#MyScienceInquiry: Supporting Prof. Rachel Oliver
Prof. Rachel Oliver (Univ. Of Cambridge) who I know from Twitter as @ProfRachelGaN and then met in real life at the Institute of Physics Photon 2018 conference has invited academic researchers to contribute to her ‘My Science Inquiry’ - an opportunity to present to the Science and Technology Select Committee who then decide whether to launch an official inquiry.
Rachel focused on the importance of diversity in STEM; with the data we have at hand currently, there are clear issues with research funding allocation for women and unreleased data on other minority groups in the LGBTQ & BAME communities, as well as disabled scientists and those from varied socioeconomic backgrounds. The inquiry was written with the help of staff & students all over the UK and signed by 23 UCL staff/students (in total there are 203 signatures from various academic institutions!). Rachel presented the inquiry on the 29th January and it got selected to progress!
The Science and Technology Select Committee commented that:
The Committee then hopes to launch an inquiry into the impact of science funding policy on equality, diversity, inclusion and accessibility within the next twelve months; and two further proposals have been combined—food security, the environment and crop protection, and organisms obtained by gene editing techniques—into an inquiry into the role of science and technology in addressing challenges to food security and biodiversity. The aim is to also launch this inquiry within the next 12 months.
UCL have also released a press statement! CLICK HERE
Watch Rachel’s inquiry BY CLICKING HERE (directs you to ParliamentLive TV website)
Transcript of Rachel’s speech: I am here representing not just myself but about 200 colleagues from across the country, all from different STEMM disciplines in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine. All of us passionately want to improve the diversity of the STEMM workforce. Currently, that workforce utterly fails to reflect the diversity of the UK population.
That lack of diversity means there are thousands of people who are missing out on opportunities for fantastic careers in science. I am here to tell you that this is not just a problem for those people; it is a real problem for science and, by extension, the UK economy. Increasing diversity in STEMM will open up new avenues of research because it will bring in new talent, new ways of thinking and new creativity into our disciplines. There is increasing evidence in the literature that both gender diversity and racial diversity in research groups leads to better quality science with greater impact.
The lack of diversity in STEMM has many complex causes, but some of them can be addressed by changes to Government policy or regulation. One thing which the Government control is the purse strings. Taxpayers’ money is used to fund scientific research and training in science, and the Government delegate the task of distributing that money to a number of bodies, most prominently UKRI but also others. It is incredibly important that that money is distributed fairly without the influence of conscious or unconscious bias coming into funding decisions. We need to avoid funding mechanisms that prop up the status quo, which favours particular groups, and that damage prospects for diversity.
I would love to stand in front of this Committee today and say, “We have identified where the problems are in the funding system, and this is what you ought to do to resolve it,” but I cannot. The available data simply do not have the necessary detail. UKRI publishes data. They show that, if you look at the success rates between different groups in applying for grants, they are often fairly similar.
Unfortunately, those data conceal problems. I give an example from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, which is the funding council I mostly work with. About 20% of the EPSRC’s researcher base is female, but, if we take 2016 to 2017, fewer than 7% of all research grants went to teams led by women, and the average size of the grants going to those women was 40% lower than the grants going to men, but those data had to be obtained by a female scientist making a freedom of information request.
There are some data available on the question of gender, but when we get into other questions—race, sexual orientation, gender expression, disability and social class—on those questions the data are poor, or in many cases non-existent.
The first thing that needs to be done to make our funding environment improve diversity is to ensure that the data available are analysed in proper granular depth so we can see which funding streams are disproportionately routeing money towards particular groups. Do some subject areas fund particular groups disproportionately? Are there different ways of delivering funding that help diversity? For example, we have managed calls and responsive-mode calls. Is one of those better than the other?
Once we have the data, the next step is to identify why certain funding streams tend to improve or damage diversity. Is it because certain groups do apply but fail to win funding? If so, where is the bias in the system? Is it because the rates of application from particular groups are very low? If so, we cannot just say that those groups need to do better. We need to look at the barriers to their application for that funding. Once we have identified the problems, the funding bodies need to take action to solve them. They need to break down barriers and eliminate biases, and we need to do that in a framework of international best practice. We want the UK to be a leader in diversity in science.
This Committee is right now addressing balance in UK research funding. The Committee will make recommendations that will influence future funding streams and opportunities. If you ignore issues of equality, diversity, inclusion and accessibility, you risk exacerbating the current problems. If you take on the inquiry that we propose, you can be part of the solution. You can remove any regulatory hurdles that prevent these diversity problems from being addressed; you can influence the funding bodies, and by doing that you will influence the whole broader STEMM ecosystem, including industry.
Hence, we call upon the Committee to open an inquiry into the extent to which funding, policies, procedures and cultures are damaging diversity in STEMM, and we ask you to recommend policy changes that will level the playing field and safeguard the future of UK science.