LGBTQ+ diversity in heritage science: An interview with Dr Scott Allan Orr

Heritage science is a STEM field with strong representation from women and LGBTQ+ people, offering an opportunity for diverse leading voices to promote disruptive research.

Author: Anastasiya Kolesnichenko
Editor: Javier Bautista

“Everyone knows that World Heritage Sites exist,” said Dr Scott Allan Orr over a Zoom interview, picking up a Future in Ruins book from his desk with the ancient Armenian city of Ani on the cover, “and that they’re supposed to have some sort of universal value”. He paused and continued, “That’s quite a big ask for something to be of universal value to humanity”. 

With his students, Dr Orr explores the challenge of identifying something as being of universal value to humanity, and the conflicts between local communities and global perspectives. A UCL graduate himself, Dr Orr returned to the university as a lecturer in Heritage Data Science at the UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage, which reminded him of what he studied at UCL. “I think it’s probably one of the only places in the world that I could be teaching the things that I get to teach now,” he said proudly.

According to UCL, heritage science is a cross-disciplinary research area encompassing scientific investigation of the past and management of heritage. The term ‘heritage science’ didn’t exist until 2006, which means that students come to the field from different disciplinary backgrounds. 

Scientific research aims to be objective and should not be influenced by particular perspectives, personal interest of scientists, or community bias. Heritage science, on the contrary, disobeys these rules and does not step outside of the context of society and culture, inviting conversation between people from diverse backgrounds. The idea that everyone’s individual experiences inform what they consider to be ‘heritage’ is crucial in teaching heritage science at UCL. “We, in the Institute for Sustainable Heritage, promote a very broad view of what heritage is,” said Dr Orr. “We try and identify that really, anything can be heritage, what matters is that it is valued by a community or group of people, or that it has been important to a group of people or a community in the past, or will be in the future.”

The novelty of the field and the diversity of backgrounds have enriched the development of heritage science. According to Dr Orr, those who represent underrepresented groups see work within heritage science as “an opportunity to really make an impact and become a leading voice”. However, he also identified there is a pressing need within heritage science to improve racial diversity, enable fair and wider access regardless of socioeconomic background, and challenge Eurocentrism.

The UNESCO Institute for Statistics estimates that less than 30% of the world’s researchers are women. Data from education bodies show that women make up 35% of STEM students in higher education in the UK. However, in heritage science, leading positions are commonly occupied by women. “And I believe that’s had an effect in terms of the diversity and characteristics of people who work in heritage science,” Dr Orr said. “Although there hasn’t been a systematic study, it seems more diverse in terms of gender and sexual identity than other STEM areas. And I think it’s because those role models exist at the top, and they provide these spaces for other people to occupy”. An episode of the UCL Parliament and Me podcast series highlights some of the pioneering work of women in heritage science research and policy.

Sexual orientation is not a common topic of conversation in many science, technology, engineering, and mathematics departments. Few studies on LGBTQ+ representatives in STEM academia exist, yet, the findings highlight the difficulties queer students and faculty members experience. Sexual-minority undergraduates more often leave STEM majors than their heterosexual peers. 

Almost 70% of LGBTQ+ STEM faculty members reported feeling uncomfortable in their departments. In 2017, over 40% of LGBTQ+ staff respondents in a UCL staff survey stated that they were not able to talk about themselves openly or to be out at work. However, The Queer in STEM study, which surveyed 1,427 LGBTQ+ STEM professionals, showed that fields with better female representation were significantly more likely to be rated as welcoming to LGBTQ+ people.
Female leaders in heritage science can help to address the issue of poor LGBTQ+ representation and welcome diverse people with a variety of interests. Heritage science bridges culture, arts, and science, thus, according to Dr Orr, “It’s easy to say that LGBTQ+ people will bring a very important skill set, they will have a background that is important to the field”.

We would like to kindly thank Dr Scott Allan Orr for taking the time to participate in our special issue on diversity and share his unique ideas as part of this interview.

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