The fight against inequality in the research ecosystem has advanced worldwide and there is growing interest in addressing the problem. However, women and social minorities are still underrepresented and underfunded in academia, which means worse career prospects. Moreover, they still face discrimination and prejudice in all regions of the planet represented in the Global Research Council (GRC) – an entity that brings together funding agencies from 130 countries on five continents and that is promoting its Annual Meeting this week in The Hague (Netherlands).
This assessment of the current landscape was made by members of the Gender Working Group established by the GRC in 2017 to initially promote female participation in science. The scope of work has been expanded over the years to consider – in addition to sex and gender – aspects related to race, ethnicity, age, and disabilities, among others.
This working group promoted on Tuesday (May 30) a panel with leaders of research funding agencies from four countries. The participants had the opportunity to exchange views on the topic and report on the initiatives their institutions have been developing to promote equality and inclusion in their local research ecosystems.
One of the panelists was Marco Antonio Zago, president of FAPESP, who reported on the advances promoted in Brazil by the progressive implementation of the quota system in higher education institutions.
"Quotas were implemented in 2017 at the University of São Paulo [USP], the most impactful research institution in the country. I was rector at that time. As a result, the percentage of students from public schools increased from 30% to 52% in 2021. The proportion of black undergraduates jumped from 17% to 44%," said Zago, later pondering that racial inequality is still considerable among USP's postgraduates and faculty staff.
In terms of gender, the USP ecosystem presents a certain balance: women correspond to 49% of undergraduates and 42% of postgraduates. However, when the different fields of knowledge are evaluated, it can be seen that the female population is predominant in areas such as medicine and pharmacy, while in the STEM disciplines [an acronym formed by the initials of the words science, technology, engineering and mathematics] it corresponds to something between 25% and 30% of undergraduate students. "And this is reflected in the profile of researchers working in these areas," Zago stressed.
Among the practices adopted by FAPESP to promote the advancement of the equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) agenda, Zago mentioned the granting of maternity leave for scholarship holders (which in practice means an extra four months at the end of the period foreseen for the development of the project) and the updating of the Curricular Summary model, which now has a field ("other biographical information") in which the person can mention possible career interruptions resulting from medical leave – including maternity or paternity leave – or the need to care for others, such as sick, disabled or elderly relatives (read more at: https://agencia.fapesp.br/36617/).
Zago also said that the Foundation has been developing a program to support the scientific initiation of young people who were admitted to universities through affirmative action (read more at: https://revistapesquisa.fapesp.br/fapesp-cria-plano-para-ampliar-equidade-diversidade-e-inclusao/), under the scope of which a call for proposals should be launched soon, and he highlighted the support given to approximately 200 research projects related to different aspects of diversity and inclusion conducted in the last two decades.
The British perspective on the EDI agenda was presented at the event by Dame Ottoline Leyser, executive director of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). In her assessment, achieving high quality research and innovation requires creating an environment where people disagree with each other, present different views on a topic and point to alternative paths. "We know that these differences are incredibly important for driving research forward. The key question is: how do we build those environments where different people are included?"
According to Leyser, one possibility is to include diversity criteria in the evaluation process for projects and researchers, making it clear to the community that diversity will be valued.
An overview of the situation in Qatar and similar countries in West Asia was presented by Hisham Sabir, executive director of the Qatar National Research Fund (QRDIC). "Our research community is wide and varied, coming from all parts of the globe. And this is more a result of necessity than a targeted effort. This is true for aspects of nationality, ethnicity, race, but not necessarily for the inclusion of women. Another peculiarity of Qatar and similar countries in West Asia is that in higher education, the female population outnumbers the male population by a ratio of three to one – and again this is not something planned but a result of a series of economic and social factors. However, in the research community the opposite is true," he reported.
According to Sabir, in order to deal with the problem, regulatory mechanisms have been sought to promote equal opportunities in the research environment.
The fourth panelist of the afternoon was Laksana Tri Handoko, president of the National Research and Innovation Agency of Indonesia (BRIN). He said that the country is home to a wide variety of cultures, races, languages, religions, climates, and ecosystems, and that a number of affirmative actions have been implemented to promote equality among the different regions of the country.
"I'd like to draw attention to the issue of equality not only in terms of gender, but between the different generations of the scientific community. I think that in some ways that is a big problem. It's an important issue when you want to attract young generations and get them to choose a career in science," Handoko argued.
Motivated by this concern, BRIN implemented – in addition to maternity leave and daycare facilities at all institutions – a remote work system called "work from anywhere." "Three years later, we can see that these measures have brought more quality of life, especially for young researchers who need to take care of young children."
The debate was moderated by Signe Ratso, deputy director of Research and Innovation at the European Commission. In her introduction, she said that gender equity has been a priority in the European community since 2012, as there is an understanding that "to achieve excellent research results you need to use all excellent minds." And she reported that the European Commission's current research funding program, Horizon Europe, has established as an eligibility criterion the existence of a Gender Equality Plan that meets a set of mandatory requirements.
History of the works
The event entitled "Promoting Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion in Research – Reviewing the Statement of Principles after 7 Years" was organized within the framework of the Annual Meeting of the GRC by Adrien Braem, senior policy director at Science Europe, and Ana Maria Fonseca de Almeida, member of the coordination of FAPESP's Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Program. Both are coordinators of the Gender Working Group.
Fonseca reported that the topic began to gain a lot of attention in the GRC starting in 2014, when member agencies released a "Statement of Principles and Actions to Shape the Future: Supporting the Next Generation of Researchers". One of the principles set out in the document was to "attract and retain the best talent in all its diversity." And among the proposed actions was to promote "equality of opportunity in research and to develop mechanisms that encourage people with different backgrounds to pursue scientific careers, contributing to research excellence."
In 2016 a second document was released, with principles and actions to advance gender equity in research.
"This document emphasized the need to promote in institutions structural changes capable of impacting beliefs and practices. And that led the GRC to create the Gender Working Group," says Fonseca.
In 2022, the "Statement of Principles on Science and Technology Workforce Development" was released. The document states that "a large, vibrant, diverse, and inclusive STEM workforce at all skill levels is critical for national and global research ecosystems, as well as national and global economies. And, therefore, funders should "prioritize the inclusion of early career researchers, women, and members of other underrepresented groups in these fields."
In 2019, the working group produced a booklet entitled "Supporting Women in Research", which presents policies, programs, and initiatives adopted by various public research funding agencies. Two years later, a report was published, on practices adopted for the collection of gender-related data.
"The idea of bringing the directors to discuss ways to expand equity, diversity and inclusion in scientific research is a way to give more attention to the topic and, above all, to address the transversality of these issues in research. A research project, besides dealing with content related to the research itself, needs to take into account issues of equity, diversity and inclusion from when it is designed," Fonseca told FAPESP Agency.
She ponders, however, that it is not enough just to incorporate minorities into the team, without these people having actually been included and having the ability to interfere in the research design.
Fonseca also reported that the group has been working on issues related to gender-based violence in research environments, seeking to create safer environments for international cooperation.
Hosted by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) and FAPESP, the 2023 Annual Meeting of the GRC is being attended by representatives of 81 entities from 63 countries.