Healthcare biochemists at work at a research facility in London
“IN SCIENCE, I am surrounded by a lot of privileged white people,” says Aya Osman, a neuroscientist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. Born in Saudi Arabia, she moved from the UK to the US two years ago for her postdoctoral degree. On her first day of orientation, she says, she was one of a handful of black doctors. “Everyone else black in that room worked in cleaning or as administrative staff. It was the craziest thing I’ve seen.”
She isn’t alone in identifying the vast discrepancies in access and position that fall along ethnic lines in the sciences. The reverberations of George Floyd’s death last month during a police arrest in the US have sounded through academia, with thousands of scientists striking over racism in their fields. They have good reason: the odds of succeeding in science are still overwhelmingly stacked against black people and those from other ethnic minority groups.
In the UK, around 7 per cent of undergraduate students are black, matching the percentage of black people aged 18 to 24. But the number plummets when you look at PhD students at top universities, according to figures the UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency provided to New Scientist.
For the past five years, the proportion of black PhD students at Russell Group universities – seen as the UK’s most prestigious – has stagnated at around 2 per cent. The figures are even lower at some institutions: the five-year average for UK-born black students at the University of Oxford is 1.3 per cent, for example.
The story is similar in the US, where African Americans make up nearly 13 per cent of the population, but win only 6.5 per cent of doctorates earned, according to the latest statistics from the National Science Foundation.
Osman thinks economics and mental health are two big reasons why there aren’t more black people in science. “There’s a mental health impact to being black,” she says. “Knowing your history comes from slavery and colonialism, and then being in white spaces and having to pretend that it doesn’t matter. It’s exhausting.”
Daniel Akinbosede at the University of Sussex in the UK says the cost of doing a PhD may be a luxury that some black people can’t afford. One of the main reasons he applied to do a PhD was because an academic of Indian descent encouraged him.
He thinks white academics often overlook black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) students, and so black students are less likely to consider pursuing a career in science. “Scientists think they’re too smart to be racist and so put up a shield whenever people talk about it,” he says.
Funding figures highlight further structural barriers in science. In the UK, senior researchers from an ethnic minority are half as likely to have success with a research funding application as their white peers, according to figures from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) for the financial year 2018-2019. And if they succeed, they get £564,000 on average, versus £670,000 for white researchers.
These figures reveal the racial discrepancies in funding from the UK’s seven main research councils, but also obscure disparities among people of different ethnic groups.
The figures bundle all BAME researchers together. “The stats look terrible. But they also aggregate, because they’d look even worse otherwise,” says Michael Sulu at University College London, who is a member of The Inclusion Group for Equity in Research in STEMM (TIGERS). One defence deployed against separating out the figures is that there might be so few people from a particular ethnic minority applying to a certain funding body – a single British Bangladeshi researcher, for example – that they would be identifiable.
“Scientists think they’re too smart to be racist and so put up a shield whenever people talk about it”
“They have been using this argument for decades now. But if you don’t break things down to a granular level, we will never know if there is a problem,” says Tanvir Hussain at the University of Nottingham in the UK, who is also a member of TIGERS.
A workaround would be to publish most of the breakdown apart from where issues of identification and disclosure arose because numbers were so low, says Sulu. In such cases, the figures could be withheld and the reason publicly acknowledged, he says.
Previously, the national figures also masked how some research funders are more regressive than others. More than half a year after promising to make more detailed data available, UKRI told New Scientist that it plans to publish a council-by-council breakdown on 24 June.
The group says it is also undertaking an in-depth analysis on ethnicity to underpin new action on inequalities.
For BAME academics in the UK, the obstacles begin even before they have to start dealing with funding bodies. Students who have finished their PhD and are looking to apply for a fellowship need to be put forward by their institution, as part of internal competition. “In some administrations it’s robust, in many it’s a tap on the shoulder,” Hussain says of the process, though he says he hasn’t experienced that personally. “There is gatekeeping.”
One fundamental problem is a lack of incentives for universities to do better. Equality on funding for female researchers in the UK got a huge boost in 2011 when Sally Davies, then the UK government’s chief medical adviser, linked funding from the National Institute for Health Research to universities achieving a specific standard for a gender equality scheme. Universities fell over themselves to meet the standard.
By comparison, an equivalent scheme to recognise universities removing barriers for BAME staff and students has seen just 14 universities receive an award for their efforts. All 14 achieved only the “bronze” award for the Race Equality Charter. None has hit “silver” and the standards to meet for “gold” aren’t even laid out yet. “The scheme doesn’t have any incentive, it’s more of a marketing tool. Ethnicity problems are where gender problems were 20 years ago,” says Hussain.
The lack of ethnic minorities among staff in the universities of many countries, and the resulting loss of the mentoring and role modelling they could have provided, is a big deterrent for BAME students continuing a career in science. The problem is worst at the top.
Of the 540 people across UK universities with roles at senior management level – categorised as managers, directors and senior officials – less than 5 per cent identify themselves as Asian, mixed or other. None is black. Out of 21,520 professors, 0.65 per cent identify as black, 6.3 per cent as Asian and 1.2 per cent as mixed. “If you don’t see people like you in a system, you are less likely to choose that path,” says Hussain.
Then there is the problem of outright racism in academia, says Sulu. A freedom of information request last year found that only 37 per cent of formal complaints on racism at UK universities in five previous years were upheld.
There are many other barriers that add up. One is micro-aggressions, where people are treated differently just because of their ethnicity. Sulu gives the personal example that visitors at University College London are often surprised to see him in his department.
Some students, such as Akinbosede, are cynical about universities’ efforts on racism. “Universities want the perception of anti-racism, without actually doing any anti-racism,” he says.
A spokesperson for representative body Universities UK says: “Universities have a vital role to promote a safe and inclusive environment in which students and staff of all backgrounds and ethnicities can flourish. The sector is clear that there is no place for racism on a university campus, nor anywhere else.”
Akinbosede, like Osman, is still actively working to make his university more welcoming to BAME students. He says: “It feels like I am doing two PhDs: one in biochemistry and one in race.”
How do we address the problem?
Paulette Williams at Leading Routes, an initiative to help more black students into UK universities, has said there is no quick fix to solve the problem of racism in universities and science. In a 2019 report, she and her colleagues offered actions such as better data collection and more diverse interview panels, amid the more seismic change needed.
Another idea is name-blind applications. While Michael Sulu at University College London says they are “borderline impossible” in academia because of the need to show publications, they may have a role in hiring for careers in science, engineering, maths, medicine and technology.
Kate Glazebrook at Applied, a recruitment platform that tries to remove hiring bias, found that 26 per cent of roles it filled in those sectors in the UK in the past year went to people who self-identify as black, Asian or minority ethnic. But only 10.5 per cent of the scientific workforce is BAME, figures from the UK Royal Society reveal. Tying funding to institutions being more inclusive would be another route.
Change must also come from researchers educating themselves on the barriers that some people face due to the colour of their skin, says Tanvir Hussain at the University of Nottingham, UK. “One of the key problems we have in academia is we’ve fostered the idea it’s a true meritocracy. But it’s not,” he says. “The only way we can challenge that narrative is letting people be aware and read more widely about it.”
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Article amended on
24 June 2020
Since this was first published, we have corrected Aya Osman’s place of birth and details of her first day of orientation.
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