Raising Expectations: Funders Get Tough(ish)

About 18 months ago, Dame Sally Davies, the Government’s Chief Medical Officer, unilaterally raised the bar for Medical Schools wanting to apply to future rounds of funding through the Biomedical Research Centre scheme, demanding (in essence) that they obtain an Athena Swan Silver Award if they wanted their future applications to be successful. Since then, various – possibly many – people including myself,  have been talking to key individuals in the Research Councils and trying to put pressure on funders generally, asking them to stipulate that funding will only follow good practice on the Equality and Diversity front (see, for instance, the letter Angela McLean, Paul Harvey and I published in Nature in the autumn of 2011). At the time of Sally Davies’ announcement I wrote a blogpost openly calling for other funders to ‘get tough’. Now there is some movement in the right direction.

Last week RCUK  put out a statement laying out their own explicit expectations for Equality and Diversity. This is a statement covering the work of all 7 UK Research Councils and so it covers funding across all academic fields. For this reason, it is impossible to set a categorical requirement of something as specific as an Athena Swan award: to date these particular awards only cover STEM departments, although the scheme’s ‘owners’, the Equality Challenge Unit, are piloting an extension to cover Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.  This pilot project is ongoing so, as yet, an equivalent award to Athena Swan in non-STEM subjects does not exist and RCUK could not use this as a basis for ‘accreditation’ across all research councils even if they wanted to.

However, formal accreditation would have its drawbacks, a point made very clear at a consultation event organised by RCUK that I attended in the autumn.  For instance, supposing a really bright early career female researcher wants to apply to hold a fellowship in a department with a lousy E+D record simply because the science is first-rate, should they be prevented because the department doesn’t hold some explicit accreditation? If this were the case, the individual would be disadvantaged because of a department’s failing. Furthermore, the most obvious benchmarking, that of Athena Swan, is really concerned with gender and not the other diversity aspects. So, a department could be good around gender but never have considered the position for BME’s (black or minority ethnic if you don’t know the jargon) for instance, or transgender applicants. So, the RCUK statement simply names participation in Athena Swan (as well as involvement with other similar schemes such as Stonewall) as something that would provide solid evidence that an organisation is adopting good practice around diversity, but such participation is not (as with the Department of Health) an absolute requirement.

Is this sufficient? Time will tell whether this statement makes any difference or has any teeth in reality. The punchline is to be found in the final three bullet points of the statement, in which it says:

RCUK will

  • review the overall effectiveness of the approach at a Departmental / Institutional level through its Audit and Assurance Programme
  • discuss equality and diversity at Institutional visits
  • reserve the right to introduce more formal accreditation requirements for grant funding should significant improvement not be evidenced.

So, the question will remain open for some time to come as to what action RCUK might actually take if they are not satisfied that a department or institution is doing sufficient, and whether ultimately funding will be put at risk for such an organisation. The statement is a step in the right direction, but only if organisations really believe that sanctions are just around the corner and that it is in their own self-interest to get their act together and do something concrete to improve the working environment for everyone are women/minorities likely really to feel the benefit.

Of course, even without the threat of funding being cut off, it should be manifest that it really is in an organisation’s best interests to broaden the diversity of its workplace. Losing talent carelessly by excluding minorities, be they what they may, is stupid. Self-interest, as well as the moral high ground, undoubtedly ought to come into play when trying to find the best individuals to fill any role, not just looking for a clone of the person who filled that post before. I hope this message is filtering through the corridors of academic power. I can at least feel a little smug that personally I am part of an organisation that is well aware of the importance of sorting itself out on the E+D front, and is making good strides. For instance, it is heartening to see that the University of Cambridge has maintained its position as 11th in the 2013 Stonewall Workplace Equality Index just released, remaining the highest placed HEI in the index.

The RCUK statement has a further impact that perhaps as a scientist I am only just beginning to appreciate. Because the number of women in the sciences is so obviously dismal, particularly in subjects like my own of physics or in engineering, significant effort and attention has been applied to the problem for some years. Not so in the Arts and Humanities. The numbers of female undergraduates may be equal to or exceed the numbers of males, but the percentage of women in the higher reaches of academia are little better than in the sciences. Furthermore, the atmosphere in Philosophy, for instance, is obviously pretty toxic according to the Report prepared jointly by the British Philosophical Association and the Society of Women in Philosophy UK last year which I discussed in an earlier post. In the absence of an Athena Swan lookalike for such subjects, the RCUK statement may be particularly important in focussing the minds of non-STEM colleagues. I will be watching this space with great interest.


