The eminent scientist, writer and broadcaster Professor Brian Cox is passionate about inspiring future generations to enter his profession. In this exclusive article, he explains why Britain needs more Asian scientists, engineers, technologists and mathematicians.
“I have always loved science. I was fascinated by the Moon landings and I’m one of “Apollo’s children”, the generation inspired to grow up to become a scientist or engineer after watching and reading about the voyages to the Moon. Spaceflight is engineering, science, exploration and discovery all rolled into one.
“Today the quest for knowledge hasn’t stopped and that curiosity, that thirst to discover for discovery’s sake, to make sense of who we are, what came before us and what is yet to come, are essential to the work I and many others engineers and scientists do.
“But there’s a question I really would like answered now – how do we get more children interested in science, engineering, technology and mathematics, the so called STEM subjects? I say this because I haven’t met anyone who isn’t just a little bit interested in science, if it’s presented in the right way.
“I’m not talking about dumbing down. I’m talking about making it interesting and accessible for everyone. Science is the way we answer questions, and we need to reassure our children that if they are interested in science or engineering, that’s wonderful, and they can turn that interest into a lifelong passion.
“If they want to follow a career in science – even working on designing and building spacecraft – that’s not a crazy idea. Thousands of people do it every day, so why can’t they?
“Traditionally Asian parents have instilled in their children a passion for higher education, especially for STEM subjects . After all, there are south Asian Nobel Prize winners like CV Raman, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar and Venkatraman Ramakrishnan.
“Today, India produces about half a million engineering graduates every year because it understands the benefits to its economy. Yet in the UK, it’s a more complex story. A report for the Royal Society in 2005 said while there was an over-representation of British Indians compared to white people working in science, engineering and technology, British Bangladeshis were under-represented.
“Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) show that about one in five first-year students from the UK comes from an ethnic minority community. Although that’s just above the expectation based on population, most study arts and humanities subjects.
“When it comes to reading STEM subjects, just under five per cent of students describe themselves as British Indians, 3.4 per cent British Pakistanis and only one per cent British Bangladeshis. British Sri Lankans don’t figure at all. So it’s no surprise that in the upper echelons, the figures are lower still.
“This is a problem because we need diversity in our workforce. We need people with different backgrounds, different experiences and different perspectives. For example, we know that south Asians are prone to certain diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. I’m not implying that these are purely south Asian illnesses of course, or that the cure must be found by a south Asian. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if somewhere out there is an Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi or Sri Lankan child who devoted their career to tackling these medical challenges because someone they love is ill.
“After working with the teachers, parents and governors at St Paul’s Way Trust School in Tower Hamlets for several years, I’ve become convinced that part of the problem that leads to the under-representation of Asians and those from poorer backgrounds in senior positions in STEM subjects is a lack of information.
“If you don’t know anyone who has studied a STEM subject beyond school, then it’s all the more difficult for you to take that leap into the unknown. That’s why I think it’s so valuable for my fellow academics, scientists, engineers, technologists, mathematicians and industrialists to get out into their communities and schools.
“This is what the Science Summer School in Tower Hamlets, one of the poorest boroughs in the country and where thousands of Bangladeshis have settled, is all about. An inspirational 10-minute talk can make all the difference to a young boy or girl. That meeting with a top scientist or industrialist, that interaction, could be the thing which tips someone into believing they can make a difference to all our lives.
“Surely we can’t afford to let a life-changing opportunity like that pass us by.”
Professor Brian Cox, OBE, a professor of particle physics in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Manchester and Royal Society professor for public engagement in science, hosted his fourth Science Summer School in east London this week.