The power of role models in attracting young people to careers in science will be explored by the Royal Society in a national survey.
The online survey, launched this week by the RS and funded by the Department for Education and Skills, will ask researchers which factors - or people - influenced their choice of profession.
The society is particularly keen to get a clearer picture of which ethnic groups are underrepresented in different areas of science, engineering, technology and maths.
It will explore whether more can be done to raise the aspirations of young people from these backgrounds, and whether identifying and promoting suitable role models would make a difference.
Sir John Enderby, vice-president of the RS, said: "We all tend to accept that role models exert a powerful positive influence on school pupils, but there has not been any previous attempt to find out how important they are in science, engineering and technology.
"Who is an appropriate role model for a 15-year-old trying to decide which A levels to study?"
The RS is asking scientists from all backgrounds to complete the survey.
The society also held a conference this week to debate the key issues for ethnic minority scientists.
Survey details: www.opm.co.uk/royalsociety.htm
'It is about getting children excited about the subject'
Tanniemola Liverpool, a theoretical physicist based in the department of applied mathematics at Leeds University, believes that students from ethnic minorities often feel excluded from the science world.
Dr Liverpool, who is originally from Sierra Leone, said: "What happens in science is a lot of people that give up. A science career is a marathon race.
"If you think the background of people around you is too different from yours, bearing in mind that science is badly paid anyway, you might decide, what's the point?"
He welcomed the Royal Society's attempts to uncover how the ethnic minorities are faring in science.
"We need to know where we stand, so the most important thing is to get data," he said.
Dr Liverpool said he was very aware of being part of a minority. "My subject is overwhelmingly white, male and middle class. Coming up through the system there is a definite fear that you might not fit in as an academic."
Dr Liverpool said that the profile of students in his department looked more varied but was skewed by students from overseas.
He said universities must focus on attracting more home students from ethnic minorities.
Dr Liverpool, whose website features hip-hop music links alongside his research, said it was important to introduce schoolchildren to scientists they could relate to. He spends time visiting schools, and hopes that other black scientists will do the same.
"It's about getting children excited about science before they drop it," he said.
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