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The importance of diversity

Copyright: Digital Vision

Following a recent article on diversity in 'The Biologist' by BBSRC's Chief Executive Professor Jackie Hunter, we take a look at why diversity is vital to UK bioscience and some recent achievements in this area.

Diversity is vital for the success of UK bioscience and its ability to deliver wealth, prosperity and wellbeing. A diverse research base means access to a range of skills, minds and human resources. However, women make up just a third of European researchers and even less are sitting in high level positions in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM). Women are slipping through the 'leaky pipeline' – an analogy coined by government to describe the continuous loss of women at consecutive careers within STEMM. Why does it matter? A lack of diversity can hinder UK competitiveness as we are unable to draw on a mix of talent, creativity and ability. Science has traditionally been, and still is, a male-dominated area.

There are a few positive steps. The issue of women in STEMM is becoming increasingly recognised and of growing importance from both an economic and social stand point, as it has been estimated that increasing the participation of women in the UK STEMM labour market could be worth at least £2Bn. The issue is also creeping up the Government's agenda which recently launched an inquiry into 'Women in scientific careers'. The inquiry culminated in a report published earlier this year by the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee recognising that the UK's need for skilled scientists and engineers "will not be met unless greater efforts are made to recruit and retain women in STEM careers." Some of the gender gaps in science have been reducing slowly over recent years and in the commercial sector, the proportion of women on FTSE 100 boards topped 20% for the first time.

To overcome the barriers and increase diversity in STEMM, BBSRC is supporting initiatives such as Athena SWAN and the Daphne Jackson Trust to address the disparity.

BBSRC Chief Executive, Professor Jackie Hunter said: "In many sectors the story is the same: the percentage of women in senior roles is low and overall little diversity. If we are going to see a real step-change, we need to increase our efforts, and initiatives like Athena SWAN can help us to do just that."

Athena SWAN

Athena SWAN, the charter for women in science, recognises commitment to advancing women's careers in STEMM academia. The charter credits any higher education institute which is committed to the advancement and promotion of the careers of women in STEMM in higher education and research.

BBSRC strategically-funded institutes The John Innes Centre has achieved an Athena SWAN silver award, and The Pirbright Institute has achieved a bronze. Image: Athena SWAN

Professor Hunter said: "When it was launched at the Institute of Physics in June 2005, it involved just 10 universities and focussed on recognising commitment to advancing women's careers STEMM in academia. There are now over 90 members and I am proud to say that strategically-funded BBSRC institutes have just been a part of an Athena SWAN Research Institute pilot to extend the charter to non-HEIs."

Following the pilot, from 1 April 2014 research institutes in the UK will be eligible to join the Athena SWAN Charter. This is the first time that research institutes that are not part of a higher education institution (HEI), or do not have HEI status, are eligible to apply.

As part of the pilot process, BBSRC strategically-funded institutes were successful in achieving awards. The John Innes Centre achieved the Athena SWAN silver award, and The Pirbright Institute achieved a bronze. The award criteria encourage institutions to develop an action plan: demonstrating commitment to eliminating gender bias and increasing inclusivity in the work place.

Professor John Fazakerley, Director of The Pirbright Institute, said: "We are building on our recent success in recruiting world-class, early career scientists, currently 30% of whom are women, to develop a team of successful and influential female staff at all levels in the Institute. We all learnt a good deal more about the Institute and how we do our business during the Athena SWAN assessment – we will embed what we have learnt into our Institute vision and strategy, which is regularly monitored and updated."

But despite the help in place, many women and men often choose or are forced to decide between their personal and professional lives. Practical support is offered to those wishing to return to a career in STEMM through the Daphne Jackson Trust, supported by BBSRC.

Daphne Jackson Trust

The Trust provides fellowships to help scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians return to their careers after a break of two or more years. The fellowships are designed to remove the barriers that prevent a diverse range of talent contributing to science by supporting those who have taken a break for reasons relating to family, caring or health. Since its conception in 1992, the Trust has made a real difference to the lives of hundreds of people, with 250 people returning to their careers between 1992 and 2012.

Daphne Jackson Fellows at the Daphne Jackson Research Conference in 2013. Image: Daphne Jackson Trust
Daphne Jackson Fellows at the Daphne Jackson Research Conference in 2013. Image: Daphne Jackson Trust

Case study

Jackie Ferguson, a senior scientist specialising in endocrinology at the National Institute of Biological Standards Control (NIBSC) in Hertfordshire completed a Daphne Jackson Fellowship supported by BBSRC. A trained biochemist, Jackie's career in STEMM began at a biotechnology company before moving into a role in technology transfer for a cancer charity. Due to family commitments, Jackie took a long term career break but remained engaged with science and medicine. Jackie said: "I wasn't in paid work for several years and in order to successfully apply for employment at my pre-career break level, I was aware that I needed to update my technical skills, gain some recent publications and demonstrate productivity and commitment to a job."

Jackie Ferguson completed a Daphne Jackson Fellowship supported by BBSRC.
Image: Daphne Jackson Trust

The project-based nature of the Fellowship, accompanied by a programme of training and opportunities to present her research, was essential from both a technical and professional perspective. Working part-time allowed Jackie to balance family and work responsibilities.

She added: "My Daphne Jackson Fellowship was integral to my return to a career in science. Without the Fellowship, I wouldn't have had the recent relevant experience or confidence to apply for such a role and I am grateful for the support of the Trust, BBSRC and my supervisor and colleagues at NIBSC."

Following the completion of a Daphne Jackson Fellowship supported by BBSRC, Jackie was recruited into a full-time, permanent post holder at NIBSC.

Katie Perry, Chief Executive of the Daphne Jackson Trust said: "As the UK's scientific research community recognise the need for proactive measures to remove barriers that prevent a diverse range of talented professionals succeeding in scientific careers, the Daphne Jackson Trust has an increasingly important role to play in meeting the needs of that community. The sponsorship offered by BBSRC is critical to the continued success of the Trust."

Initiatives that proactively work to promote equality of opportunity will help science to reach its full potential. For BBSRC to achieve its vision of leading world-class 21st century bioscience, we will continue to promote diversity to ensure a supply of excellent scientists into the UK industry and public bodies. The result will help secure the UK's world-leading position in bioscience: improving our economy and the quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Jackie Hunter said: "I intend to use my relatively new position as BBSRC Chief Executive to champion this important issue and encourage others to do the same."

Tags: The John Innes Centre people The Pirbright Institute skills and training feature