Ms Chi Onwurah MP is the Labour Party MP for the constituency of Newcastle upon Tyne Central. She was Newcastle's first black MP, grew up on a council estate and earned a degree in Electrical Engineering. After working for several years in the telecom industry, she earned Chartered Engineer status, signifying her professional experience, competency and commitment in the field. Before running for public office, she headed the Telecoms Technology Division at OFCOM, the UK Telecom Regulator and is now a Shadow Minister in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. In this interview, she shares her inspiring life story and her foray into politics with us.
“As a female engineer myself, I was never in danger of being unemployed and was much better paid as an engineer than when I became a politician.”
Why should people study science? How has your scientific background helped you in positions of politics and policy?
The prime reason to study science is because it is such a fascinating, inspiring and evolving area. Since science has such a universal impact, and is part of everything, which surrounds us, it never gets boring. This is crucial, because being interested and excited about your work when you get up each morning is the luckiest position to be in.
On a more practical level, scientists and engineers are very well paid and are not limited in their choices of job positions. A STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education provides one with a sound understanding of mathematics and statistics, which forms the basis for rational, evidence-based decision-making. This skill is essential to have in any sphere of work-especially so in politics and policy.
How can we encourage the new generation to choose to study and practise science-either in a direct way, or in a policy role? More specifically, how can we make science more appealing to women?
We, in the UK, haven’t been very good at sparking an interest in science amongst children, especially girls, as well as those from black, minority ethnic and economically disadvantaged households. One of the reasons for the gender pay gap is that fewer women get into the sciences. However, as a female engineer myself, I was never in danger of being unemployed and was much better paid as an engineer than when I became a politician.
There are some things which governments can do, especially by providing more and better science and maths teachers at the primary school level, improved careers advice and closer interactions between schools and industry. Unfortunately, there have been many cuts to careers advice in this country.
For teenagers, especially girls, to engage with science, they need to have ‘science capital’ in their lives. They need to know what STEM really means, and what science jobs are really like, because it will make them appreciate the variety of uses a science background has. The government can help push these messages through, and can do more on the skills side.
On the other side, we have the media. I get rather annoyed when I hear television or radio programmes where people are asked questions like, “Did you do something creative or did you want to go into science?” The image that science is not creative, and is too difficult to study needs to be changed, as it discourages young people. Perhaps we need a television series about a top woman scientist or engineer-someone who is a flawed personality, but a deeply interesting engineer.
Do you know of any ventures, or groups encouraging children to take up science?
There is an organisation in the UK called the Association for Black and Minority Ethnic Engineers (AFBE-UK). They do programmes for undergraduates and for schoolchildren. These talks are called ‘What’s Hot.’ They are all about engineering and how fantastic it is! There is also Primary Engineer which takes engineering into schools.
What is the impact of role models on young children in taking up science subjects? Who inspires you? Are there people that shaped the way you think and do/did you have a mentor?
Role models are crucial and can come from a variety of age groups and positions. Often young people can better relate to young students who study science, but professors and industrial scientists, all need to more strongly interact and talk to children in order to change the image of science for the better.
My mother really inspired me; not just politically, but even professionally. Whilst she was not a scientist or engineer, she was absolutely certain that it was up to me to decide what I wanted to do in life and that I could do anything I wanted. I must not succumb to gender or other stereotypes. When it comes to mentors, I have had many over the years. However, they have all been men apart from my mother, as I have been involved in primarily male dominated areas. Men can do so much to help those from less privileged or minority backgrounds to realise their potential in STEM fields, especially because they are still the majority.
What fascinated you about science and were your parents involved in science as well?
All children are curious. They often take things apart and try to put them back together when they play. This was also the case with me. My siblings and I were brought up by my mother in a one-parent family on a council estate in Newcastle (my current constituency).
Our family had been divided by civil war. My mother was much more into the arts, but Newcastle was one of the cradles of the industrial revolution and there was a lot of respect for engineers, such as George Stephenson.
I can’t quite say why, but I always wanted to study engineering since I was nine years old. I always wanted to know how the world worked. I remember learning about Archimedes and the displacement of water (the so-called ‘Eureka!’ moment) at the age of nine. I went home, filled the kitchen sink with water, and put various utensils into it to try and see how much water I could slop over the side. My mum was not particularly keen on this method though! However, my environment did support curiosity and learning, which inspired me through stories and activities. Both my brother and sister went into film, so there was no real family connection to science.
