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Examining equality in our grant giving

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by Cancer Research UK | Research Feature

25 February 2021

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Headshot of researchers and leading voices in EDI

As we launch the Cancer Research UK diversity data in grant funding report, some of our researchers and other leading voices in equality in research share their thoughts on where we are, what we are doing, and how we might do it better. 

At Cancer Research UK, we all share a common mission of beating cancer, and beating cancer means beating it for everyone. 

We’ve long felt that Cancer Research UK has a role to play in building a better research environment and when it comes to addressing systemic issues of underrepresentation in research, there is a lot of work to do. Having gathered information since 2017, we are reporting the diversity data for our funding schemes for the first time alongside our equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in research action plan. Both of these are part of our wider EDI strategy which aims to embed EDI across the whole charity.  

An important part of this journey is dialogue with our researchers and other leading voices in equality, diversity and inclusion. We want to listen in order to understand and address systemic inequalities to create the best environment for researchers to thrive. 

Dr Lynn Asante-Asare: “Adhering to practices that foster EDI needs to be part of a moral code of conduct for CRUK scientists.” 

If we are all judged by our scientific abilities alone, then we would not need to question why CRUK’s fellowships predominantly go to White researchers because funding would be allocated based on merit. But if, at the very beginning of our careers, some scientists are disadvantaged due to characteristics other than merit, then we must explore how these feed into the disproportionate allocation of funding amongst women, ethnic minorities, and those with disabilities. 

The ‘leaky pipeline’ describes the underrepresentation of women, compared to men, at different stages of the career ladder in academia. Fantastic progress has been made to tighten this pipe and I applaud the increase in membership of women and ethnic minorities on some of CRUK’s funding committees. CRUK attribute this to the introduction of stipulations and active recruitment, so similar approaches could be used to address the gender and racial imbalances seen at the earlier stages of the funding pipeline – such as through the creation of ring-fenced funding.  

Lack of success at the interview stage is a clear bottleneck for the progression of women and ethnic minorities through the funding pipeline. If this is due to applicant-dependent factors, then CRUK-wide initiatives around interview preparation are worth considering. Could more be done to mobilise the researchers aged 41 to 60 and above to support this without any conflicts of interest? As the most likely recipients of CRUK funding, dominating applications, allocated awards and committee positions, the report highlights this community as an exceptional source of experience and untapped potential for internal mentorship and coaching. To maximise progress in this area, EDI efforts, which are traditionally driven by early career women and ethnic minorities, should be better equalised across each age range, gender, race, and level of seniority. 

Lack of success at the interview stage is a clear bottleneck for the progression of women and ethnic minorities.

It may also be useful to include re-submission data in future reports. The ‘Matthew effect’ describes how those previously funded are viewed more favourably and dominate the pool of applicants for future funding rounds, in comparison to those who were unsuccessful. Are underrepresented researchers, who are the least successful in being awarded CRUK funding, less likely to reapply? There may also be a bottleneck here. 

If the disparities highlighted above are due to committee dependent factors, then initiatives focusing on changing the attitudes of those tasked with allocating funding are useful – such as bias training, and reverse mentoring. However, interventions that bypass one’s willingness to unlearn practices that reinforce barriers are equally important, such as anonymising applications, enforcing anti-bullying and harassment guidelines and agreeing to pledges. Adhering to practices that foster EDI, through the development and enforcement of relevant policies, needs to be part of a moral code of conduct for CRUK scientists. 

Reporting aggregated data for ethnic minorities can be misleading because this masks the inequalities that exist within individual groups, such as the grave underrepresentation of Black researchers. Therefore, targeted efforts to improve recruitment and retention of ethnic minority researchers should always be informed by trends seen within disaggregated individual groups, irrespective of any future improvements that may be observed in the overall aggregated data. 

Although difficult, it is time to challenge meritocracy and consider if the inequalities existing in society at large – gender discrimination, racism, ableism, to name but a few – are also reflected in our research community. This is why reporting funding data is so important, and I sincerely commend CRUK for going beyond simply reporting the data by including well thought out interventions. I have high hopes for our future as a research community.  

Lynn is a visiting scientist at the CRUK Cambridge Institute and is now completing her medical training at the University of Leicester. She is also a member of CRUK’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Board. 

Paulette Williams and Chantelle Lewis: “CRUK must be holistic, purposeful and radical if they are serious about addressing the variety of gendered and racialised inequities this report highlights.” 

The CRUK grant diversity report reads as a considerable move in the right direction for the organisation’s objectives to tackle the inequities and uneven outcomes published in this three-year data collection.  

As the largest global independent cancer research charity, and as leaders in the biosciences, CRUK are setting a constructive example for multiple sectors on the virtues of transparency on existing equality and diversity data.  

As is declared throughout the report, CRUK – like many others – are now beginning to acknowledge that inclusivity is essential to the mandate of their remit. With this, CRUK goals should now focus on improving delivery for the variety of researcher and staff populations, as well as aiming to better represent the patients in need of their research. 

