Schemes seek to boost underrepresented in STEM

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 gender.

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.

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.

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 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.”

This article is adapted from an earlier online version.

Article by Kerry Hebden

Staff Reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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