Diversity in UK Marine Science – a personal perspective

Dr Judith Wolf is a senior scientist at the National Oceanography Centre in Liverpool and Visiting Professor at the University of Liverpool. She is a physical oceanographer and marine modeller, with interests in coupled atmosphere-hydrodynamic-wave modelling, coastal impacts of climate change and marine renewable energy. She is white British, born in the UK, and presently holding the Outreach and Education portfolio on the Challenger Society Council.
JW 1
Icacos Point, Trinidad, 2015

Chances are if you ask an oceanographer about diversity, s/he will assume you are talking about genetic diversity, biological diversity, which is an important challenge for the conservation of marine species. However, I’m not referring to that, rather I want to discuss ethnic diversity in oceanographers themselves. How well is that represented in the UK? Here I am providing some personal reflections on this topic, together with a bit of reading around the issue.

‘Racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic diversity is more than a matter of equity. Diversity is the substance of social and economic vitality and global leadership. It is the synergistic leadership, and the collaborative contributions of women and men of various backgrounds, beliefs, and cultures, that will best advance solutions to global issues and challenges. Simply put, increasing diversity in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields[1], including ocean sciences, is essential for maximizing and fostering progressive innovation that is critical to scientific discovery and addressing humanity’s biggest challenges’ (Johnson et al., 2016). Do we believe this or just pay lip service to it? For myself, I find it exciting and inspiring, but I’m now approaching the end of my career, so what does it look like on the way up?

My early career

In my own career, I now think I spent too long, in the early part of it, trying to follow male role models, playing it safe and conforming to stereotypes, generally suppressing my ideas or not finding an outlet for them, looking for a role in which I could be accepted and deliver valid science. No doubt many women of my age, working in STEM research, can identify with this. After gaining my undergraduate degree in Maths and Physical Oceanography at Bangor University in 1975, I then joined the staff of an oceanographic research institution as a young female scientist, very much in a minority (at my first international conference I was the only woman). I felt like a specimen, a curiosity to be examined, but not taken seriously. In fact, I didn’t really find my feet until a life-changing experience 15 years later, when I took a career break and became a consultant oceanographer in Trinidad and Tobago for two and a half years, working for the Commonwealth Secretariat. There I was treated with rather too much deference as ‘Dr Wolf’ but also had to revisit all my early training (or lack of it!), in order to train local staff in the basics of physical oceanography. We formed a new unit at the Institute of Marine Affairs, which already had expertise in Marine Biology, Chemistry, Geology and Law. We sought funding, bought instruments, gathered data and acquired or designed software, and I set up a basic numerical model of the tides in the Gulf of Paria. My trainees already had undergraduate degrees in science or engineering and during my time there I was able to get funding for each of them to complete a Master’s degrees in Marine Science in the UK, at Bangor and Southampton. We also had a lot of fun, doing fieldwork and learning together.


Coastal Fieldwork in Trinidad, 1992
Trinidad and Tobago

Trinidad and Tobago is a culturally diverse country, with over 1.3 million people (since 2011) descended mainly from Black African slaves, captured and transported from the 16th century onwards, and indentured South Asian labourers, brought in to work the land after the abolition of slavery, in approximately equal numbers. These groups account for ~70% of the population, together with a mixture of European, Middle-Eastern, Chinese and others, including Amerindian natives (Caribs and Arawaks) so that there is a white ethnic minority. Following its colonial history, Trinidad and Tobago achieved independence from the United Kingdom in 1962 and became a Republic in 1976. The official language is English (Trinidad and Tobago Standard English). Beautifully described as a ‘rainbow nation’ by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, it is famous for its mixture of African and Indian cultures, reflected in its Carnival, Diwali, and Hosay celebrations, as well being the birthplace of steelpan, the limbo, and music styles such as calypso, soca, rapso, parang, chutney, and chutney soca. The main religions of Christianity, Islam and Hinduism are all strongly represented and hence there are national holidays for Christmas, Easter, Eid al-Fitr and Diwali. What surprised and shocked me, was that, despite its independence and predominantly black or Asian and multi-ethnic population, there are still racial tensions, particularly between those of African and Asian descent. Unfortunately, this seems to be human nature and we should not forget that skin colour is only part of the issue of racism.

Trinidad Carnival 2020 

The time I spent in Trinidad was a very steep learning curve for me, including absorbing a history and culture different to my own, including ‘playing mas’ (masquerading in Carnival). It’s a beautiful and culturally very diverse country and I fell in love with it, as well as making some good friends. Apart from training my staff on the job, I also taught an MSc module on Coastal Processes at the University of the West Indies (UWI, St Augustine campus) and I had three small children to raise. Although I cannot pretend I understand the life experience and opportunities of an Afro-Caribbean woman for example, I did not just visit as a tourist, but really lived and worked in a country very different to my own, with a large professional class and good educational opportunities, at least for the well-off. I learned a bit about being an outsider and part of an ethnic minority, although I cannot say I suffered from discrimination per se, more from being an object of curiosity again and the insidious ‘imposter syndrome’, as I never felt fully qualified to teach, flying by the seat of my pants!

