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17 June 2022

Given the increasing recognition that equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) are essential predicates for research excellence, it is timely to ask what an inclusive and supportive research environment looks like.  This, in turn, gives rise to a second question – how might institutions, and the sector more widely, achieve the necessary culture shift?

EDAP’s review of REF environment statements highlighted a number of key features of strong research environments.  Firstly, they have clear executive level leadership of, and commitment to, EDI, which is evident through all aspects of institutional functioning.  EDI comes across as a driver for positive change, with institutions looking ahead to see what more needs to be done to challenge accepted norms and address built-in structural inequalities. Thus, their recruitment strategies are EDI-driven, with proactive measures to identify under-represented groups and build sustainable pipelines of diverse PGR and staff applicants.  There is strong support for their PGR students and early career staff, helping them through difficult transitional phases of their development, with additional targeted interventions to support those with protected characteristics. Without this supportive context, the current under-representations and EDI challenges will simply be carried forward into the next generation of researchers.  In strong environments, institutions also routinely extend their EDI training and support for staff, to their PGR students, particularly in relation to family leave and caring responsibilities.  Where needed, additional support is provided in mid-career for those in protected groups who are not realising their full potential and / or participation. The inclusivity of the research culture is further strengthened through under-represented groups having a voice that is heard, understood, and routinely taken into account in planning and decision-making. This is achieved through designated places on key committees, empowered network groups, and regular research culture surveys aimed at understanding the actual lived experiences of individual staff.  

Across all of the above features, there is a clear recognition that support for under-represented groups goes wider than just gender-based initiatives.  Consideration is given to all protected characteristics, with targeted initiatives being implemented where needed. In particular, efforts are made to foster a culture where staff feel comfortable to disclose their personal circumstances as a routine part of their employment. 

So, how can institutions, and the sector more widely, achieve the required culture change?  In terms of institutions, this will depend, to some extent, on where they are in their own EDI journey. However, as a starting point, it is helpful for EDI strategies to be outcomes-focused, in order to bring about real cultural change. EDAP noted that many institutions appeared to be more focused on ‘inputs’, often seeming to apply activities and interventions without clear strategic goals. It can also be helpful to ground the strategy in a clear values proposition – a statement of what the institution (or unit) values in the context of EDI.  From this, action plans can be built to deliver the cultural change that enables all staff to feel included and to flourish. An outcomes-focused strategy requires an institution to have a good understanding of their own position and relevant data and, from this, to be able to identify potential causal factors for any adverse impacts or under-representation.  This enables interventions to be data-driven, with defined measures of success based on quantitative and qualitative evidence.  Equality impact assessments should be regularly used to assess progress and to highlight any unforeseen negative impacts.  It is also worth noting that it can be easier to build EDI culture change if it is set within the context of wider institutional culture change that focuses on building a supportive and inclusive context more generally.

Institutions might also benefit from working with a range of other stakeholders to build momentum for change.  This could include using people-related accreditations and concordats strategically, as drivers of cultural change. This means not just gaining accreditation as an end in itself, but using carefully selected charters and the like to help address areas of weakness and meet existing strategic outcomes.  It might also be beneficial for there to be more collaboration across institutions which share certain EDI challenges, building synergies so that cultural change starts to impact more broadly on disciplines, rather than being limited to single institutions.  Similarly, institutions could engage more with their funding bodies and other research funders, so that good EDI practice is shared, both across institutions and funders, and incentivised. This would increase the likelihood of all research funders adopting people-centric approaches and EDI-proofing their funding processes and regulations. It would also help to ensure that EDI is fully embedded in the design, communication, and assessment of research proposals and outcomes.

In conclusion, we believe that the days of viewing EDI activities and interventions as a regulatory compliance activity that operate alongside a research strategy are long gone.  The vitality and sustainability of the research within institutions and across the sector relies on the creation of an inclusive and supportive context in which all researchers feel valued. Working together, we can help to build an environment in which all researchers, and research, can flourish.