Viewpoint: We need to broaden participation in research and innovation

Northern lights (Aurora Borealis) seen in Iceland.

Our Chief Executive Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser shares her thoughts on what UKRI’s latest diversity data tells us about changing the research and innovation system.

One of the most inspiring UK Research and Innovation (UKRI)-funded projects I have so far had the privilege to visit is the Birmingham City University Realising Innovative Student Enterprise (RISE) programme. RISE is a start-up support programme for students, funded by the Research England Development fund. It provides a wide range of free facilities, training and advice to help students start and grow businesses.

On my visit there I met a very diverse group of highly motivated and entrepreneurial students with a wealth of ideas and talent. They were starting companies based on everything from smart materials and novel therapeutics, through to a range of innovative social enterprises. With people like this fired up to use research and innovation to make a difference, the UK has a bright future.

The RISE students are impressive exemplars of how research and innovation fuel a high productivity, high growth economy, and affordable world-leading public services. This requires both high quality research and innovation, and its rapid adoption and diffusion across the public, private and third sectors.

At its core, high quality research and innovation is collaborative, creative, open-minded problem solving. There is a wealth of compelling evidence that this is best achieved when diverse ideas and experiences are brought together in environments where they are welcomed and valued.

This is easy to say and hard to do. It requires a culture that values difference and disagreement, in the context of the insecurity inherent in intellectual risk-taking, exacerbated by the competitive nature of research and innovation, in a world where there will always be more good ideas than there is money to pursue them.

Insecurity and competition for limited resources all too often drive division and tribalism, when they are best mitigated by collaboration and inclusion. These divisive pressures not only undermine high quality research and innovation, but also create barriers between disciplines, between research and innovation, and between research and innovation and wider society.

This is the heart of the challenge we face. We urgently need to build an innovation-led economy to pull the UK out of its current precarious economic state. This requires a diverse, connected, resilient research and innovation system, deeply embedded across our economy and our society. This is enshrined in the principles for change as a golden thread running through UKRI’s 5-year strategy, transforming tomorrow together, creating opportunities and benefits for all.

UKRI, which reaches across the whole research and innovation system, is in a unique position to embed incentives that support the creativity and collaboration needed to drive progress and capture all its benefits. Equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) are therefore core to UKRI’s vision and mission. They are critical ingredients in breaking down the barriers we have created, barriers which are locking people on to narrow career trajectories, inside restrictive disciplinary and sector boundaries.

Today we are publishing our annual diversity data for our grant awards and PhD studentships. These data are essential for us to understand the nature of the barriers in the current system, and to dismantle them. The picture revealed is different for different disciplines, and for the different characteristics for which we have data.

2 elements stand out. The first is the narrowness of the demographic from which our current applicant community is drawn. And the second is often higher success rates for people from this narrow demographic. Both these observations are likely to have multiple causes, all of which must be addressed. Among them is evidence that people who bring different perspectives, interests and experiences into research and innovation tend to bring more disruptive ideas, and that both their atypical career paths and novel ideas may not meet standard assessment criteria and may not be readily accepted by the majority incumbents.

This brings me back to the students in the Birmingham City University RISE programme. As things currently stand, notwithstanding that RISE is a UKRI-funded programme, these people are unlikely to become UKRI research council grant applicants. They will start the companies that will drive the innovation-led economy we need. How much more productive would that economy be if these people, their skills and their talents were woven more deeply across the research and innovation system. And how much more creative and transformative would the wider research base be if it had access to the skills and ideas of these people?

We need to build more opportunities for people like this to return to university later in their careers, both to bring their skills and experiences into the academic research base, and to learn new skills and ideas from it. More generally, we need a fully connected research and innovation system with a free flow of people and ideas across is. How can we make that kind of porosity and career path diversity normal? It will require assessment systems that value, reward and recognise the much wider range of research and innovation excellence needed for success. This is a core part of what EDI is about. And it is a core reason why EDI is an essential consideration for UKRI.

We have a lot of work to do to break down the barriers so clearly evidenced in the data we have published today. I am inspired, encouraged and deeply grateful for the many people in our communities committed to working with us to drive this work forward.

Top image:  Credit: borchee, E+ via Getty Images

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