Image credit: Genome Research Limited

Categories: Sanger Life13 March 20207.7 min read

Being an LGBT+ Ally and Supporting Diversity

Jim Smith joined us at the Wellcome Genome Campus last year as part of the LGBT+ Network and Equality in Science talk series. He spoke about the importance diversity and of being an LGBT+ ally.

A personal perspective on being an ally

In October 2019, Jim gave us a personal perspective on being an ally and supporting diversity. He spoke at the Wellcome Genome Campus as part of the LGBT+ Network event series, in collaboration with the campus’s Equality in Science programme.

Wikipedia defines an LGBT+ ally as someone who “…acknowledges that LGBTQ people face discrimination and thus are socially disadvantaged.”

Jim started out by stressing the importance of being an ally when you are yourself privileged. “I like to think of myself as an ally, although of course that is for others to say. But I recognise myself as someone who is white, male, (late) middle-aged, heterosexual, and who was educated at Cambridge. With all these characteristics come great privilege. It’s important to recognise that privilege and the power it brings, and to use it for good."

Jim was involved in Athena SWAN during his time as Director of the National Institute for Medical Research and he chaired the Women in Science committee both there and at the Francis Crick Institute, where he was also involved in the Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) group and the LGBTQ committee. He continues to raise awareness of the power of privilege in his job at Wellcome.

Equality of opportunity

"It’s essential that everyone has an equal opportunity to contribute to science, to have a career in science, and to benefit from science,” Jim said. “If we lose our best thinkers because of their gender, sexual preference or skin colour we are losing our finest scientists for the wrong reasons. I am keen to bring in different ways of thinking. Remember, there is no mould as to what a scientist should be. As Sir Patrick Vallance, Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Government, says: ‘Tough problems don’t get solved by monolithic thinking. Collaboration is key to scientific progress and that needs true inclusion of great diversity.’”

Diversity is not yet reflected in those currently at the top of UK academia. “More than half of biomedical PhD students are women but at director level only 16 per cent are female. People have been saying for a very long time that it will take time to reach equality—but we’ve had the time,” warned Smith. Studies show the same lack of equality is true for the LGBT+ community, who are 7 per cent less likely to be retained in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) compared to other subjects. A June 2019 article in Nature discussed how discrimination drives LGBT scientists to think about quitting. Science is an international enterprise, and there are still many countries that lack basic legal protections for the LGBT+ people who might want to live or travel there for work.

“And there are so few BAME people in STEM at higher levels, we barely have the data to do the proper analyses. That in itself tells us something is wrong with the current system” said Jim. “I want to support both the people and the science.”


Jim Smith joined Wellcome in December 2016 as Director of Science. In January 2019, he began directing Wellcome’s science review, an ambitious task to determine how Wellcome should support science to ensure the best possible advances in scientific knowledge and health.

In addition to his role at Wellcome, Jim leads a research group at the Francis Crick Institute, where he studies the way in which the different cell types in the vertebrate embryo form at the right time and in the right place, and how this work might be applied to problems in regenerative medicine.

His previous roles include Director of the Wellcome/Cancer Research UK Gurdon Institute and Director of the Medical Research Council (MRC) National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR). He has also been Deputy CEO and Chief of Strategy at the MRC, and Director of Research at the Francis Crick Institute.

Jim has a distinguished career in scientific research as a Fellow of the Royal Society (1993), a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences (1998) and a member of the Academia Europaea (2000). He has also been awarded the EMBO Medal (1993) and the Waddington Medal (2013). Jim was knighted in the 2017 New Year's Honours list.

Interview with Jim Smith - the importance of diversity in science

Being a better ally

Wellcome is trying to make a difference by listening and learning, making the case for diversity and inclusion, removing unconscious bias from recruitment and selection, and embedding inclusion into the organisational culture. Wellcome is working with thought-leaders such as Stephen Frost on building a truly inclusive organisation.

For those who want to be a pro-active ally to LGBT+ and other under-represented communities, Wellcome recommends:

  • Call out homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and racist language – be an active ally.
  • Share with your colleagues why you are an ally – be an open ally.
  • Attend LGBTQ+ events and networks – be a visible ally.
  • Read more, engage and education yourself - be an educated ally.

“Everyone is worried about something,” Jim reminded us. “For me, I have a stutter. When I was young it was awful. Occasionally I still feel nervous when I speak and some sounds are difficult even today - particularly ‘Jim’! Fundamentally, you can’t give your full attention to something if you’re constantly worried you won’t be accepted for who you are.”

At Wellcome, Jim has benefited from reverse diverse mentoring, a scheme in which three or four people, representing aspects of diversity including LGBT+, race, gender or disability, join senior leaders over six sessions. “We explored what life is like at work and elsewhere and what problems they have day-to-day. It was immensely informative to see things from a different point of view—the scales fall from your eyes. It was extraordinary,” enthused Jim.

What else can we do?

There are many practical ways to make the workplace and STEM in general a more inclusive environment. For meetings and events, ensure there are accessible and gender-neutral toilets, a quiet room and seating areas. You can also consider providing baby feeding and changing facilities, a prayer room, induction loops, assistance dogs and personal emergency evacuation plans.

During conference sessions, provide live captioning, plenty of breaks and offer alternative ways for people to be heard, for example by allowing questions by microphone and Twitter. Pronoun stickers, silent clapping and supported networking can all make people feel more included. It is also important to put your code of conduct and inclusion statement front and centre so everyone knows what to expect.

“Of course, the best intentions may cause problems elsewhere, so be kind if it doesn’t quite work for you!” reminded Jim.

You can find more ideas for creating an inclusive workplace in EqualBITE – a recipe book for gender equality from the University of Edinburgh.

Collaborating with others for change

In 2017, Wellcome joined with the Francis Crick Institute and GlaxoSmithKline to form the EDIS Consortium (Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in Science and Health), which today brings together 17 member organisations in science and health research.

The business case for EDIS comes from a challenging set of statistics: just 15 per cent of STEM management roles are filled by women; less than 2 per cent of UK professors are BAME women; just one pharmaceutical company features in the Stonewall top 100 employers; and only 15 per cent of scientists come from working class households. In response, the EDIS mission is to build a powerful, connected and coordinated movement to advance Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in Science and Health.

An EDIS Symposium in September 2019 explored the concept of inclusive research and experimental design. They concluded that there are big gaps in the data for some groups in clinical trials. Most research is done on men and male animals, which can have negative impacts on women’s health, as shown by a British Heart Foundation report on heart attacks in women. Artificial Intelligence (AI) can actually make these problems worse because of the way AI is programmed—the biases existing in society can get hardwired into algorithms, as shown in recent research. There is also a key difference between consulting marginalised groups and actively working with them to identify and solve problems. A report summarising the outcomes from the symposium will be published by EDIS in 2020.

“All in all I’m delighted that the Wellcome Sanger Institute, Connecting Science and EMBL-EBI are involved in EDIS. And since I have discovered the joy of silent clapping at the EDIS Symposium, perhaps we can try it now!” concluded Smith – so we waved back at him enthusiastically!

Find out more

Find out more about the Sanger Institute’s diversity programme at or contact Dr Saher Ahmed at

Follow Jim on twitter @profjimsmith