Another step towards making research funding more inclusive

Posted 26/05/2021 by Sarah Nalden

By Dr Robin Mellors-Bourne, Director for Research & Intelligence, The Careers Research & Advisory Centre (CRAC) Ltd. 

Dr Robin Mellors-BourneCRAC logo

Robin shares some thoughts about how enhanced research funding award processes could result in more inclusive scientific career progression, based on work commissioned by the Royal Society to investigate the diversity characteristics of postdocs eligible for its early-career awards.

“When it comes to recruitment and progression processes that are highly inclusive, and contribute to greater diversity of employees, some organisations in the private and public sectors are streets ahead of much of UK higher education (HE).

More and more private firms are convinced that greater staff diversity will simply benefit their business (e.g. greater diversity of thought; or better to have staff whose diversity reflects their customers) and/or is desirable for fairness. The public sector is driven by the same thoughts, possibly in a different order. HE’s lag is, I suspect, partly because it thinks diversity issues are more complicated than this but also because of its adherence to academic excellence as the over-riding metric in selection – or at least the way it tries to measure it. There are exceptions, admittedly, such as contextualised admissions at undergraduate entry.

A mantra for the leading private companies is ‘measure, measure, measure’. They look at the diversity of the labour pool, of those who apply for their jobs, of those who get the jobs, and of who subsequently progresses. The best of them assess the profile of applicants at different stages within the recruitment process so they can see which elements of the process inadvertently narrow the field, and adjust them to counter that.

So it is really welcome to see research funders in the UK beefing up their monitoring of the diversity of who applies for and gets their funding. UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the Royal Society, to name two, now publish a range of diversity statistics. These initially focused on gender, and to some extent disability, but now increasingly also focus on ethnicity. The latter aspect has suddenly caught public focus, for obvious contextual reasons; who expected the Daily Mail to report on the ethnicity of science postdocs?


RS Early Career Fellowship Programme report image

The Royal Society has for some time been recording key diversity characteristics (gender, ethnicity, disability) of applicants for its early career fellowships and those who get awards. This way it checks, for example, to see if the proportion of women gaining awards is the same as the proportion of those who apply, to see how the selection process is working. But it wanted to go further. It wanted to establish the diversity profile of those eligible to apply, to compare with the profiles of those who do apply and those who succeed. Does the whole process inherently impact on the diversity of those who get these prestigious awards, not just the post-application procedures?

This is where it commissioned CRAC to help. Our role was to establish the diversity characteristics of postdocs in the relevant subject domains who fit the eligibility criteria for these fellowships (in relation to research experience, employment status etc). We attempted this using the Higher Educations Statistics Agency (HESA) staff data, setting up a series of filters as proxies for the specific eligibility criteria. We also looked back at 10 years of data to investigate how the profiles have changed. The results are published here.

Having compared its applicant data with the profile, the Royal Society has openly reported that applicants for its prestigious University Research Fellowship (URF) and related schemes are not representative of the pool of those who could apply, in terms of gender or ethnicity. Black researchers are especially absent – there were no UK-domiciled Black applicants to the URF scheme in the last three years. This transparency is welcome and necessary.

In a separate article being published in parallel to this, I highlight a number of broader observations and trends that emerge from our analyses, including some issues of concern about ethnicity. For example, we realised that the lack of Black applicants to the URF scheme was actually not very surprising.

The Society’s next step will be to consider why fewer postdocs in these under-represented groups are applying for this premier progression route in science – and what it or others can do to change this.

To our knowledge, other funders have not yet attempted this analysis (comparison of applicants with those eligible to apply). We strongly encourage them to do so, and would be happy to help. We think it will contribute to enhancement of the inclusivity of their processes in the short term and the diversity of the workforce in the long run.” 

Read: The profile of postdoctoral researchers in the UK eligible for Royal Society early career fellowship programmes