Last month, the now notorious Google memo shone a depressing light on the persistence of sexism and discrimination in Silicon Valley. But these problems aren’t restricted to the tech world: a powerful new book by Angela Saini, which also surfaced over the summer, reminds us that such attitudes remain surprisingly ingrained across the wider scientific community.
What can we as researchers and research funders do to change things? This week sees the launch of a new network called EDIS (Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in Science and Health Research). Co-founded by the Francis Crick Institute, Wellcome and GlaxoSmithKline, EDIS aims to inspire and encourage the UK scientific community to make equality and diversity a top priority.
Today’s inaugural EDIS meeting will bring together 250 leaders from across UK research. Theoretical neuroscientist and entrepreneur Vivienne Ming will outline the latest innovations in diversity data and analytics, followed by interactive sessions on topics such as reverse-diverse mentoring and unconscious bias.
As a global foundation and research funder, Wellcome wants every great idea that could improve health to thrive. We know that we’re missing out because some people think that science isn’t for them, or leave research careers early because of the barriers they face. For example, across UK research, 44 per cent of senior lecturers in bioscience are female, yet just 16 per cent reach professor level. By and large, the profile of post-16 students taking STEM subjects maps onto the same ethnic and social groups as twenty years ago. This is bad news for science, and bad news for society.
So in our new strategy, Wellcome has committed to removing such barriers and to broadening the diversity of the people we fund, engage with and employ. When we talk about ‘diversity’, we mean everything that makes us unique – from the categories protected by UK law, to our personality. We want the research community to tackle systemic disadvantages and enable as many people as possible to contribute to the scientific enterprise.
As well as a strong commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion in principle, we need a more robust evidence base to inform how best to tackle barriers in practice. We hope the EDIS network can play a role here. Alongside its launch, Wellcome is also publishing a review by a team from the University of Sheffield of the evidence for the benefits of a more diverse and inclusive biomedical and health research community.
The University of Sheffield review highlights as many gaps and questions as it does answers. The literature on equality, diversity and health research is dominated by US-based work, which raises questions about the transferability of findings elsewhere. Research relating to gender, race and ethnicity is more widespread than that which engages with other axes of difference. And the common level of analysis is that of individuals. There is a relative lack of attention in the literature to measures of diversity or processes of exclusion/inclusion at the organisational level, or how multiple disadvantages and interlocking aspects of people’s experience can reinforce one another. Most work looks at discrete parts of the health system, with only a few examples of holistic, systems-based or longitudinal research that examines how elements interplay to create or perpetuate disadvantage.
For Wellcome, this review has reinforced the importance of stronger commitments, more research and better methods to understand the contributions of diversity to research, and the impacts of discrimination, bias and stereotype in research funding. Wellcome is now looking at how to make its funding processes as inclusive as possible. It will be recruiting a diversity and inclusion research board to help steer funding decisions. And it will require unconscious bias training for all those involved in funding decisions.
Wellcome is a large and influential player in UK science. But the challenges around equality, diversity and inclusion are complex and systemic. We need to collaborate with others, and the EDIS network is a modest but important step towards these shared goals.
Lauren Couch is head of diversity & inclusion at Wellcome Trust. Sarah Salway is professor of public health and James Wilsdon is professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield, and both are part of the team which produced the Sheffield review of evidence for the benefits of diversity and inclusion in biomedical and health research, available here. More details on the EDIS network can be found here.
How can UK science raise the bar for diversity and inclusion? – The Guardian