No black applicants for some Royal Society grants for three years

Analysis highlights ‘unacceptable’ disparities in racial representation in UK science

March 25, 2021
Recruiting more Black PhD students
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There were no black British applicants to two of the Royal Society’s prestigious early career fellowship programmes for three years, according to research that raises wider concerns about the representation of ethnic minorities in UK science.

The Royal Society analysed the profiles of those applying for its grants and the pool of researchers eligible to apply for them, highlighting the lack of representation of ethnic minorities in academia, particularly for those who identify as black. The report looked at the Royal Society’s early career fellowship programmes: its University Research Fellowship (URF), Sir Henry Dale Fellowship (SHDF) and Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship (DHF).

Using data from the Higher Education Statistics Authority, there was a potential pool of 13,405 eligible postdoctoral researchers for the programmes, but only 2 per cent of those were from a black background and 29 per cent were from any ethnic minority.  

Of the 5,070 eligible researchers who were UK nationals, just 1 per cent were from black backgrounds, 7.5 per cent were from Asian backgrounds and, overall, 12 per cent were from any ethnic minority background.

Among those who actually applied for these grants, inequality was even more stark. Between 2018 and 2020, there were no black British applicants to the URF or DHF schemes. Ninety per cent of British applicants to the URF scheme and 87.7 per cent to the DHF scheme were white.

Over this period, 1 per cent of URF applicants of all nationalities were black. 

Another report commissioned by the society and published at the same time examines the disparities among different ethnicities in UK science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) higher education across a 10-year period.

This shows that in 2018-19 only 1.7 per cent of STEM staff were black, compared with 13.2 per cent who were Asian.

The report, which also used Hesa data, shows that while the percentage of Asian staff in STEM had grown from 9.4 per cent in 2007-08, the proportion of black staff had only increased by 0.4 percentage points, from 1.3 per cent.

The data also show that there was a big drop-off from postgraduate study, where 7.1 per cent of entrants were black and 11.9 per cent were Asian.

The report highlights problems facing ethnic minorities throughout the academic pipeline: while there has been improvement in the representation of students who identify as black, they are still much less likely to leave with a first-class degree and more likely to drop out.

In 2018-19, 35.7 per cent of white students on STEM courses graduated with first-class honours, compared with 17.9 per cent of black students. Black students were much more likely to leave with a third: 9.5 per cent of black students, compared with 3.2 per cent of white students.

Mark Richards, a senior lecturer at Imperial College London and a member of the Royal Society’s diversity committee, said that there were “clear messages in the data that cannot be ignored” about the problems in UK STEM, including the diminishing value of using the term black and minority ethnic (BAME) to discuss diversity in higher education.

He said that more clarity about career progression, particularly from the postdoctoral stage, was needed to ensure that black students feel an academic career in STEM is for them.

“The pipeline can be so opaque [that] people may feel it is too much of a risk for them and instead move out of academia into industry, for example,” he said.

Sir Adrian Smith, president of the Royal Society, said that the findings were “unacceptable”.

He said the society plans to work with institutions to encourage a broader range of talented candidates to apply for funding.

Sir Adrian said that the society had “historically not paid enough attention to this issue as we should have done”.

“We have a problem, we hold our hands up…we must try and get to grips with this. The starting point is to get the evidence, [and] get the data, and that’s why these reports are fundamentally important as a start.”

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

Another article that rightly ignores those discredited, pseudo-scientific theories about race and IQ. Well done.

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