Socioeconomic diversity in Polar Science

26 Septeolar Sciencember, 2022 Diversity in UK Polar Science



Professor Martin Siegert is a glaciologist at Imperial College London and co-director of the Grantham Institute. He’s co-Chair of the Diversity in Polar Science Initiative and Chair of the UK Arctic and Antarctic Partnerships Committee. In this guest blog he reflects on the barriers to entering science and how organisations and individuals could address this.


I’ve always considered my background to be ‘normal’ or ‘ordinary’. I went to a comprehensive school that traditionally sent few students to university, lived in a postcode where even fewer went to university, and had a Mum and Dad, and brother and sister, who didn’t go to university. In my school that was ‘common’ or ‘usual’. Despite serious problems with teaching provision in A level Chemistry and Physics, but also with an outstanding teaching in Maths, I did relatively well in exams and was one of a handful in my year to go to university (though some went to a polytechnic) but the only one whose parents had not been previously. So many of my friends did not.


Going to Reading University was an eye-opener in many regards. I had little preparation and few expectations. I immediately found that my background was far from common. Students with a background like mine were rare, but I became quickly ‘assimilated’ into student life and got on quite well.


Roll on thirty plus years, there has been a tremendous appreciation in widening participation in universities and encouraging and celebrating diversity in all walks of life, including I’m pleased to say in Polar Science. Despite substantial scrutiny of school performance, the likelihood of attending university from those with backgrounds like mine remains stubbornly low. A report by King’s College London – supported by Full Fact – made the stark conclusion that the most under-represented group at university was “working class white boys”. More recently, in 2021 the Evening Standard reported that this ‘socioeconomic’ representation problem had worsened in the last 30 years. A few years ago, Sophie Pender – a Law undergraduate at Bristol University from a non-traditional background – realised just this and started the ‘93% Club’ (93% because that is the proportion of UK children who attend comprehensive schools) in response to the lack of socioeconomic inclusion. Her work provoked me (among many others) to recognise my own background as being ‘non typical’ in research, and to be more vocal about the issue.


This problem has relevance in Polar Science because, largely, participation at university is a pre-requisite for research. If our universities under-recruit students with ‘non-traditional’ backgrounds, then this issue will be felt in post-university vocations. The lack of ‘socioeconomic’ representation within the great institutions of the UK is quite easy to spot, thanks to Wikipedia. Next time you listen to the BBC News, for example, do a quick search for the backgrounds of those being interviewed – and interviewing – and you’ll invariably see a preponderance of professionals who have been privately educated. It is quite incredible. Also, consider the Directors of London’s three most prestigious museums – the NHM, V&A and British. All are white men. And they have all been privately educated. The problem isn’t so much that they are white and male – though that is certainly a problem in itself – but that they have been selected from a very small, and highly privileged, proportion of white men.


Socioeconomic representation is clearly a big issue in our society, but efforts to address it have been poor and/or ineffective. In UKRI’s 2019 review of equality, diversity and inclusion, it states “socioeconomic status was the focus of a great deal of widening participation literature, but it was agreed with UKRI and the Advisory Group that this was out of the scope of this review”. In the UK Governments R&D strategy for People and Culture, socioeconomic inclusion wasn’t even mentioned. It was also overlooked in UKRI’s 2022 EDI strategy draft report, though as it was available for consultation, I hope others like me will have pointed out this omission. It may be a difficult subject but ignoring socioeconomic inclusion doesn’t make it go away – quite the reverse in fact. Indeed, social inclusion must be regarded as a means to support a full range of equity and diversity issues – this ‘intersectionality’ is vital to recognise in order to support inclusion in its fullest sense.


Surely, the first thing to do is to understand and then disclose the problem – and the UK’s Diversity in Polar Science Initiative, which I co-chair, has attempted to do this and our experience in tackling this may be of interest to others. We formed a subcommittee to investigate how to quantify socioeconomic inclusion, and immediately found out that many of the questions we’d like to ask the community were extremely personal and potentially intrusive. Help from a social scientist in framing the questions helped greatly, and our draft set of questions was agreed at both the sub- and full-committees. Appreciating this as an experiment, learning as much about how the questionnaire was received as the results themselves, we rolled out the survey at both the UK Arctic Symposium (Durham, April 2022) and the UK Antarctic Symposium (Edinburgh, September 2022). The reactions to the survey itself, and to raising awareness of the issue in general, were very positive. The results themselves were unsurprising – with a disproportionately high participation from independent and grammar schools, largely reflecting the proportions in attendance at university. In the coming weeks the Committee will inspect the results further and offer the questionnaire to others.


Disclosure is essential as a first step, but it doesn’t change the issue. As the report by Kings College London concluded, the solution is better comprehensive schools, with a focus on those that are – and have been – underperforming against local and national averages. Because of this, and because I feel the need to support students with background like mine, I joined the Speakers for Schools programme – providing talks to comprehensive schools and to advise students there about going to university, what its like at university and what you can do subsequently, including careers in research and Polar Science. I found it extremely rewarding, and only wish I’d taken some initiative – like Sophie Pender did – years ago.


School quality isn’t the only issue, however. For those at university, considering whether to undertake a PhD having racked up considerable personal debt is a further disincentive to those who may be financially insecure. The stipend, while tax free and increased in line with inflation in 2022, remains less than would normally be gained by full-time graduate employment. Clearly, more thinking is needed to understand the problem better, perhaps along the lines that the Diversity in UK Polar Science Initiative has shown.


University, and then research, changed my life – I have no doubt about that – but the numbers of people with backgrounds like mine that have had the opportunities that became open to me are stubbornly low. Socioeconomic inclusion is a vital but often overlooked EDI issue, yet because of its intersectionality it could unlock equity and diversity in its fullest, broadest sense. I’d encourage you to consider raising awareness of socioeconomic inclusion and the wider benefits it will have, and work with your local comprehensive schools to inspire students who might consider university beyond them.