By Christine Boinett, Alice Matimba, Isabela Malta, Emmanuela Oppong and Catherine Holmes from Your Digital Mentor Podcast.
To celebrate Black History Month, Your Digital Mentor Podcast released a special episode on equity, diversity and inclusion in science. In it, we interviewed academics from across the globe on the issues surrounding inequalities in science and how things need to change.
The series of interviews started with Sabrina Fleurimé, from BBSTEM, a non-profit organisation campaigning for balance and representation of black individuals in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). In this interview, we highlight the importance of diverse, relatable role pin science. A study in the US found that black students who had two black teachers by third grade were 32 per cent more likely to go to college than black students who were never taught by black teachers.
In the UK, while students from African descent are proportionally more likely than their white counterparts to study STEM-related degrees, they are less likely to progress to scientific jobs after graduating than white students. There are of course many reasons for this, one of them being the lack of representation in academic teaching staff. BBSTEM research revealed 6.2 per cent of UK residents enrolled in STEM subjects at university are black. Yet a London School of Economics report found that black academics accounted for only 0.2 per cent of professors and 0.4 per cent of researchers. It is clear that we need more diverse representation in academia and nothing rings more true than the BBSTEM motto; “STEM matters, representation matters, you matter”.
In Africa, the remnants of colonialism and the living impacts of dividing borders still resonate in all aspects of the continent’s endeavours, including global health research. Africa, which holds about 15 per cent of the world’s population and carries 25 per cent of its disease burden, only accounts for 1.1 per cent of global research and development investment. But there is also capacity on the continent, with academic researchers such as Professor Collet Dandara working to ensure that talents reach their fullest potential.
Collet Dandara is a professor at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and an active member of the “black caucus” demanding change and transformation in top African universities, particularly in health faculties and biomedical research units.
During our discussions with him, Professor Dandara pointed out the importance of representation of Africans in positions of power. He recounted one of his experiences of having his previously all white class turn into 50 per cent black soon after his joining. He said: “Because I was there, black students started to feel like they can also do it.”
He says that systems and structures that influence science and research are mostly led by white people—which needs to change. He faced challenges of “subtle” exclusion when he started work as a black African man. To help the next generation not encounter these micro-incivilities, he works hard to reach out to students so that they can “come, show their potential and break through just like I did”. Professor Dandara, along with his team of scientists and researchers, connect with students from underserved backgrounds and expose them to the sciences. He encourages Africans to overcome colonial borders and collaborate and increase regional capacity in global health.
A 2018 article published by The Lancet Global Health called for an end of the ‘parachute’ scientist. This is where someone publishes primary research done in a country, usually low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), but no author from that country is included. Addressing inequities in research will undoubtedly need some self-reflection and a concerted effort from everyone in order to affect change and close the gap between research output from institutes in high income countries and LMICs.
We invited Professor Iruka Okeke from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria and Professor Eva Maria C. Cutiongco-de la Paz from the National Institute of Health, University of the Philippines to discuss their experiences as researchers from LMICs in global health.
In the discussions with Professor Okeke, she highlights the challenges faced by labs in Nigeria, which can be echoed across the continent. She also discussed how to overcome them to be able to deliver the same level of research as labs based in High Income Countries (HICs).
Professor Okeke said she encourages:
"those in the global south to remember that they bring a lot of strength and intellectual heft to international collaborations"
Professor Cutiongco-de la Paz highlighted the need for people to focus on research that has a direct impact on their own countries. She suggests lobbying for support from local and international agencies to not only fund research projects that address these issues, but also “build capacity of researchers as well as institutions”.
Both guests reflected on the need for further training and research initiatives to address local issues. Knowledge should reach a global audience to ensure diverse voices are amplified within academic research.
Sadly, research has many complex issues that need to be addressed, and requires time as well as allies to champion change. We encourage our readers to read Madhu Pai’s Forbes article that touches on some of these and gives food for thought.
Diversity and inclusion in academic institutions
In part two of the bonus episode, we interviewed Professor Ijeoma Uchegbu from University College London and Dr Saher Ahmed from the Wellcome Sanger Institute, who gave their views about addressing race inequality at academic and research institutions in the UK.
Professor Uchegbu emphasised the impact of biased academic and research review panels. This can mean that genuinely talented individuals fail to get selected due to limited representation and diversity.
One way to counteract this, which Dr Ahmed attributed to her success, is having supportive sponsors. But she notes that finding good mentors and accessing the right networks can be challenging for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) scientists.
Professor Uchegbu described a model where senior academics can have “protégées” who they mentor and take to important events, exposing them to influential people who may in future be involved in review panels for promotion or research grants.
It is established that BAME people, particularly women, face barriers in progressing their careers. Our guests referred to the “sharp funnel” effect where there are already limited opportunities within academic departments and access to research funding. They also noted that seeking feedback is important to prepare for future opportunities. While organisations should tirelessly acknowledge underlying racism and discrimination, Professor Uchegbu stressed the need to focus on student attainment and staff progression and ensuring that individuals get the recognition they deserve. In addition, researchers and institutions should place high value on diversity to achieve better outcomes complemented by incentives for managers and grant funding. Finally, Dr Ahmed reiterated that institutions should provide an environment which promotes empowerment, education and allyship for minority groups. Overall it is clear that everyone has a role to play in supporting organisations’ declarations to develop equitable, diverse and inclusive strategies.
“If you understand that life is hard and that success is hard then you can be prepared for any challenge.”
This episode highlights the need for research to be inclusive and diverse. The current COVID-19 pandemic has shown that a global collaborative effort made up of scientists, doctors, policy makers and governments will be needed to achieve any form of success. The importance of diverse voices is now more important than ever.