The Big Grant Problem

Emily Porth, Katie Nicoll Baines, Sam Keyes

Improvements to equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) in engineering and physical sciences (EPS) have been glacially slow. In the last 10 years, less than 5% of big grant money (grants over £2.5 million) from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) went to women.

And although there are now equal numbers of men and women studying subjects like chemistry and biology at the undergraduate level, there is still a staggering loss of women scientists throughout the ‘career pipeline’. This ‘leak’ in the ‘pipeline’ means that across STEM subjects, only about 10% of full Professors are women. Even more shockingly, of the thousands of Professors in the UK, 91.6% of them are white and 0.6% are Black.

So, what accounts for these discrepancies? What is it about academic culture that makes people from marginalised groups less likely to achieve career success?

For at least the past two decades, most EDI programmes delivered within higher education have been designed to ‘fix’ marginalised peoples. These programmes are grounded in the ‘deficit model’, which tells us that if only women and people of colour could learn to be more confident, assertive, etc., then they could be successful, too. However, research in this area, including recent reports such as ‘Tapping all our talents’ (2018), ‘Staying Power’ (2019), and ‘Breaking the barriers’ (2019), make it clear that there are structural barriers holding marginalised peoples back from succeeding in higher education.

By focusing on the ‘big grant club’, our project will provide insight into the specific issue of research funding, which is closely linked to career success in academia. This will enable us to explore how the systems within higher education perpetuate misogyny, white supremacy, and other deeply entrenched forms of exclusion. 

When we talk to people within higher education about the low numbers of women who are successfully competing for grant funding, the first thing they say is often ‘But how many women applied?’ Whilst there are fewer numbers of women than men in STEM at the career stage where they would be applying for big grants, it is also true that a lower proportion of women scientists apply for big grants than do men scientists. But what are the stories behind this data?

Our ethnographic study in the Schools of Chemistry and Physics & Astronomy at the University of Edinburgh is beginning to shed light on some of these stories. Using interviews, focus groups, and vlogging with marginalised research staff at all career levels in the College of Science and Engineering, these co-researchers  – who are experts in EDI issues through their lived experiences – are helping us to understand the ‘pinch points’ in a system that is fundamentally designed to exclude certain people and empower others.