Why are there still so few black scientists in the UK?

The Nobel laureate poet Sir Derek Walcott once said that the English language is nobody’s special property: “It is the property of the imagination.” Much the same could be said for science. It should be said. Except this isn’t quite so. Not yet.

Data on who is doing science has recently been released by the Royal Society, the UK’s premier scientific academy, using figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, whose data is by far the most systematic. The numbers show that in 2018-19, 19.2% of science, technology, engineering and maths academic staff aged 34 and under are Asian and 1.8% are black. In physics and chemistry, the proportion of black researchers stands at a sobering zero, rounded down, as these calculations do for ease of presentation, from literally one or two individuals. What’s interesting is that these small figures decrease further as a scientist’s age increases – as they travel through the hallowed halls of academia to become senior scientists. So while the UK has 10,560 science professors who are white, only 960 are Asian, 310 mixed and “other” and 65 black. This says that minorities who enter science are less likely to get promoted. Fewer of them go on to become those experts who evaluate which next-generation scientists should then get the training, the money and the jobs. “Unless this changes,” the Royal Society says, “there will be unbalanced representation of academic staff between ethnic groups working in higher education in comparison to the ethnic breakdown of the general population.”

I know numbers can make the eyes glaze over, but not these ones, not after the year we have had. Follow the direction in which they point or, as the government has become fond of saying, “follow the science”, and the interpretation of all these statistics is simply this: the scientific knowledge that the UK produces happens in laboratories in universities that are staffed by senior scientists who are very nearly all white. At their elbows stand the next generation of young researchers and PhD scholars who are very nearly the same. The small numbers of scientists who are not white are predominantly formed of the so-called AMEs in BAME. But look specifically at the near-absence of scientists who identify as black and we can be quite sure that UK science – our UK scientists – is not even close to reflecting the peoples that it serves.

Prof Adrian Smith, a statistician and the president of the Royal Society, says what is evident is that the whole of the education system, from schools to universities, plays an important role in the numbers: the progress in non-completion rates among black science students, disparities in degree outcomes and in progress through careers to senior posts. “The really stunning stuff is within the university system,” he says. “That passage through the universities is not a great story.”

The reasons for this are at once simple and complex, a contradiction that requires context to be understood. One of these contexts must be science itself – or at least its gatekeepers: universities, scientific institutions, government and independent funders, all of which are underpinned by the human face of senior scientists, who are highly respected in their fields and therefore take hugely consequential decisions within their organisations that affect who comes, who stays and who goes. To Dr Nira Chamberlain, the president of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications, it all comes down to leadership. “We come up with all this data and it says, yes, there’s under-representation. And we say, ‘Oh, there’s under-representation.’ And the following year, we do the same survey again. And then in 10 years’ time we say, guess what? There’s under-representation! Now, I’m a mathematician, I like numbers, but enough is enough. Start doing something, you know? What’s the point of collecting numbers if you do nothing about it? If you do nothing, everything remains exactly the same.”

In February 2021, prior to the publication of the government’s contentious Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report, the Stuart Hall Foundation and the Centre on the Dynamics of Ethnicity released a consolidation of 40 years of inquiries into racial inequality in Britain. They analysed reports published between 1981 and 2017 and 589 recommendations that had already been put forward to address racism and racial inequality, including in education. Add to that the six recommendations made by the all-party parliamentary group on diversity and inclusion in science, technology, engineering and maths, set up in 2018 and it has to be asked: are these copious statistics making the eyes of the UK science establishment glaze over? Are they unwilling to do something about them? Either way, the irony of our government, our funders and our decision-makers not following the science on the state of our science is creating a future insurrection against itself. It’s like they’re actively pursuing a divided society, through a reluctance to address the facts. Take the analysis by Dr Addy Adelaine, chief executive of the non-profit organisation Ladders4Action, which highlighted that of the £4.3m released to examine the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on BAME communities, exactly £0 was allocated to black academic leads, even though applications from black scientists had been received. And that after UK Research and Innovation, one of two bodies holding this money, had made an explicit commitment to equality.

To Prof Ijeoma Uchegbu, a pharmaceutical nanoscientist at University College London and the university’s envoy for racial equality, this is more than a problem of social justice. She says: “Sometimes you rub against people who say, well, we’ve got the best people doing the job, we actually have chosen the best candidates. And the subtext of that is that if you start talking about equity, you won’t have the best candidates. But my message is pretty clear and I say this again and again and again: having good equity is not about helping me, as a black woman. It’s about helping your organisation – making sure your organisation is fit for purpose. Because you cannot be making the best decisions if they are being taken by a homogenous group, within a multifaceted society. And there’s lots of data to show this.”

