By Paul Winstanley

THROUGHOUT the Covid-19 pandemic, the monumental efforts of the NHS have been rightly lauded as doctors, nurses, and all of its staff worked tirelessly during the most challenging of circumstances. Their endeavours have not only saved lives, but will no doubt have inspired talented young people across the world to look at healthcare as their opportunity to have a positive impact on the world.

As economies re-open and vaccine roll-outs bring a greater degree of control to the Covid-19 situation, another major challenge has returned to the fore. Few people would have missed the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) landmark report on how human activity is influencing the planet’s temperature and the "code red" situation in which we find ourselves.

Sobering as the report was, it also conveyed the message that we can change this state of affairs, with the COP26 conference in Glasgow highlighted as an opportunity for action. Perhaps just as importantly, the perilous state of our relationship with the environment could encourage the next generation to take on challenges that will redefine how we live and help deal with the damage already done to our planet.

Careers in science, technology, engineering, and maths (Stem) – will be critical in that fight. Expertise, research, and innovation in this broad set of disciplines will unlock the breakthroughs we need, helping us to rebalance our diets through nutritional sciences, develop alternatives to fossil fuels, and deliver the wider physical and digital infrastructure required to combat rising sea levels.

Inspiring the next generation to break new boundaries and make a positive impact on people’s lives is key. At the beginning of the 1960s, for instance, President John F. Kennedy’s pledge to put a man on the Moon by the end of the decade made children dream of becoming an astronaut or working for Nasa.

Climate change is arguably the biggest challenge we have ever faced, and it may be tempting to think that in itself is enough; but it is still incumbent on us all to help young people into Stem fields by making them accessible. In my case, I vividly remember a Faraday lecture from BT in Sheffield on fibre optic communication, which led me to build on that interest for more than a decade.

Another area we sorely need to address is the perception of what careers in Stem involve. There is still a view that working in science means you are in a laboratory wearing a white coat, which, understandably, doesn’t appeal to everyone. The fact of the matter is that these fields lead to diverse career opportunities, involving much more than fundamental research and development.

Finally, we also need to take away the intimidation factor that comes along with some of these subjects, which makes young people feel like they are reserved for the top of the class. Instead, we should set out the potential these fields have to change the world and reiterate the underlying themes of logic and problem-solving, stoking children’s natural curiosity and inquisitiveness and helping them to make their positive mark on the future.

Paul Winstanley is CEO at CENSIS