Reflections on race and equity in research: One year on…

Dr Saher Ahmed, Head of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, and Dr Ireena Dutta, Head of Strategy at Wellcome Connecting Science, reflect on where we are after a pivotal moment in 2020.

One year on from the murder of George Floyd, many individuals and organisations have taken a step back to reflect on their reactions and actions to both that event, and its ongoing repercussions.

In 2020 we joined many others in the academic research and Higher Education sector to state our commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI). And although we like to think of ourselves as a diverse and inclusive organisation, has that always been the experience of our staff and colleagues? Is there more that we can be doing to advance equity in the wider research sphere, as well as our own working environment?

Our vision for EDI is simple: to foster an inclusive culture where everyone can thrive and diversity is celebrated.  But what does this look like in our sector, and what does this mean for our organisation, where surely we don’t ‘see’ colour, and operate a meritocracy…?

The answers to these questions are not clear cut, and we have taken time to consider our responses. However, one thing did become apparent very quickly – there absolutely was more that we could, and should, be doing.

The racial inequalities that persist in society are mirrored in academia, where there is a lack of diversity amongst senior leaders and an under-representation of historically excluded people progressing within the sector. When we disaggregate the data, we see that people of colour, and those specifically from a Black background are particularly disadvantaged, and this flows along the whole of the educational pipeline. At school-level, students of Black Caribbean heritage are excluded in English local authorities schools up to six times more than their White peers1;  there are degree awarding gaps at undergraduate level – students from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds at UK universities are less likely than their White counterparts to graduate from undergraduate programmes with a first or upper second-class degree, with the largest gap (23.4 per cent) between Black and White groups2; there are proportionally fewer numbers of Black people at postgraduate and professorial levels, and Black researchers have lower success rates with funding councils and granting agencies.3,4

Many of these issues were highlighted last year by the Black Lives Matter movement. And we took the recognition of structural inequalities and racism reflected in these stark contrasts, as the starting point for our thinking.

As an organisation, we are focussed on creating genomic knowledge from research, and supporting learning, training and engagement around this knowledge that will ultimately deliver benefits for all of society. But our work also needs to acknowledge that not everyone in society is currently able to benefit on an equal footing. So, we are exploring how we can address structural barriers to participation, and promote and amplify Black and other BAME voices as a response to the specific inequalities present in the UK.

In October 2020 we conducted our first ever ethnicity pay gap survey across organisation, including both the Wellcome Sanger Institute and Wellcome Connecting Science. Our work is informed and shaped by data, so this seemed a natural touchpoint to allow us to better understand our current position. Our colleagues were invited to complete the survey and roughly a third of the organisation took part. Analysing the data, we found that the overall median ethnicity pay gap of those who responded was 0.6 per cent (the mean ethnicity pay gap was 5 per cent). This gap is small, so all must be well? Or, perhaps not.

Our recent staff survey, which for the first time included disaggregated analysis across different ethnic groups showed us clearly that there is more that we need to do to support our Black colleagues. And it is our collective responsibility to actively listen to the lived experiences of our colleagues, and take action when we see something that isn’t right. People of colour should not be expected to come up with the solutions to problems that they have not created. There are people within our organisation (and any organisation) who have power, and they must do the work to resolve the issues.

Moving towards actively combatting racism may not be a comfortable journey. It will require self-reflection and scrutinising our own actions and behaviours – what have I been oblivious to? Acknowledging that we may have looked the other way when we saw racism, or trivialised it to the person who was reaching out for help – “I’m sure they didn’t mean it in that way.”

But there are a range of positive actions we can take as an organisation, and as individuals, to move forward in this context. We will provide training to help build literacy and fluency around anti-racism principles; connect people through mentoring and sponsorship; amplify the voices of people of colour. Having a focussed plan doesn’t mean that we don’t care about other groups, but recognises that having a healthy, supportive and inclusive working environment is good for all of us. 

We commit to:

  • Taking an institutional-wide approach to anti-racism
  • Centring the lived experience of people of colour when implementing solutions
  • Sourcing appropriate expertise
  • Resourcing effectively to ensure meaningful and sustained change.

And with a specific focus on learning, training and engagement with genomics, Wellcome Connecting Science is committed to:

  • Actively seeking to ensure that our activities reach Black, and other BAME and marginalised groups in the UK.
  • Ensuring that our public facing activities include and reflect Black, and other minority voices, and audiences, while recognising the trauma and challenge that this may bring for some.
  • Ensure that our professional-facing activities acknowledge structural inequality in the UK, and actively include and promote the participation of both current, and the next generation, of Black and BAME healthcare and research professionals in training and learning activities.
  • Working collaboratively, to strive to make our activities with global communities inclusive, increase awareness and understanding of research inequality between the Global North and South, and address specific barriers to both participating in, and benefiting from, research.

There are a range of actions that sit with these commitments, from targeted interventions to reduce structural barriers to participation in specific career paths, and reviewing the language and imagery we use to communicate our work, to supporting our staff Race Equity Network, and mandatory staff training on diversity and inclusion.

Genomics is based on data and drawing evidence-based research conclusions. More widely in the organisation, we collect data so that we can analyse if the decisions and actions we take are fair and effective. But discrimination and racism will not be addressed just by gathering data, and we should not be stultified by the process of data collection. We need to humanise this data and remember that behind each data point there is a person. We also need to look at the intersections with gender, disability, socio-economics and other characteristics and be aware of varying experiences and the overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination.  We are not monolithic beings, but diverse, complex and unique.

The future is about being honest, humble and hopeful and recognising that we all have a role to play in making sure that we foster an inclusive culture where everyone can thrive and diversity is genuinely celebrated.


References

  1. The Guardian, 2021
  2. HESA data
  3. The Guardian, February 2020
  4. UKRI Detailed ethnicity analysis of funding applicants and awardees

Find out more

Equality in Science at the Sanger Institute and Connecting Science