In the wake of all those Black Lives Matter pledges universally posted in the digital shop windows of universities and scientific bodies, Chamberlain’s question resonates. Where, exactly, has the UK’s science leadership got to in bringing about positive change? We are given to believe that the day-to-day decisions our leading scientists make – who to train, who to employ, who to promote, who to give money to – are approached very much like the science they do. That is to say, the decisions they take in all things are based on excellence, objective observation, evidence and, of course, more than anything, on merit. But this is where we get to one of the complexities.

Because there’s no point in equivocating: the persistent power structures of the UK tell us that race matters and class matters in our society. Where you live matters, where you are educated matters, whether you are white or B or AME matters. It matters to your progress into positions of power, positions in which you become a decision-maker yourself. Positions where you train, hire, mentor or promote. To whether you get to become a scientist and rise through the ranks to a professorship. While the scientific method is almost defined by its pursuit of the elimination of bias (the randomised controlled trial being a well-known example) when it comes to the hugely consequential decisions taken by scientists themselves, the bias monitor must be malfunctioning. For Uchegbu, this comes from the same kinds of bias already reflected widely across society. She says: “I think it’s very difficult for scientists to divorce their personal attributes from this data-driven world. Scientists are human. It’s almost idealistic to believe that we are moved by the data. You know there is inequality, but you’re a beneficiary. Difficult for you to then try and change that, because you are benefiting.”

To Prof Rachel Oliver, a materials scientist at the University of Cambridge and leader of The Inclusion Group for Equity in Research in STEMM, a national campaign group focused on improving diversity and inclusivity in the scientific research community, there is also an inherent problem with the very idea of merit-based decisions that sit on a firm foundation of inequality.

“I think the thing about the merit picture is that you can’t have a discussion about things being merit-based if you don’t provide a level playing field,” she says. “And the non-levelness of the playing field may not always be evident to the people making decisions, so a thing we hear a lot from both younger female scientists, and certainly from black and minority ethnic colleagues, is that when they need support from their institutions, it often isn’t forthcoming. That foundation isn’t there for them.”

Dr Lisa Palmer, associate professor and deputy director of the Stephen Lawrence Research Centre at De Montfort University, co-author of Blackness in Britain, daughter of Jamaican-born parents and sister to two chemical engineers, both with PhDs, also thinks that, at its base, the question of merit is tricky, but that of objectivity is messy too.

“I think there’s a way in which the good immigrant narrative is also about trying to believe in meritocracy – believe that people can see your individual talent and skill, believe that you have come through racial barriers,” Palmer says. “The university has functioned to produce a particular type of knowledge that is presented as being neutral, objective, fact- and data-driven. But actually part of what we know is that neutrality and being objective is also a function of power and a particular perspective, developed through a social lens of privilege.”

Until this process is recognised for what it is and addressed, this myth of meritocracy and masking of the value of diverse people and knowledge to science will continue to provide a stage for the meetings of committee after committee. But these battles only cement frustrations and so further entrench inequality. Being self-aware and critical of itself is how science is supposed to progress. “But,” Palmer says, “if you mention the way racism works in the production of knowledge you are positioned as being divisive, or looking for special pleading, or not being able to deal with reality. It’s actually misinterpreted in ways that undermine very serious questions about the way in which racism works in higher education and the impact that has, not only on the kind of knowledge that is produced, but who is actually given support, funding and infrastructure.”

Across recent history, there have been people who have closely observed inequalities and inequities which raise questions of justice. George Orwell once wrote that “an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on, indefinitely”. Racism itself is well encapsulated by that cycle. And science itself must accept some key culpability in the very origins of the modern concept of race. Racism, based upon a chromatocracy, did predate Carl Linnaeus’s 18th-century scientific tabulation of human diversity. But on the back of that iconic work, Immanuel Kant supplied a philosophical justification for a race-based human classification. That justification of human hierarchy within the scientific ranking of nature fuelled European racism and supported the lucrative colonial machine of exploitation. And all of it stemmed from a neutral observation, first made in botany. As Prof Dawn Edge, mental health and inclusivity specialist and academic lead for equality diversity and inclusion says in her race, religion and belief portfolio at the University of Manchester: “We never really acknowledge that openly or address how that still plays out in people’s thinking even without them knowing. The way that still plays out in stereotypes being reinforced all the time. We’re not having those conversations about how we got here. Unless we actually start to talk about it and acknowledge it, I don’t think we can really move on; we will just continue to put a veneer over it.”

Although there are undoubtedly many today who still overtly subscribe to Kant’s pernicious racial stereotypes, that is not necessarily what we are talking about here. Rather, it is that the statistics we keep generating should be tapping science on the shoulder and saying that, really, one just has to support existing power structures for one to act in a racist way. That racism is enforced by the decisions people make every day. It is maintained through the rejection of progress, through denial.

