Lack of diversity means loss of talent for UK scientific workforce

07 March 2014

A lack of diversity across the scientific community represents a large loss of potential talent to the UK according to the chair of the Royal Society’s Equality and Diversity Network (EDAN), Professor Edward Hinds FRS.

The comment comes as the Royal Society publishes a report which gives the fullest picture yet of the scientific workforce in relation to diversity.

Approximately 20 per cent of people in the UK workforce need scientific knowledge and training to do their current jobs. A picture of the UK scientific workforce, published today (6 March), sets out to analyse and understand the composition of the scientific workforce in terms of gender, disability, ethnicity and socio-economic status and background. 

Professor Edward Hinds FRS, said:

“With diversity comes a mix of ideas, skills and approaches. If the UK’s scientific workforce is not diverse, we are bound to be missing out on some great talent. At a time when the UK is seeking to use its scientific capabilities to help improve lives and rebuild the economy, it is more important than ever that we ensure the best scientists can flourish.”

The report points to socio-economic background having a strong effect on an individual’s likelihood of entering the scientific workforce. Analysing data from a mid-career cohort study, the Royal Society found that science workers living in households in the highest income bracket at age 16 in 1986 were more than five times as likely to progress to a professional level occupation than those in the lowest household income bracket. For the same cohort, people with better educated parents and people from middle-income families were most likely to enter science.

It also found that students from black and ethnic minority groups were less likely to progress to scientific jobs after graduating than white students, though the data relating to ethnicity is extremely mixed and complicated.

A possibly surprising finding is that women make up a slight majority of the scientific workforce (50.3%). This is not the case for the non-scientific workforce and the total workforce as a whole (45.3% and 46.3% respectively). Despite making up the majority of the science workforce, women are highly underrepresented at the highest roles.

The data gathering exercise found that as a whole, the scientific workforce is better paid than people in other occupations. Forty-seven per cent of the scientific workforce earn within the top 3 wage bands compared with 21.4% of the non-scientific and 27% of the total workforce. But relatively few people who work in science are in the very highest wage band compared to other occupations. 24.1% of the scientific workforce earns wages in the top wage band (£50k+) compared with 32.3% of the non-scientific workforce and 28.2% of the total workforce.

Other key findings from the data analyses include:

  • The pattern of ethnicity in the scientific workforce is extremely complex.
  • Overall in the scientific workforce, black and minority ethnic workers are relatively concentrated at the two ends of the spectrum – they are over represented in the most senior and most junior parts of the workforce.
  • Disabled people are underrepresented in the workforce as a whole, but they are no more underrepresented in the scientific workforce than other occupations.
  • Individuals from lower socio-economic backgrounds who did enter the scientific workforce took longer to do so than those from higher socio-economic backgrounds.
  • For a cohort of mid-career individuals, women working in science were less likely to take career breaks than women work in other occupations.

Professor Edward Hinds FRS, added:

“In commissioning this research, we set out to understand the make-up of the scientific workforce. What we’ve discovered is a very complex picture, due in part to the highly imperfect nature of the available data.

The Society hopes to work with the scientific community to address some of the gaps in the data so that we can better assess the impact of existing initiatives to increase diversity, and introduce new targeted programmes where appropriate to ensure a truly diverse scientific workforce can be developed.”

Compiled as part of the Royal Society’s diversity programme, funded by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), the report brings together findings from three separate data gathering exercises commissioned by the Society. The report does not comment on why the scientific workforce looks the way it does however separately the Society has a number of initiatives that look to identify and overcome barriers to entry and progression within science.