What should the scientific community of tomorrow look like?

This was originally posted on the Digital Science blog.

If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be? At first answering this question may seem like a fruitless exercise; after all, how could just one thing lead to fundamental cultural changes, when existing systems are so entrenched and complex. But in a climate where women still drop out of Science Technology Engineering Mathematics and Medicine (STEMM) careers at a higher rate than men, despite the recent recognition that the science community needs to be open to a larger diversity of individuals to boost its creativity, perhaps getting an answer to this simple question is exactly what is needed. In order to comprehensively get at the roots of what scientists really want from their work environment, it is necessary to consult broadly.

Soapbox Science is a public outreach platform that promotes women in science and the science they do. It has placed nearly 600 women onto soapboxes over the past seven years, bringing science to the streets and helping to challenge stereotypes about what sort of person a scientist is and what it means to be a scientist in the 21st Century. Our speakers’ research span the breadth of all STEMM subjects and seniority levels, and their individual journeys showcase the multitude of career paths possible in science. This community thus represents an ideal opportunity to gain invaluable insights into what female scientists think the key challenges in the scientific culture are, and their recommendations on how the issues should be tackled.

Soapbox Scientists explaining their research to passers-by on  London’s SouthBank

As part of the training and preparation that we provide new Soapbox Science speakers, we ask them to tell us a bit about themselves. Their stories are varied and amazing; we document them on our Soapbox Science website in the form of personal blogs or Q&As, which give insights into their inspiration for science, their passion for it, and any advice they have for others looking to follow the same career path. One question we always ask them is: ‘If you could change one thing about scientific culture right now, what would it be?’ Since 2013, 249 women have responded to this question; this provides interesting insights into the scientists’ hopes for their field as well as their personal priorities as researchers.

What changes do these scientists really want to see? The 249 responses converged on eight desired changes: these relate to diversity, accessibility, stability, integrity, collaboration, balance, freedom and inclusivity (Table 1). The collective vision of these women for the scientific community of tomorrow is one where there’s no stereotypical scientist; where science is communicated directly and openly; where being a scientist is compatible with securing a mortgage and starting a family, irrespective of gender. They wish to see the emergence of a more daring scientific community, who is prepared to stand out from the crowd and take more risks, who embraces an interdisciplinary approach and who reaches out for collaboration with other facets of society, such as industry. Importantly, these women want a scientific community that starts behaving like a cohesive community, which respects people and cares about their wellbeing.

Table 1: Main desired changes expressed by the 249 Soapbox Science speakers who answered the question “If you could change one thing about scientific culture right now, what would it be?”

Diversity A better balance of age, gender, background, skill set and ways of working and more visibility of diverse role models already working in science, in order to eliminate the stereotype of what kinds of people can/ do work in science.

 

Accessibility Outreach and communication with the public and policy makers should be compulsory and valued, ensuring transparency and encouraging people to ‘trust experts’ by making sure EVERYONE has the chance to talk directly to scientists.

 

Stability More long-term contracts for early career researchers with less need to frequently move cities or countries.

 

Integrity Integrity of scientific research, publishing negative results as well as positive, ‘trendy’ results and eliminating the culture of ‘publish or perish’ which may inhibit career breaks.

 

Collaboration More collaboration within departments, across disciplines, with industry and with people trying to solve real-world problems.

 

Balance The ability to work flexibly, with excellent mental health support and a good work-life balance.

 

Freedom

 

Encouragement to pursue risky, high impact, ‘blue-sky’ research, as well as funding to try working in new, collaborative ways.

 

Inclusivity

 

Less ‘snobbery’, elitism and pub culture- a more supportive community of researchers who share ideas and advice and who are trained against implicit bias.

What’s really interesting about these points is that they are not mutually exclusive. For instance, in order to address the issue of diversity in science, we also need to tackle the issue of freedom, stability, collaboration, integrity – in fact all of the issues flagged by our speakers. To put this more explicitly: how can we hope to improve diversity in academic departments when the instability of contracts is more acutely felt by those wanting to start a family, or when the ‘pub culture’ excludes those who do not drink alcohol and those with caring commitments?

To build a more diverse science community requires looking at all the aspects of scientific culture that contribute to the contentment of its workforce. Making science open to everyone thus means starting to listen to the needs of scientists, especially those from underrepresented groups. Interviewing the people who have decide to forge a career in science, figuring out which hurdles they have, or will have to overcome and which aspects of scientific culture are the most worrying for them, may provide an indication of why certain types of people are less likely to choose, and succeed, in science. It is particularly important to view each issue as part of a wider culture, as the way that the different aspects connect together might be the key to understanding how to best eliminate the hurdles that stand in people’s way. An issue that has been reported as difficult to overcome by one scientist might prove impossible for someone else when combined with other factors. Regularly asking ‘what would you change?’ and working to address those issues might help to make scientific culture better for everyone.

Come along to SpotOn London 2017, where you can hear representatives from the Soapbox Science team talk about diversity.

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