This report also reads as a further exemplification of how far the research community more broadly must go to move towards equity within their differing recruitment and funding processes. As with the widening participation efforts that have been encouraged in the education and research communities for decades, CRUK must commit to policies that are long, medium and short term. Though the data reads as a familiar story – the implementation of such policies by CRUK must be holistic, purposeful and radical if they are serious about addressing the variety of gendered and racialised inequities this report highlights.  

At Leading Routes, we are clear that short-term policy initiatives such as positive action must be accompanied by an active and ongoing investment in cultural change within an organisation. For this reason, we would suggest that future reports consider the influence of CRUK management structures and decision makers outside of funding committees, on the cultures which clearly contribute to creating the conditions for the data published in this report. Also, the gendered and ethnic composition across all pay scales should be considered to ensure that CRUK is recognising the importance of inclusivity and career progression for all. This is important for the existing and potential employees, but more broadly is likely to have a positive impact on future funding decisions.  

Gendered and ethnic composition across all pay scales should be considered to ensure that CRUK is recognising the importance of inclusivity and career progression for all.

In future reports, CRUK should consider disaggregating the ethnicity data further; especially with the ‘Asian’ and ‘Mixed’ categories. We would also be encouraged to see data which incorporates a sub-analysis of ethnicity and gender combined. For example, the report identifies Black researchers as the most underrepresented group overall with no detail on gender, such as the proportion of Black Caribbean women researchers. Whilst small numbers compromise statistical significance, we would suggest that such debates do not detract from the real issue of very low representation.  

It remains essential for sector leaders to publish and report annually on their equality and diversity data; but for these to serve their purpose of tangible change and evolution for the given organisation, they must not continue to be an exercise in equality and diversity, but rather, a reminder of the work that needs to be done. These reports are a small starting point for the purposeful interventionalist policies that must follow.  

Paulette is founder and managing director of Leading Routes, an initiative that aims to prepare the next generation of Black academics. She is also an MA student at the Department for Psychosocial Studies at Birkbeck, University of London. 

Chantelle is deputy director of Leading Routes. She is also a researcher, sociologist and podcaster based at Goldsmith’s College. 

Dr Sophie Acton: “It’s really pleasing to see major funders like CRUK prioritising research culture and starting to address inequalities in research.” 

It is positive to see equal success rates between male and female applicants overall. It is also clear that CRUK has made conscious efforts to balance gender across its funding committees. These data also highlight efforts to further diversify committees with the inclusion of junior researchers on these panels.  

However, when looking closely at the data, there are some areas where differences still exist; female researchers and researchers from an ethnic minority background appear to be at a disadvantage. I noticed this particularly in the data referring to success at interview for fellowship awards. Although the cohorts presented here are reasonably small numbers of applicants, the proportion of ethnic minority applicants unsuccessful at interview stage was much higher than for White applicants. There is a similar pattern for female fellowship applicants compared to their male peers. It can be assumed that the proposals submitted were of equally high quality and received excellent feedback following peer review in order to be invited for interview. In my opinion, these data could point to either a lack of confidence or preparation for the interview or potentially unconscious bias at the in-person phase of the application process. CRUK could try to address this by encouraging all fellowship applicants to arrange practice interviews with their host institutions, and to provide clear guidance on the interview structure in advance to help all applicants to prepare and perform to the best of their ability.  

One other notable statistic is the reduction in female researchers funded by CRUK at senior levels through programme awards. In this case, there is not any clear difference in success rate but instead a reduction in applications received from female team leaders. It is possible that these researchers have been successfully funded from other sources, but I suspect that other funders would find a similar pattern in their own datasets. In that case, we must ask what has happened to those successful female fellowship holders, and what trajectory has their career taken following their fellowship awards? The data published here cannot answer that, but I would encourage CRUK to track the careers of their researchers to investigate further. CRUK could also proactively and directly encourage senior researchers from underrepresented groups to apply for programme awards.  

What has happened to those successful female fellowship holders, and what trajectory has their career taken following their fellowship awards?

As data continues to be collected, I would be interested to see further analysis comparing other factors such as total value of grants awarded along with personal salary levels requested, since other UK-wide data published recently suggests that female researchers may be disadvantaged in other more subtle ways.   

It’s really pleasing to see major funders like CRUK prioritising research culture and starting to address inequalities in research. These data are a benchmark to be used to pin-point where issues arise and to measure the effectiveness of new policies going forwards.   

Sophie is a CRUK fellow and junior group leader at the UCL Laboratory for Molecular Cell Biology (LMCB). She is also co-chair of LMCB’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee.    


Please do have a look at our diversity report and EDI in research action plan. We are really interested in not just your feedback on what we’re doing, but also your ideas about how we can work together to improve cancer research for everyone.  

If you want to get in contact, please do so at [email protected]