All-male fellowship round was fair, insists UK research funder

Natural Environment Research Council defends decision to award fellowships entirely to men in 2019, but will review diversity processes

September 30, 2020
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A UK research council has defended its grant-making decisions as “fair” after it was criticised for awarding all its independent fellowships to men last year.

The Natural Research Environment Council (NERC) faced strong condemnation after it emerged that all 11 academics awarded a five-year independent research fellowship (IRF) in 2019 were male.

The revelation was made by Stuart Auld, lecturer in biological and environmental sciences at the University of Stirling, who also observed that three of successful candidates had the forename of David.

“In 2019, NERC felt there were more fundable Davids than there were fundable women,” said Dr Auld, who described the figures as “deeply, deeply concerning”.

However, in an open letter posted on NERC’s website, Susan Waldron, its director for research and skills, says that last year’s all-male round of fellowships did not reflect the council’s decision-making regarding diversity.

Four women invited to interview for the fellowship scheme did not attend, while two women were offered fellowships on the 2019 call but declined to take them up, explains Professor Waldron, who nonetheless acknowledged the “concern [that] has been raised that only candidates identifying as male” were awarded independent fellowships.

“In considering the diversity of the IRF community, it is important to distinguish between the award profile and the acceptance profile,” says Professor Waldron.

Professor Waldron also draws attention to the “inter-annual variability” of the male-female success rate for the fellowship scheme, noting that, over the past seven years, there was “no obvious bias in favour of applicants identifying as male or female”.

According to a graph presented by Professor Waldron, female applicants to NERC’s fellowship had a higher success rate than male applicants in four of the past seven years.

While Professor Waldron insists that the “evidence shows the selection process to be a fair one”, she adds that there “remains the concern that there may be features of our fellowships that are influencing the decisions of female candidates, and we are taking up that discussion first with our boards and committees…to understand this better”.

Given NERC’s desire for a “competitive but fair research and innovation system, and one which supports diversity in our grant-holder profile”, the research council intends to “establish a trusted evidence base from which we can identify and correct any inequitable processes in our funding streams,” says Professor Waldron.

She adds that the council’s boards and committees will review recent findings into diversity later this year and “offer advice on process change if required” with the aim of “ensuring our equality, diversity and inclusion considerations represent best practice”.

jack.grove@timeshigheducation.com

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Reader's comments (2)

True equality will sometimes present such a result... would Dr Auld have complained if all the fellowships went to women?
stirring the pot

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