An update on our equality, diversity and inclusion activities

Our immediate attention is on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the potential and emerging impact on the EPS research community.

We hope the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) publication of diversity results for UKRI funding data last week will prompt discussion in our community.

In the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), we have a tradition of exploring data to help understand issues and opportunities in our portfolio and we look forward to sharing more data insights with you over the coming months.

Our immediate attention is on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. At its recent meeting, the EPSRC Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Strategic Advisory Group (EDI SAG) discussed the potential and emerging impacts of COVID-19 on the EPS research community.

A key concern is that, although the current global pandemic is affecting everyone, this impact is being felt unequally across the EPS community and may more negatively impact the work and careers of certain groups, particularly those facing additional challenges such as caring responsibilities, at higher risk from the pandemic or people already marginalised in the research community.

In this blog we highlight some of our immediate work related to COVID-19 and our on-going priorities.

We have been listening to our research communities concerns and want to thank those who have already highlighted to us some of the key challenges being faced, particularly the impact that the current crisis is having on our researchers’ ability to apply for funding opportunities and to keep their current grants ‘active’.

We understand that the present situation may also impact on people’s ability to respond to peer review requests. If you are struggling with your principal investigator response or reviewer deadlines, then please contact us through your usual portfolio contacts and we will endeavour to adjust deadlines where possible.

Understanding underrepresentation

We are aware that pressures due to the current situation may exacerbate the under representation of certain groups within our portfolio. To help us understand this, we have put in place further and more frequent diversity monitoring.

For example, we already monitor application and success rates as well as participation in peer review activities, and we are now adding grant extension requests due to COVID-19, doctoral student intakes, the number of applications received from different protected characteristic groups and community participation in workshops.

Underrepresentation of researchers from minority ethnic backgrounds in EPS remains one of EPSRC’s persistent EDI challenges, with ethnic diversity in our grant portfolio an area of particular concern. We have shared our data in discussion with our advisory group and Inclusion Matters teams.

Now, to improve our understanding of the challenges facing our researchers and doctoral students from minority ethnic backgrounds, we are about to launch a race equality initiative. Engagement with our community will include ‘Have your say’ community surveys’ and a strategic dialogue campaign with senior management in our partner universities.

This engagement will enable us to build knowledge and gather insights to better understand the factors that influence the participation of minority ethnic researchers and doctoral students in our portfolio.

We will work with UKRI colleagues, in line with the UKRI Black Lives Matter statement issued on 9 June.

For example, you may already have seen the advance notice of the Research England and the Office for Students joint funding competition to improve access and participation for Black, Asian and minority ethnicity postgraduate research students issued on 6 May.

Flexible working practices

The current situation highlights the importance of researchers and doctoral students being able to work flexibly and in a way that meets their personal circumstances. This is a key, often unmet, need across the EPS community and as such formed the focus of our first ‘Have your say’ community survey.

We would like to thank all those that responded. Based on the insights that we gained on barriers to identifying and accessing support we are:

  • working with our research organisation partners to raise awareness of the support that we provide and how this can be accessed
  • reviewing how flexible working circumstances are incorporated into and assessed in our grant proposals.

Details of the current support available for flexible working and the key aspects of peer review.

Women in engineering and physical sciences

The challenge of the under-representation of women in the engineering and physical sciences continues, with gender diversity in our large by value grant portfolio a current area of concern.

The effect of the pandemic could exacerbate this by reducing still further the number of large grant applications EPSRC receives from women. We have looked at the data in our grant portfolio to better understand the applications we receive and the portfolio we support. We found:

  • women are consistently under-represented in EPSRC’s principal investigator applicant pool across our portfolio
  • application numbers from women for large grants are particularly low
  • while success rates by number are similar for men and women, they are not by value
  • significant differences in applied for grant sizes across genders, with women consistently applying for smaller grants.

We hope sharing this information will enable an open dialogue about the trends that we see and how to address them.

To be able to support a diverse and inclusive research environment we also need to ensure that our peer review processes are diverse and inclusive. We are starting to see improvements in the diversity of our panel and peer review college membership.

The number of female Peer Review College members has more than doubled from 2011/12 to 2019/20 (from preliminary data, in preparation). Since the introduction of our mixed gender panel policy, the percentage of female panel members has increased from 13.8% female in 2013/14 to 32.2% in 2019/20.

The number of panel members describing themselves as minority ethnic has risen from 4.7% in 2011/12 to 12.3% in 2019/20. This is a step in the right direction, but this proportion still remains low compared to the related EPS academic population from the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

Two important messages

Two key messages from our EDI Advisory Group were that the pandemic will have a long-term negative impact on some people’s careers. We need to pay attention to this long after restrictions on research activities are lifted. Secondly we need to increase communication and engagement with our research community.

Tackling the EDI challenges in engineering and physical sciences research is a shared responsibility between us, other funders and all of you in the community and we look forward to seeing your inputs, insights and ideas over the coming months.

This is the website for UKRI: our seven research councils, Research England and Innovate UK. Let us know if you have feedback.