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Viewpoint: We must reshape the system so it genuinely values and supports difference

17/09/2020

Viewpoint: We must reshape the system so it genuinely values and supports difference

In the first of a series of discussion pieces, our chief executive Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser shares her views on the importance of diversity and how rethinking the system could support positive change.


The data are clear. There are pervasive problems with equality, diversity and inclusion in research and innovation, which impoverish the system, stifle creativity and deny opportunity to people who have so much to contribute.

It is equally clear that there is huge appetite for change. We have reached a turning point in the debate, which was a strong motive for me in taking on the role of CEO at UKRI.

There is now an opportunity to move the focus from individual biases to catalyse systemic change. Through the power of collective intelligence we can enhance the performance of the research and innovation system, both with respect to our ability to discover and innovate, and our ability to make high quality decisions about how the system works and who participates.

I would like to invite everyone to join in the effort to make this happen.

A dominant approach to achieving equality, diversity and inclusion has been to try to debias decision making by raising awareness of personal biases and by setting objective criteria against which the decisions should be made.

Many positive things have come out of this work, and there is more to do, but in my view there have also been some negative consequences.

In particular, the idea that it is possible to write down a list of objective criteria, that can be assessed through hard data, as to what constitutes an excellent researcher or an excellent research project is problematic to say the least.

Effective research and innovation needs to bring together different people with different expertise, different experiences, different approaches and different ways of thinking in an environment where disagreement and discussion are welcomed and supported to create new ideas and solutions.

We need to bring lots of different sorts of people into the research and innovation system and ensure that those in the system are valued, respected and enabled to develop their talents to the full. This includes everyone in the system, not just the researchers and innovators, but that is for a future blog.

If researchers and innovators are judged according to a narrow list of objective criteria, then by definition a narrow range of people will be recruited. The image of researchers and innovators will then be similarly narrow, reinforcing societal biases. In my opinion, our well-intentioned attempt to reduce bias in the system through “objective” decision making is inhibiting progress toward building the diverse and inclusive community we need, both for social justice and for a vibrant and creative research and innovation system.

In short, in my view our current definition of what constitutes an excellent researcher or innovator is far too narrow. It excludes excellent researchers and innovators who do not meet the criteria we have set out.

For example, it is notoriously difficult for researchers and innovators to move between industry and academia. This is because careers in academia have become so dependent on publication track record that time spent in a different research or practice environment, where publication is not part of the process, makes it difficult to meet the criterion of a strong (often equated with long) publication track record. This restriction acts even more strongly on demographic groups who are less likely to follow traditional routes into the system.

The need for diversity, but our lack of support for it, is well-illustrated by recent evidence that minority groups are more likely to make novel contributions, but these are less likely to result in successful career progression than for majority groups (Hofstra et al PNAS 117:9284-9291). This applies to men in nutrition research, women in computer science and racial minority groups across many disciplines.

The established majority have built a system that is inhospitable to the very people and ideas needed for success. We must reshape the system so that it genuinely values and supports difference.

This is a very difficult thing to do. People feel safe surrounded by people like them who agree with them, creating environments that are very comfortable for the majority, and very uncomfortable for the minority.

Research and innovation thrive in environments where everyone values being surrounded by people who are not like them, who have different ideas and different ways of thinking.

Everyone needs to feel supported in contributing their ideas and everyone needs to listen to and engage with ideas different from their own.

Creating this kind of environment requires mechanisms that build a welcoming community for everyone and provide the support needed to work together successfully.

For example, appointment and selection processes need actively to invite diversity and to encourage applicants to evidence their case in multiple ways.

When discussing this kind of approach, people often raise concerns that choosing between alternatives requires them to be directly comparable. Many do not trust their judgement. Ironically, the solution to this problem is for the decisions to be made by diverse groups of people who listen to each other and engage with ideas different to their own. This not only supports high quality decisions, but also provides personal reassurance through shared responsibility.

Training to raise awareness of personal biases can be useful, but training to support engaged discussion where everyone participates and everyone listens not only supports a positive work culture but can enhance performance through harnessing the power of collective intelligence (Woolley et al Science 330:686-688).

The job at hand is not to create a single, simple level playing field where referees enforce the rules of the game.

Research and innovation is all about stepping into the unknown where there are no comforting rules. And if you are stepping into the unknown, it is surely a good idea to go there with people with complementary talents to support you.

A central question for the community then is how to create a system that values difference? What does this really mean for our day to day interactions, and what does it mean for our definitions of excellence?

I would welcome ideas about the answers to these questions. Or maybe you disagree with me and think they are the wrong questions. That’s great! Please let me know what you think the right ones are.

It is through welcoming difference that we can build the high-performance system we need to tackle the defining problems of our time, of which deep societal inequality is surely a priority.

Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser is chief executive of UK Research and Innovation.


We are keen to hear your views and thoughts on this topic. You can get in touch with us directly using viewpoints@ukri.org, or tag @UKRI_CEO in social media conversations.


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