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3 Responses to Raising Expectations: Funders Get Tough(ish)

  1. Disabled Officer says:

    Sadly RCUK’s statement is mostly meaningless. They’ve said exactly the same thing in the grant terms and conditions for years now – because they legally must do so – and then refuse to enforce it when there are serious and easily provable accusations of discrimination against named grant holders and PI’s, considering it “inappropriate” to investigate or consider the complaints. The scheme’s they refer to, like Athena prove the point, all of which are designed to offer awards for doing far less than the Equality Act (2010) require, with Athena asking for universities to think about complying with the Act (in relation to gender) to get a Bronze Award, make some progress to get a Silver Award, and mostly comply to get a Gold. They also offer far less – i.e. practically nothing – for disabled people, even though they are arguably the most important group to get it right for, simply because in many cases their rights and opportunities are effectively defined by the actions of the related academic communities. Of course, actually including disabled people would be inconvienient for the interests of the senior researchers in those related fields.

    Unfortunately, this is another rehash of the Academy pretending to comply with Equality Legislation, whilst doing the opposite. Concrete steps, such as exact quotas, the dismissal of academics who don’t comply through a fair, just and equitable complaints proceedures, and purely statistical measures that are extremely difficult for HEI’s to avoid. In practise, they have been going in the opposite directions, for instance with EPSRC implementing sweeping and damaging reforms without even conducting an legitimate Equality Impact Assessment (this being replaced by a document that laconically states that they believe that they won’t have positive or negative impact on equality and nothing else), and it can only be imagined what the impact of the wider consolidation agenda will be. What is vaunted as an exercise in Equality is instead a simple exercise of minimising the risk of litigation, including judicial review, against the reforms and the current model of funding.

  2. BB says:

    Having just received some reviewer responses to a grant proposal (some of which raise the question of whether credit for the science in the proposal and my track record should be mine or if I was a lucky lieutenant) I am wondering what the funding agencies do to compensate for unconscious bias against female grant applicants?

    I do hope they have their own house in order while rolling out this kind of (much needed imho) policy.

  3. LL says:

    I agree and sympathise with BB. My recent experience has been similar. Had an application for a Dorothy Hodgkin fellowship turned down despite ‘strong research proposal, strong track record and appropriate host institution”… fair enough… that’s life in science… but when the only two negative comments were “not clear how much of this is the applicants own idea” i.e. we don’t think you could have come up with this yourself, and “the applicant has made no attempt to move institution”, I was tearing my hair out.

    The perception that we cannot be independent and generate our own ideas unless we are geographically distanced from our previous supervisors, and that the credit for our previous success probably lies with our bosses anyway drives me mad. I also find that it doesn’t matter how much your bosses and referees defend you against this in reference letters.. or even how disparate you and your bosses areas of expertise and research proposals are…

    The mobility issue is particularly frustrating and continues to be a disproportionate problem for many of the female post docs that I know. That a grant scheme specifically targeted at women (and men) with caring responsibilities and need for flexibility would penalise a woman with young children for a lack of mobility (despite agreeing that her current institution seemed appropriate for the work!) seems capricious. I understand that in order to gain a broad experience of your field and to be exposed to different ideas, moving institution used to be very valuable… but to consider it a prerequisite in the training of a scientist these days seems just silly. There are many ways of broadening your experience.. I have chosen to do so through collaborative projects with scientists in a wide range of fields, and in a wide range of locations… but thanks to the wonders of air travel, Skype, email and the fact that my own institution can provide access to pretty much all the expertise, techniques and equipment you can imagine, I have never needed to actually move my entire family to get my work done!

    For as long as we are assessed according to the old-fashioned notions of what makes a good scientist such as “someone who has moved around to gain experience”, “someone who works independently, rather than participate in collaborative projects”, women will be disadvantaged.

    While I welcome the attempts by RCUK to push for stronger equality and diversity policies by the institutions that they fund, and I note that they are certainly having some impact within my own department (along with the Athena Swan process) I do agree with BB that the reviewing and appointments processes upon which our work and careers depend need to be far more rigorously policed for signs of unconscious (and even conscious) bias. My lack of confidence that this is currently being tackled has even lead me to avoid mentioning my maternity leave during job applications… I just don’t trust the appointments panels not to be affected by it.

    Thanks as ever for the post Athene, and apologies for the possibly over personal nature of the reflections above. I hope you will continue to keep an eye on RCUK (and the Royal Society!!) and press them to turn their good intentions into actions.

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