How hands-on experience, equality, and diversity can supercharge Britain’s STEM sector

In this exclusive guest article, Dr. Simon Kew, Managing Director at Alchemie Technology, discusses how we can address the UK’s shortage of STEM skills.

Celebrating science and technology as part of British Science Week earlier this month was a bittersweet experience for me. The many leaps we have taken as a scientific community, such as the acceleration of vaccine developments in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, are to be applauded, but the lack of people in the UK who are actively opting for careers in science was a sobering thought.

While the past week celebrated the world-class achievements and capabilities of British science, it also brought to the fore the longstanding debate on why STEM skills don’t seem to attract as many young people as before.

The decreasing number of people with STEM skills costs the UK economy an estimated annual loss of £1.5 billion while 43 percent of vacancies in STEM remain unfilled due to a shortage of qualified applicants. At the same time, technological advancements have accelerated and are driving the world’s leading economies. Innovations in climate change and sustainability, healthcare, increasing digitisation and the proliferation of technology in everyday life means that global demand for technological and scientific expertise has never been higher.

STEM’s apparent unattractiveness partly arises from schools cutting down on expensive practical experimentation, reducing opportunity for students to work with their hands and explore science by doing things. Another problem is the lack of government support towards promoting STEM as an exciting, vibrant, economically attractive and ultimately satisfying career choice. Having spent close to two decades in industrial materials science, innovating chemical products and processes, I know first-hand the satisfaction that comes from discovering something new and unexplored. However, for many UK students, they will have limited exposure to industrial research and development and manufacturing environments, which have declined in the UK in recent years.

How can we make STEM more appealing?

Dr. Simon Kew, Managing Director, Alchemy Technology

Dr. Simon Kew

For STEM education to become more appealing to the younger generation, we should double down on providing opportunities for young people to engage with the great scientific challenges of our time and have the opportunity to practically solve technological problems. We also need to provide them with the tools to solve technical problems, with the right underlying skills in core subjects such as mathematics, computer programming and the basic sciences. We also need to address the perception of technical industries as old-fashioned, dirty, and polluting; we need the clean-tech industries of the future to be in the UK, delivering jobs and economic prosperity.

A very practical way of doing this is for schools and universities to engage with businesses, introducing students to work on projects and products that have actual real-life meaning. This way they can pick up practical skills that add further weight to their classroom knowledge. Practical experience, while often simplifying things for young starters and students, also has the advantage of helping STEM jobs break out from the stereotype that they are rigid, elitist, and remote from real-world relevance.

It is the responsibility of us scientists, innovators, industrialists, and entrepreneurs, to ensure that we effectively demonstrate the myriad possibilities and pathways available. It is crucial to widely air the message that unconventional thinking and creativity are essential pillars of STEM’s success.

In my own experience as Managing Director of Alchemie Technology in Cambridge, I have seen the benefit working with young STEM graduates can have for the business.

We have developed disruptive technology that is transforming the fashion and textile industry to use fewer natural resources and dramatically reduce its environmental impact. These breakthroughs critically depend on new scientific talent to create the future solutions that are urgently needed to combat climate change.

Going forward, British innovation and science requires a steady pipeline of young ‘engineers-in-training’ to ensure that the UK stays at forefront of advanced technology.

While I have called out the government for its inability to effectively promote STEM careers, it is important to note that the current situation is not all negative. The government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda promises fair access to technology (broadband) across the UK, providing better access for youngsters to engage with STEM. The establishment of science and technology academies will support early specialisation and focus on core science disciplines, which is the lifeblood for creating world-class scientists and engineers.

In addition, the UK government’s leadership in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic with vaccine development programmes, advanced diagnostic surveillance and world-class epidemiology has showcased the UK’s world-class capabilities in biomedical science. This I hope, will inspire young people to engage with science as a subject with significant real-world impact.

STEM and equality

A vital corollary to promoting interest in STEM is to encourage equality between genders and to promote students from the broadest possible range of backgrounds to take an active interest in science. It is vital that the most able students are attracted to STEM careers, which are by nature challenging and intellectually demanding.

In the UK, while the number of women in STEM hit one million in 2019, more than doubling from the number a decade ago, this growth has been heavily skewed with female representation in technology remaining low at just 16% in 2019. Similarly, the Royal Society of Chemistry recently reported on the “pervasive” inequalities that black and ethnic minority scientists face in academia, with very low representation vs. the number of undergraduate students.

The government has taken a proactive role in driving up the number of women in STEM through support programmes focussing on physics and computing. However, it is also the responsibility of businesses, scientific institutions, and professional bodies to recognise the unequal representation that exists and ensure that STEM careers are equally accessible to all.

In conclusion, while there is no doubt that STEM education and science/engineering skills are in high global demand, the support in the UK must be dramatically improved to ensure that young people from all backgrounds can progress from school to rewarding careers in world-class technology-intensive industries.

Over the last couple of years, outreach programmes and grassroot science initiatives have found renewed energy, and further strengthening these activities can go a long way in helping the UK retain its standing as a leading scientific nation. However, there is still a long way to go and the UK must realise that it is competing in the global race for talent to address the major technological challenges of our age, such as climate change, water scarcity, and drug-resistant infections.

The UK must be focussed on equipping our young scientists and engineers, who should be from the broadest possible range of backgrounds, with the right practical skills and experience to succeed in a fast-changing and highly competitive world.

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