UKRI job advert: conspiracy or cock-up?

Dame Athene Donald on how the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy had to reissue a job advert for UKRI board members

February 6, 2017

Inclusivity seems something of a current buzzword. When UK prime minister Theresa May came to office she stated clearly in her first speech that “we won’t entrench the advantages of the fortunate few”. One of her immediate actions was to call for an audit to tackle public sector racial disparities.

One would hope this means that diversity and inclusivity matters to her across the board (even if her attitude towards migrants and international students means this attitude does not extend to those born beyond these shores).

In order to fulfil such a goal, it is vital that for all public sector appointments there is a strong, diverse pool of applicants and that they are subsequently scrutinised fairly. One key set of appointments about to be made within the higher education and accompanying research and innovation sector is the board of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI)  to work with the CEO, newly named this week as Sir Mark Walport, currently the government chief scientific adviser.

The advertisement calling for board members came out a few weeks ago, with a stated closing date of 17 February.

I feel strongly that diversity in all senses matters if the panel overall is to perform and deliver effectively. This means diversity in gender and ethnicity, among the other protected characteristics, as well as diversity in employment sector, in geographical location and of course discipline. All need to be taken into account. It will be a challenge to make sure an appropriate board composition is achieved, factoring in this broad range of attributes when decisions are taken.

That said, I know I was far from alone in reading with dismay the advertisement that appeared in January on the government web pages in which any reference to the first set of “diversity” factors was singularly absent. Although diversity of sector was referred to, there was nothing referring to the protected characteristics at all. In general one may get bored by reading the boiler plate phrases about a particular employer welcoming applications from minorities of different sorts, but the absence of such remarks makes it look as if they couldn’t care less. A very bad message to give.

Where is the watchdog to ensure this is got right, or at least to keep an eye on things? For the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), which has oversight of UKRI, the onus to ensure this happens falls on the Diversity Steering Committee. This was a group set up by (Lord) David Willetts  during his time as minister of state for science and universities and which was enthusiastically continued by Jo Johnson, his successor.

There appears to be no reference to this group on government websites that I can find, but I know it exists because I am a member of it. Initially set up explicitly to consider ensuring diversity in public sector appointments within the BEIS remit, its brief has broadened under Jo Johnson to consider wider potential actions.

At our most recent meeting 10 days ago the issue of the UKRI board advertisement was raised. The absence of any reference to diversity in the advertisement was highlighted, as was the somewhat “macho” language used in the person specification. Some folk may actively drive, speak authoritatively and head off in pursuit of their mission – as apparently explicitly required by the person specification that appeared – but it isn’t necessarily a vocabulary everyone is likely to use.

Indeed, many people, men and women, may not be comfortable with thinking of themselves in those robust phrases. I know of some very senior women from the top echelons of Russell Group universities who told me they looked at the advertisement and decided it “wasn’t for them” because of the language in which the advertisement was couched and its whole tenor. That, to my mind, meant that it had failed on a crucial front.

But if you feel something is unreasonable then you have a responsibility to do something about it. Consequently, some of us followed up with BEIS, including with current UKRI chair Sir John Kingman and director general Gareth Davies.

The message we gave was heard loud and clear; action has been taken. I am delighted that BEIS collectively responded so immediately and positively to turn around what was clearly an inadvertent subliminal message. The new advertisement is out, replacing the old but on the same url so comparisons can no longer be made. The tone is somewhat different. Some of the phrases in the detailed specifications that I felt were particularly unwelcoming have vanished.

Now, it is up to the wider community to get their applications in before the revised closing date of 31 March. Note this means a six-week extension from the original closing date. This extended window should facilitate a diverse pool applying since “not the usual suspects” have longer to prepare their cases. I believe it is also significant since it conveys that the decisions are not in essence pre-made – which might suggest an inner circle was being implicitly tapped on the shoulder – or being rushed through.

All credit to BEIS for not dragging its feet, not trying to say it was all too difficult to change. I think the community should be reassured that, a snafu having happened, no time was wasted in rectifying the situation. I would like to think this bodes well for the future of UKRI, something so crucial to the future of research and innovation within the UK.

Dame Athene Donald is professor of experimental physics at the University of Cambridge, and master of Churchill College, Cambridge. This post originally appeared on her blog.

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