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Growing the research base means embracing diversity

Diversity in the research workforce is more than a numbers game, it's a pathway to strengthening the whole system, argue Steve Goldenberg and Debbie McVitty
This article is more than 4 years old

Steve Goldenberg is President and Chief Product Officer at Interfolio.

Debbie is Editor of Wonkhe

Earlier this year former universities minister Chris Skidmore estimated that in order to meet the government’s target of 2.4 per cent of GDP to be invested in research and development by 2027 the UK research workforce could need to grow by as much as 50 per cent – a further 260,000 researchers working in and outside academia.

New Prime Minister Boris Johnson signalled a friendly disposition towards research and innovation when he announced plans to fast-track a new Tier 1 visa targeted at top scientists. Yet it’s clear that the 2.4 per cent target won’t be met by a selection of the “best and brightest” in the form of a few distinguished professors – it will take significant efforts to attract, train and retain a broad and diverse base of research talent. “Traditional” academia simply could not accommodate such a level of growth; the national research base includes government, private industry, public sector and charitable organisations as well as universities – and the dynamic exchange between actors in the system drives new ideas and innovation.

Let diversity be our watchword

The last few decades have seen changes in the practice of research with many universities organising their research portfolios around key interdisciplinary public problems, the introduction of impact as an indicator of research excellence in the Research Excellence Framework, and repeated calls for deeper engagement of universities with industry, with the Knowledge Exchange Framework expected to be rolled out shortly. The Open Science movement incorporates the expectation of openness not only in the dissemination of research but in the design and implementation of research.

So if the goal is significant expansion of the national research base, then consideration of the diversity of that research base must be a key policy consideration. These researchers of the future will need to epitomise diversity in many senses: diversity of perspectives, methodologies, specialisms, and capabilities, as well as diversity of career paths and diversity of definition of, and recognition of, research success.

Expanding access to research careers to underrepresented groups through initiatives like Athena SWAN and the Race Equality Charter is a clear and vital part of that work: 2018 data compiled by the Equality Challenge Unit (now part of Advance HE) shows that there are gender and ethnic disparities at senior levels in higher education, with only one in five women earning over £50,000, compared to one in three men; and only 0.6 per cent of professors are black.

But simply adding bodies to the research workforce without changing the structures, practices and cultures that contributed to their exclusion in the first place is a limited goal – and misses the opportunity to enable the transformative power of diversity to help maximise the health and capacity of UK research.

Widening access to doctoral study

Though the data is imperfect, the available evidence suggests that issues for academic diversity start early. Paul Wakeling at the University of York has undertaken significant work on progression to postgraduate study; his 2013 analysis conducted with Gillian Hampden-Thompson for the Higher Education Academy (now part of Advance HE) found lower rates of progression to research degrees among women, graduates from black Caribbean and Bangladeshi ethnic backgrounds, graduates from lower socio-economic backgrounds and those educated at state schools as compared to independent schools.

Paul believes that some progress is being made in addressing these gaps, especially through doctoral training centres, which have the advantage of being able to collect robust and comparable data more easily than disparate academic departments. But the absence of “basic data collection on PhD applicants in a consistent and probably publicly mandated  way” makes it hard to assess the root of the issues or determine whether any particular effort to address gaps are making a difference.

“We don’t know why people aren’t progressing” Paul points out, “but we know that the type of institution you study at as an undergraduate makes a huge difference. If you don’t make the ‘right’ choice for your first degree, it is very hard to move from one to the other – it seems that first degree institution is being used as a proxy for quality of graduate”. The result can be a narrowing of the perceived idea of what a future researcher looks like, and potentially is leading to a loss of talent and intellectual diversity in research careers.

Cultures shape career structures

Gary Loke, Director of Knowledge, Innovation, and Delivery at Advance HE points to the importance of culture change as well as development of processes and systems. He suggests that there can be a “hidden research culture” in operation, analogous to the “hidden curriculum” that inadvertently excludes people who do not fit the established mould of a successful researcher. “The focus in universities has been on increasing diversity without necessarily always exploring how you value and support inclusion. We need to explore the value of diversity to the research culture – and ensure that if you are a research leader you know how to manage it and make the most of it”.

The structure of research careers can have a knock-on impact on diversity. A recent literature review on the academic workforce suggested that efforts to regularise management of academics in pursuit of effectiveness and efficiency could have a range of unintended consequences, including squeezing out those who are less able or less willing to put in the additional labour expected from successful academics. UCU has long campaigned against the use of short-term contracts in research, arguing that they affect researchers’ quality of life and constrain their life choices at an important time – for example, it may be difficult to carve out time and resource to have children when in precarious employment.

UCU’s Jane Thompson says that the standard picture of an academic career trajectory that includes a few short-term contracts as an early career researcher followed by progression to a permanent academic role is increasingly a myth: “People do this into their thirties and forties” she says, “and the power differential is so much greater when people are on precarious contracts, so it’s much harder to make use of grievance systems in cases of harassment or bullying.”

Researchers on short-term contracts may also lack professional development opportunities and access to networks that would enable them to develop as an independent researcher. Janet Metcalfe, head of Vitae, the organisation that champions researcher development, believes that though the UK is ahead of the curve in recognising early career researchers as valued members of academic staff rather than there to “just do research”, more could be done to embed a culture in which early career researchers are supported to explore career opportunities and options as part of their professional development: “There’s still quite a lot of focus on training courses and workshops, when actually it’s all about developing attitudes and confidence.” Her hope is that the 2.4 per cent target will encourage an opening up of the conversation of how UK researchers can be prepared to engage across sectors, disciplines, and internationally.

The Concordat to support the career development of early career researchers is currently under review, in light of the need to support researchers to forge careers that look much less linear than they might have anticipated when they signed up to a PhD. That process has brought together research funders with research managers of researchers, early career researchers and national agencies to articulate what can reasonably be expected to be in place to enable early career researchers to thrive. If the Concordat is to prepare the way for the next generation of researchers, critical consideration of how the research environment embraces and facilitates diversity is an essential piece of the puzzle.

This is the first in a three-part series on the future academic research workforce, in association with Interfolio. Find out how Interfolio helps universities track research impact, improve academic diversity, and manage academic activity data.


2 responses to “Growing the research base means embracing diversity

  1. Hello – I absolutely hear you on this. Unless we bring in different perspectives, different problem solving capabilities we will end up with same old same old solutions. My argument is that ( and current research) we need to extend this pipeline further and examine how we incorporate undergraduate research into this and embrace diversity early. I have just spent two years ( with 5 student research colleagues as part of a Students as Research partners project) examining the relationship of undergraduate research to widening participation. We are presenting this week at the RAISE conference; we are reporting internally to stakeholders this week but then will be looking to publish. We are contactable via or the Widening Research and Participation ( wrap) project

  2. Thank you for highlighting Advance HE’s equality charters in this article. I do wonder if they have been mischaracterised somewhat though – they are aimed at addressing the structures, practices and cultures that lead to under-representation, not just “the numbers”. The numbers are an indicator that there are things to address, but applicants that engage successfully with the frameworks invariably take their work to the next level, and question how they operate as organisations. It’s very useful to see an increasing focus on research culture at a national level, as this will enable more institutions and departments to engage with the issues

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