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U.S. and U.K. find common groundand differenceson diversity in science education
Like their counterparts in the United States, science education experts in the United Kingdom know that they have a challenge on their hands: They need to attract more young people of color into fields of science, engineering and technology. But at a May 4 conference convened in London by the Royal Society, Britain's august national academy of science, it appeared that the nature of the problem in each country is in many ways different.
Shirley Malcom, the director of Education and Human Resources at AAAS, described for those at the conference how the low representation of African Americans, Latinos and American Indians in science and technology fields is the result of systematic discrimination and exclusion dating back centuries.
"Many of today's barriers are vestiges of slavery in America," she told an audience of scientists, social scientists and policy makers, many themselves from ethnic minorities. Even after slavery's demise, Malcom said, blacks have been subject to substandard education, job discrimination and, for those who made it into the science and engineering fields, professional segregation. And the same has been true for Native Americans and Latinos.
"The obstacles to minority participation in SET are many and varied," she said. "They begin with our past our history and continue in our hearts and minds, in the attitudes, beliefs and behaviors they spawn."
In the U.K., the dynamics may be more complicated and more subtle, said Jan Peters, director of the Royal Society's equality and diversity program. "We never had the high degree of segregation that happened in the United States," she said in an interview after the conference.
Instead, many immigrants came from British Commonwealth states - Jamaica and other Caribbean nations, Hong Kong, India and Pakistan. And many were beckoned to the U.K. after World War II to make up for a deficit of skilled and professional labor. Today, Peters said, they and their descendants are generally well-represented in science, engineering and technology fields.
Ethnic minorities make up 8 percent of the U.K. population, according to the U.K. Labour Force Survey; they make up 9 percent of the professional science, engineering and technology workforce. Still, Peters acknowledged, there are trends and patterns that raise important questions. For example, she said, while workers of Chinese descent are over-represented in the SET workforce, only 2 percent of African-Caribbean workers work in set fields, leaving them under-represented. Around 5 percent of the U.K.'s white population works in SET fields.
While the U.S. has needed comprehensive programs and initiatives to create opportunities after generations of exclusion, Peters said the U.K. may need to tailor programs more narrowly and aim them at specific minority and economic-class groups.
Malcom and Peters nevertheless see common interests: Both nations have a growing need for skilled scientists, engineers and tech workers, and both are seeking to cast the broadest net to find new talent. And both say the science community must take a leadership role in building diversity. Doing so, they say, will contribute to the strength of science in both nations.
"We know a lot about how to change levels of participation," Malcom concluded her speech. "We have a fairly supportive policy framework but an uncertain policy environment in the light of ongoing challenges to affirmative action laws. But we have now articulated issues around a broader acceptance of the need to bring minorities into SET American self-interest."
Edward W. Lempinen
19 May 2004