Much effort is being made by independent groups. Black scientists are creating more visible networks to inspire, support, connect and create collaborations. Among these are the Blackett Lab Family started by Dr Mark Richards, a physical scientist at Imperial College London; the Black Heroes of Mathematics conference, created by Chamberlain and hosted by four UK mathematical societies; and Africans in STEM, launched by four African scientists at the University of Cambridge. Action is already being formulated, or even taken in some universities with committed leaderships, and by scientific professional societies. There is willingness. Even though change is slow and it is still by no means representative, UK science is not quite as white as it was a generation ago. Yet if the slow pace of change tells us that discrimination is systemic and entrenched, and the under-represented remain under-represented year on year, then it stands to reason that a government that is committed to equality and diversity should formulate a programme of oversight and accountability. And, because we have followed the science, we know it should be a plan against our own basic natures, one that doesn’t depend solely on the niceness of scientists – and of ministers themselves – in adopting diversity and inclusion practices.

Dr Chris Jackson, who gave last year’s Royal Institution Christmas Lectures.
Dr Chris Jackson, who gave last year’s Royal Institution Christmas Lectures. Photograph: Paul Wilkinson/BBC/Windfall Films/Paul Wilkinson Photography

Primary school to university trajectory data shows black students who are at the same level as their white counterparts start falling behind them from A-levels. It shows UK-domiciled Chinese and Indian students surpassing their white counterparts at school and still falling behind them at university. That means lower salaries, fewer doing PhDs and fewer in academia. This is the “awarding gap” and closing it – in the analyses of Uchegbu, Oliver, Edge and others – requires a plan that spans and financially incentivises education and research institutions from primary schools to universities to funders, so that they regularly report on their diversity data and demonstrate that the action they are taking is making the numbers change. Money talks: that kind of oversight has proved successful before. There is clear evidence that the Athena SWAN charter, created in 2005 to recognise higher education institutions’ and departments’ commitment to tackling gender inequality in higher education, started to have a positive impact on changing culture and attitudes. It really did lead to more women being successful in academic careers. In 2016, a Race Equality Charter was also launched to improve the record in equality and diversity in much the same way.

Prof Chris Jackson, a geoscientist at the University of Manchester, and the first black scientist to deliver the Royal Institution’s Christmas lectures in 2020 says he can see a tension in effectively trying to force people to be good or monetise change if it doesn’t also get to the cultural roots of the problem. Getting more minority staff, say, but starting them on the lowest salaries, or bringing them in, but not supporting them for promotion.

Jackson says: “You also need to show you are doing something to better the advancement of those historically excluded groups. That their progress is not then being harmed by racial discrimination. Somebody had the saying that stayed with me. It said, diversity without inclusion is harm.”

More than 40 years of reports and recommendations have given us the benefit of hindsight and Covid-19 has writ large to politicians, scientists and society what the eventual, long-term consequence of a lack of an equality strategy is. Despite this, the chance of creating a joined-up commitment from our leaders to tackle the systemic discrimination at the core of the UK science juggernaut has just become that much more challenging. In September 2020, in the midst of the storm of data telling us that racism and inequity in the UK had led to illness and deaths for disproportionate numbers of grandfathers, bus drivers, nurses and doctors from black and minority ethnic groups, the UK’s minister of state for universities, our research minister and our innovation minister put their heads together and asked higher education and its funders to “not feel pressured to take part in such initiatives to demonstrate their support for the cause the scheme addresses”. Instead, “they should feel confident in their ability to address such matters themselves”. It would probably work, if only we were better human beings. The only conclusion is that the strategy of placing the grisly details of under-representation in the category of “distraction” and “bureaucratic burdens” will succeed impressively in the long running project of Everything Remaining Exactly The Same.

The fact remains that repeated calls by many scientists to politicians have not led to anything truly transformative. “Do I trust the government? No, of course not,” says Jackson. “I do wonder if we need our more progressive, independent funders who really seem to value the research culture and environment. And part of that is justice, equality, diversity and inclusion, making everybody feel welcome in the academic space. Maybe it’s down to those funders who are sufficiently decoupled from the government to really drive the agenda, because they can then impress upon research institutions what their standards are. We have had this slow creep of recommendations, like we were kind of trying to evolve the system. And maybe what we don’t need is any more evolution, we need revolution. Now we need some kind of circuit-breaker, a more radical reform.”

As for Prof Adrian Smith, he is more than aware of the deep-rooted cycle of cause and effect that ends with purple prose celebrating the scientific excellence produced by the UK, the “scientific superpower” of Boris Johnson’s perorations, without considering who has lost out along the way. He says: “Both in terms of people and careers but also in terms of making full national use of talent, we have an interest. Why wouldn’t you want the pool of excellence to grow and be open? And I want it on the agenda, to just try to see what we can actually do as opposed to waffling about it, which has gone on for a very long time.”

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