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Why diversity in STEM is vital to cancer research

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by Cancer Research UK | Analysis

3 March 2022

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Following the publication of the government’s R&D People & Culture Strategy, the House of Commons Science & Technology Committee launched an inquiry into underrepresentation in STEM. Cancer Research UK has an important role in fostering a diverse and inclusive research environment, and here we give a brief summary of our response to the consultation and explain why this matters for cancer research…

This entry is part 4 of 8 in the series Diversity in research

Cancer Research UK’s (CRUK) ambition to beat cancer relies on a diverse and inclusive scientific workforce.

People are at the heart of the research we fund – and we need a diverse and inclusive research community who can accelerate progress against cancer. By drawing on a wide range of ideas from a variety of backgrounds, a diverse research community will maximise scientific innovation and creativity for the benefit of all cancer patients.

In order to drive scientific progress, it is essential that all researchers, regardless of their backgrounds, are attracted to, retained and working in, cancer research.

The lack of diversity in academia continues to be an issue. For example, in 2017/18, just 3% of the 15,560 UK-funded PhD students were Black. At the senior level, there are only 85 Black professors within UK higher education institutions. This lack of diversity in the scientific workforce is a global problem – grant applications submitted to the US National Institutes of Health by white principal investigators (PIs) are 1.7 times more likely to be funded than those submitted by black PIs.

A lack of consistency in approaches to equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI), data collection and evidence gathering of what is effective means it is hard to assess impact and progress on interventions, to compare methods and outcomes between organisations, and to make clear recommendations about emerging good practice. A robust evidence base is essential for identifying barriers to individuals participating and thriving in cancer research.

Leading the way

We want to lead by example, to use our influence and work collaboratively to make cancer research funding available to all the best researchers. As such, we have put strategies in place to tackle inequalities in cancer through the research we fund.

CRUK published its EDI strategy in 2021, making a public commitment to change and hold ourselves accountable for our progress. Our vision is to create a charity where everyone feels like they belong, benefits from, and participates in, the work we do. We are committed to ensuring we apply this vision to our science funding and research activities – this includes reviewing and improving our own funding processes, policies and culture. CRUK was one of the UK’s first charity research funders to publish diversity data in our grant funding.

CRUK is developing a cancer inequalities strategy to drive research that generates evidence that can empower policy change with the aim of reducing cancer inequalities. Through engagement and consultation with others, including with patients and our research community, we will review how to address cancer inequalities across the research continuum through our research funding activities.

Key findings from CRUK’s diversity data in grant funding:

  • The profile of our grant applicants reflects trends across the biosciences sector: CRUK sees an underrepresentation of Black researchers across all applications, and we see fewer applications from female researchers at senior levels.
  • Researchers aged 41 to 50 years form the largest share of our Lead Applicants, accounting for a third of our applications.
  • Across all applications, success rates for male and female researchers are the same at 28%.
  • For fellowships, ethnic minority researchers have a lower chance of being successful when they apply to CRUK. White researchers have a success rate of 27%, compared to their ethnic minority colleagues at 11%.
  • Only 1% of our lead applicants declared a disability, lower than the proportion of biosciences academic staff who reported a disability at 3%.
  • Female and ethnic minority researchers hold fewer programme awards than their White and male colleagues. Female researchers received 28% of programme awards made since 2017 and 7% of programme awards were awarded to ethnic minority researchers.
  • Overall, the number of female researchers on our funding committees has nearly doubled in five years to 39%. This is higher than the proportion of female professors in the biosciences sector at 22%. We have at least 40% female membership on seven of our 13 committees.
  • The proportion of ethnic minority researchers on our funding committees stands at 14%, an increase from 12% in 2019. Three of our committees do not yet have any members disclosing an ethnic minority background.

CRUK’s EDI in research action plan aims to address issues identified in our diversity data and lays out our commitments to develop a more diverse and inclusive research community and contribute to tackling issues like underrepresentation and racial bias. This includes:

  • Ensuring more diverse researchers are attracted to, retained and working in, cancer research.
  • Using our influence to ensure a diverse and inclusive research culture.
  • Funding research of the highest quality that is relevant to, and where appropriate involves, a diverse population of research participants.

CRUK partners with expert charitable organisations and grassroots networks set up by researchers to help attract underrepresented researchers to a career in cancer research:

  • In2ScienceUK provide young school children from low-income and disadvantaged backgrounds with practical insights into the STEM sector.
  • In2ScienceUK’s In2Research programme supports undergraduate students from underrepresented backgrounds to progress to a PhD in cancer research.
  • The Black in Cancer Network runs a mentorship programme, pairing up black undergraduate students with cancer researchers via mentorships and summer placements.

CRUK has also introduced initiatives to help support and retain researchers from diverse backgrounds in cancer research:

  • StellarHE’s Diverse Leaders course is a leadership course for diverse leaders in the higher education sector. To date, CRUK has funded two researchers from ethnic minority.
  • CRUK’s Women of Influence mentorship scheme aims to tackle some of the barriers our female Fellows may face when progressing to senior positions. Our scheme pairs exceptional female scientists with leading businesswomen to provide early career researchers with support from outside of academia at a critical time to help them achieve their full potential as research leaders. More than 50 CRUK fellows have benefitted from their mentor’s experience in leadership and management since the scheme was established in 2014.

Bringing change

Fixing the system will take time and a collaborative effort and we must all take action now. Everyone – researchers, research institutions, research funders, industry, policymakers – needs to work together to bring about change.

CRUK makes the following recommendations:

  • The UK Government should develop a comprehensive, sector-wide strategy to increase diversity in the STEM research workforce.
  • All stakeholders should foster a positive research culture. It is incumbent upon everyone – researchers, research institutions, research funders, industry and policymakers to work together to achieve lasting change.
  • Funding bodies such as UKRI and Research England should develop or expand positive action schemes to address underrepresentation in research.
  • All stakeholders should take proactive steps to remove bias.
  • Better demographic data and evidence of effective EDI interventions is needed. Demographic data collection should be coordinated and harmonised across the STEM sector and any data analysis should be disaggregated and include intersectional data where possible.
  • All stakeholders should ensure COVID-19 does not further exacerbate diversity in STEM issues.

We take our role in addressing these issues very seriously – we know the best way to bring forward the day when all cancers are cured is to support the most inclusive and positive research environments. We will do this by ensuring we are at the forefront of removing barriers to research and tackling inequalities.

Latisha Gordon is a Policy Advisor at CRUK