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We want every scientist to thrive in cancer research

Dr Iain Foulkes
by Iain Foulkes | Opinion

28 July 2023

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Three Black female researchers at a conference

A diverse research community which represents the breadth of our population is vital if we want to be confident we have the best talent addressing the full range of questions in cancer research, the answers to which will lead to the best outcomes for everyone. But right now, the cancer research sector doesn’t represent the wider population.  

The statistics depict a progressive loss of women at each step of the career pipeline, and a profound lack of Black scientists at all career stages.   

Diversity is integral to excellence and recognising this, Cancer Research UK launched its first cross-organisational EDI strategy in 2021. Since then, we’ve been working hard across the charity to embed these EDI ambitions in all that we do. 

I am passionate about ensuring that our research workforce is inclusive and diverse, and that our research outputs benefit people equally across the population.  As Executive Director of Research and Innovation I’m passionate about driving long-term change and am convinced progress against cancer will improve if we are successful.  

To keep driving progress, and to hold ourselves accountable, in 2021 we published our first “EDI in research action plan. This plan lays out our commitments as a funder to develop a more diverse and inclusive research community and contribute to tackling systemic issues like underrepresentation and racial bias.  

This week we’re celebrating the positive progress we’ve made, with the launch of our Driving Change” report, some of which I am going to reflect on in this article.    

But it’s important to note that the progress we’ve made at Cancer Research UK in inequalities spans far beyond what we have done in the Research and Innovation directorate. It is in fact through collaboration across the charity that we have been able to implement bigger changes and begin making a true difference. And so, to complement this piece, in the next article my colleague Ian Walker, who is the Executive Director of Policy, Information and Communications, will cover some of the progress driven by his directorate.   

Diversifying the talent pipeline 

One of the cross-org priority areas set out in our strategy was to develop a more diverse and inclusive research community through the research we fund. 

Equity in research stretches far beyond numbers. It’s not just about diversity in the number of people we fund, it’s about creating equal opportunity and experience. And we want everyone to feel they can go into a career in cancer research and have every chance to thrive and progress.    

So, we’ve partnered with expert charities and grassroots organisations to drive strategic initiatives at all stages of the research pipeline.  

Our partnership with In2Science and In2Research helps provide opportunities for young people and undergraduates from disadvantaged backgrounds to receive mentorship as well as opportunities to build a career in cancer research.  

To help address the underrepresentation of Black students in university we have joined forces with Black in Cancer for the Black in Cancer Mentorship Programme. This programme connects Black undergraduates with cancer research professionals who give career advice and provides opportunities for cancer research summer placements.    

Two women speaking at a conference
Cancer Research UK's Women of Influence Fellows Event which was held at the Royal Society in London on Wednesday 8th March 2023

To champion women in cancer research, in 2014 we started our Women of Influence mentorship scheme. This initiative pairs postdoctoral researchers, fellows and group leaders with some of the UK’s leading women in business.  

The programme facilitates an environment where mentors can share their wealth of experience to empower women to progress in their research career and into leadership roles. Over the past 9 years the programme has gone from strength to strength and has seen around 90 researchers benefitting from their mentor’s experience. 

“One of the most important things I’ve gained is becoming more confident and prepared to take more risks. To give an example, I decided to apply for a promotion to professorship sooner than I would have done if I hadn’t been part of Women of Influence. And I was successful!”

- Professor Evropi Theodoratou, a Cancer Research UK Career Development Fellow at the University of Edinburgh and a mentee on our Women of Influence programme

Opening up academia through dedicated funding 

Data has consistently shown us that access to higher education, particularly postgraduate studies, is far from equitable for people from ethnic minority communities.  

In fact, a recent Advance HE’s Equality in higher education report showed that less than 1% of UK professors are Black, with Black people persistently disadvantaged by racial inequities. 

One way in which we’re trying to tackle this issue at Cancer Research UK is through dedicated funding schemes.  

We want to attract and support talented Black people early in the research career pipeline and develop the next generation of Black leaders in cancer research. So, we’ve partnered with the Wellcome Sanger Institute to co-fund the Excellence Postdoctoral Fellowship for people from a Black heritage background.   

We’re especially proud of our new Black Leaders in Cancer PhD Scholarship Programme, which we developed in collaboration with Black in Cancer and the Windsor Fellowships. It’s currently in its pilot year and supporting four new students from late 2023. Students will receive a fully funded place on one of our doctoral training schemes at a Cancer Research UK centre, to take advantage of the well-established training programmes and world-class research environments there. 

