Close your eyes and picture a scientist. What comes to mind? A five-second search on Google Images serves up pictures of white people – often men – in lab coats and big goggles, looking quizzically at test tubes full of blue liquid.
So, it’s no surprise that the public are led to believe that to be interested or engaged in science, you need to be a hyper intelligent “uber geek”, or that having a science career means spending all your time in the lab, which just isn’t the case.
Science has an image problem, and I think it’s about time that we did something about it. I’m frustrated with seeing so many stereotypes that not only misrepresent what science is, but also put people off because they don’t conform to that narrow view of what a scientist “should” look like.
Of course, it’s encouraging to see so many enthusiastic volunteers from the industry now getting involved with initiatives, such as being STEM ambassadors who go into schools or volunteer in the community to talk about their passion for science. But I feel this is only scratching the surface.
Businesses in the science industries could do more by identifying and encouraging others from their companies. If we want to show that a science career can be for anyone, we need to show a breadth of backgrounds, science jobs, and career stages.
For those who are responsible for this sort of school outreach, a good starting point would be to think about the people you are sending into schools. Can you highlight people in technical roles as well as leadership roles? What about getting your colleagues in communications, marketing, policy, and HR involved?
Age matters, too – even someone aged 30 might seem ancient to a teenager doing their GCSEs. If young people can’t see themselves in the role models at hand, they won’t be able to picture themselves in the role.
Businesses should also aim to build long-term, lasting relationships with schools and colleges. One school visit is unlikely to have the desired impact, but several visits in a term will help broaden young people’s ideas about what scientists are like.
But, if I could change just one thing, it would be to get more scientists from the industry doing proactive outreach to schools or community groups in their immediate surroundings, rather than just agreeing to requests that come to them.
Of course, I wouldn’t want to stop anyone responding to an invitation, but I often find that the schools that ask scientists to visit may already be doing lots of encouraging work with their students, and typically have more resources available than the schools that don’t ask.
There’s no magic bullet to this problem, and if we want more people to feel comfortable with science in the future, it won’t be something we can fix overnight. But we can and should do more.
Many businesses are going in the right direction, and if we all do our own little bit to challenge the stereotype of what science is, or what a scientist looks like, I hope that soon the crazy scientist image will become a thing of the past.