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Path from the Pandemic: A fairer world


Covid-19 has highlighted longstanding inequalities in research—and energised campaigns for reform

Since Covid-19 swept through the UK, inequalities within higher education have only deepened, with the virus exacerbating existing injustices and biases.

Hard-working researchers have fallen through the cracks of funding and support systems, and the pain has hit hardest for those already underrepresented or marginalised.

In addition to being affected by the disease itself, researchers have suffered from lockdowns and restrictions, which have also led to heavy losses, with research projects cancelled and staff furloughed or even made jobless.

Unsurprisingly, those who have long complained about the precarious nature of their careers, notably early career and part-time staff, have been the worst affected.

Meanwhile, the move to home working and the closure of schools has left academics who are parents and carers struggling to remain productive. With these burdens still predominantly falling on women, the gender divide in research is also widening.

It’s been a similar story for many ethnic minority researches, and those who are disabled, many of whom face the added burden of increased risk from the virus.

“The sector has totally underestimated the huge inequalities that Covid has left,” Petra Boynton, a social psychologist and research consultant, tells Research Fortnight. “It was a damaged sector before the pandemic—now it’s even worse.” 

The differing impacts of the pandemic on different groups are now widely established. But Boyton says those with real power are not doing enough to correct them. 

“Funding bodies and universities keep talking about equality, diversity and inclusion and mental health but there doesn’t seem to be any tangible action.”


The national research funder, UK Research and Innovation, in particular, has come under increasing scrutiny for its diversity, inclusion and equality practices over the past year, and this focus has only increased with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.

In August 2020, Addy Adelaine, a Black academic and researcher in inclusion and accountability, raised the alarm after it emerged that none of the principal investigators awarded recent UKRI and National Institute for Health Research grants on the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on ethnic minorities were Black.

In a subsequent open letter to UKRI, co-authored by Adelaine and signed by nearly 3,000 people, she called for a “review of the systems and processes that perpetuate research inequity towards funding allocation and to stimulate reform within the process”.

“Whilst Black communities in the UK were confronted with the disproportionate impact of Covid, they also found that their voice was marginalised and sidelined,” she now tells Research Fortnight.

“Many felt as though the issues we cared about, and the practical answers we needed, were not being addressed.”

In the rush to work on fighting the pandemic, the most powerful existing voices were once again dominant, and very little thought was given to equality and transparency, she believes.

While it has not yet formally responded to the open letter, UKRI has taken several steps to improve its practices over the past year.

Under the leadership of Ottoline Leyser—who has stated it is her top priority to create an inclusive research culture—the funder has started publishing detailed ethnicity data, which has exposed the under-representation of Black, Asian and minority ethnic researchers across its funding portfolio.

UKRI has also committed to continuously examining its review and assessment practices, piloting anonymised assessment processes and introducing a standardised narrative CV format. More action is promised.


More recently the Russell Group of research-intensive universities has announced its own drive to reform research culture. On 4 May, the group launched a toolkit for universities, funders and publishers to “test and share ideas to enhance supportive and positive research cultures” over the next year.

In a report published alongside the toolkit, the funder identified long-term contractual job security as a key problem for research culture, which it says is often linked to external funding, such as the level of quality-related research funding universities receive from government.

To fix this, it suggests boosting quality-related block grant funding for universities, lengthening funding periods for grants and reducing the use of short-term academic contracts.

“It’s clear that appetite to promote a healthy research culture is strong and growing across the sector,” said Grace Gottlieb, head of research policy at University College London and one of the authors of the report that draws on interviews with nearly 100 representatives across the UK academic and research system.

“This presents us with a prime opportunity to harness this widespread appetite and translate it into real change that can be felt and appreciated by researchers on the ground.”

Boynton thinks there is “a lot to be hopeful for”, including a real chance of reducing the harms caused by short-term contracts. But she is critical of other aspects of the report, describing it as “depoliticised and highly managerial in tone” with a “removal of any historical context and responsibility”.

She believes it was an error for the Russell Group to fail to acknowledge its own past history of what she calls “problems with competition, precarity, toxic working practices and bullying and harassment”.

“I felt it picked evidence to indicate issues, but nothing too damning that might situate universities as the architects of many of the problems cited—and of subsequent direct harms to staff and students,” she says.

The government

This need to build a new path for the sector has also been acknowledged by the government. In an interview with Research Fortnight last year, science minister Amanda Solloway described reforming research culture as her “greatest passion”.

And in a recent speech she called for boldness in ending the culture problems in research, “where people are told that it is ‘academia or bust’, and that they must either ‘publish or perish’”.

“We should feel confident in taking the lead here, even if this sets us apart from other scientific nations,” she said. “We must embrace equality and diversity in the system—unleashing the power of difference, and unlocking the talent of more people. And we must stamp out bullying, harassment and scientific misconduct.”

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s upcoming R&D People and Culture Strategy, due to be published next month, is expected to include detail on how Solloway plans to crack down on these issues. But some in the sector remain sceptical about the government’s commitment to diversity and inclusion—highlighting that a steering group appointed to advise and support the science minister on the strategy did not originally include any Black academics.

“There should be a non-exploitative, accessible and inclusive way for experts on inclusion and equality and individuals with lived experience to take part in developing the process—rather than just being seen as respondents and a pool for data gathering,” say Adelaine, who is also chief executive of the social justice organisation Ladders4Action.

“From what I have seen of the process so far, it is not inclusive or accessible.”

Although attention has largely focused on well-known names and big organisations, Adelaine says real leadership on these issues is coming from marginalised academics themselves, who are increasingly unified in their demands for reform.

“Many of us are collaborating, finding solidarity and demanding change from our institutions and from our funders. There is a shift that I have never seen before. It may be less obvious, but there are many brilliant individuals who are quietly sacrificing their time and emotional labour to create sustainable and meaningful change.”

As the research sector struggles to move away from the pandemic towards a fairer and healthier future, there may be agreement on the desired destination. But the path to it, and how it is walked, is still being determined. 

R&D People and Culture strategy

Many in the R&D sector have their eyes on the government’s soon-to-be-published “comprehensive new” R&D People and Culture Strategy. The strategy, it is promised, will go beyond careers in research and include a wider set of issues for anyone working in the sector.

The government added it was working with devolved administrations and key stakeholders, including the major funders of research—UKRI, NIHR, the devolved funding bodies, public sector research establishments, the national and devolved academies, academics, universities, businesses and charities—to develop the strategy. 

Path from the Pandemic

The Path from the Pandemic initiative from Research Professional News is focusing on six critical areas where momentum is building for long-term change in the wake of the pandemic. These are: financial sustainability; a fairer sector; online opportunities; international partnerships; open research; and trust in science. Through the initiative we hope to help the sector explore a sustainable way forward. Have your say: #PathFromThePandemic on Twitter or email news@researchresearch.com.

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight