In May 2013 the Royal Society Diversity Programme began a new oral history project entitled Inspiring Scientists: Diversity in British Science, in partnership with National Life Stories’ ‘An Oral History of British Science’ at the British Library. Inspiring Scientists is recording the life stories of ten British scientists with minority ethnic heritage. Interviewees range from Professors to PhD students and the focus on science is wide, covering academia, big industry and individual entrepreneurship.
A life story interview is usually recorded over several sessions and differs from shorter, focused interviews in seeking to set details of career and professional practice within a much broader biographical and social history framework, covering early memories, influences, family life, education and life outside work. Oral history, especially when applied to the detail of individual lives, is able to explore aspects of subjective experience that are hidden in more conventional historical sources.
The first few Inspiring Scientists interviews are well underway. What is striking already is that aspects of ethnic difference feature in interviewees’ accounts of the origin of their interest in science. In this clip, space scientist and science broadcaster Maggie Aderin-Pocock remembers that, as a child, space travel seemed to promise escape from Earthly, nationalistic, narrow ways of thinking.
Immunologist Donald Palmer remembers that his awareness of racism and his interest in science developed at about the same time, in the upper years of secondary school, and that the latter may have helped to keep him out of ‘trouble’ in south London in the late 1970s.
In the case of Mark Richards – physicist and co-founder of Duvas Technologies Ltd – being good at science allowed him to prove an important point at his school in Nottingham in the 1980s.
And quite apart from these fascinating links between science and ethnicity, the life story interviews contain remarkable stories of scientific work itself, including the development of the world’s strongest armour – Super Bainite – by metallurgist Harry Bhadeshia, FRS.
The long audio interviews continue through 2013 and early 2014. Shorter video interviews with each of the ten scientists will be edited into a short film, designed to inspire young people from all backgrounds to pursue careers in science, broadly defined. The full interviews will be archived and made publically available (subject to interviewee consent) at the British Library.
Dr Paul Merchant
Project Interviewer: An Oral History of British Science and Inspiring Scientists: Diversity in British Science
National Life Stories, The British Library