Towards a new story for physics

As our Limit Less campaign launches, Ray Mitchell, Head of Campaign Strategy, explains how the experiences of people in the physics community have shaped the campaign – and why understanding these perspectives and lived experiences is so vital to its success.

The working-class boy who was told not to take physics and maths, despite them being his best subjects. The schoolgirl who was told that girls don’t tend to do very well at physics at university. The black student getting less attention from her physics teacher than her white counterparts do.

These are just some of the troubling stories that have been shared with us by members of the physics community in recent weeks. Experiences like these have been too common for too long. But these accounts are from people who found the courage to disregard the bad advice and overcome the barriers placed in their path.

Others who we may never hear from will have been put off completely and pursued different courses – a tragic loss of potential for the physics community.

Our campaign, Limit Less, is about making these stories a thing of the past. To get there, we have a long way to travel, as a community and in society more broadly. IOP members have a key role to play in making Limit Less a success, as I will explain, but it is important also to recognise that members have been central to its creation.

The campaign has been just over a year in the making. We kicked off in September 2019 with a strategy workshop with staff and members from across IOP branches and groups.

We debated a wide range of topics and finally voted on the key issue we need to confront – that the physics community doesn’t reflect the society it’s part of. Establishing this as our key issue allowed us to identify the root causes – and there are many.

Among other things, the issue relates to failures in the education system, the misconceived image of physics that parents and other influencers have, but also that many physicists are not communicating the impact of their work and the relevance of physics well enough.

Over the last year, IOP staff and members have worked closely together to shape our campaign and we’ve ensured that there has been input from across the physics community along the way.

We recently asked IOP members, the wider physics community and the general public to share their stories of lived experience with us. This was to give us further evidence of the barriers that some young people have to overcome and to build the case for decision-makers to know what needs to happen for the physics community to be truly diverse.

It was also the start of an ongoing process of continually listening to underrepresented people who have encountered barriers to doing physics, learning from them, and ensuring their voices are heard.

As we launch our campaign the IOP team is grateful to the members who have had a role in shaping it from the start. However, the hard work is just beginning, and it is important that even more members support the campaign and take it forward.

One important way to do this is for everyone who is ‘doing physics’ – whether in academia, industry, education or any other setting – to continue to ‘do physics’ but also to tell people why they’re doing it. We need everyone to celebrate all that is great about our discipline and make the case for it with young and underrepresented people.

This could be in all sorts of ways. It could be through educational outreach work or through public events that you are organising. But through it all, it’s vital that we are thinking not just about whether people in under-represented groups are coming to us, but whether we are going to them.

We have to acknowledge and accept the limitations that society, and we, have placed on people that have prevented them from engaging with physics – and remove them, proactively.

Over the coming months and years, we must never lose sight of the stories of people for whom physics has not been the open and welcoming discipline we want it to be.

Sometimes it won’t be comfortable to hear these stories.

But by understanding them together, as an institute and across our community, we can begin to change how young people encounter and perceive physics.

Read the report and find out more about the campaign