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Knowledge Is Power—An Open Letter To UKRI

It is time to review systems that perpetuate research inequity, say Addy Adelaine and colleagues

We are ten Black women: professionals, academics, researchers and community representatives involved in research. We are writing to UKRI to call for a review of the systems and processes that perpetuate research inequity towards funding allocation and to stimulate reform within the process. 

We are concerned and disillusioned to learn that a major British funding organisation which made an explicit commitment to equality and which is legally bound by the public sector equality duty act (PSED), awarded £0 of £4.3 million to Black academic leads (in a UKRI and NIHR funded study) to explore Covid-19 and its disproportionate impact on Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic ‘BAME’ communities. We are deeply concerned that UKRI confirmed that no equality data was collected on this call and that one member of the awards assessment panel is co-investigator on three of the six successfully awarded studies. 

Like many other Black individuals involved in research, several of us are precariously employed. According to HESA data, only 1.3 per cent of full-time research positions in the UK are awarded to Black and mixed heritage women, highlighting systemic issues that result in lack of inclusion and persistent precarious employment in higher education. 

This year, we have seen our communities disproportionately affected by Covid-19, as this pandemic has illuminated many aspects of systemic and structural discrimination in the UK. We had hoped that this crucial research call would include a wide range of individuals and experts to explore the complex biological, social, cultural and political factors that are connected to the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on our community. 

The brutal deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and hundreds of other known and unknown Black citizens became a catalyst for highlighting structural and systemic racism and galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement. This ricocheted across the globe sparking statements of solidarity from UK higher education institutions and health funders decrying anti-Black racism. UKRI in its statement on Black Lives Matter said ‘we also know that racism takes many forms—including far more subtle forms that keep Black people out of the room and silence their voices’. Both UKRI and NIHR issued statements that promised to support anti-racist work that would involve ‘on-going and longer-term commitment of practising justice’ and to address ‘racism and structural barriers to minority communities in the research system’. 

We invite UKRI to hear our voices and bring us into the room. We wish to discuss what we feel went wrong with this specific scheme and the apparent lack of critical reflection on the inherent systems, processes and power imbalances: moving beyond an initial conversation about who received funding and who did not, to a conversation about how we move from representation to meaningful inclusion. 

We also would like to discuss further our concerns that there does not appear to be top priority on the impact of inequality and structural racism within the UK, despite these issues being raised by the Royal College of Nurses, Runnymede Trust and Public Health England. Whilst this issue has garnered reflection and response in other countries, we feel it is not being considered as a prominent point of concern within the UK. We also question the balance of panelists that have qualifications and expertise in health, those who have specific specialism and training in race, ethnicity and inequality as an independent field of inquiry, and representation from Patient and Public Involvement (PPI). 

We acknowledge these are complex issues encountered by many organisations. However, we believe it is integral, and in the spirit of UKRI’s commitment to Black Lives Matter, that there is a transparent process of review and discussion about how we ensure inclusivity, accountability and change in research. 

The outcome of this specific funding call appears inconsistent with UKRI’s explicit commitment to change. Furthermore, as Black women in academia and/or healthcare, we believe that we need to recognise differences of experience and thought rather than reducing communities to a ‘BAME’ monolith, which dehumanises us. We encourage you to explicitly consider intersectionality and the full range of concerns presented by Black individuals, many of whom have repeatedly expressed a desire to challenge and study the impact of systemic and structural racism. 

At this point, it is important to acknowledge while this letter has been brought about by this specific funding call, our aim is to call for immediate and long-term goals to bring about change in UKRI’s funding schemes. We hope all awardees or panelists will join our call to create a more inclusive, transparent and accountable system that will increase the quality and standard of research in the UK. 

In the short term, we recommend that UKRI: 

  1. Make transparent and public the panelists and selection criteria involved in forthcoming research call assessment 
  2. Consistently collect equality data without exception 
  3. Remove any panelist from the call assessment process if they are also associated with applications in that specific call. 

We are proposing four long-term actions for UKRI to consider: 

  1. To introduce safeguards so that Black academics and other marginalised individuals can speak freely about their concerns and the challenges they face without concern for retribution or discrimination in future applications 
  2. To consistently collect equality data and publish this data in a manner that allows for disaggregated consideration of race, ethnicity and other protected characteristics 
  3. To commit to ensuring equity in decision making power, especially when it comes to the allocation of funding 
  4. To focus on and direct structural change for Black, Asian, indigenous, women, disabled, impoverished, LGBTQI+ and other minoritised and marginalised communities that involves researchers from these communities and clear steps to ensure that culture change happens at institutions that hold UKRI funding 

We all have a responsibility to hold our friends, our allies, our institutions, our funders and ourselves accountable for missteps and actions that exclude particular groups through honest, open dialogue and conversation. We want the funding bodies to be part of this critical reflection process. In the UK, we have to brace ourselves for the possibility of a second wave of Covid 19 this winter. Black and ‘BAME’ communities have taken on roles that yield high risk of exposure due to increased face-to-face frontline contact within the NHS and in essential services. Many have lost their lives to help this country in the response. This is a matter of life and death for our community. Research affects policy and policy directly affects our lives. 

Members of affected communities should be leaders in the response and not just be supportive voices within the research framework. All organisations must look internally and consider how their own practices and procedures might perpetuate inequality and voicelessness. Research funding and processes must be self-reflective about power and inequity. 

As researchers, healthcare professionals, activists and ordinary citizens, we are turning our pain into power to transform and empower our communities. On Thursday 10 September, we are organising Knowledge Equity, 2020 an online event to discuss Knowledge Equity, the UKRI funding schemes and how we organise collective action to ensure transparency, accountability and diversity, intellectually, thematically and representatively. 

We are asking UKRI to work with us to truly turn the course of history and to end racism—structural, systemic, institutional, discriminatory and hostile—for good. 

We will not rest until we are all free. The time for change is now. 


Addy Adelaine, Accountability & Inclusion Researcher, CEO of Ladders4Action 

Chisomo Kalinga, Medical and Health Humanities Researcher, Precarious Migrant 

Furaha Asani: Health and Equalities Researcher, Precarious Migrant 

Ruth Ngozika Agbakoba, Founder of the PhD Podcast promoting Equity, Diversity & Inclusion 

Natasha Smith, Women’s Health Advocate, Patient Public Volunteer (PPV) 

Olumide Adisa, Gender and Domestic Abuse Researcher 

Janine Francois, Cultural Activist and Researcher 

Michelle King-Okoye, Health and Cultural Studies Researcher, Associate of Ladders4Action 

Paulette Williams, Founder of Leading Routes 

Ruby Zelzer, Scientist and Health Researcher 

*This letter is signed in an individual capacity. The views and opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect that of any organisation they are associated with or employed by. 

To add your support to the open letter, visit the Knowledge is Power website here