Science needs diversity more than ever

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The writer is a science commentator

The machinery of government can move surprisingly quickly, especially when oiled by outrage. Within days of the UK’s leading scientific research funding agency assembling an advisory committee on equality, diversity and inclusion, the secretary of state for science was publicly demanding its dissolution.

In a letter subsequently published on X, Michelle Donelan accused two committee members of extremist views in connection with the war in Gaza. The committee is now suspended and several academics on other advisory panels have resigned in protest.

Cool heads must now prevail to stop science becoming a new front in a damaging culture war. Researchers should be free to speak out as individuals, including on sensitive political matters, while staying on the right side of the law. Ministers who vaunt the values of free speech and intellectual liberty should foster, not stifle, an academic atmosphere that makes room for opposing views and difficult challenges, often derived from an EDI perspective. If nothing else, the public inquiry into Covid-19 has exposed the importance of widening research participation and questioning orthodoxy.

The row began on October 28, when Donelan publicly posted a letter addressed to UK Research and Innovation, the science funding agency that will disburse nearly £9bn over the next financial year and which oversees Research England, the home of the new EDI committee. In the letter, she expressed “disgust and outrage” at social media content circulated by two named members, unearthed by the Policy Exchange think-tank. One member had reposted a Guardian article about the home secretary cracking down on signs of support for Hamas and called the story “disturbing”; the other had reposted material condemning violence on both sides and referring to Israel’s “genocide and apartheid”.

Accusing the UKRI’s chief executive Dame Ottoline Leyser of failing to conduct due diligence, Donelan said she wanted the group closed down and an investigation launched. Leyser responded publicly — and pointedly — that the committee would be suspended pending an investigation based on the Nolan principles of public life and lawful freedom of speech. The University and College Union condemned the “worrying level of political interference” and claimed the academics’ views had been misrepresented.

Donelan’s intervention appears ill-judged on several fronts. Professor John Womersley, a special adviser to the College of Science and Engineering at the University of Edinburgh and a former chief executive of the Science and Technology Facilities Council, described it as “an imposition of ministerial control on what should be an arms-length body. Government has the right to demand accountability and transparency but not to impose micromanagement.” Singling out individual academics for censure on social media is unwarranted.

One wonders, though, whether the cogs of ministerial apoplexy are spinning in pursuit of a wider goal: to put the boot into the business of EDI. In her complaint, Donelan expresses concern that “in recent years UKRI has been going beyond the requirements of equality law in ways which add burden and bureaucracy to funding requirements.” The secretary of state had already launched a much-mocked campaign with the strapline: Kicking Woke Ideology out of science.

But the belief that EDI creates burdens without benefits is misguided. First, underrepresentation is a live issue on UK lab benches. Only 9 per cent of chemistry professors are female — and, in total, only one is black. There are no black physics professors. The Royal Society is piloting career development fellowships targeting researchers of black heritage.

Second, the Covid-19 inquiry has shown how people cut from the same cloth can engage in harmful groupthink. Women, said one civil servant, seemed “invisible” in pandemic planning, whether it was female health workers unable to find protective equipment to fit their bodies or those at risk of domestic abuse during lockdowns.

One frustrated modeller observed a lack of ethnic and gender diversity among scientists recruited to Sage, and a failure to stress-test assumptions; one Downing Street adviser, a rarity for having attended a state school, lamented that these missing perspectives created “problems in decision-making, policy development and culture”.

Perhaps it should not surprise us that Covid hit marginalised communities disproportionately hard. When scientists, researchers and policymakers view problems through the same narrow lens, they miss the bigger picture.  

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