Universities are working to eliminate racial prejudice in research

Hundreds of ethnic minority students have been recruited into research by universities.

The activities are in response to allegations of institutional racism in academia, which disproportionately harm black individuals.
According to one study, 245 black candidates were awarded Ph.D. positions out of approximately 20,000 over three years.

The director of the UK research funding organization expressed her “frustration” that so many talented people’s skills were being wasted.
Jason Arday was just promoted to the rank of professor. Prof Arday, currently at Durham, appears to be having a good university career as a young black academic, but he claims it has come at a cost.

“If someone asked me what the blueprint is to become an academic, I’d have to say that if you are black or Asian it is ‘how much can you suffer?’, whereas if you are white there is a blueprint about getting into academia because if you are a person of color the goalposts move all the time,” he said.

Prof Dame Ottoline Leyser, chief executive of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), stated that diversity was critical for researchers to address some of the world’s most serious issues.

“As we have seen with the climate change summit in Glasgow, huge challenges are facing the world. And to solve these problems, you need different people with different ways of thinking and from different backgrounds,” she said.

“‘The current system is just too narrow and it needs to be opened up.”

UKRI has allocated £8 million to 13 initiatives. These are intended to encourage black, Asian, and other ethnic minority students to continue their studies after completing their university degrees and pursue jobs in research. Twenty-five universities are involved, with many of them collaborating with NHS trusts, local governments, and businesses.

The establishment of fairer admissions criteria for Oxford and Cambridge Universities, a project to build the groundwork for raising the number of black, Asian, and minority ethnic female professors, and a scheme to strengthen university cultures across the West Midlands are among the projects.

The projects differ in their method and focus, but they all attempt to increase the number of ethnic minority postgraduate students by encouraging them to conduct research and providing them with support in the form of mentoring, training, and guidance.

The Broken Pipeline, a report by the education consultant Leading Routes, inspired the idea. It was discovered that out of over 20,000 PhDs awarded by research sponsors between 2016 and 2019, 245 were awarded to black or black mixed students, with 30 of those coming from black Caribbean origins.

According to the latest numbers from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, the inequality widens as black persons who choose to work in research try to advance up the professional ladder: only 155 of the 22,795 professors in the UK are black, and only 40 of those are black women.

Paulette Williams, the report’s principal author and the creator of Leading Routes, is overjoyed by the news. However, she told BBC News that luring more ethnic minority students to postgraduate study would be futile until racism, which she claims drives so many great individuals away, was addressed.

“Otherwise, you have more people thrown into these toxic environments. Black people are not progressing, they are not having these careers that they aspire to because the biases still exist,” she said.

“I know of (black) students who lecturers have come up to and told them ‘students like you don’t stay, and that’s okay. If you want to go, it’s OK’, almost like they are comforting and reassuring them that it is okay to drop out, rather than providing them with the support that would help them stay.”

Prof Leyser acknowledges the suffering that many ethnic minority researchers are forced to endure.

“We have quite a lot of bullying and harassment in research and black people pick up a disproportionate amount of that because they are under-represented and so they are obvious targets,” she said.

The research environment can become toxic for minority groups, she says, because the research system itself is judged on “a narrow set of metrics”. This includes the throughput of research and publication in leading scientific journals.

“But the narrower you get, the narrower the people you have and the more you exclude people who don’t have the opportunity to meet those criteria.”

“Fundamental to (changing) this is a shift in the culture of the research system so that it is more enthusiastic about the difference.”

Universities needed to reconsider how they recruited people to become researchers, according to Dr. Mike Sulu, who is part of a project at University College London to help ethnic minority students into postgraduate courses. Students who achieve the top scores in their undergraduate degrees are chosen under the existing system.

“Being a good researcher is very different to academic study. Research is more about becoming immersed in a field and your passion. These things are harder to measure, which is why people traditionally don’t try to measure them,” he said.

The Royal Society, the UK’s most powerful scientific body, has been holding round table discussions with representatives from minority ethnic groups, funders, and other figures in the research community to better understand why black researchers, in particular, are not progressing in their careers – and to come up with concrete solutions.

The current position is “unacceptable,” according to Prof Sir Adrian Smith, president of the Royal Society, who was present at some of the conversations.

“The meetings have left no doubt about the challenges black researchers in particular face in building their academic career. They have also shown clear recognition, right across the sector, of the need to address these systemic issues, together and over the long-term,” he said.

“While we collectively work to address the system issues, the Royal Society is investigating what it might do through its programs to provide effective and meaningful support to researchers from underrepresented groups.”

The initiative, according to Chris Millward of the Office for Students, which co-funded the projects alongside Research England, will allow the country to benefit from the skills of people from all walks of life.

“The projects will ambitiously tackle the issues causing underrepresentation of Black, Asian and minority ethnic students in postgraduate research, to stimulate innovation and develop effective practice for universities and colleges throughout the country.”

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