Queen Mary University of London Research HubWho’s asking the question? Why inclusion and research quality go hand in hand

Who’s asking the question? Why inclusion and research quality go hand in hand

Who’s asking the question? Why inclusion and research quality go hand in hand

By Professor Andrew Livingston, VP Research and Innovation, Queen Mary University of London

Rainer Maria Rilke famously urged us to “live the questions now”. This commitment to curiosity lies at the heart of all intellectual pursuit within higher education institutions.

But when research teams look and sound the same, there’s a risk of overlooking certain perspectives, which can jeopardise that pursuit. Considering how diverse points of view might transform lines of academic enquiry is essential to a culture of research excellence and innovation.

At Queen Mary University of London, we’ve committed to being the most inclusive university of our kind, anywhere by 2030. From being the top UK university for social mobility, to winning the first-ever platinum award for public engagement, we’re challenging ourselves to put diversity and inclusion at the heart of everything we do.

More broadly in academia, however, there is a misperception that diversity is a double-edged sword in research environments in terms of process gains and losses. That hasn’t been our experience.

Our commitment to inclusivity has only accelerated and augmented our research capabilities. We’re doing more innovative work than ever; and in this year’s Research Excellence Framework (REF) results, we were ranked 7th in the UK for the quality of our output.

To turn the tide in higher education institutions more broadly, we must think more about the role diverse perspectives play in world-leading research.

We must recognise that diversity and excellence are intertwined and that understanding difference can deliver life-changing impact for communities across the world. We should also acknowledge the importance of a university’s broader social impact and the role that this can play in producing a culture of research excellence and innovation.

Diversity boosts research quality

“Diversity drives innovation – when we limit who can contribute, we limit what problems we can solve.” Telle Whitney, President of the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology, couldn’t have put it better.

Diversity should be more than a tick-box exercise or a target for universities to hit. It should be seen as central to academic research and advancing human progress.

Some commentators believe that diversity is in conflict with research excellence, undermining the idea of meritocracy. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Inclusion drives team innovation and productivity, with ethnically diverse teams 35% more likely to outperform homogenous groups (McKinsey). This is reinforced by a 2021 study from the Columbia Law Review, which puts forward a performance-related argument for inclusive institutions, backed up by data showing that they produce better academic results.

The evidence is overwhelming: inclusive institutions are more likely to produce research excellence. Diverse perspectives lead to more stimulating and balanced debate, better intellectual and cultural engagement, as well as higher levels of self-motivation among academic researchers.

Universities should ensure that an emphasis on diversity and inclusion is embedded throughout the research and innovation lifecycle. As well as looking at the make-up of their academic staff, they should take steps to ensure that every academic has a voice at the table and that the process of celebrating and rewarding success is free from bias and discrimination.

Understanding difference saves lives

Failure to consider diverse perspectives and lived experiences doesn’t just limit the quality of an institution’s research. It has real-life consequences.

In medicine, we know that heart disease presents differently in men and women, with females 60% more likely to be misdiagnosed. There is also a well-documented racial bias in pain thresholds informing treatment recommendations, which is supported by false beliefs among medical professionals that there are biological differences between how black and white people experience pain.

There are also ethnic disparities in health data sets, with many larger studies of genetic variation primarily involving people of white European origin. This has led to inaccurate cardiovascular and diabetes risk estimates for underrepresented groups, especially Bangladeshi and Pakistani people.

That’s why we’ve launched the Genes and Health project, a long-term study of 100,000 volunteers in East London and Bradford. This will enhance our understanding of how genes influence disease and improve the health of South Asian communities across the UK and internationally.

Social justice and the role of the university

Embedding diversity and inclusion within a university should lead to a focus on community impact more broadly.

As repositories of knowledge and environments that foster intelligent, disruptive thinking, universities have traditionally led the charge in driving social change.

There are powerful benefits for institutions in doing so. Engagement with the surrounding community can contribute to a culture of research innovation. Building networks with political and business leaders can encourage researchers to look outward and consider the real-world application of their work, while the visibility of local issues can act as a powerful source of inspiration for academic staff.

At Queen Mary, we are heavily involved in the local East London community. We’re particularly proud of Project Phakama (which means “rise up, elevate and empower yourself”), which uses applied performance and drama to provide opportunities for young creatives to express, challenges and inform themselves through performance.

This has resulted in projects such as Ten In A Bed, a collaboration between Phakama, Queen Mary’s Drama department, East End Homes, Discover Children’s Story Centre and local families. It engages directly with people from disadvantaged backgrounds to improve literacy and family learning opportunities through applied theatre, using their input to create a final performance piece.

Initiatives such as these have contributed to our drama department being named as the best in the country in REF 2021, demonstrating how community engagement and a focus on inclusion and social mobility can feed into academic quality.

It’s the right thing to do

Universities exist for two primary reasons: to teach and to help build a better society.

If they fail to prioritise diversity and inclusion, then it’s impossible to produce research and innovation that can transform communities and change lives.

And there are powerful institutional benefits to unlock in the form of energised academic staff and a culture of innovation – one that’s capable of producing reputational and commercial value.

Simply put, prioritising diversity and inclusion isn’t just the right thing to do. It makes sense for any higher education institution.

You can find out more about our focus on diversity and inclusion and our work in the East London community in our 2030 strategy. And follow our Times Higher Education content series to find out more about how our research is delivering impact and powering progress to a better world.

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