Cancer is an exciting topic to research – the field evolves rapidly, and there’s still so much that we don’t know. I’m looking forward to the rotation year so I can get to know different areas in more detail and I’m going to keep my mind open before deciding which route to go down with my research.

Programmes like Black Leaders in Cancer, which aim to diversify the research community, are really important. For me, it’s partly about showing other students who might be considering a PhD what options are available, and what we can achieve. I’m excited to see how the programme grows over the next couple of years.

- Jade-Ellen is one of our first four students to take part in our Black Leaders in Cancer PhD Scholarship Programme, and begins her PhD at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre in late 2023

We are showing how funding decisions are being made 

To support early- and mid-career researchers, we’re taking them behind the scenes to observe our panel and committee meetings. 

People sitting at a table with laptops

The scheme is open to all, but has an element of positive action with spaces prioritised for researchers from ethnic minority groups and women researchers.   

With this scheme, we want to enhance the transparency of our review process. We hope this will support people from underrepresented backgrounds to grow into the next generation of research leaders by showing them what to expect during the application process and help boost their chance of success.  

Bringing together underrepresented communities to drive positive change 

We recognise the value of connecting people who share common experiences and challenges. We want to work together and listen and learn as we continue to push for culture change.   

Over the past year, we’ve sponsored two events to bring together underrepresented groups in cancer research.  

The event, Postdoc Futures, united women from across our postdoctoral researcher community to connect and collaborate. Our first event in 2023 brought together nearly 70 women from across our network, with talks from senior leaders who’ve had successful careers in different sectors with delegates getting the opportunity to discuss challenges and potential solutions together.   

We also partner with Black in Cancer, and were proud to support their first Black in Cancer Conference in October 2022. The event was buzzing with more than 200 people attending, where we celebrated their contributions to all aspects of cancer research and oncology. 

It had always been a dream of ours to bring together communities that had been communicating over social media and oceans over the past couple of years. To finally be able to do it and feel the support and energy from the scientific, medical, and advocacy communities was so electric.

“Black people are still underrepresented in research while being overrepresented in cancer mortality. But seeing patients reach out to us to find community and resources has been amazing. It means our impact has already gone beyond what we had imagined.

- Sigourney Bonner is the co-founder and CEO of Black in Cancer and a PhD student at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute
Conference delegates sitting at tables at the Black in Cancer conference
A collaboration between Cancer Research UK and Black in Cancer, this inaugural event brought together scientists from across the globe to celebrate, collaborate and showcase Black excellence in cancer research and medicine. The event took place at Illuminate at the Science Museum in London on Monday 10th - Tuesday 11th October 2022

Breaking down inequalities in research 

As well as improving the diversity of our researchers, we’ve also been working towards trying to improve the nature of research itself such that we can better understand why cancer incidence is higher in different groups and how to reduce inequalities in diagnoses, treatment and outcomes. 

To achieve this, we need to act in two areas. 

Firstly, research needs to be designed to be truly inclusive.  

This applies to clinical trials of new interventions and clinical collection of samples and data. An increasing number of studies demonstrate that even when socioeconomic and access to care factors are accounted for, incidence and mortality gaps persist between ethnic minority populations for some cancer types, which suggests a role for biological contributors which we need to interrogate through our discovery science portfolio. 

To start addressing this, in 2022 we introduced a new policy for research involving the recruitment of people that set expectations to include underserved groups in relevant studies and new questions on diversity are now included in applications. 

Secondly, research that focuses on understanding and addressing the impacts of differences and inequalities on cancer outcomes needs further support. 

Cancer Research UK are already funding several research projects to address cancer inequalities, for example Dr Tanimola Martin’s research into ethnic inequality in diagnosis and outcomes of cancer, and we are looking to grow this area in the years ahead. 

The long road ahead 

We are proud of the progress we are making. But we are not complacent.  

Many of the priorities set out in our EDI strategy aren’t quick wins. They take time, persistence and patience to cultivate. We won’t stop striving for significant long-term change.  

By creating an inclusive and diverse community of cancer researchers, we’ll not only support the brightest minds to thrive, we’ll also further our mission of beating cancer – for everyone.   

Keep your eye out for our next article from Ian Walker, to read about some of the other initiatives that we have been working on at Cancer Research UK.