However, studies show that having science capital in one’s family is a good indicator of whether or not a child will take up science. Inspiring teachers often help make a difference and that is exactly why we must encourage and equip them well. In fact, even teachers may find science intimidating and that is why we need to support teacher training in STEM.
Apart from your official duties, how do you personally try to promote science?
I personally do not have children, but have a niece and nephew. Whenever they play, I encourage them to be curious. When they take things apart to examine them, I tell them that this is the sort of “job” engineers do. Parental figures, as well as teachers have a great impact on the development of a child and the skill set it develops.
You studied electrical engineering as an undergraduate student and then went on to practice in industry, eventually becoming a Chartered Engineer. You then moved to Ofcom, the telecom regulator before getting into politics. How did that come about?
The great thing about science is that you are always inspired. I didn’t have a set career plan when I started working, and just liked to do whatever captivated my interest. I moved from hardware engineering to software engineering, then on to product development and network design. During the dotcom bust in 2001, I was working in the United States. Unfortunately, my employer went bankrupt and I moved to Nigeria to work in the private sector for a South Africa-based multinational mobile telecom company called MTN Group. MTN was rolling out Nigeria’s first cellular network. During my time there, I noticed two things:
The first was the excitement with which the Nigerians embraced the technology, especially when the rest of the world was down on it. Having phones and mobile connectivity made such a difference to their lives. Prior to the introduction of cellular networks, phone penetration was <1 %. Now it is about 60-70%. The second observation was the impact of good governance. The reason MTN wanted to invest in Nigeria was that the government liberalised the spectrum allocation at the time, which made a huge difference. That captivated my interest in telecom policy and led me to go on to work for Ofcom.
When it came to politics, my mother always impressed upon me that my ability to attend a school just 100 yards down the road with good and inspiring teachers was not an accident. Schools do not grow on trees, if it were. The labour movement had fought for hundreds of years to ensure universal education, hospitals, and even the council house which we stayed in. As a result, I was always interested in politics. When the MP of my constituency in Newcastle announced he was standing down at the 2010 election, I thought this was the best time to give politics a try. I only wanted to do it if I were to represent the area where I grew up. So, I put my name forward, and to my surprise, the Labour Party members of Newcastle chose me as their candidate, for which I am always grateful. Being an engineer really set me apart from the other candidates trying to get elected, because people could see I had done something useful before going into Parliament.
In light of reduced EU funding post Brexit, how do you think the government should cope to keep the UK's research and innovation position in the world? For example, the EU's HORIZON 2020 programme had UK universities receiving more than EUR 2.6 billion in research funding up to the end of September 2016. How do you think this shortfall can be bridged?
As a country, we hit above our weight. We are one of the countries who lead science, research and development in the world. The EU has been incredibly supportive of this. Just in the north-east of the UK, we have had about EUR 300 million in research grants over the HORIZON 2020 programme. The government should make a commitment to spend 3 % of its gross domestic product on research and development (R&D). This is a part of the Labour party manifesto. We must allow highly skilled EU citizens into the UK and must reassure the current migrants that their rights will be protected from day one.
Do you think we need more scientists in policy roles? If so, how do we get more engineers into politics/policy? The Parliament has a few fellowships towards these aims, and do you think these are steps in the right direction? How can both-scientists and politicians engage better on crucial policy issues?
Yes, we definitely need more people who understand technology and science in government. More candidates with such backgrounds should stand for election! In the British Civil Service, ‘generalism’ (which is the ability to talk about any topic) is rewarded. We need to also have career paths in the Civil Services for scientists and specialists; because that is the only way we can have a scientific focus in these institutions.
What do you think will be the largest scientific and political issue that we are facing in the years to come?
Climate change remains a huge issue. We need to think about how industry and manufacturing need to adapt to reduce carbon emissions. Currently, countries are exporting their carbon, by buying cheap goods from China, or other low-cost centres. We need a sustainable manufacturing industry and there is a huge market for green technology. The latter should be a core part of our industrial strategy.
Another challenge is the ageing population. It has implications in everything-from designing houses which help older people live more independently and devices which are part of ‘health tech’ to deliver a more integrated health and social care system.
Finally, I feel data is the biggest issue. Who owns your data? Why isn’t it you who owns your own data? How is your data stored, collected, shared, exploited? These are all questions, which really need to be answered. We also need to look at how people’s personal information and profile are driving companies’ profits instead of empowering the public.
More information on Ms Chi Onwurah MP can be found here.