Science Travels – an outreach project with travelling communities: How scientists can help effect social change

By Marie Bowers, Technician, School of Life Sciences, University of Glasgow


Roma Flag

Fellow scientists and community engagement communicators, come travel with me. I’m Marie Bowers, a Romany Gypsy female biochemist. It feels strange for me to identify this way in a public forum. Why is this so?

Marie Bowers

My brief outline of Gypsy history in the UK might help you understand the reluctance of some to self-identify, the scale of the prejudice, and the barriers we face.

But if you are part of a travelling community and work in STEM, this is a shout out to find other voices to support this project, engage in debate and champion our contributions to the scientific community.

GTRSB, an umbrella term, refers to a group of communities – Gypsy, Traveller, Roma, Showman and Boater – that share similarities in family-centred, entrepreneurial, traditionally nomadic cultures. We have our own languages and although we share some common traits, we are proud of the distinct characteristics of our own tribes. Since the Equality Act of 2010, it is illegal to discriminate against Gypsies, Roma or Travellers on the grounds of race.

Who are the Gypsy, Traveller, Roma, Showman, and Boater (GTRSB) communities?

Gypsies have been living in England since the 15th century, with the first recorded mention of us in a document from 1514; misidentified as Egyptians, it’s likely we originated from the Indian subcontinent. Historically persecuted across Europe, every modern EU State has at some point had anti-Gypsy laws. Currently in England, The Police and Crime Bill makes trespass illegal and will criminalise Gypsies who find themselves roadside.

Irish Travellers are a nomadic people distinct from Gypsies, who are thought to have originated in Ireland. They speak their own language (Gamin or Cant) and travel expensively through Ireland and the UK.

Roma are nomadic peoples also originating from the Indian subcontinent who travel across Europe. During the Second World War 250,000 Roma men, women and children were exterminated by the Nazis during the Porajmos, the Gypsy Holocaust. This is thought to have been approximately 25% of the Roma population in Europe at that time.

Closer to home, the Tinker Housing Experiment, forced Scottish Traveller families to live in squalid conditions in huts, designated for them by local authorities and set away from the rest of society. The experiment ran from 1917 and although most of the encampments closed in the 1980s, one camp was still in use until the early 2000’s.

This history of persecution and exclusion from mainstream society leads many of us of GRT (Gypsy, Roma, Traveller) heritage to have a significant lack of trust in the state and its official bodies.

Showmen run our fairgrounds and have a long history in the UK. Chartered fairs date back to Tudor times and Showmen families often travel from March to November and overwinter in their yards. Sometimes confused with Gypsies, Showmen can face racism based on their culture of travelling and it can be difficult Showmen children to maintain their education during the Fair Season.

Boaters (Bargees) live and travel on our waterways. This community faces difficulty in accessing healthcare and there is significant pressure on the number of moorings for liveaboard boats.

But why does this matter?  

All too many reports from Government bodies and GTRSB groups detail the lived experience of GTRSB community members and illustrate the shocking inequalities in terms of social, educational and health outcomes.

  • GRT groups have high rates of illiteracy.
  • GRT individuals perform poorly at every key stage and often don’t complete formal education.
  • GRT life expectancy is up to 10-12 years less than the general population.
  • 42% of GRT people will endure a chronic health condition, versus 18% of the general population.
  • 1 in 5 Traveller mothers will suffer miscarriage or still birth. (1 in 100 mothers in the general population.)
  • Travellers are more likely to experience poor mental health.
  • The suicide rate amongst Irish Travellers is 6 times higher than that of the general Irish population.
  • We endure the ‘last respectable form of racism’* in the UK. (*Trevor Phillips, then Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality.)

There are many reasons for these disparities, though education is often key in improving social and healthcare outcomes.

During lockdown I spent hours video chatting with my parents and younger family members. Whilst I had a reasonably easy time at school, accepted by my teachers and peers, reasonable exam results and the expectation that I would attend university, the experiences of my parents and the youngsters in the family were eerily similar.

