Royal Society launches fellowship to support underrepresented black researchers

Article by Kerry Hebden

THE Royal Society is piloting a Career Development Fellowship (CDF) aimed at kickstarting the research careers of groups underrepresented in UK STEM academia. The pilot will initially focus on researchers from black heritage backgrounds, but if successful, it may be broadened to researchers from other underrepresented groups, the Society said. In separate news, Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO, has also said it will grant further funds to enable more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to pursue a future in STEM. 

The fellowship announcement comes after worrying reports commissioned by the Royal Society, that show black students are leaving STEM in greater numbers at all stages of the career pipeline. 

While the proportion of black students entering undergraduate and postgraduate education has increased over the past decade, data by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) between 2007/08 to 2018/19 raise a number of concerns, including black STEM first degree students having the highest non-completion rate of any ethnic group. Of these, black males had the highest non-completion rate when comparing ethnicity and sex.  

Though not necessarily considered a worry, it was noted that black entrants make up the lowest proportion of young entrants at both undergraduate and postgraduate, implying that a higher proportion of black STEM entrants start higher education later in life compared to other ethnic groups. 

The pattern of non-completion continues throughout academia. In 2018/2019, 6.3% of black students who began research at postgraduate level, dropped out, compared with 3.8% of white students. And while a large increase – in relation to other ethnic groups – in the percentage of black STEM entrants was seen between 2015/16 and 2016/17, numbers year on year since then have fallen.  

This knock-on effect is seen at postdoctoral level where physics and chemistry subjects are hit hardest. Numbers in 2018/2019 were so few – just one or two students – that figures were rounded down to zero, meaning statistically, no black researchers were studying these topics.  

For those who remain in science, just 3.5% worked at professor level in 2018/2019 compared with nearly 12% of their white counterparts. 

Given the low percentage of black students taking up postgraduate studies, the first year of the fellowships will be aimed at outstanding candidates who are completing, or have recently received, their PhD, the Society said. Applications will open in November, and five scientists a year will get up to £690,000 (US$832,000) spread over four years. 

Training and mentoring opportunities will also be provided to CDF researchers through links with Royal Society Fellows, Research Fellows, and professional networks. 

Mark Richards, senior teaching fellow at Imperial College London, and a member of the Royal Society’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee, said: “Some people may be shocked that a scheme like this is needed in 2023, but the data present a clear case for action on the systemic underrepresentation of UK scientists from black backgrounds in academia.” 

Indigenous STEM scholarship

The Royal Society’s fellowship follows news that Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO, has granted more than A$500,000 (US$316,000) to the University of Wollongong (UOW) to enable more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to pursue a future in STEM. 

First established in 2019, the CSIRO Indigenous STEM Scholarship previously supported two Indigenous STEM students throughout their studies by providing a grant of A$30,000. 

The further A$500,000 will now allow the scholarship to be awarded in perpetuity, and will provide one new scholar studying science, technology, engineering, or mathematics with A$5,000 each year for the duration of their degree.  

Zara Button, who is studying a Bachelor of Environmental Science (Honours), was the 2021 recipient of the CSIRO Indigenous STEM Scholarship and said the financial support of the scholarship has enabled her to focus on her future career and her wellbeing. 

“The money from the CSIRO scholarship means I have been able to work less and spend more time doing meaningful activities that could further my career or health. It has also given me confidence in myself that my hard efforts are being recognised,” Button said. 

“I would like to thank the CSIRO for donating generous amounts of money to Indigenous STEM students like me. The money goes a long way in supporting my studies and encouraging me to keep going with it.” 

CSIRO said it has contributed more than A$5m to Indigenous STEM Scholarships this year as it continues in its commitment to supporting the pipeline of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander talent. 

Chris Bourke, a Gamillaroi man and director of Indigenous Science and Engagement at CSIRO, said: “These scholarships are a very practical step because we know that adequate financial support for Indigenous university students is a key factor to overcoming barriers to entry and success in higher education.”

Article by Kerry Hebden

Staff reporter, The Chemical Engineer

Recent Editions

Catch up on the latest news, views and jobs from The Chemical Engineer. Below are the four latest issues. View a wider selection of the archive from within the Magazine section of this site.