Last year, the British Science Association (BSA) found that young people’s faith in certain professions deteriorated between April and October. When asked who they generally believe to tell the truth about the coronavirus, trust in politicians, scientists and the police all declined during the first few months of the pandemic.
With further delays to lifting restrictions, and recent reports of rising long-term youth unemployment, will levels of trust amongst this demographic continue to fall?
Younger generations have been disproportionately affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. In addition to disruptions in their education and controversy over exam grading, they face significant challenges in the job market and with their mental wellbeing. All are likely contributing factors to these findings. Worryingly, such consequences are also more pronounced in lower-income households and minority groups, highlighting inequalities that persist in the UK and elsewhere.
As part of the BSA’s For Thought programme earlier this year, we gathered leaders from different sectors to answer the question: what role does science and innovation play in creating a resilient, equitable and sustainable future? Against the backdrop of the pandemic and its unequal impact on society, what areas in particular should be prioritised?
The resulting report is now out. Build better: What can be learned from the Covid-19 pandemic to construct a resilient, innovative and prosperous future for all, calls for the UK government to introduce a “Future Generations Act”, putting today’s young people at the heart of the Covid recovery. Pandemics, however, are not the only global crises that the next generation will be exposed to; they inherit the climate emergency, will need to handle the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” and face geopolitical risks we can’t foresee. These all pose threats as well as opportunities.
It is crucial to have a diverse range of people, ideas and approaches to effectively develop world-changing solutions to current and future challenges, and ensure we are prepared and capable of addressing them. All sectors must truly reflect our society if we are to successfully create a sustainable and equitable future.
At For Thought, Samah Khalil, youth mayor of Oldham, commented on her own university experience. Students from less affluent backgrounds, with fewer opportunities to prepare them for further education, start courses at a different level to their peers because of persisting inequalities. As tomorrow’s decision-makers, innovators and executives, it is essential that we address the equity gap for a more inclusive, representative workforce.
As well as putting future generations first, the proposed act promotes intergenerational equality. It would require public bodies, businesses, and science and research institutions to think about the long-term impact of their decisions and outputs. Such considerations could be incorporated into developing new products and services by following sustainable practices and working towards a truly circular economy, for example.
A shift to longer-term thinking in our leaders could bring about real change in the way decision and policy making is done at present. This would help those that have been hit hardest by the pandemic, by putting into effect policies that better prepare groups at higher risk of physical and financial trouble, for example. It will create a fairer, more resilient future society by tackling the causes of existing disparities.
The report also calls on governments, businesses and institutions to create Future Generations Advisory Boards, aimed at listening to younger people and hopefully reversing the apparent trust gap. The 14-to-18-year-olds we surveyed expressed real interest in contributing to conversations on research, ethics and policy making, and would welcome this kind of engagement. In addition, not all professions performed badly in our polling. Trust in teachers, who benefit from daily interactions with this group, rose from 14 to 21 per cent.
A Future Generations Act would be a definitive signal to young people that we acknowledge our role in contributing to inevitable global crises. More importantly though, it sends the message that we won’t revert to society as it was, but contribute to the solutions by improving existing systems and implementing forward-thinking policies.
Katherine Mathieson is chief executive of the British Science Association