Let’s get serious about tackling underrepresentation in research

Closing off research positions to the underprivileged is not just wrong – it prevents the world’s biggest problems being solved

Although policies aimed at widening participation mean more people now progress into university, the underrepresentation of people from disadvantaged groups within STEM in higher education – especially in research positions – remains a major issue that requires urgent attention.

A look at the figures shows that careers in academia, science and medicine remain effectively closed to those who do not already come from relatively affluent backgrounds. According to one Social Mobility Commission Labour Force Survey, just 10% of life science professionals, 15% of academics, and 6% of doctors come from working-class backgrounds.

There are large-scale implications of such underrepresentation that should worry us.

People who hold postgrad qualifications, especially at PhD level, are the experts of society. Their input is frequently sought in policy formation and policy development, which shape everything we value most, from our health and welfare to our data and the technology we use. It is the people entering postgraduate research today that will solve the future’s greatest problems and boost living standards.

The underrepresentation of particular groups within communities of expertise means their perspectives ultimately won’t be applied to important policy questions – resulting in poorer outcomes for those groups.

Tackling this problem requires addressing the structures in place that determine the accessibility of careers in academia and research. This means moving away from the language around particular groups being ‘hard to reach’, and instead scrutinising particular features of our current system that create barriers to entry for the underprivileged.

The most obvious place to start is by looking at how research careers are accessed and the opportunities on offer in the present landscape – and whether they present a viable option for people looking to begin research careers. To a large extent, it is clear that they do not. These opportunities are already hard to come by if you do not have friends and family working in the sector, and when they do come along, many are unpaid. So if you do not come from an affluent family background, you are not in a position to even consider applying for and taking up such roles.

These opportunities are already hard to come by if you do not have friends and family working in the sector, and when they do come along, many are unpaid

But there are also problems relating to the application processes that make entry so needlessly difficult. This is most readily apparent at PhD level, where in addition to being enormously complicated, the route to entry isn’t standardised across institutions. Unlike the undergraduate application process, there is no unified application service for people to navigate the opportunities on offer, help them know where to apply and how to boost their chances of success, and provide the platform to submit applications. This means that those from disadvantaged backgrounds – who tend to lack the social networks that can offer the right guidance and support – are again more likely to be left behind.

Even though these barriers emerge from deeply rooted structures, the solutions to breaking them are available. What’s really needed is the willingness of organisations – from higher education through to industry and government – to collaborate in order to implement them.

The natural starting point is funding – serious investment to create paid opportunities to access research experience and to make it a viable career path for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. No amount of institutional reform or diversity initiatives can actually open the doors into research careers if those opportunities are in short supply or unpaid. In addition to public funding, industry leaders in science and technology should leap at the opportunity to contribute towards this drive. They stand to gain as much, if not more, than everyone else from a bigger and more diverse pool of talent.

Then, the HE sector has to come together to create a universal set of processes for entry into PhD programmes. While high levels of specialisation at this level means that some differences in application requirements will always be necessary, many aspects can be standardised. The sector must collaborate in identifying those and putting them in place. Meanwhile, more needs to be done to ensure that guidance to navigate application processes are on offer to those aspiring to enter academia, as well as mentorship to help them achieve their potential once they do secure those roles.

It is clear that there is appetite for such reforms across higher education and industry. In2scienceUK has recently been able to launch a programme – In2research – designed to tackle precisely these issues, because of the support provided by partners such as UCL, Sainsbury Wellcome Centre, DeepMind, and Cancer Research UK. With their support, the programme offers talented entrants paid STEM research opportunities at top UK universities and research organisations. It also provides crucial wider support to candidates through mentorship schemes, workshops and away days, and networking opportunities.

But such opportunities need to become available on a much greater scale in order to truly boost representation across the board. And they need to be complemented with real reform to application and admissions processes.

All of us – HE institutions, government, industry and the third sector – need to up our game, and we need to do so together. This entails significant knowledge sharing on where current initiatives are falling short, which interventions are most likely to be successful, and how to implement them in a coherent and unified way. We need to get serious about tackling underrepresentation. If done properly, not only will we address inequalities in our society, but we will also boost the talent pool of the UK’s future research, innovation and industry leaders.

Dr Rebecca McKelvey is a neuroscientist and founder of higher education charity In2scienceUK and the In2research programme.

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