The British Science Association (BSA) promotes the development of community-led research projects, interactive and inspiring science engagement, and effective science communication for all. While research in the sciences has often been labelled as insular and disconnected from society at large, the BSA aims to connect communities to researchers to solve pressing, real-world problems. Research Outreach was privileged to talk with the BSA’s Chief Executive, Hannah Russell, on her esteemed career and what the future holds for research funding and collaboration.
Academic research in the sciences is often conceived as specialised, technical work that takes place in small groups, on an individual level, and on the borders of society. While communities and the public at large are passed accessible information that has been through the cogs of science communication, there is still a lot of work to be done to make science more relevant, representative, and connected to society.
The British Science Association (BSA) and its Chief Executive, Hannah Russell, have made efforts to do just this. Research Outreach was privileged to discuss Russell’s esteemed career and current work at the BSA, including the development of community-led research projects, interactive and inspiring science engagement, and effective science communication.
What is the BSA and how did you become involved in the organisation?
The BSA is a charity which envisions a future where science is more relevant, representative, and connected to society.
Our work spans education programmes, including our flagship CREST Awards scheme; community engagement activities, which involve grant-giving and facilitating relationships between communities and researchers; public-facing campaigns like British Science Week and the British Science Festival; and science policy and research.
Working towards improved equality, diversity, and inclusion across the science sector and our programmes, we advocate for audiences underrepresented in science to get involved in a way that’s meaningful to them.
The BSA provides the perfect blend of science engagement and education, bringing together the main areas I have focused on throughout my career. I come from a background in science education and engagement, with more than 15 years’ experience across the sector.
How have your previous positions prepared you for your current role as Chief Executive of the BSA?
I’ve been very fortunate to have had a diverse career across science and engineering. This has ranged from my initial training as a science teacher, to my roles at the Wellcome Trust and the Biochemical Society and, most recently, leading the Association for Science Education through the pandemic. These roles have played a part in building my experience and passion for science education and engagement.
Each role has brought opportunities to develop my skills and to get involved in a fantastic range of cutting-edge programmes. These, together with the many brilliant people I’ve had the privilege to work with and learn from, have given me a strong grounding in the work and mission of the British Science Association and of leading a charity more broadly.
Thanks to the BSA, the United Kingdom celebrated British Science Week in March 2023. Could you briefly sum up how this occasion was celebrated?
We’re incredibly proud to run British Science Week. As well as supporting the public, schools, and community groups across the UK to host events with resources and grants to help engage audiences most often underrepresented in science, we publish annual education and community activity packs based on the British Science Week theme. This year’s theme was ‘connections’, and the packs were filled with inspiring project ideas and experiments, with many of the activities relating science with other subjects and everyday life too. These are available year-round.
This year we also hosted a British Science Week ‘Question Time’ event, a first for the Week! In 2022, we conducted research about young people’s perspectives on science and found that just 34% of 14- to 18-year-olds in the UK think science is relevant to their lives, and only 12% think scientists represent their views and values. We decided to explore this further in a panel discussion, including an A-level student, a scientist with public engagement experience, a climate change expert, and a football coach to answer questions from 14- to 18-year-olds from across London on how science can better include and reach young people. It was a rich and insightful conversation, encouraging open discussion across the panel. The event was chaired by our President and CEO of Stemettes (a social enterprise aimed at encouraging young women and LGBTQ+ groups to engage with science) Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon, and supported by George Freeman MP, Minister at the new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology. The event is available to watch on our YouTube channel.The government’s new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) has given science a seat at the cabinet table.
We published 14 new profiles as part of our Smashing Stereotypes campaign, which is now in its third year. Smashing Stereotypes goes live each British Science Week and tells stories of people challenging long-standing ‘science’ stereotypes to an audience of young people, communities, and the wider public. The campaign aims to encourage more young people, from all backgrounds, to see themselves as scientists by showing the breadth of what science can be.
For example, this year we’ve profiled a former fine jeweller who has founded a startup and, building on those skills, now designs flexible, wearable, protective layers for athletes to minimise their risk of long-term damage from joint injuries. You can find out more about Natalie’s story on the British Science Week website.
British Science Week and its activities are supported by a number of funders including UK Research & Innovation, 3M, Urenco, and MSD.
The UK government recently announced a new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology in February 2023. What impact will this have on the British research landscape?
The government’s new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) has given science a seat at the cabinet table, which sends a strong message for the UK’s priorities in science, research, innovation, and technology. Obviously, science is not (and should not be) confined to one area of public life, so delivering the vision set out in the new UK Science and Technology framework – and the research environment needed to facilitate this – will also rely on science and technology sitting at the heart of all government departments and it’s positive to see the government’s commitment to a cross-department action plan.
Moreover, this work requires urgent action to address inequity in science education, workplaces, cultural settings, and in communities. We have welcomed the recent House of Commons Science and Technology Committee (STC) report into diversity and inclusion in STEM, which we’re hoping will influence DSIT’s strategy.
The report supports findings from our own research that, in addition to underrepresentation of women, certain ethnic minorities, disabled people, and people from LGTBQ+ communities are also underrepresented across STEM disciplines.
As well as being important from a social justice perspective, addressing diversity and inclusion in STEM will be vital in supporting a flourishing and innovative British research landscape at the forefront of solving society’s future challenges.
The UK’s recent ‘Finding the optimum’ report has highlighted a large variation in the quality and quantity of practical science work taking place in schools. Why do you think this is, and how can science be better communicated to encourage future generations to study and work in STEM and STEM-related subjects?
There are a number of factors determining the quality and quantity of practical science education received by students in the UK. These typically include time and resource constraints, teacher confidence and the focus on high stakes assessment, as well as the availability of technician support.
Effective practical science is a vital part of a high-quality science education, and for many people the main reason why they choose to work in science. We can’t afford to see the quality and quantity decline. Through the BSA’s CREST Awards programme, funded by UKRI, together with support from many other organisations, we help more than 50,000 students aged 5–19 each year to think and behave like scientists and engineers by giving them the inspiration, resources, and framework to complete hands-on STEM investigations on topics they’re passionate about. Over the last four years, we’ve worked with over 40% of secondary schools in challenging circumstances across England, and we know that the programme can have a massive impact on young people’s skills, confidence, and aspirations in STEM.
For example, last year 14-year-old George, an autistic student from Leeds, received a Silver CREST Award for his project to investigate the perfect amount of time it takes to dunk a biscuit into a cup of tea by building a LEGO biscuit dunker machine. George now aspires to a career in STEM, citing how CREST helped him to develop his practical skills, build STEM knowledge, and gain confidence.
Making science relevant to the next generation is a core objective of the BSA’s work, as this will lead to more meaningful involvement with science in education, work, and society – enabling young people to draw on their own skills and experiences to engage with science in all areas of their lives. Improving science communication to young people is vital but it can’t be a one-way conversation. To understand the best way to motivate, inspire, and connect young people with science, we also need to listen to what matters most to them.
Our youth voice programme ‘Future Forum’ does just that. We consistently hear from 14- to 18-year-olds that they are most concerned about the impact of the climate crisis on their lives, but that they also feel particularly despondent about being able to tackle this immense challenge. Listening to young people’s concerns about the world they’ll inherit is necessary to find out what science they want to be involved in, and how best to do that.
What barriers currently exist for students in the UK’s education system, and what impact does this have on science engagement?
Young people’s experience of school can vary enormously, leading to very different outcomes for different students. Many of the barriers in wider society, for example prejudice towards certain groups, are predictably also present in schools. These can impact subject options, choices, and levels of attainment as well as wider issues such as young people’s mental health and likelihood of exclusion.
The BSA provides the secretariat for the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Diversity and Inclusion in STEM and their first inquiry explored inequity in STEM education. The report called on policymakers to view inequity in STEM education through an intersectional lens, rather than individual characteristics. The inquiry not only concluded that there is inequity in STEM education, but that we must also concentrate efforts on other lived experiences which result in inequity, such as having special educational needs, children with English as a second language, or children in care. The lack of data about these demographics means that there’s not enough understanding about how their experiences affect their engagement with science.
We also commissioned research into the opportunities for science engagement across the UK in 2022. Unsurprisingly, the report found a high concentration of STEM graduates in the South-East, in university regions and cities where lots of STEM career opportunities are present. This highlights the importance of regional considerations when looking at the barriers to accessing science. The distribution of cultural science institutions, such as festivals and museums, also shows that large swathes of the nation are underserved.To understand the best way to motivate, inspire, and connect young people with science, we also need to listen to what matters most to them.
