Ethnic minority academics less likely to win research funding

New data released by UK Research and Innovation shows that ethnic minority and female academics are applying for grants in larger numbers than five years ago

Ethnic minority academics are less likely to win research funding than white academics, new comprehensive five-year data from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) has shown.

The organisation responsible for distributing an annual budget of more than £7 billion has published diversity data from all seven research councils covering the period from 2014/15 to 2018/19.

To better understand equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) issues within the research community, UKRI has collated data for applicants and awardees for grants, fellowships and PhD studentship. The new harmonised datasets contain detailed information about academics who have won funding from UKRI since 2014/15 and their age, sex, ethnicity and declared disabilities.

Ethnic minority academics

Although ethnic minority academics make up a greater proportion of applicants for funding than five years ago, they are still less likely to win funding than their white peers.

The number of ethnic minority candidates who have applied for funding as principal investigators (PIs), co-investigators (CIs) and fellows has increased. In 2018/19, ethnic minority academics made up 22% of CI applicants (up from 12%), 13% of PI applicants (up from 11%) and 17% of fellow applicants (up from 13%).

However, ethnic minority academics are still less likely to be awarded funding than their white peers. The figures show they are 4 percentage points (pp) less likely to win CI funding and 9 pp less likely to win PI funding – but ethnic minority applicants are 3 pp more likely to be awarded fellowship funding.

The increases are not reflected in every research council. For example, the Medical Research Council has seen its share of ethnic minority CIs double from 15% to 30%, whereas the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has seen a smaller increase of 4pp (from 13% to 17%) in the same five-year period.

Female academics

The same pattern of change is broadly true of female academics, who are applying in greater numbers than five years ago.

The number of female candidates who have applied for funding as principal investigators (PIs), co-investigators (CIs) and fellows has increased though. In 2018/19, female academics made up 32% of CI applicants (up from 27%), 28% of PI applicants (up from 26%) and 37% of fellow applicants (up from 33%).

The differences in award rate are, however, far smaller for female academics than for ethnic minority candidates. The figures show they are 2 pp less likely to win PI funding than male peers but are no less likely to secure CI funding and are 8 pp more likely to win fellow funding.

Size of grants awarded

Female and ethnic minority academics are awarded less on average than their male and white peers. The mean average research grant awarded to a white academic is £670,000, to a male academic is £672,000, to a female academic is £640,000 and to an ethnic minority academic is £564,000. The gaps are smaller when calculated using a median average which, the report said, “highlights the need to investigate the distribution of high value awards by diversity characteristics”. In other words, a small number of large awards to white and male academics skews the statistics.

The median award value for female awardees is approximately 15% less than the median award values of males (£336,000 vs £395,000). Similarly, the median award value for ethnic minority awardees is approximately 8% less than that of white awardees (£353,000 vs. £383,000).

UKRI’s report concluded: “Our analysis indicates that female and ethnic minority awardees tend to apply for and win smaller awards. This finding highlights a need to understand whether ethnic minority and female applicants tend to apply for smaller awards, or whether there is an influence of other factors such as career stage and discipline, which in turn affect award value.”

The latest figures do not differentiate between ethnicities or those who fall into more than one characteristic, which means it is hard to understand the intersectional challenges faced by, for example, black, female academics, as separate from male, Asian academics. UKRI’s report notes this fact and states: “We have started work on other strands such as intersectionality, detailed ethnicity analysis and regression analysis. We will continue to keep the community updated on our progress.”

Prof Jennifer Rubin, UKRI executive champion for EDI, said: “Today’s publication is an important contribution to our work to improve equality, diversity and inclusion across the UK’s research and innovation sector, providing us with a greater understanding of the issues we need to address.

“It will inform our continuing work in this crucial area and we will build on this in the coming months through further data publication and by outlining our next steps.”

In May 2020 UKRI announced the appointment of its first female chief executive. Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser will start her tenure on Monday 29 June.

Read more: New HEPI report shows PhD students’ voices left ‘unheard’

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