David Payne examines the links between socioeconomic status and a career in science.
“Congrats on the new job David, good to see a ‘Stabbo’ lad doing so well…”
So said Richard, a Facebook friend and former schoolmate in a reference to my status change last month, posted the night before I started working at Nature, and to our home town.
Stabbo — AKA Stapleford — lies on the Nottinghamshire/Derbyshire border. One of its local authority wards has the highest percentage of lone parent householders in the borough, some of the highest rates of overcrowding, domestic abuse, and alcohol related hospital admissions and emergency asthma admissions. The latest news I heard about my home town was that its only supermarket is set to close. Its replacement? A discount store.
It wasn’t always like this. Richard and I, born a year after the last of the UK’s baby boomer generation, remember a town with a bustling high street of independent shops and a cluster of handsome Victorian hosiery factories, bulldozed years ago. Had they survived, Stapleford might have seen some loft apartment gentrification.
From the late 1970s our secondary education was two miles away at the local grammar school, and we graduated from university with relatively modest debt, courtesy of a full maintenance grant in the days before student loans and tuition fees.
Lucky us. I and most of our sixth form classmates were beneficiaries of social mobility of a kind which no longer exists, which is why the Social Mobility Commission’s latest State of the Nation report is such a depressing read.
It says that “low levels of social mobility are impeding the progress of not only the poorest in our society.” The report identifies “four fundamental barriers that are holding back a whole tranche of low- and middle-income families and communities in England: an unfair education system, a two-tier labour market, an imbalanced economy and an unaffordable housing market.”
It notes that children who receive free school meals are 25% less likely than other children to study one or more STEM A-level, 19% less likely to attend university, and 22% less likely to study a STEM degree.
How does science fare on the social mobility stakes? Nature examined this issue in September 2016, citing a survey that only 15% of scientists come from working-class households, which comprise 35% of the general population. “There’s a class barrier to the professions,” warned Katherine Mathieson, chief executive of the British Science Association, “but it’s more extreme for science.”
The same article looked at the situation globally, reporting that China often falls short of its egalitarian standards despite low tuition fees, that rising tuition fees in Japan are leading to a growing social divide in higher education, and that in India science “largely remains a privilege of the rich, the politically powerful and the upper castes.”
Steps are being taken to widen access to scientific careers, and to highlight problems faced by scientists struggling to be socially mobile. But how common are they? Probably not much, given the launch of new initiatives are still deemed newsworthy.
Last month, for example, Naturejobs reported on a progamme launched by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in Maryland. The programme aims to reduce barriers for women and under-represented minorities who seek academic research careers in the life sciences, and addresses financial hardship, mentoring and networking opportunities.
One hopes the aim is to attract scientists such as former construction worker Hosea Nelson, who, in a September 2015 Trade Talk, spoke about launching his own lab at the University of California, Los Angeles, saying: “Culturally, socio-economically and educationally, I came from a different place from most high-level academics, who often follow a similar path from a similar socio-economic background. I was a high-school dropout and poor. I have a high level of appreciation for being able to put food on the table and for the fact that I love my job, but I’m not sure that appreciation is universal.”
Nelson’s early life may resonate with immunologist Patricia Castillo, who described life as a lone parent scientist in March 2016, saying: “Financially, it’s still kind of stressful. At the end of the month, I’m just barely making it till the next pay period.”
The article also profiled Lily Asquith, a particle physicist in Brighton, UK, and a single parent from the age of 19. She was living in a women’s shelter when she decided to take evening classes in mathematics and physics. After completing her PhD, she and her daughter moved to the US.
A five-year research award aimed at scientists with considerable carer responsibilities or health issues to pursue flexible working arrangements enabled Asquith to return to the UK after her daughter was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. The award was “a real life-changer,” she says, enabling her to stay on top of her research as well as spend time with her daughter.
So what’s the answer? In the UK, it’s certainly not a return to grammar schools and selecting children according to their academic ability aged 11, says Alan Milburn, the former minister who chairs the Social Mobility Commission. Commission deputy chair Gillian Shephard, a former education secretary, agrees with him.
Milburn told The Guardian that “the rungs on the social mobility ladder are growing further apart. It is becoming harder for this generation of struggling families to move up. The impact is not just felt by the poorest in society but is also holding back whole tranches of middle- as well as low-income families — these treadmill families are running harder and harder but are standing still.”
David Payne is Nature’s chief careers editor