The BSA founded ‘The Ideas Fund’ to promote practical, problem-solving research, and open collaboration networks between researchers and communities. Could you tell us a little bit more about this project, its strategy, and future goals?
The Ideas Fund is a grants programme run by the BSA and funded by the Wellcome Trust which enables the UK public to develop and try out ideas that address problems relating to mental wellbeing. The Fund connects community groups – who are generally overlooked in health research – with researchers.
Community–researcher partnerships can often be led by the research or researcher agenda, so we wanted to test out a different approach to applying for the funds, with community groups being supported to lead the applications themselves, develop their ideas, and focus on what matters most to them and their community. We are keen to fund in a way that supports genuine partnerships, so that both the community and the researcher can benefit from each other’s expertise.
We deliver The Ideas Fund in four specific areas of the UK – Hull, Oldham, the Scottish Highlands and Islands, and North-West Northern Ireland. This enables us to put in place more local support for applicants who may be new to this way of working.
Since its launch, The Ideas Fund has awarded £3.28 million in grants to over 70 community projects across our four areas, with the aim of improving mental wellbeing for a range of community groups, including: veterans, vulnerable young people, cancer survivors, people with a learning disability, isolated older people, and many more.
This latest phase of the programme, which has seen close to £300,000 of regional partnership funding granted to community organisations, will focus on supporting projects that set out to improve the relationship between the community sector and academia.
The BSA also runs the ‘Community Buddies’ and, more recently, the ‘Community-Led Research Pilot’ scheme. What are these projects, and what support structures does the BSA have in place to encourage and maintain meaningful relationships between researchers and communities?
The Community Buddies programme builds on the skills and experience that community organisers develop through our Community Leaders scheme. Community Leaders are selected from the pool of either existing members of the BSA Community Engagement Network or people who have previously received microgrants from the BSA community grants funding scheme to deliver science engagement activities with underserved communities. The Community Leaders programme provides them with training and funding, and aims to harness the passion and ideas of individuals who work with underrepresented audiences and enhance their skills to enable them to become leaders of science engagement in their communities. By then matching these Community Leaders with hand-picked researchers in their local area, the Community Buddies programme aims to drive new relationships to spark ideas and lead to innovative, community-led science engagement.
Our dedicated community engagement team supports our Community Buddies, training them how to use relational meetings to learn about each other and discover mutual interests. This approach empowers shared decision-making and develops a collaborative, balanced relationship. This is a different way of working: we encourage the purposeful discovery of common goals instead of an agenda-driven approach. This ultimately leads to more meaningful science engagement projects and longer-lasting relationships between communities and researchers.Addressing diversity and inclusion in STEM will be vital in supporting a flourishing and innovative British research landscape at the forefront of solving society’s future challenges.
The Community Led Research Pilot is the newest addition to our community engagement work. This is an exciting new pilot programme aimed at developing new ways of working with community groups in Reading and Slough – to create community-led research with the potential to make a difference to local areas and lives. We are working with University of Reading and two community partners, Reading Voluntary Action and Slough SCVS, to pilot new approaches to put communities in the driving seat to develop their own research questions and research focus. This approach ensures communities’ local needs and priorities are being addressed and taps into the unique insights they can provide.
The support structures to encourage meaningful relationships include working in partnership with local established organisations such as our community partners. Communities and local groups will be supported by newly recruited community researchers and early career researchers from the University of Reading to explore local priorities on wide-ranging topics and themes linked to science that matter to them. These insights will then form the basis of five funded research projects in 2023.
Through this process, the Pilot aims to create new networks and more equitable ways of working between local communities and the research sector – building confidence, interest, and ownership when it comes to research and science more broadly.
The Community Buddies, Leaders, and Community-Led Research Pilot are all funded by UKRI (UK Research and Innovation).
Are there any future projects that the BSA is particularly excited about?
The annual British Science Festival is happening in September 2023, hosted by the University of Exeter. The British Science Festival will take place over four days, bringing talks, interactive events, workshops, and art installations to the city and university’s campus.
We’re excited, as with every year, to showcase science research and innovation in ways that young people and adults can relate to and engage with, as well as supporting researchers from across the UK to share their work with new audiences. We’ll be announcing parts of the programme in the next month or so, so keep an eye out on the Festival website for more details: www.britishsciencefestival.org