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Do scientists form an ethnic group?

In this post I argue that scientists form an ethnic group (at least according to the definitions used by the UK 2011 census), and that recognition of this ethnic group has important implications.

In brief

According to the definitions used by the 2011 census:
Important characteristics of an ethnic group include a common heritage, memories of a shared past and shared language. Members of an ethnic group are conscious of belonging to that group and there is a boundary between ‘us’ and ‘them’ that is probably recognised on both sides of that boundary. Ethnicity is characterised, among other things, by subjective identification, stereotyping and social exclusion. And finally a person should self-assign their own ethnic group: self-classification is not a courtesy but a recognition of the fact that a person’s ethnic group is an integral part of their identity.

As a scientist and according to these definitions I can legitimately claim that I belong to the ethnic group of scientists. I intend to do so. What’s more I intend to declare my ethnic group as “scientist” on the 2011 UK census.

Why would I want to do so? For two reasons. Firstly, as an individual, I wish to assert my identity, and I wish to do so in a way that I define – I do not want to be stereotyped by some government department. And secondly because government policy is informed by ethnicity data, and I am fed up with the systematic bias against science and scientists that exists in the UK. I think that bias is harmful to scientists themselves, but even more importantly it is harmful to the nation.

Surely, I’m having a laugh?

No. Neither am I cocking a snook at the Office of National Statistics or the 2011 census. My intent is earnest. The failure to recognise scientists as a group and the government bias against scientists and scientific knowledge has significant and serious consequences for our nation. The bias against science detrimentally impacts our healthcare, our agriculture, our education, our transport system, our power generation, our fisheries, our environment and our future prosperity as a nation.

The under-representation of scientists in government and government departments and the tendency of ministers to ignore scientific opinion and advice threatens our competitiveness.

In more detail

The government publication Ethnic group statistics: A guide for the collection and classification of ethnicity data quotes Bulmer’s (1996) definition of an ethnic group:

An ethnic group is a collectivity within a larger population having real
or putative common ancestry, memories of a shared past, and a cultural focus upon one or more symbolic elements which define the group’s identity, such as kinship, religion, language, shared territory, nationality or physical appearance. Members of an ethnic group are conscious of belonging to an ethnic group.

It also quotes Berthoud, Modood and Smith (1997) definition of an ethnic group:

In principle, an ethnic group would be defined as a community whose heritage offers important characteristics in common between its members and which makes them distinct from other communities. There is a boundary, which separates ‘us’ from ‘them’, and the distinction would probably be recognised on both sides of that boundary. Ethnicity is a multi-faceted phenomenon based on physical appearance, subjective identification, cultural and religious affiliation, stereotyping, and social exclusion. But it is not possible in advance to prescribe what the key distinguishing characteristics might be; the components of ethnicity will be different in Britain compared with, say Northern Ireland, Belgium, Bosnia, the United States, Rwanda, India or Singapore. So it is necessary to adopt a flexible and practical approach to choosing the specific criteria to identify the important ethnic boundaries in any particular society.

The paper also asks:

Is a person’s ethnic group self-defined?

to which it answers:

Yes. Membership of an ethnic group is something that is subjectively meaningful to the person concerned, and this is the principal basis for ethnic categorisation in the United Kingdom.

According to the government publication How to identify collect and report ethnicity data:

all training should emphasise why ethnic monitoring is important and that self-classification is imperative


As said above, a person should self-assign their own ethnic group, once they have agreed for the Trust or council to have this information. Self-classification is not a courtesy but a recognition of the fact that a person’s ethnic group is an integral part of their identity. How an individual sees her or himself may be different from how that person’s parents, other family members or third parties see them.

Government policy implications

According to the 2011 Census White Paper (English), paragraph 3.53:

The UK Statistics Authority proposes to include a question again in the 2011 Census to meet a wide range of uses of ethnicity data:

  • to enable organisations to meet their statutory obligations under race relation and equal opportunities legislation (where other sources of data do not adequately provide accurate data for small, geographically dispersed ethnic minority populations)
  • in the formulae for grant allocation by Central and Local Government
  • to inform policy development and monitoring
  • to provide public bodies with a better understanding of the communities they serve and hence inform service provision
  1. Mar 31, 2010 at 00:09

    Other than you just saying so, what is your claim to being a scientist? What is a scientist?

    Or to put it another way what are the characteristics of common heritage, memories of a shared past and shared language that identify a scientist.

    • Mar 31, 2010 at 00:10

      By the way, I have read your ‘About’ page, so I’m looking for a bit more than what you say there.

    • Martin Budden
      Mar 31, 2010 at 08:07

      Chris, you ask three separate questions. I’ll try and answer them all. In reverse order:

      “…what are the characteristics of common heritage, memories of a shared past and shared language that identify a scientist?” These things don’t identify a scientist, they identify the scientific ethnic group. The common heritage includes the struggle against ignorance, especially that of Galileo (wrt the solar system) and the continuing struggle in the field of evolution. There are many shared stories in science, including those to do with Aristotle, Newton, Curie, the Voyage of the Beagle, the discovery of DNA, etc. The common language includes the language of mathematics and the symbols used in physics and chemistry, etc.

      “What is a scientist?” I like the Wikipedia definition: “A scientist, in the broadest sense, is any person who engages in a systematic activity to acquire knowledge or an individual that engages in such practices and traditions that are linked to schools of thought or philosophy. In a more restricted sense, a scientist is an individual who uses the scientific method”.

      “What is my claim to being a scientist?” I would say my primary claim is that I am a believer in and practitioner of the scientific method. In terms of being ethnically scientific, my identity as a scientist has probably influenced my life choices and the direction of my life (an my treatment by others) more than any other part of my ethnic background.

  2. Apr 5, 2010 at 14:43

    Thank you for a thought-provoking article. I think you are highlighting
    something important but I’m not sure if the ethnic group is a good
    vehicle to express it.

    Humans have a tendency to be tribal. In modern times that means
    affiliation with multiple groups: cultural background, religion,
    politics, philosophy and so on.

    I agree that being a scientist can be a very important part of one’s
    sense of identity and stronger than one’s sense of general cultural
    background. I am also acutely aware of the way in which an interest
    in science and scientfic thinking is treated with contempt in various
    ways in our society. I also think that this collective attitude to
    science contributes to many of the ills of our civilisation.

    The media certainly tend to treat “scientists” as a group. But I always
    feel irritated when they do, as though scientists are somehow
    fundamentally different from “the rest of us”, as they portray it.
    My irritation is about the perpetuation of that polarisation and I’m
    not sure I want to increase it by creating the notion of scientists as
    an ethnic group. My preference would be for the promotion
    of more scientific thinking in the general population rather than by
    categorising it as a group to which one may or may not belong.

    If I was going to mention it on the census at all, in my case it would
    fit better under “religion”, but so would other attributes of the way
    I live. In the end, the census is not designed to give that clear a
    picture of individual identity or preferences.

    Having said all this, I also think that the ethnic group question
    itself seems wrongly constructed for its declared purpose. Especially
    now that they have introduced other questions connected with nationality
    and native language. There ought to be a way of stating “irrelevant”.

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