Cambridge consistently ranks among the best in the world for STEM subjects. In the most recent QS World Rankings, the University is the 3rd best institution for Natural Sciences and for Psychology. But these results obscure a crisis of diversity in Science education at the University.

A career column in Nature investigates the diversity of the PBS Tripos curriculum. Led by Lee de Wit from the Department of Psychology with PhD student Saskia Ghai and undergraduate Yan Mak, the study was prompted by the 2020 Black Lives Matter protest.

The authors found a “striking, but perhaps not surprising lack of voices from under-represented groups and regions”

Saskia Ghai and Yan Mak looked at the research papers used to teach two compulsory courses in the PBS tripos, (PBS1 and PBS3), “combing through the reading lists” for both papers (their preliminary results can be found here) . They created a massive spreadsheet with the authors’ institutional affiliations, the location and demographics of the study participants” for a total of 198 reading resources.

“We have a lot of work to do to become a truly multicultural and inclusive space for all students”

Focussing on research papers that included human and animal participants, their findings uncovered that no research paper included study participants solely from the Global South, and no article on the reading list was affiliated with institutions based in Africa, Asia or Latin America. The analysis does have its limitations, which the authors acknowledge. Their approach of classifying authors based on their institutional affiliation (using only author names or online photos) obscured “representation from ethnically diverse, gender-fluid or low socio-economic groups”.

The analysis of the reading lists leads the authors to claim that “Cambridge’s current teaching canon for psychology does not sufficiently represent perspectives from around the world.” While the findings do reflect a broader Western bias in psychological research, the authors underlie that most members of Cambridge’s Psychology department “are white and from the global north”.

The study also poses the question: “How can predominantly white departments systematically measure and honestly reflect on the diversity of their curriculums?”

“Given the University of Cambridge’s own legacy of enslavement and racism, we have a lot of work to do to become a truly multicultural and inclusive space for all students,” the audit concluded.

This is not an isolated problem of the PBS Tripos. Other Science departments and faculties are also grappling with diversity issues and tokenistic inclusion policies. One example that indicates a much broader issue comes from the Chemistry Department. Varsity was recently contacted by Lucy*, a female postdoc from the Department of Chemistry, about a talk that the department held to mark the UN International Day of Women and Girls in Science.

The talk was supposed to be about a 19th-century Chemist called Jane Marcet, who Lucy* recounted was at one point described by the male speaker as “the old bird.”


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“I find it absolutely beggars belief that in 2023, this is the best that one of the top Chemistry departments in the world is able to offer up,” Lucy* told me.

“I was utterly underwhelmed by this lecture, and frankly pretty furious that it was billed as a celebration of women in science. It was a waste of an opportunity. I could have written a hundred better talks”.

Lucy* said that this was her “first experience of sexism in Cambridge” – other than that “Cambridge has been excellent”. She added that experiences of sexism for postdocs and staff in Science departments heavily “lie in your personal experiences with your boss”.

Lucy* also noted that the talk was given by a man. “It’s not down to the women to give all the talks. Why can’t men give a talk about women?”

“It is not the role of a department to resolve sexism”, she said. That much is clear to me. I spent the first week of the Christmas vacation last year helping out with the online interviews at Caius for Physical Natural Sciences. Unlike non-STEM subjects, most of the candidates interviewed were male. It’s hardly fair to blame interviewers or colleges that give more offers to males based on a heavily skewed sample of applicants, given the wider social issues with increasing the numbers of women in STEM.

Yet, the tokenistic diversity measures within the Chemistry Department are not only limited to this incident. Lucy* also mentioned that the Chemistry Department includes graphs on the front of lecture notes, showing the number of female students studying Chemistry in Tripos. This move was apparently prompted to encourage more women to choose to specialise in Chemistry in Part II or Part III in the Natural Sciences Tripos, seeing as the proportion of women flatlines between 30-40%.

Lucy* says that she feels that a few members of the Department are being repeatedly “wheeled out as diversity figures”.

This underlies the more serious and systematic inequalities that Cambridge is dealing with, which diversity or access initiatives will not address productively.

Since our conversation, I believe that a pedagogy that prioritises diverse voices from across the world, that enriches education with a catalogue of talks that genuinely and wholeheartedly address diversity issues in scientific disciplines, and that works to create a more diverse faculty are steps that the University should be taking.

It’s clear that Cambridge has a long way to go to create a multicultural and inclusive space for its scientists and students.

In response to our request for comment, the Department of Chemistry said: “We are committed to improving diversity in our department and in the subject as a whole, and we believe the first step to improvement is acknowledging the situation.” They indicated their receipt of the Athena Swan Silver Award as a demonstration of their commitment.

Names have been changed to protect anonymity. The authors of the Nature article, Lee de Wit and Saskia Ghai, were contacted for comment.