British Asians in Science


Asian scientists, including Nobel laureates Abdus Salam and C. V. Raman in physics, and Har Gobind Khorana in medicine, have made invaluable contributions to our scientific heritage. So where are Britain’s Ramans and Salams?

According to the 2001 census, one in every 25 Britons is Asian. Yet a look around the upper echelons of the UK’s science community reveals few Asian faces. And the problem is not just confined to academia. For example, only one in 50 engineers and technicians in the UK is Asian, and that includes overseas workers.

Across the UK, the “numerical” sciences–engineering, physics, chemistry, and mathematics–are in decline. The numbers of graduates in these subjects have been falling for years, with industry and academia competing over an ever-shrinking pool of talent. And every year there are fewer science teachers to train tomorrow’s doctors, scientists, and engineers.

With ethnic minorities (mainly black and Asian communities) set to account for over half the growth in the UK’s working-age population over the coming decade, it’s vitally important that all minority groups, Asians included, contribute more to UK science and technology. Otherwise, we could be looking at severe skills shortages.

Value of Education Instilled Early

How can the UK tap into the talent within the Asian community? At first glance, the situation appears promising. At the university level, Asians are actually overrepresented in most science subjects. Perhaps this reflects the fact that the value of education is instilled in most Asians from an early age, and science is a more culturally acceptable career than humanities or arts. (How many South Asians do you know who studied music, versus science and technology?)

But these statistics hide many inequalities. For example, while Indian students account for 16% percent of all medical students, Bangladeshi students, who are often from poorer backgrounds, account for less than 2%. With the number of working-age Bangladeshis set to increase by over 30% by 2010, we can’t afford to lose out on all this talent.

As a rebellious daughter who studied physics, I found that the parental and social pressures facing Asians attempting to buck the general trend are considerable. I wonder how many young rebels have been forced to bite their tongues when asked “What are you going to be then?” or “Didn’t you get the grades for medicine?”

Careers in science and technology offer unique opportunities and challenges–although if your sole aim in life is to make it onto the Asian “rich list,” they might not be for you. In my case, a PhD in particle physics led me to spend 4 years studying glaciers, a quest that took me from Lapland to the Antarctic (see photo). Few careers but science offer all-expenses-paid trips to the poles!

The aesthetic appeal of science is a powerful magnet. According to Simon Singh, author of popular science books including Fermat’s Last Theorem and Enigma, “science is simply the most extraordinary subject in the world, addressing fundamental questions about life, the universe, and everything.”

Singh also took his PhD in particle physics, which many non-scientists would see as a narrow specialism. But, he argues, “My scientific training has provided me with a set of tools for understanding all sorts of problems. Teenagers sometimes ask me if a degree in mathematics is useful, thinking that all you can do is become a teacher or maths professor. But everyone wants problem solvers, so mathematicians are the most sought after graduates in the world.”

More Role Models Needed

The lack of Asian role models is a major obstacle to drawing more Asians into science. Science teachers are a rare commodity, whatever their origins. In 2001, fewer than 250 people joined PGCE courses to train as physics teachers, only a handful of whom were Asian.

And a recent survey showed that only 1 in 100 journalists is Asian. To address this problem, the Association of British Science Writers is introducing a bursary scheme to encourage more budding science journalists and hopefully to increase the diversity in science media. BBC science correspondent and ABSW chair Pallab Ghosh argues, “It cannot be right that in the 21st century there are so few women and people from poorer and ethnic backgrounds at the top of our profession.”

He believes that a lack of self-confidence holds many Asians back. “With English not my parent’s first language, I didn’t feel I had any place writing or broadcasting. It’s only through accident I realised I had those skills, and I’m sure there are a huge number of under-confident people out there whose potential we can tap.”

Two weeks ago the Royal Society turned its illustrious attention to the issue, hosting a meeting that gave scientists a chance to air their views about why there is so little diversity in science and what we can do about it. I found it very therapeutic to share experiences with fellow “rebellious” scientists who had to swim against the tide to get where they are today.

My parents are finally coming round to the idea that, at 32, I’m not likely to quit my job in science policy to enter medical school. In fact–dare I say it–I think they might even be quite pleased about the way things have turned out. By the time I hit 40, I wouldn’t be surprised if my Mum no longer felt the need to tell her friends what I got at “A” level to prove to them how clever I am. Things are looking up!

A version of this article first appeared in.

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