When Gitanjali Rao was in elementary school, she heard about the lead in water crisis in Flint, Mich., and was appalled. So Rao did something most of us couldn’t, even as adults: She developed a device that harnesses nanotube technology to measure lead levels in water and then sends the results via smartphone. Today Rao’s invention — named Tethys for the Greek goddess of fresh water — is being scale tested for mass production.
“I’ve always had this huge passion for helping other people out,” said Rao, who is now 15 and disarmingly down-to-earth about her abilities and accomplishments. Like winning the 3M Young Scientist Challenge at age 11. Or being named to the Forbes’ 30 Under 30 List before she began high school.
But Rao is more than a problem solver; she’s leading a new generation of innovators who refuse to be hemmed in by stereotypes about who goes into science. Rao is one of the four stars of “Not the Science Type,” a documentary from 3M that highlights groundbreaking female scientists who are confronting traditional barriers to the field, like gender, racial and age discrimination.
This push for more equitable science is just one theme that emerged from this year’s 3M State of Science Index, a global, independent research project commissioned annually by the company to measure global attitudes about science. This year’s survey found that a year into the pandemic, people not only believe that diversity is crucial to collective achievement in every STEM field, but also that protecting the planet is a massive priority — and that ultimately, science brings hope to the world.
A renewed trust in science
Science itself has lifted our expectations for what’s possible, especially this year, and as we slowly begin to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, perception of science has never been brighter.
Trust in science is at its highest since 3M began commissioning the State of Science Index. Globally, 91% of respondents, who were surveyed across 17 different countries, said they trust science, and 85% agree there are negative consequences to society if science is not valued. Furthermore, nearly 70% of people around the world say they feel younger generations are more engaged with science now than ever before.
From manufacturing essential personal protective equipment (PPE) to developing life-saving vaccines in record time, scientists have spent the past year raising global expectations about what is achievable. Society is more attuned to the benefits of science than ever — setting a great foundation for ensuring access to the field is open to all.
Infusing more equity into STEM education
With public perception of science soaring amid the COVID-19 pandemic, interest in STEM careers and education has also been surging over the past year. Sixty-five percent of Gen Z and millennial adults surveyed in the latest State of Science Index said they’re more inspired to pursue a STEM career because of the pandemic.
But if we want to build a more hopeful future for everyone, it’s time to change the face(s) of science — by making sure education is open and accessible for people of every background. While women make up significantly more of the STEM workforce now than they did decades ago, they are still underrepresented, as are people of color. In the most recent 3M State of Science Index, 87% of respondents around the globe said more needs to be done to encourage and keep girls and women interested in STEM education, and 73% of respondents acknowledged that equal access to STEM education is often not available to underrepresented minorities.
Rao agrees. She says that she’s accustomed to not being what people expect when they think of the stereotypical “science type.”
“There are a lot of times I’ve been the one girl in a coding class with 25 guys. It’s things like that that really show we’ve made progress, but there’s still a lot to be done,” Rao said.
Respondents to the State of Science Index certainly understand the toll that persistent stereotypes and underrepresentation in science take: 70% believe there will be negative consequences to society if the science community fails to attract more women to STEM careers, for example.
Around the world, people understand that improved representation is important at every level. Increased diversity in science brings in people with different backgrounds who ask different questions and bring new perspectives to the scientific process — pushing the field forward.
“Diversity in STEM changes the world for the better,” said Rao. “Right now, my generation is growing up with problems that have never existed before. Science needs all of us — men, women, and kids of every different race and skin color — from age 8 to 80.”
An urgent focus on sustainability
From the threat of future pandemics to climate change, the problems facing younger generations are significant, and the latest State of Science Index reveals a rising desire, particularly among younger respondents, to prioritize sustainability. Survey respondents agreed that, aside from the pandemic, the planet is the most important priority for science, naming issues like climate change, ocean plastics pollution, air quality and renewable energy as the most critical.
But rather than being daunted by the challenges ahead, Gen Z scientists like Rao are energized to fight for a stronger, greener and more equitable future. She leads workshops on her innovation process for fellow students in the hopes they will join her in STEM — daring to take on issues as significant as the very health of our planet.
“Gen Z and millennials are more engaged in science than ever before,” she said. “It’s important because kids make our world better, stronger and more sustainable. And all of us are needed.”
Buoyed by hope, and a sense of shared responsibility
Ultimately, what the latest State of Science Index makes most clear is that hope is the defining sentiment for science in 2021. Nearly 80% of respondents said they think science will improve their lives over the next five years. That sense of optimism — taken together with the increased sense of trust in the field and the growing interest in STEM careers reflected in the latest survey — suggest we could be at a watershed moment. True equity in STEM has never felt more achievable, as is cross-collaboration on science-based solutions across the globe and throughout various sectors.
Because many of the changes that must now take place to build on that momentum are systemic, respondents to the State of Science Index say that governments, teachers, and companies like 3M — which is committed to sharing responsibility for broader STEM education — must all play a part.
But inspiring individuals matter, too. Rao hopes that by simply trying to innovate, and by sharing the “how” and “why” behind her process, she will inspire others to join her in shattering the myth of the “science type” once and for all.
“Right now, we need science more than ever, all of us,” she added. “And science needs each and every one of us involved in the mix, all of us working together to solve problems and making a difference in our communities.”
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