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How the University of Nottingham’s Excel in Science Programme Is Helping to Promote Diversity in the Scientific Field

5 February 22 words: Lizzy O’Riordan
illustrations: Emmy Smith

Can science ever be great without diversity? We catch up with Maria Augusta Arruda and Sara Sleigh from the University of Nottingham to learn more about Excel in Science - the programme pushing for greater diversity within the scientific field

Historically homogeneous when it comes to the workforce, diversity is becoming a growing conversation in the scientific field, and not just for moral reasons. Greater diversity among scientists has also been found to increase the quality of research, which becomes richer with a variety of perspectives.

Here in Nottingham the call for scientific diversity is being stoked by a group of academics at the University of Nottingham. Led by Maria Augusta Arruda and Sara Sleigh, Excel in Science is a scientific initiation programme designed for undergraduates at the University of Nottingham. Aimed at students who may feel out of place in the scientific field (usually due to gender, race, or a lower socio-economic background), the programme works to affirm their place in the scientific community, with the ultimate aim of increasing diversity. 

“We started talking about this programme some time ago in the context of diversifying the workforce,” Sara explains. “We were fortunate to have a very ambitious Futures graduate trainee Kat Hart, who launched the programme last year. She launched a two-part programme, the first part is introducing students to what research is, which we do through a series of events in the spring semester, and the second part is a very focused internship programme where students are paid to be in the lab.”

“First of all, what this does is it demystifies the scientific practice,” Maria continues. “Because as soon as you join the lab you realise that your professor is just another person, someone you eat lunch with and have a joke with.” It also addresses financial inequality between different undergraduate students. “Theoretically, people are on an equal playing field when they get into university but that’s not true because you’ve got people who come from affluent backgrounds and people who need a number of part-time jobs to make ends meet,” Maria says, explaining that the programme aims to close that gap so all students have the time to ponder, analyse, and explore, no matter their class backgrounds.

The people that we’re referring to as the ethnic minority are actually the global majority

Maria and Sara explain that there is currently a disparity when it comes to which students stay in academic study, with more black, working class, and female students leaving education after the undergraduate level. The Excel in Science programme aims to support students who would normally drop out after getting their degree. “Engaging with scientific practice very early on in their careers gives them time to explore,” Maria explains, “meaning that they tend to stay in academic life for longer. People who would never think about doing a Masters degree, or a PhD, or contemplate a career in academia, can now see that as an option.

“Obviously, the impact is proportional to deprivation. You can imagine someone who is the first one in their family to go to university and how it would impact them to really feel part of a community where they are put in touch with people who are very senior, very accomplished academics.” It’s all about giving students the space and time to thrive. As Maria adds, “You can’t judge how good someone is if the person can’t afford to spend the time in the lab, or in the research group.”

So, why is diversity so significant? Obviously pushing for a wider range of scientists is important, but I’m curious to find out why. “This isn’t philanthropy at all,” Maria asserts. “None of the things that we are talking about here is because we’re good people. There are a lot of vested interests. We want to retain this talent in science. It’s important to the scientific community to have diversity. A diverse range of people brings a richness of experience, so in this sense when the individual is supported, the broader community is supported too.”

You can’t judge how good someone is if the person can’t afford to spend the time in the lab, or in the research group

Continuing with a metaphor, Maria gives an example. “In ecology there is this thing called the green desert,” she says, referring to the phenomenon in which fast growing eucalyptus trees are planted in place of native slow growing trees. “The forests look very green, but they are very poor from a biodiversity perspective, and it’s the same in science to some extent. We can use the same metaphor, where we have a lot of people in science, but not the diversity to thrive.

“Throughout history, we had a quota system where it was 100% European or North American caucasian men doing science. When you think about that corresponding to world demographics, that’s only 8.85% of the world population who are doing the research. Meaning the people that design the world aren’t representative of the world population. Less than 9% of people are dictating what is good, bad, or important research.” 

Looking forward to the future, Maria and Sara hope for a world in which scientists do reflect the world population. As Maria rightly points out, “The people that we’re referring to as the ethnic minority are actually the global majority,” and the world of science should represent the majority, for the sake of progress. 

“It’s about giving people opportunities who wouldn’t otherwise have the chance,” Sara says, “people that would have been sidelined for reasons that could have been overcome with support at the right moment.” 

You can keep up to date with Excel in Science by following their Twitter page

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