What is science capital?

Science capital is a concept which gives us a valuable insight into why and how some people participate in and engage with STEM related experiences – and why some do not.

Science capital itself, is a measure of your engagement or relationship with science, how much you value it and whether you feel it is ‘for you’ and connected to your life. It highlights the significance of what you know, how you think, what you do and who you know in shaping your relationship with science.

A simple way to imagine it is like a bag or holdall which collects and carries all the science-related experiences that you have had. Including, all the things you have learned about science; the different types of STEM related activities that you have done – such as watching science TV programmes or visiting science museums/ centres); all the people that you know who use and talk about science and whether science is something that you enjoy and feel confident doing, or not.

The more of these STEM related influences and experiences that you gather and connect with throughout your life, the more likely you are to feel at home with science and see it as something that is useful and important, both in your life and for society.

Everyone’s science capital is different. It is not fixed, it can change across a lifetime and the more that you bump into positive science experiences, the more potential there is over time, to impact on and grow your science capital.

Where has the concept of science capital come from?

The research into science capital has been led by University College London,  King’s College London, and the Enterprising Science project  to help shed light on why many people and particular socio-economic groups remain underrepresented in STEM.

It is derived from the work of Pierre Bourdieu, the French sociologist who voiced the notion of cultural capital which recognised that the different social and cultural experiences that people have affects how they get ahead in life.

Science capital in the UK

A nationally representative survey conducted with 3,658 11 to 15 year olds in England (as part of the Enterprising Science project in 2014) found that [1]:

  • 5% of young people have ‘high’ science capital (they are more likely to be socially advantaged, and male)
  • 68% of young people have medium levels of science capital
  • 27% of young people have low science capital

Although the survey was completed with children, their science capital is likely to reflect that of their families. These statistics highlight that there is opportunity to grow the science capital of a large percentage of society.

So, why is science capital important?

Science and innovation makes and sustains our modern society, it has the power to change the way we live our lives and is integral to our future. By growing science capital in individuals and society, we can help more people to see science as an important part of their lives and culture, which will help broaden opportunities and access for STEM-related jobs in the future.

What can influence people’s engagement and attitudes towards science?

The research has identified that there are eight dimensions of science capital which can affect a person’s connection and relationship with science. Understanding what these influences are can help us, in museums and science centres, to design and deliver learning opportunities that will engage the widest possible audiences with science. You can read about the Science Museum Group’s reflections on the eight dimensions in our blog post What influences science capital: The eight dimensions. You can also read more about how we at SMG have been applying this research into our practice.

You can also read more about science capital in a short booklet produced by the researchers from King’s College London here: Science capital made clear.

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[1]Archer et al… “Science Capital: A Conceptual, Methodological, and Empirical Argument”. 2015

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