Research Culture, Fairness and Transparency

A week after the Science and University Ministers announced with respect to chartermarks such as Athena Swan

“We have therefore asked the OfS, UKRI and NIHR to ensure that they place no weight upon the presence or absence of such markers or scheme memberships in any of their regulatory or funding activities”

as I discussed in my last blogpost, there seems uncertainty what that means in practice. Research Professional quoted a UKRI spokesperson as saying

“UKRI has made clear that embedding equality, diversity and inclusion in all our processes is critical to supporting our commitments to address barriers and inequalities, and drive transparency and accountability…. In that context, UKRI will continue to utilise recognition awards where they contribute to the achievement of our aims.”

Does that mean they will give a toss about Athena Swan awards, the Race Equality Chartermark and other sector kitemarks? I have no idea.

The Athena Swan process in its recent form undoubtedly needs substantive change and it would appear that the reforms the Athena Swan Review Group recommended are being implemented, after an initially rather lukewarm response from AdvanceHE. The Review Group (of which I was a member) published an open letter this week, in response to the ministers’ announcements, stating

“Our report was published in March this year. It included 41 recommendations which together we believe would deliver a streamlined application system, a robust and transparent assessment process and an effective mode of governance. …. Initially, there were warm words of welcome from Advance HE but it soon became evident there was no real appetite to drive the change needed. We have continued to make our case behind the scenes and we now have greater confidence that the process of implementation is about to begin…..Is it too late? Does Athena SWAN no longer have a place or a value? We sincerely hope not. The pandemic has shone a cruel light on gender equality across the sector, as it has on other equality, diversity and inclusion matters. It is women who have borne the brunt of lockdown and the additional burdens it has brought of caring and domestic chores; not surprisingly, the impact on academic outcomes is already being felt. So let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

Meanwhile UKRI is also exploring the need for real cultural change in our universities through the medium of a blogpost from Ottoline Leyser, the rather new CEO. I have known Ottoline for some years both as a fellow professor in Cambridge and around diversity work: for instance, she took over from me as Chair of the Athena Forum back in 2013. I know she is a passionate believer in equality and wants to see a research culture that is supportive not toxic. Her appointment should mean UKRI can act decisively to improve the working environment for all, and reconsider what is rewarded – and encourage universities to do the same. As she puts it in her blogpost

“‘A central question for the community then is how to create a system that values difference? What does this really mean for our day to day interactions, and what does it mean for our definitions of excellence?”

But, so far, she gives no hint of how she would answer the question. It is reasonable that she wants to carry the community with her, but I hope she will soon be setting out what concrete steps she believes need to be taken by UKRI itself, even if set out as a consultation. There is no doubt that currently UKRI itself is seen as part of the problem in the landscape. For instance, I know how long it took those who were challenging UKRI to release detailed breakdowns of grant funding by different characteristics to get any movement, and how the challenge was taken to the Science and Technology Select Committee in an attempt to get hold of the data. When the figures were finally released this summer, they did not make for pretty reading on various fronts, with the headline figures demonstrating

“The median award value for female awardees is approximately 15% less than the median award values of males (£336,000 vs £395,000). Similarly, the median award value for ethnic minority awardees is approximately 8% less than that of white awardees (£353,000 vs. £383,000).”

I am sure that Jennifer Rubin, as their Executive Champion for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion and Karen Salt, who is deputy chair of the ED+I Committee, will be working hard to see how things can be improved.

Yet my Twitter feed tells me there are ongoing problems, not least with regard to transparency and equality, and ones that Ottoline did not address in her blog. In what follows I can only base my reflections on what others have written and not first-hand knowledge of the specific situation. The challenge that I am seeing comes from 10 black women who have written an open letter to UKRI concerning a call for funding relating to the impact of Covid on the BAME community. The letter states that none of the six awarded grants went to a team with a black academic lead, despite the relevance of the call to this community; and that

UKRI confirmed that no equality data was collected on this call; and that one member of the awards assessment panel is co-investigator on three of the six successfully awarded studies.”

They are calling for three specific short-term steps:

  1. Make transparent and public the panellists and selection criteria involved in forthcoming research call assessment
  2. Consistently collect equality data without exception
  3. Remove any panellist from the call assessment process if they are also associated with applications in that specific call.

These do indeed look fundamental and important. I would particularly like to pick up the last point, on which I have quite strong views. I have written before about the rigour of the ERC processes when it comes to making funding decisions. Ottoline will be very familiar with these, as she has served on their panels; I know having encountered her on one during one of my drop-in visits (as a Scientific Council Member) on panel meetings in Brussels. The rigour extends to the fact the referee pool is drawn from around the world and not, almost exclusively, from the relatively small and potential close-knit community of a single country, as UKRI panels often are. Furthermore, you may not serve on a panel and submit – or be involved with – a grant application to the same round. Thus, it would be impossible for a member of an awarding panel to be a co-investigator, as seems to have happened in this recent case highlighted in the open letter I mention.

UKRI will defend themselves, and probably already have done so, that the panel member would have been sent out of the room during any discussion of a grant in which they were involved. However, bias is a funny thing, in whatever unconscious way it appears, so let me tell a cautionary tale as to why I think that being out of the room as opposed to ‘being out of the call’, as the ERC put it and require, is inadequate.

This story derives from my time as a rather young researcher, serving on what was a committee of BBSRC’s predecessor AFRC (the Agriculture and Food Research Council). It will be seen therefore to have been a long time ago, but it stays in my mind because of the lessons to be learned. We had a firm and decisive chair, and a scientifically diverse committee because it was a wide-ranging committee (I was there covering food physics, but there was much that was fundamental biology and animal health). For one grant the applicant was a panel member who, of course, left the room. It was not a well-written grant and the raw scores would have seen it fall well below the cut-off. At which point the chair, a friend and I suspect collaborator of the PI, said something along the lines of

“well, we all know that Dr X will do a good job, and what they meant to write so we should bump the scores up.”

This was a shocking comment, and I’d like to think there was a stunned silence although I don’t recall. You cannot rewrite one person’s grant because you know and approve of them, and judge everyone else’s simply on what is on the paper in front of you. The chair, on this occasion, was stepping right out of line – and was called out on it (not, I’m afraid to say, by me; I felt far too junior to do such a thing at the time). Did the chair know how biased they were being? I have no idea.

The key point is, because the panellist was well known to us all and was a good panellist, there was a real danger that that approval-as-panellist or as colleague could have overwhelmed the objective rating. It is hard to avoid being biased. It is hard enough, within the UK community, not to know many of the people applying and being swayed by how you’ve interacted in the past – for good or ill – which is why I believe UKRI should be using a much broader range of panellists and referees from all round the world (possibly easier in the current zoom-driven world), just as the ERC does. But, discussions of conflicts-of-interest need to be taken very seriously and need to be declared. It may be hard to say that you once had a furious argument that has never been resolved with the PI whose grant you’ve just been sent to referee, but it is nonsense to say you can’t judge someone from your university whom you’ve never meet, but can judge a grant from someone who you have a close professional relationship with elsewhere (even if not formally a collaboration). And there should be no opportunity to serve on a panel to which you are submitting grants, either as PI or co-I. Such a conflict of interest should mean you are instantly removed from serving on the assessment panel.

I hope as Ottoline moves to set UKRI on the path to facilitating a better culture for all researchers, she will be able to oversee a transition to greater transparency and fairness, including addressing the concerns of the black women who have written to her.


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