Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in Science and Health Research

Article by Ross Johnson

  "Photograph: Women In Tech" by WOCinTech Chat. CC BY 2.0

A new network has been launched this week that aims to make diversity, inclusion, and equality a top priority in research organisations.

Launched by The Francis Crick Institute, Wellcome and GSK, the network has been set up to ensure inclusivity becomes the default in UK science. As Lauren Couch, the Diversity Development Lead at Wellcome, remarked, “Research excellence is driven by a diversity of ideas. By actively promoting a culture of inclusion, respect and equal treatment we can accelerate innovation.”

The inaugural symposium of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in Science and Health Research (EDIS), held on Tuesday in London, brought together over 250 world leaders from across UK science and research. After a keynote talk from Silicon Valley entrepreneur and theoretical neuroscientist Dr Vivienne Ming, sessions included ‘Unleashing the Potential of a Diverse Workforce’ and ‘Understanding Unconscious Bias’. The need to cover such topics as these remains pronounced—while 13,000 more women were working in Core STEM occupations in 2016 against the previous year, the proportion of the workforce made up by women decreased from 22% to 21%. More worryingly, in terms of the STEM pipeline, students taking these subjects after the age of 16 still fall into the same ethnic and social groups that they did 20 years ago.

It is against the backdrop of such figures that Wellcome have seen the need to set diversity, inclusion and equality as top priorities, in a bid to reverse the trend that remains evident, with the launch of EDIS. “We want every great idea that could improve health to thrive. But we miss out when people feel science isn’t for them, or leave research careers because of barriers they face. We’re committed to removing those barriers and making science and health research open to anyone with a great idea.”
Couch continues, “As well as a strong commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion in principle, we need a more robust evidence base to inform how best to tackle barriers in practice. We hope the EDIS network can play a role here.”

It is this lack of an evidence base that is most surprising across UK science and research. Despite the case for the benefit of diversity within UK science, recently established by the University of Sheffield in a report which highlights the “positive relationship between a diverse and inclusive health research community, and the qualities and impacts of the research they undertake”, the same report points out a lack of similar research. Whilst there is a general lack worldwide, even less UK specific research has been undertaken to understand the barriers that prevent equality, diversity, and inclusivity. Besides this, most studies take only individual parts of the health system. There are only a few examples of more holistic, systems-based or longitudinal approaches which examine how elements interplay to create disadvantage.

It is the lack of research that remains, perhaps surprisingly and ironically, the first challenge the EDIS must tackle. The microscope must be turned upon themselves, across UK science and research, to understand the barriers which prevent diversity, equality, and inclusion from making serious progress, to the point of retrogression.