Challenging different forms of bias in physical science and engineering research

Lead Research Organisation: University of Birmingham
Department Name: Vice Chancellors Office


One of the key challenges in achieving an inclusive academic population in engineering and physical sciences is to address the difficulties faced by female, BAME and disabled people in starting and progressing in an academic research career, as a consequence of their identity and personal history in what remains a predominantly white, male environment. Evidence that such challenges exist include the analysis of selection rates for REF2014, where in Panel B, 76% of eligible men were selected, as opposed to 72% of eligible women Similar biases exist with BAME staff and disabled staff. Anecdotally, this can also be seen in levels of grant application and capture. The consequence is that these academics will face increased difficulties when it comes to promotion and career progression. Recent evidence shows that career development is a particular issue for female engineers with disabilities. ( ,

In this project, we seek to understand the kinds of bias that academics face; trace their causes; and propose innovative interventions aimed at tackling the underlying issues. We believe a multi-faceted approach is necessary, as it is unlikely that a single "magic bullet" exists to solve these problems.

Our approach is to combine rigorous research into academic value judgements, based on existing data and novel experiments, with the trialling of interventions aimed at different forms of bias and their effects, within the context of physical science and engineering. We will continuously monitor and review the results of these activities, to ensure lessons are learned throughout the process. The results from this EPS-focused study will be scaled up beyond the EPSRC funded project to University level, and rolled out via our consortium and through broader dissemination and training activities. To achieve these aims, we have put together a consortium comprising two universities (Birmingham and Aberystwyth); a large NHS hospital trust (University Hospitals Birmingham, UHB) and a consultancy firm specialising in research career development (Vitae).

Planned Impact

The nature and scope of this call means that the majority of the impact will be focussed within the academic sector; however, we foresee a ripple effect from this work influencing private and public sectors, particularly through our partners.

There will be a strong impact on the two PDRA's involved in the research and delivery of this project, who will develop expertise in the area of bias in academic assessment of outputs and gain a unique understanding of how this relates to exercises such as the REF and the issues involved in the HE sector. They will develop a strong network with senior academics across the two Universities, giving them experience of working with a wide range of senior College and University staff across multiple disciplines in a manner rare for this level of role. They will be well equipped for either further pursuit of research in this field, or transitioning into more policy-focussed roles based around the ED&I agenda.

The research and implementation strategies proposed in this project will directly contribute to the advancement of knowledge in the area of unconscious bias, generating original research and trialling practical implementation strategies that can be used to inform best practice in this field. We will ensure full dissemination of the findings of this study through journals, conference papers, and our public engagement strategies.

We also anticipate a significant effect on the senior staff who take part both in the research phase and the implementation phase. During the research phase all participants will be debriefed, leading to greater personal awareness of bias and its deleterious effects. Reverse mentoring will also foster the same sense of personal awareness. It is envisaged through this senior research staff will go on to become champions of the ED&I agenda, encouraging culture change within their own departments. Policy within the two partner Universities will be modified as senior staff monitor the outputs of the project and the effects of the implementation phase to establish best practice, and policy in other institutions will be influenced as the results are communicated in the various national networks and committees' senior staff are part of.

The Universities as a whole will benefit from the unbiased recognition of the high-quality work produced by our women, BAME, and Disabled staff, uplifting the quality of the research environment as whole. Conversely, these staff will benefit from an environment where bias is significantly mitigated, further empowering their career progression and research recognition.

While the underlying research in this project focuses on bias in academic judgements and behaviours, many of the issues involved have much in common across different sectors. To this end, we have involved non-academic partners (University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Trust and Vitae) to both share ideas, experiences, and best practice, and to ensure that the results of the project (in terms of new understanding, training methods, and intervention strategies) are taken up as broadly as possible. We will work with these partners to ensure maximum impact of our results, and to ensure these are embedded in their respective equality and diversity strategies and policies going forward. Our dissemination activities will then bring in a wider audience (eg. through our Industrial Advisory Board partners) to continue to demonstrate the effectiveness of our results, and encourage a wide uptake of the ideas and methods we have evolved.


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