One of the world’s largest biomedical research charities is exploring introducing diversity requirements that institutions would have to meet in order for their researchers to secure funding.
The Wellcome Trust has made equality and inclusion one of its six priority areas and is hoping to change the culture in research that typically gives men an upper hand. It will invest £12.5 million over five years to establish a programme on the issue.
Kate Williams, deputy pro vice-chancellor for equality and diversity at the University of Leicester, described the move as a “hugely significant” one that could lead to other research funders following suit.
Wellcome will not be the first research funder to add stipulations on diversity to its grants. In 2011, the UK’s chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies, announced that university departments would not be eligible for Department of Health research funding unless they held a silver award in the Athena SWAN charter, which encourages gender equality in the sciences. The move was credited with driving a significant increase in Athena SWAN participation.
Research Councils UK has also previously mooted the idea of tying research council funding to membership of the Athena SWAN scheme.
Wellcome has not yet decided what diversity requirements it might attach to any future funding eligibility, but it will examine the options closely and explore the potential impacts of any new stipulations.
Lauren Couch, head of diversity and inclusion at the trust, said: “The degree of our influence is quite significant, and we really could make a difference if we prioritise it.”
Ms Couch added: “One of the key levers we can pull is through our grant funding.
“We have always been forward-thinking when it comes to flexibility in our grants…This new moment of [equality and inclusion] becoming a strategic priority for Wellcome is us being even more strategic than we were before.”
Ms Couch called the issue “critical” to the trust’s mission, arguing that “diversity of ideas from a diversity of people improves health for everyone”.
“If we are missing out on people who are dropping out of research careers because of the barriers that they face, or [they are] not even engaging with science in the first place because they don’t see it [as being] for them, then we are missing out on some incredible people,” she said.
Wellcome was one of the first funders to extend the number of years that junior academics remained eligible for early career funding, which might have previously disadvantaged women who took time out to have children.
Commenting on the plans, Leicester’s Dr Williams argued that Wellcome held significant sway because it was “so well respected and spans so many areas of work”.
“Somebody has to stand up and make the first move,” she said. “It is really important that it is Wellcome as it is such a prestigious funder. The idea would be that others would follow.”