Royal Society of Chemistry report says racism 'pervasive'

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Prof Robert MokayaImage source, Andrew Marlow Hallsworth
Image caption,
Robert Mokaya is the UK's only black chemistry professor. His applications for research grants to the country's main funding body have all been turned down.

Of the 575 chemistry professors in the UK, just one is black.

In the 15 years Robert Mokaya has been a professor at Nottingham university, he has had all his applications for funding for research projects turned down by Britain's main chemistry funding body, now called the UK Research and Innovation agency.

"That is not typical for a professor," he tells me phlegmatically.

"I have had research papers published which I would have expected would have enabled me to obtain funding to do follow-up research.

"I wonder if this is typical for someone of my sort of surname.

"It has been very, very difficult," he says.

Funding applications are reviewed and decided by fellow experts in the field whose names are not published, but the name of the applicant is known to the reviewers.

Despite the constant rejections of funding applications, Robert has done extremely well for himself. He is a noted materials chemist, specialising in the study of materials for sustainable energy storage and has had numerous publications in scientific journals.

He was able to do his research because of funding from charities and learned societies, such as the Royal Society, which funds only the researchers it judges to have a track record of excellence in their work.

Robert is currently a pro-vice-chancellor at Nottingham university and a trustee of the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC).

The RSC has published an investigation which shows that racism is ''pervasive'' in the field. The report finds that it is "hard to challenge" and marginalisation of minorities has become "normalised" in universities and industry.

The investigation also bears out Robert's experience, finding that minority ethnic researchers are less likely to get grant funding, promotions and are paid significantly less. In 2019/20 the average grant for a minority ethnic chemical sciences researcher was £320,000, compared with £355,000 for white colleagues.

The RSC's chief executive, Dr Helen Pain, described the stories of discrimination she had seen as part of the investigation as "shocking".

"Racism is unfortunately a reality of chemical sciences, just as it is in wider society" she told BBC News.

"We need to do better. We need to make a difference.

Image source, Sandile Mtetwa
Image caption,
Sandile Mtetwa says her fellow black PhD students have opted out of university research because they don't believe they will be supported

In response to the report, Prof Melanie Welham, UKRI's executive champion for people, culture and talent, told BBC News that the agency was reviewing its processes to address concerns about unequal treatment.

"We know we must do more, and we're committed to doing so."

"This includes piloting and learning to embed effective practice on equality, diversity and inclusion in our expert review and assessment practices, such as through double-blind reviewing, and allowing applicants to evidence their contributions in a wider range of ways.

The RSC report also shows that ethnic minority students are interested in studying chemistry at university, but they are put off by what they perceive to be an unwelcoming atmosphere of academic research. This is especially true of black students and researchers.

Official figures show that at undergraduate level 4.9% of students studying chemistry-related subjects identify as black, significantly higher than the national 3.0% of the UK population. But most choose not to enter research. Those who do fall away at every stage of the career ladder: 1.4% of postgraduate chemistry researchers identify as black, 1% of lecturers and 0% of professors.

"I don't exist!" laughs Robert.

There are no black professors in the official statistics because the number 1 is rounded down to zero for accounting purposes. Robert's good humour subsides, though, as he tells me about his journey to becoming the UK's only black chemistry professor. He says: ''It has been a struggle."

"In academia you have to get signals from more senior colleagues that it is time to apply for a more senior role that comes up. Early in my career the signals I got is that this is not the place for you and it is not the right time for you.

''This was the most difficult part of my career and this is where the main blockage is for black chemists. Once I broke through and was networked it got better''.

Sandile Mtetwa is a black PhD student at Cambridge University. She co-founded a group for African students studying science subjects. She says many of them have decided not to struggle through. Instead they have decided to get jobs in the private sector because they felt there was "prejudice", and they would not be supported if they went into academic research.

"The chemical sciences community is so network driven. You have to know someone to get on,'' she tells me.

''Someone senior has to support you, to help you get a position, to get a grant. If someone up there is not cheering for you, you can't do much about it".

The RSC report says that there is little incentive for chemistry organisations to improve. Most initiatives are voluntary and appear to be having a limited impact, it says.

It finds that just 21 universities out of the 93 that signed up for the award hold a bronze Race Equality Charter award, run by the higher education charity Advance HE. None have received a silver or gold award, despite the scheme being launched in 2016. Similarly, 37% of FTSE 100 companies have no representation of minority ethnicities on their board, despite a target set by an independent review, also in 2016, to have one director from a minority ethnic background on every board by 2021.

The RSC has launched a race and ethnicity unit to push for change in organisations. It has also set up a five-year mentoring scheme to help school leavers follow to chemistry-focused degrees and is working with employers to provide ethnic minority students with job opportunities and to help them with their career progression.

Robert Mokaya says he hopes that these initiatives will bring about changes for the next generation of ethnic minority chemical scientists.

"I am concerned for those coming through the system.

"I don't think it is fair that those who get to a senior position in chemical sciences should have to go through what I have had to go through."

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