In recent years, equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) have become buzzwords in the world of research, with funding agencies and institutions making efforts to promote these core values. While there has been growing awareness of the importance of EDI in research, we still have a long way to go. The current system does not work for everyone, and we urgently need to take a critical look at whether our efforts are actually making a difference.
First, it is important to consider the wide array of different types of underrepresented groups in research. Women, people of colour, and individuals with disabilities are just a few examples of groups that face barriers in the current system. For example, a study on “Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering,” by the National Science Foundation highlights that female scientists and engineers are less likely to be employed full-time and earn lower median salaries than their male counterparts across many occupations. In the U.S., underrepresented minorities only hold a small share of academic doctoral positions (8.9 per cent), which is markedly lower than their representation within the population (about a third of the U.S. population ages 18-64). Likewise, Indigenous, Black, and racially diverse professors continue to be unrepresented at Canadian research institutions.
In addition, racial disparities in grant funding negatively impact the long-term career prospects of underrepresented groups, particularly Black scientists.
Establish clear and transparent criteria for funding and hiring
So, we’ve all heard about various initiatives to make things better, but what can actually be done to assess whether or not they are having any impact, and what else can be done to overcome EDI barriers? The first step is to establish and track clear and transparent criteria for funding and hiring decisions. Without such clarity, the vagaries of “decision-making” are inaccessible to those unfamiliar with the system in question and can lead to feelings of unequal treatment between candidates. For example, the Canada Research Chairs Program publicly provides information on the requirements and practices for recruitment and hiring of faculty. The U.K.-based Wellcome Trust aims to be an inclusive employer and funder and posts its diversity, equity and inclusion strategy.
Define, track and respond to your metrics for program success
Next, in order to track the success of initiatives and programs, critical milestones and outcomes need to be defined, both short-term and long-term metrics. While metrics to track and assess biases are not easy to define, several funding agencies, such as the European Research Council (ERC), the American National Institute of Health (NIH) and Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council collect, analyze, and publish demographic data on applicants and grantees for significant grants. Overall, the publicly available data signals progress, but significant inequalities in race, ethnicity, and gender, particularly at higher career stages, continue to persist through the decades.
To close these gaps, organizations continue to tweak their policies, such as introducing eligibility extensions due to parental leave, leave of absence, or additional factors such as clinical training. However, data on these policies in relation to grant applicants and funding decisions are still largely lacking, and their long-term impact on career patterns needs to be evaluated over the years to come to measure their impact.
Some funding agencies are also experimenting with new approaches based on Research on Research, such as randomization techniques, including partial randomization or lottery-type selection procedures, to minimize the contribution of conscious and unconscious biases in the selection process and to reduce funding inequities. Again, we need to publicize the successes (and failures) of various EDI initiatives in order to understand which policies and practices have real-world impact.
Create a positive culture
It’s also important to note that EDI is not just about tracking numbers on demographics, but also about creating a positive culture and environment where everyone feels included and equally valued. This can involve implementing effective diversity training programs for staff and researchers in the workplace and creating mentorship programs for underrepresented groups to actively seek and promote diverse perspectives in research at institutional levels such as universities and the workforce. In addition, principles of EDI must also be incorporated throughout the research process, including through scientific publishing, citations, and prestigious research awards.
As a community, we have a responsibility to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to participate and contribute to research. By working together, setting clear criteria, and tracking progress through metrics, we can create a more inclusive environment for all members of society, regardless of their background or identity, and ensure that EDI efforts are truly successful.