22 February 2023
by Sarah Morgan

Tackling racism in UK science and technology

At a recent webinar hosted by The Foundation for Science and Technology, entitled ‘Black Scientists – Tackling Racism in UK Science and Technology’, there was agreement that an inequality problem exists when it comes to academic attainment, progression and retention of ethnic minority chemists.

The evening's pannelists. L-R Dr Alejandra Palermo, Professor Ijeoma Uchegbu, Compere Pallab Ghosh, Sigourney Bonner and Dr Karen Salt © Foundation for Science and Technology

Dr Alejandra Palermo, Head of Global Inclusion at the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), which supported the event, said even once the hurdles to progression are surmounted, there is still a clear retention problem – she warned the system is losing black chemists at an 'alarming rate'. 

Her presentation sadly revealed that due to the statistical insignificance of the value of one, there are officially no black Chemistry Professors in the UK. 

That one black Professor is in fact Robert Mokaya, Professor of Materials Chemistry at the University of Nottingham, UK. 

It was highlighted that he has not received a single grant from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

Palermo pointed to six structural barriers in progression:

  1. Attraction
  2. Mentorship
  3. The culture of Chemistry
  4. Funding systems and structures
  5. The global community
  6. Leadership in the community

Ijeoma Uchegbu, Professor of Pharmaceutical Nanoscience, University College London, UK, echoed that Black principal investigators (P.Is) are in general less likely to be funded by UKRI. She also pointed to the fact that minority professors 
are not proportionate to their minority size within the UK. 

Sigourney Bonner, Co-founder of Black in Cancer, who spoke about her personal journey in progressing academically, noted that Uchegbu was the first ever Black P.I she had ever met.

Furthermore, Palermo revealed that of the minority students that go to university, only 37% go to a Russell Group institution, which have more of the funding and experimental opportunities available to progress in a Chemistry career.

Dr Karen Salt, Deputy Director for Research Culture & Environment at UKRI, acknowledged that we all needed to ‘wake up to racism’. She highlighted the moves now being made to nurture, support and champion ethnic minority scientists.

Uchegbu was also keen to talk about the desirability of building diverse teams. Diverse teams produce smart decisions – this is based on evidence from mixed teams/juries, pricing stocks, the increased profitability of public companies, and greater diversity in publications resulting in more citations. 

Hope and future action

There was a strong desire and hope from all the speakers for future action on this issue. There was a feeling that good momentum had been built and people were really listening now. The panel was keen for this to continue and not fizzle out.

In terms of progress, it was noted in the question-and-answer session that the RSC only had a small amount of money to focus on the topic, but it decided to do something after the release of its report last year (see box-out below). 

Missing elements – reporting on inequality

In March last year, the UK’s Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) released a report that found 'pervasive racial and ethnic inequalities within the chemical sciences community'.

Their report, Missing Elements: Racial and ethnic inequalities in the chemical sciences, states that exclusion and marginalisation are to a large extent normalised for many black chemists and those from ethnic minority backgrounds.

It finds that the proportion of professors in Chemistry departments that identify as Black or Mixed Race is 0%, while 5.7% identify as Asian – which is respectively 
5% and 6.9% in the UK population (any number that is less than 2.5% is rounded down to zero to protect individuals’ anonymity)

The RSC also finds that while 4.9% of undergraduate students identify as Black, only 1.4% of postgraduate Chemistry students do, while just 1% of non-professional academic Chemistry staff do.

On the report’s release, RSC Chief Executive Dr Helen Pain had said, 'The data and evidence collected in this report are clear – we are failing to retain and nurture talented Black chemists at every stage of their career path after undergraduate studies, and people from other minoritised ethnicities remain underrepresented at senior levels in chemistry.'

The current groups that are forming to tackle the issue need scaling up and to co-operate, agreed the panellists – much like the Mellon Mays programme in the US did, which brings 5I institutions together to increase diversity in the faculty ranks of institutions of higher learning. 

It was felt by some that the ethnic pay gap also needs to be reported. Publication of data needs to become normalised, the panel concluded, as publishing the data is an important tool in frankly 'embarrassing' institutions into action. 

All panellists ultimately returned to the issue of visibility being key to promoting action and a ripple effect onto scientists of the future. This issue was crystalised by a comment that living in a black majority country changed that individual’s own attitude for the better on what they could achieve.