My parents quite enjoyed primary school and could attend around their families need to travel. But by the time they had reached secondary school, racially motivated verbal and physical attacks from their peers had become a near daily occurrence; they were singled out for inquisition if something had gone missing in class by their teachers, they weren’t encouraged to take part in activities, and by the age of 14, with basic literacy and numeracy, they had both left formal education.

The author’s parents’ experiences of education.

Today’s GTRSB youngsters are still bullied by their peers and seen as other, perhaps driven by depictions of GRT communities in mainstream media. It’s virtually impossible to keep your child in mainstream education if you are travelling, something which Showman families deal with as much as GRT families as many fairgrounds are open for much of the academic year.

Young Travellers’ experience of education in 2021.

We’re hopeful that the kids in our family will complete their education in school, but many don’t. Home schooling is increasing year on year for GTRSB youngsters, but support for these children and their families is patchy at best. During lockdown, GRT families often found themselves digitally excluded. Not every child would have access to a digital device or a broadband connection. In fact, Romano Lav, a Roma organisation in Glasgow, provided all local Roma children with an electronic device during lockdown to ensure they could maintain their schooling.


Science Travels – Our Outreach project

Thanks to an Outreach Grant from The Physiological Society, I’m leading a pilot project aimed at engaging GTRSB children in physiology without othering them from their peers. Sessions are led by me self-identifying as a Romany and talking about my passion for physiology. This pilot project will help inform how we extend Science Travels thanks to an award from the University of Glasgow Chancellor’s Fund.

Our blend of ‘live from the lab’ sessions, online delivery, and open access resources, will seek to introduce GTRSB children to GTRSB adults working in STEM. The provision of positive role models from within their own communities, will hopefully spark their imaginations and encourage them to complete their education and consider STEM careers. The project uses the setting of the fairground to highlight our science projects and will involve children in STEM investigations co-designed with undergraduate life science students at the Universities of Glasgow and Aberdeen. In this way, we can open discussions on barriers to education for GTRSB groups with our students and staff.

But here is where I want to make a ‘call to arms’. Our institutions and learned societies need to engage in debate and seek out GTRSB voices for inclusion in conversations on equity, diversity and inclusion policies, parity of opportunity and barriers to inclusion for GTRSB individuals. Institutions should sign the GTRSB into Higher Education pledge from Buckinghamshire New University: https://www.bucks.ac.uk/about-us/what-we-stand/gtrsb-higher-education-pledge and they need to publicly mark important dates for GTRSB communities: GRT History Month every June, Roma Holocaust Memorial Day on 2nd August, World Funfair Month each September. In this way, scientists can begin to effect social change for a group of often forgotten communities.

If you are interested in being involved in Science Travels or want to learn more about the project, please contact science-travels@glasgow.ac.uk or follow @GTRSBinSTEM on Twitter.

Material from this Blog was originally published on The Physiological Society Blog:

Physiological Society funded outreach project with Traveller communities: How physiologists can help affect social change – The Physiological Society (physoc.org)


Other suggested reading:

House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee: Tackling inequalities faced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. Seventh Report of Session 2017–19. Published on 5 April 2019.

**This report includes a range of important and informative references.**

Clark, C., & Greenfields, M. (2006). Here to Stay: the Gypsies and Travellers of Britain. University of Hertfordshire Press. https://www.herts.ac.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0008/137249/UHP-2016-catalogue-web.pdf

D’Arcy, Kate (2014) ‘Travellers and Home Education: Safe Spaces and Inequality’, London: Trentham Books

Scandal of The Tinker Experiment: demands for apology over Scotland’s treatment of Gypsy Travellers, The Herald, 22 December 2019. https://www.heraldscotland.com/news/18117533.scandal-tinker-experiment-demands-apology-scotlands-treatment-gypsy-travellers/

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