Reach for the stars: The UK’s £7 billion space industry
“I’m a Space Scientist”.
The cabbie does a double take in the rear-view mirror. I guess it’s not the answer he was expecting when he picked up the black woman smelling faintly of vinegar and holding empty bottles and balloons.
I explain that I’ve just been doing a talk at a school and there ensues a vigorous, though rather one-sided, discussion about life, the universe and everything, taking in the Moon landings (“a hoax”, he says), life on Mars (“probably living in caves under the surface”) and the value of investing taxpayers’ pounds in Space Science (“I mean, what bloody good does it do?”).
The last one is a particularly good question. The short answer is: lots. What my cabbie, and many others, don’t realise is that the UK’s space industry is worth around £7 billion to the economy and is growing at a fantastic rate. With an industry worth that much, it’s hugely important that we continue to attract the minds which keep the industry growing. That’s why, when I was asked to speak at the Unconference, I jumped at the opportunity.
I am looking to recruit the next generation of Space Scientists and engineers into my team: young people able to think expansively and eager to shape the future. This could mean making satellites to monitor climate change or creating self-guiding rovers to search for life in our solar system. An enticing prospect, or so you might think. So how come it’s so hard to find people to do it?
I think it’s because our society doesn’t encourage children to dream. We’re trying to change that, starting by asking students how the science world can get rid of the ‘stale, male and pale’ stereotype which can be a deterrent for so many.
I have spoken to about 25,000 children over the past four years, and most of them are convinced that you need a brain the size of a small planet to be a scientist. They generally think that we spring fully formed from white middle-class families, too. So I visit inner-city schools and take the students on my journey, telling them why I became a scientist.
My parents split up when I was four years old, and the ensuing custody battles meant that I attended 13 different schools from four to 18. Then I was diagnosed with dyslexia and shunted into a remedial class. A government statistician would have forecast a pretty bleak future for me.
But it was the Clangers who saved me. With this children’s programme the idea of “space” entered my young brain. A few years later, I was hooked by Star Trek and my ambition took shape: I was going to be an astronaut! When I mentioned this to my teacher she looked at me sadly and suggested that I should try nursing instead, “because that’s scientific, too”. My aunt was a nurse, and she did wonderful work, but even as a child I knew I was being fobbed off. I learned not to mention my deepest desires at school again.
Fortunately, I had a father who nurtured my hopes and fed my appetite for information, which, in the days before the internet, meant many long trips back and forth to the library. Thanks to his support it seemed entirely reasonable to me that with hard work, a black girl with learning difficulties would soon be travelling from inner London to outer space.
With my father’s help I found that my lessons were becoming easier, and school changed from being a real bore into something fun. My GCSE results were better than expected; and then I got four A-levels in physics, chemistry, biology and maths and spend 7 years at University studying for a PhD. I went on to work on landmine detection, then machines that probe the heart of stars by converting the starlight gathered by huge eight-meter telescopes into the component rainbow colours, and analysing them to find out what’s happening billions of miles away. I’m now a Space Scientist, working on Earth observation instruments that measure the variables of climate change.
Looking back, I don’t begrudge my teachers their advice: they were merely trying to protect me from disappointment. It is a well-intentioned notion but I think a misguided one, and it has helped create a crisis of aspiration.
We don’t encourage kids to aim high in case they fall over. I say “sod that” – go for it. Failing isn’t a problem – interesting things happen along the way, as any entrepreneur will tell you. In trying to protect children from failure, we are encouraging them to lower their sights just at the time when their imaginations should be fired.
The good news is that our imagination responds brilliantly to a little stimulation. Show kids some rockets powered by vinegar and balloon-propulsion buggies, as I do on school visits, and you’ll soon have a queue of potential young scientists and engineers eagerly asking “how?”, “what?” and “why?’. It was wonderful to have the opportunity to speak with such enthused young scientists at the Unconference. They were there to make a difference to future science policy in the UK and it was great to be able to share my experiences with them.
Maggie Aderin-Pocock is a Space Scientist and a key note speaker at the Royal Institution’s “Unconference” hosted by the L’Oréal Young Scientist Centre.
The RiUnconference is the first ever national event where 150 14-18 year olds from across the UK will be invited to debate the future of the science sector and have the opportunity to shape the future of science policy and decision making.Tagged in: astronaut, biology, chemistry, Clangers, life on Mars, physics, RiUnconference, science, science communication, space scientist, Star Trek, universe
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