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To improve research culture, funders must challenge fixed notions of academic excellence

  • 19 September 2019
  • By Ben Bleasdale

This is a guest blog kindly contributed by Dr Ben Bleasdale, Policy & Advocacy Adviser at the Wellcome Trust

As an independent research funder, Wellcome improves health by helping great ideas to thrive. But in an academic system where 22.5% of Biosciences Masters students come from black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds, but only 4.4% of Professors do, we are failing our mission and those we seek to help.

In today’s HEPI report The white elephant in the room, the authors reflect on the ingrained racism present across the academic system, and the responsibility on funders, institutions and individuals to act. This is a culture which is mistaking “exclusivity for excellence”, in the words of the report’s co-author Professor Margot Finn.

This same week, Leading Routes have published their report (“The Broken Pipeline”), examining barriers to black PhD students accessing UK Research Council funding. They call for funders to depart from “fixed notions of academic excellence” which are imposing a strict idea of conformity and dictating access to funding. When people feel research isn’t for them, or leave research careers because of barriers they may face, great ideas are lost.

Last week, our Director Jeremy Farrar acknowledged Wellcome’s role in perpetuating that narrow definition of excellence, and the stifling effect it is having. He committed Wellcome to rethinking our approach to research culture, making sure that all our actions contribute towards a culture that is creative, honest and inclusive. A culture in which research is open to anyone with a great idea.

As Professor Kalwant Bhopal clearly illustrates, money speaks. When the UK’s National Institute for Health Research made Athena SWAN awards a mandatory criteria for funding, applications to the gender equality Charter increased 400%. Funding research comes with responsibility, and organisations such as Wellcome must use our grants and eligibility criteria to incentivise change across the system.

In the report, Professor Bhopal calls for a similar commitment from funders to the Race Equality Charter. Requirements of this sort send an unambiguous and effective signal. However, requirements only set a minimum threshold for what is acceptable. We feel that tools such as these are most effective alongside incentives which reward original contributions towards research culture, and dedicated support to help individuals and institutions be at their best.

Learning from a parallel example, Wellcome has set out a zero-tolerance stance on bullying and harassment and shown that we are prepared to hold our grant awardees to this fundamental expectation. However, we know that there also needs to be more support and recognition for great leadership and peer support, so that the culture is aspirational rather than just adequate.

As we “Reimagine Research”, Wellcome is committed to working with the research community to understand how our activities could promote a better culture. This won’t be another case of tokenism, it represents a permanent change that will put research culture considerations at the heart of every decision we make as a funder.

To start, we want to support a conversation and build a body of evidence that cannot be ignored. We urge you to complete the survey we’re using to collect the perspectives of those who conduct, support, or have recently left research. We’ll publish this anonymised data to help inform the actions of others, and use the findings to develop ambitious goals that describe the culture we all want to see. These goals will allow us to be held accountable for our decisions, and we will encourage other funders to join us.

Tackling racial inequalities will be at the heart of this cultural shift. Wellcome has already made diversity and inclusion one of our first priority areas, and relaunched our Biomedical Vacation Scholarships with an explicit ask that institutions offer these to underrepresented groups. But we are under no illusions about how much more needs to change, and the fact that there are no quick fixes. Creating an inclusive culture will need long-term commitment to changes, big and small.

Our survey offers the first chance to shape how Wellcome approaches the challenges ahead, and we’d welcome your support in sharing it. Those who have seen the worst of research culture are often the most disenfranchised, and Wellcome will be investing the time and energy needed to start rebuilding trust with individuals who feel most distant from us. We know that trust will stem from us living up to our words, so that is where we’ll start.

At its best, a career in research is inspiring, fun and rewarding. That opportunity should be open to everyone, yet the current culture of research is taking an unacceptable toll on individuals. Today’s report makes clear that this toll falls unevenly. If Wellcome allows racial inequality to be accepted as the norm, then we’ve failed in our responsibilities.

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