern science, and here I'm talking about, 15th, 16th and 17th century begins really, through a set of intellectual events that have really important in European history. The emergence of enlightenment, the rearrangement of the place of the human beings in the so called universal order, all of that happens simultaneously with the emergence of colonialism, and racial slavery. And so I think it’s important to understand that while science emerges as an attempt to understand the physical world, biological world, plant life, and so on. While all these things are happening, what you also get is a science of the human called at that time science of man, in which there's a hierarchy. And in that hierarchy, issues of race, and so called characteristics are, are deeply embedded. You cannot therefore separate the emergence of science, particularly science of biology, from a science of man. And you can't separate the science of man from the hierarchical classification schemas that were organised at the time. So I think this is what I mean by to think about science, not as a kind of objective subject that comes into the world without any kind of human interference, but actually comes into the world because it is a human invention, comes into the world with a set of historical frames that actually shapes what it is that science is about.

Marnie Chesterton 21:03

If what we know today is science emerged this way, if it's intimately bound up with a way of classifying human beings and putting them in a hierarchy, then how is that legacy felt now?

Anthony Bogues 21:14

You have two things. One, you have a way in which these things shape how people are treated, i.e. at a medical level, you know, when somebody goes into the doctor's office, and then you also have a way in which this racial regime of knowledge then suggests the power, and those who are in charge, some people can't do this, and some people can't do that. And in both those cases, what you are looking at is how the life chances of people are impacted upon concretely. It then means that, you know, universities and science organisations and so on, have to look at those two things. You have to look at, how do you transform medical education? How do you transform your institutional culture, which will allow you know what people call diversity, but which will allow other folks to be able to participate to their fullest capacity in science?

Marnie Chesterton 22:11

These are big questions for everyone working in science, and they're more pressing today than they've ever been. But there's another more fundamental issue at the heart of this. Is broadening diversity about making more productive science with better outcomes for humanity, or at an underlying level, should it be about basic rights about justice and equity?

Heide Hackmann 22:34

You know, it's perhaps a little known fact that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes the right to share in scientific advancement and its benefits now in line with this, the ISC has always upheld as a statutory principle, the so called universality of science. And that means that everyone should have the right to participate in science, to become a scientist and to contribute to scientific advancement themselves if they want to do so. It also means that everyone has the right to enjoy the fruits of scientific knowledge. And our task as an organisation and as the global voice for science is to ensure that that commitment is translated into practical positive change.

Marnie Chesterton 23:17

So how can we bring about this change? In 2020, the death of George Floyd in police custody created shock around the world, and reignited debates about the extent of systemic racism in our societies. For the ISC, this meant thinking critically about what part it could play in tackling systemic discrimination, and deciding to take a more public stand.

Heide Hackmann 23:41

So we published a statement on combating systemic racism and other forms of discrimination in science, calling on our members but also our international partner organisations to join us not only in updating our understanding and our dialogue on discrimination in science, but also in initiating new urgent and concrete action, that should be aimed at correcting discrimination in ways that have real consequences for those who have been and continue to be left behind. We really felt that staying silent at this point in time, and not taking action was akin to enabling persistent systemic discrimination to continue unabated, and it was time to step up for change.

Anthony Bogues 24:30

I think that they are signs of change. And those signs of change don't necessarily come from inside they are usually push from the outside, whether it is Black Lives Matter, or whether you know, 40 years ago, it was the civil rights movement, people demand representation within the institutions of society, and demand that certain kind of confrontation, and which one looks at what, what is it that's been taught? And then how can we transform what has been being taught to make that much more representative, quite frankly, of the human species? I think therefore, while there has been changes, and what, what one also needs to think about how to accelerate those changes, how to make those changes, also sustainable and therefore permanent.

Marnie Chesterton 25:21

Creating sustainable, permanent change in science won't be easy, and it might make us uncomfortable. But perhaps we have to get comfortable about that.

Heide Hackmann 25:33

It's about showing global leadership, the global voice for science has little value unless it is a responsible voice. As scientists we call regularly, consistently for transformative societal processes, for systemic social change to safeguard the sustainability of our planet, and the future of humanity, as science itself is not exempt from the need for transformation. And that transformation requires an openness to having difficult conversations. On the conversations around discrimination, they need to be about what has worked to improve diversity in science, where the barriers lie, what still remains to be done. And I would add a healthy degree of critical self reflection on the part of international organisations like the ISC.

Marnie Chesterton 26:22

There are huge challenges ahead for humanity. And we need science, all the sciences to face them. In just the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has completely reshaped the world. And it's unclear if it'll ever be the same again. But amidst the chaos, there is hope that we can make it a better place.

Anthony Bogues 26:41

What gives me hope is when I think about science, when I actually think about various forms of domination, I know that we are not where we were 100 years ago. And I think that too, when one thinks about science, and I think you know what human science is primarily, then it is always about us, grappling with those different difficulties, and us bending the arc towards a different kind of world. That always gives me hope.

Marnie Chesterton 27:20

That's it for this first episode in the series on diversity in science from the International Science Council. The ISC has launched a project on combating racism and systemic discrimination in science, in partnership with other organisations, matching its public stance with some critical self reflection, and action for change in science systems. You can learn more about the project and the ISC's mission online at Next week, we'll be hearing from scientists working in the Amazon and in Ghana, trying to make the research process more inclusive of local people, perspectives, and indigenous knowledge.We will be asking how can diversity create better science?