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Who gets to do science? - Equity in STEMM viewed through a funding lens

Speaker: Prof Rachel Oliver (University of Cambridge)
Date: Wednesday 3 March 2021
Time: 15:00
Venue: Zoom

Research grants from United Kingdom Research and Innovation (UKRI) are the lifeblood of our research ecosystem in science, engineering, technology, maths and medicine (STEMM). These grants pay the salaries of researchers, and allow academics to buy consumables, equipment and access to top notch facilities. Without money, it is very hard to make science and innovation happen, and those who lose out in the hypercompetitive struggle for grants find it much harder to progress up the research career ladder. Winning funding for a fellowship is often an unspoken prerequisite for getting a permanent post at a University, and winning grants is vital to promotion within the permanent academic career pathway.

Recent data analyses released by UKRI and also by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) reveal startling inequities in the distribution of research funding. In considering the impact of gender on grand application and award rates, EPSRC have claimed for several years that women were just as likely to be awarded grants as men. However, this is only true if the values of grants won by men and women are ignored. Considering the largest grants provided by EPSRC, men are more than twice as likely to receive funding as women, and in every one of the last 12 years, the largest grant awarded by EPSRC has always gone to a male investigator. This glass ceiling preventing women from succeeding in engineering and the physical sciences at the highest level drives the gender pay gap, reduces women’s influence in strategic decision making and deprives early career women of relatable role models at the top of their field.

The situation for Black researchers and those of other minoritised ethnicities is even more dismaying. Data from EPSRC routinely show lower award rates and lower average amounts per awarded grant for scientists of minoritised ethnicity as compared to white scientists. The available EPSRC data aggregate the experiences of scientists of different ethnicities, and fail to account for the specific barriers faced by Black scientists. However, UKRI have recently released additional data which (whilst they do not address STEMM specifically) show that in 2018-2019 only 10 Black Principle Investigators (PIs) were awarded grants, across the whole of UKRI. In the same period nearly 2000 white PIs received grants. These data are symptomatic of systematic racism in UK academia, which is also borne out by narrative reports of the experience of Black researchers and others of minoritised ethnicity.

We all have a part to play in addressing the barriers faced by women and researchers of minoritised ethnicity, researchers who are disabled or LGBTQ+ and in particular researchers who fall in the intersections of these groups who may confront an accumulation of barriers, and about whom data remains scarce. Many minoritised researchers report that lack of mentoring, sponsorship or institutional support within their Universities affects their progress through grant funding processes, and their broader career progression. These issues can and should be addressed at a local level, whilst privileged researchers who hold grants and hence power within our systems should press funders for more radical change, addressing the cycles of inequality we currently condone.

Addressing these issues is fundamentally a question of fairness to our minoritised colleagues, but it is worthwhile to also note that there is increasing evidence that more diverse teams outperform homogeneous ones. Hence, recognising and taking responsibility for addressing the inequities in our current systems, has the potential to benefit all scientists, and also broader society.

Biography: Professor Rachel Oliver is Director of the Cambridge Centre for Gallium Nitride. The focus of her research is understanding how the small scale structure of nitride materials effects the performance and properties of devices. She uses expertise in microscopy and materials growth to develop new nanoscale nitride structures which will provide new functionality to the devices of the future. She is also a founder member of The Inclusion Group for Equity in Research in STEMM (TIGERS), and a diversity champion in the School of Physical Science at Cambridge. She write for scientific journals and the popular press on equity issues, and has recently addressed the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee on racial inequality in UK science.