Brussels, 28 Jul 2003
The European Commission is well aware that if the EU is to fulfil it ambition of becoming the world's most competitive knowledge based economy, funding levels for research and development must be increased, and more qualified scientists must be produced to exploit the extra levels of investment.
Policy frameworks aimed at raising citizens' awareness of science, such as the Commission's 80 million euro science and society priority, will play an important part in promoting research as a career. Initiatives have also been launched to promote research careers for women in an effort to reduce the gender inequality that exists in science, and to widen the pool of research talent in Europe.
However, few, if any, initiatives have thus far targeted the fastest growing section of European society: ethnic minorities. Recent census data from the UK suggests that ethnic minority groups will account for more than half of the predicted 20 per cent increase in the country's working age population by 2009. The trend is the result of a rapidly ageing white population and an increasing birth rate within young and established ethnic minority communities. This pattern will also be mirrored in other EU Member States.
This is why the Commission has chosen to fund the ETHNIC project, the first EU initiative aimed at raising awareness of science and technology among ethnic minority groups. Dr Elizabeth Rasekoala is from the African-Caribbean network for science and technology, ETHNIC's UK partner, and explained the importance of the project to CORDIS News.
'The major obstacle to ethnic minority participation in science and technology is the existence of stereotypes that reinforce the idea that if you're not white, male and middle class, you can't be a scientist,' she said. Dr Rasekoala explained that such stereotypes are found particularly within schools and in the media. 'Children then internalise these stereotypes and lose the belief that they can become researchers or engineers.'
One way to break down such stereotypes is to identify successful scientists from ethnic minority backgrounds who can act as role models for children and young adults, and this approach is a key part of the ETHNIC project. Dr Rasekoala and her partners in Austria, Italy, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovenia will arrange special events at schools in targeted locations in order to give young people from ethnic minorities access to such role models.
The project will also work with the youngsters' teachers and parents to highlight the existence of these negative stereotypes and will enlist their help in challenging them. Furthermore, Dr Rasekoala hopes that, indirectly at least, the project's very existence will put the issue of ethnic minority participation in science firmly onto the political agenda.
When asked how she and her colleagues hoped to assess the success of ETHNIC, Dr Rasekoala explained that they would be using 'before and after' questionnaires to examine how the attitudes of youngsters, parents and teachers towards science have changed. She was keen to stress, however, that despite the project's huge significance 'it really is only the tip of the iceberg'.
The real challenge, according to Dr Rasekoala, is in ensuring that the involvement of ethnic minorities in science becomes an integral part of the wider science and society debate, in the same way that gender issues have. 'This issue must be developed into a key policy framework at national and EU level if Europe is at all serious about establishing and maintaining a global leadership in science and technology. The resources are there, it is the willingness to recognise the scale of the problem and devise imaginative solutions that are lacking.'
For further information, please consult the following web address: