How vital is STEM for tackling major challenges at the intersection of people, planet and prosperity?
There’s so much I could say in response to this question. But when I think about the phrase, “People, planet and prosperity,” the first things that come to mind are the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which live in that overlap. The four SDGs that are closest to my heart set standards for providing a high-quality education, relieving poverty, reducing inequality and tackling climate change. Those missions are all interlinked.
We barely go a day without hearing the phrase “Net zero” on the news, and so many companies are working to meet that objective. If I consider that from a STEM viewpoint, it’s clear that we’re going to need ever more sophisticated software models to tell us how we’re progressing. They won’t be available to us unless we have superb computer scientists and programmers from all walks of life coming up through the education system. Similarly, we are going to need a diverse army of engineers to work on the next generation of automotive products. STEM will fuel those workforces.
Looking at this from a prosperity perspective, we’ve recently seen two pieces of news that illustrate the fork in the road we’re facing. Many will be aware that a new coalmine was announced for the UK for the first time in 30 years – a decision that has proven highly controversial. But hot on the heels of that came news of the US breakthrough in nuclear fusion – a landmark event that suggests we could be on the brink of revolutionary business models designed around that energy source. STEM will be key to seizing that opportunity.
What are the biggest hindrances to STEM uptake in the UK?
I see them playing out on three levels:
The people who are shaping policy are ultimately the ones who will determine what sorts of opportunities young people will be able to access. So, what we desperately need at the moment are more people from STEM backgrounds working at policy level to open those doors. Did you know that, right now, Labour MP Chi Onwurah is the only black, female engineer in the entire House of Commons? And there are only a handful of engineers in Parliament anyway.
That’s a stark illustration of the type of disconnect we’re dealing with. At the moment, we don’t have strong enough linkage between people at grassroots level who may want to go into STEM careers, businesses that have a demand for STEM-trained staff, and figures in government who can create opportunities through policy.
In relation to that, it’s pretty clear that our education system is not fit for purpose in terms of preparing young people for industry 4.0. I’m thinking about this in the context of amazing innovations such as Chat GPT – an artificial intelligence platform that can answer software writers’ queries about pieces of code that aren’t working, and provide patches as though you’re having a conversation with someone across the room. How will our young STEM learners be able to compete with something like that?
2. Representation and belonging
We may also ask who’s designing those sorts of tools, and whether they are fully representative of underestimated communities. One major barrier to STEM uptake is a lack of role models for people from certain backgrounds. We wouldn’t have to try and enthuse an Asian teenager who lives in Brent about what Elon Musk is up to if there were more visible and relatable examples from that young person’s own community who could inspire them in a far more authentic way.
What could the UK’s STEM landscape look like if we harnessed all this wasted talent that we’re not inspiring – purely because so many young people don’t feel like they’d fit in STEM careers?
I’ll give you a personal example: I was passionate about motorsport from a very young age. After I received multiple rejections to pursue it at university level, I gave up on my dream and decided to explore other industries. But luckily enough, word had got around about my work at Motivez and Rolls-Royce and I had the right person knock on my door – namely, Sir Lewis Hamilton – and managed to get my foot back in motorsport’s door. Last year, I won the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Young Engineer of the Year award, for my work with Sir Lewis’s Extreme E racing squad, Team X44. So, it never made sense in the first place not to give me that opportunity. But my eventual way in makes me an anomaly. And we don’t need anomalies. We need much better access.
When I was on the board of the Hamilton Commission, we found that many of the people we surveyed would have grown up in quite busy inner cities that have lots of job opportunities – but not necessarily in STEM. Companies that provide early-stage STEM careers are often located outside our big cities, and entry-level salaries aren’t as incentivising as they should be.
So, even if a young person in an inner city demonstrates strong educational interest and achievement in STEM, we have the problem of discontinuation: the economics of setting up in a new location or daily commuting become a barrier for young people who may not have the required financial resources. As a result, they simply use their educational credentials to get jobs in other sectors, such as finance, and their STEM talent goes unused.
What sort of leadership is required to drive a larger uptake of STEM?
We need a bottom-up approach, based around servant leadership. I’m very much of the opinion that this must happen at a local level. One reason why I use the hashtag #TheKidFromPeckham is because I know that will resonate with people in my community – and, after all, I founded Motivez in Peckham Burger King! But those humble beginnings go to the heart of what all this is about: we need to democratise STEM and demystify its pathways. And we need to get across to young people that STEM is sexy (I work in motorsport – I mean, come on!).
Servant leadership means being the rising tide that lifts all boats. Essentially, you serve your way to the top. Your focus is on providing other people with ladders as you advance in your career – not on trying to put yourself at the top of the pyramid so you can dictate to others. It’s all about brokering opportunities. And that works for a field like engineering, which isn’t just about building faster cars – it also has a major, humanitarian purpose.