Photo: Shante L Rollins

Trinidad and Tobago is the wealthiest country in the Caribbean as well as the third richest country by GDP per capita in the Americas, after the United States and Canada, and is recognised as a high-income economy by the World Bank, while still being classified as a Small Island Developing State (SIDS). Unlike most of the English-speaking Caribbean, the country’s economy is primarily industrial, with an emphasis on petroleum and petrochemicals. When I was there, from 1992-1994, the oil price boom of the 1970’s had been followed by a less prosperous period, meaning less funding was available for oceanographic research and opportunities. There was reasonably good support for research at the UWI, which also has campuses in Jamaica and Barbados: although there is no ocean sciences department, I made connections in Maths, Physics and Engineering. Outside of the University, there is little opportunity for research but coastal processes are important for the economy (Wolf, 1996). However, many Trinidadians emigrate, especially the best-educated, looking for better opportunities. The number of Trinidadians living abroad in 2005/6 was 312,000 (23% of total population and 74% of the highly-educated population, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. Most migrants go to the United States or Canada, with the United Kingdom as 3rd choice (6%). My trainees from the 1990’s continued to work for the IMA before setting up their own business in coastal consultancy, which is thriving. Trinidad and Tobago is still a small country, which inevitably finds it difficult to fund sufficient critical mass for scientific research, leading to a large diaspora of talented scientists, despite its relative wealth (which also masks large inequalities).


In the last couple of years, my continued interest in Caribbean oceanography has led to me being involved in the Commonwealth Marine Economies Programme (https://projects.noc.ac.uk/cme-programme/), working with the SIDS of St Vincent and the Grenadines (on order of magnitude smaller than Trinidad and Tobago), providing oceanographic tools for coastal managers.


Tackling Diversity in the UK

Back in the UK, the most recent census for England and Wales, in 2011, shows that diversity continues to increase, with minority ethnic groups continuing to rise since 1991. The proportion identifying with a White ethnic group has decreased from 94% in 1991 to 86% in 2011. In 2011, 87% of the population was born in the UK and 13% was born outside of the UK. By ethnicity, 86.0% of the population in 2011 was White, while people from Asian ethnic groups made up the second largest percentage of the population (7.5%), followed by Black ethnic groups (3.3%), Mixed/Multiple ethnic groups (2.2%) and Other ethnic groups (1.0%). It surprises me that the diversity in the UK is still so relatively low and I do not know how this translates to the number of black people entering university to study STEM subjects, for example, or success rates in getting research grants in ocean sciences – I would love to hear about individual experiences and any statistics related to this.

Academic success may be determined in part by the level of socio-economic deprivation in some communities, and this may be correlated with race/ethnicity. Providing equal opportunities and fostering greater interest in STEM subjects in deprived communities will continue to be a challenge. There is no doubt that early experiences and expectations for children from disadvantaged backgrounds have a huge impact in educational achievement and life choices. I believe that the best thing we can give a child, from any background, is education, and this needs to include a basic scientific competency as well as literacy and numeracy, and exposure to the arts, culture and ‘big ideas’. There may be a separate issue on how to engage with Black African children, for example, using teaching methods appropriate to their culture (Ladson-Billings, 2014), rather than standardised methods developed for (male?) white children. This is an area where I have no experience of my own to offer, other than going through the education system myself, together with the education of my own children. While I have dipped briefly into the work of some US educators, this may not transfer directly to the UK, which has a different history and racial mix. How can we best engage with ethnic minority students to encourage them to take up science in general and ocean science in particular? The Challenger Society Education and Outreach programme wishes to help with this and any suggestions would be very welcome!


Johnson, A., M.J. Huggans, D. Siegfried, and L. Braxton (2016) Strategies for increasing diversity in the ocean science workforce through mentoring. Oceanography, 29, 1, 46–54, doi: 10.5670/oceanog.2016.11

Ladson-Billings, G. (2014) Culturally relevant pedagogy 2.0: aka the remix. Harvard Educational Review84(1), 74-84.

Wolf, J. (1996) Practical aspects of physical oceanography for small island states, pp. 120-131 in Small Islands: marine science and sustainable development, ed. George Maul, AGU Coastal and Estuarine Studies Series.

[1]We might add medicine to this mix (STEMM) although I choose not to, because medicine in itself is a practice that has many cultural resonances and stands apart from the other academic research fields (my opinion).

Do you feel you could write a blog post for the Challenger Society? See https://challengercaptainsblog.wordpress.com/. It can be on any topic and only needs about 1000 words and a couple of pictures.  You don’t have to be a member of Challenger Society (but do consider joining if you’re not). The link is here too: https://www.challenger-society.org.uk/Home. If you are interested please email katie.stjohnglew@sorton

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