Science funding, the law, and the next REF

This post was contributed by Dr Belinda Brooks-Gordon, Assistant Dean for Strategy (Equalities) in Birkbeck’s School of Science.

Birkbeck currently holds an Athena Swan Bronze award

Birkbeck currently holds an Athena Swan Bronze award

Athena SWAN is currently a hot topic of conversation at the top tables in higher education across the UK.

Minds have been focused by money and the announcement by Chief Medical Officer Professor Dame Sally Davies in 2011 that National Institute for Health Research’s (NIHR) Biomedical Research Centres/Biomedical Research Units funding will require a minimum silver Athena SWAN award from 2015.

A full legal duty on all higher education institutions to mainstream equality across their work came in under the Equality Act 2010. In 2014, the government published a report on Women in STEM showing that women were still badly under-represented at professorial levels in academia across every scientific discipline. Research Councils UK also set out a ‘statement of expectations for equality and diversity’. Underpinned by the legislation, the NIHR position is likely to broaden to other research councils.

Since the evaluation of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) 2008, many funding bodies worked to improve the management and support of equality and diversity. As a result many HE institutions developed effective strategies to support women and diversity in their research so that by the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF): ‘the proportion of staff submitted with individual circumstances that had impacted on their research productivity has risen from 12% in RAE 2008 to 29% in REF 2014.’ (This includes, for example, women who have taken a period of maternity leave during the assessment period). The REF 2014 Equality and Diversity Advisory Panel  published their report on 23 January 2015 and it states that steps to embed: ‘broader cultural change in promoting and supporting equality and diversity across their institutions’ will have a place in the next REF.

In addition to three compelling arguments (research funding, legal obligation, and the next REF), Athena SWAN presents an opportunity to improve the lives of a significant proportion of staff to achieve even higher levels of research performance. Our aim is to make Birkbeck a great place where great people do great research and to become a beacon that attracts the best people from all over the world because of our approach to equality.

An Athena SWAN award can only be obtained following a submission to the Equality Challenge Unit. Awards of Bronze, Silver and Gold are given to departments depending on how far advanced they are in identifying problem areas and implementing initiatives to address these. It requires full, open and transparent submission of data (both quantitative and qualitative) and a strategic approach to making systemic changes to improve the progression of women’s careers. Unlike the REF, where one makes the best case possible, this is about reflection of where we are on the foothills, and what we think we can do to reach the summit (i.e. the Gold award).

Birkbeck’s Bronze Award runs out in April 2015. It means that the College’s Athena SWAN self-assessment team (SAT) have a lot of work to do in a short time. The SAT will ask for information and data as well as suggestions from all staff, to help in the reflection of where we, as a School of Science and in our respective departments, might do things better. The SAT will treat information in confidence. Events too are being planned and the SAT hope that staff will attend these events and prioritise this important area of work.

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