DOI: https://www.doi.org/10.53289/HHNT7663

Building science capital throughout a lifetime

Kevin Coutinho

Kevin Coutinho is Equality, Diversity & Inclusion (EDI) Lead Trustee at the British Science Association. He has 15 years’ experience within Higher Education as Pro-Director, Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, head of EDI at the University of Oxford, gender policy lead at UCL and EDI consultant at the University of Cambridge. He brings extensive experience of both EDI programme implementation, principles and practice. Kevin is an experienced board member as Chair of Trustees at the Windsor Fellowship.


  • Change in this field can seem slow and not well-connected
  • Science capital needs to be nurtured, supported and retained
  • The challenge is to harness the many existing programmes
  • Communities need our support in order to deliver their own science programmes
  • We need more coordination, greater engagement and more effective leadership.

The British Science Association is on a journey towards equality, equity, diversity and inclusion: I use all four terms in the context of the UK, they all are relevant given our distinctive historical, legal and cultural experience. However, we are still discovering the destination that lies at the end of this journey.

We engage with many different communities but there are others where we do not have a connection and STEM is the poorer for it. I have worked in both Higher Education and the voluntary sector for the best part of 25 years. Change in these areas feels very slow and many of the initiatives do not seem very well-connected one with another. How can we engage the different communities within this sphere at a practical level? The Select Committee report has already highlighted some of the challenges facing the sector and some of the issues associated with it.

Among the British Science Association’s initiatives are two that are very well-established. There is British Science Week and the CREST programme. In the Government response to the Select Committee report, we were pleased to see that both were mentioned. They are not, of course, the only initiatives in this area and we should all recognise the wealth of good practice already taking place. The challenge is to harness all of that in a way that leads to systemic change.


The CREST programme has been running since 1986, and each year over 50,000 young people take part. Science capital starts at a young age and, like any good investment, it needs to be nurtured, supported and retained. The problem here could be characterised as ‘leaky pipelines’. These tend to focus on the water, not the infrastructure. Yet it is the infrastructure that provides support and retains the valuable contents passing through. While we see good numbers coming through our pipeline there is still some attrition. Retention and progression are not distributed equitably. That illustrates the importance and urgency of equity.

From the BSA’s perspective, we need to identify what can we do to retain those people. So CREST is a really helpful example: we can work with students who are women, or from minority or socially disadvantaged backgrounds, in order to help them understand what problems they could face in STEM but then how they could engage with them practically to understand, address and solve them.

The programme has been attracting support from a range of different bodies. Students in different parts of the UK will have different experiences of it: the Welsh Government resources it so that every secondary school student in Wales can access it, for example.

Community engagement

The BSA is very invested in community engagement and there is a range of different initiatives which we support. Communities should lead their own science, bottom-up engagement, engagement with schools and indeed other parts of their locality. So we have a number of different programmes that we use to resource, support and partner communities.

A key element of our programmes is the evaluation we undertake. Through these evaluations, we come to understand to what extent the engagement we are building is diverse in terms of disability, mental health, age, race, and gender. More importantly, people see that these programmes are helping them increase their science capital and that, for us, is an important outcome.

The challenge is then to map out these different interventions so that we can create a pathway of referrals into different programmes and initiatives. The issue of retention is one we deal with systematically.

School pupils on strike in 2019 to protest about climate change. 

Policy space

Although specific Government responses may fall short of expectations, we do value the important role of interacting with and influencing policy. We provide the secretariat for the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Diversity and Inclusion in STEM, which is chaired by Chi Onwurah MP.

We have also undertaken a number of research studies into public attitudes about these issues. One recent publication examined how climate change can be included in the curriculum. The British Science Association worked with the University of Plymouth to undertake a research project into understanding perceptions of teachers and students, bringing together the options for improvement. There is no quick fix to this because there are so many different stakeholders that need to be involved. Through our work, though, we better understand the challenges and the issues, identifying those individuals and bodies we need to influence and work with.

It is really important for us all to understand that representation does matter. If we walk into a room as a child and do not see the range of people that reflects our experience, and the profile does not change as we go through our education and employment journeys, it becomes a barrier preventing us from feeling that we belong. Such dissonance in STEM is problematic, for individuals, for the community and, indeed, for society.

Once we recognise that lack of diversity is a problem, we can also see that the response to date is disappointing. The necessary leadership has not been there, although in some ways that leadership has to be bottom-up. We have to recognise too that improvement will not happen in a straight line.

The Inquiry into Diversity and Inclusion in STEM is an important step on the journey. Now, we need to consider how we collectively nudge action in a direction that improves that diversity and inclusion.

There are today so many initiatives in this area. What we need is more coordination, greater engagement and leadership, and more clarity about what the data are saying. There is a great deal of data available, but specific datasets that help us, for example, understand the workforce are not readily accessible. Longitudinal workforce data becomes critical if we want to take this work forward and understand its impact on catalysing change.

The challenge is to provide sustained engagement from school right into retirement. Diversity and inclusion are not just an issue in entry level roles. Everybody has a role to play in providing that engagement.