Researcher voices: How funders can tackle racial bias and inequality in cancer research

Weilin Wu
From top left, clockwise: Dr Furaha Asani, Dr Lynn Asante-Asare, Prof Dean Fennell, Dr Faith Uwadiae

As part of our commitment to listen and learn from Black researchers, we co-hosted a virtual discussion panel with the Francis Crick Institute's Race Equity Network, PRISM. Here, panellists Dr Furaha Asani, Dr Lynn Asante-Asare, Prof Dean Fennell and Dr Faith Uwadiae talk about their experiences in academia and summarise the priority actions that funders should take to tackle racial bias and racial inequality in cancer research.

 

Furaha Asani: “Increase the talent pool of Black researchers”

The UK’s research pipeline is not diverse. UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) data analysed in the Broken Pipeline report show that only 1.2% of the studentships awarded between 2016 and 2018 went to Black students. This lack of diversity extends to professorship level. The Staying Power report, published in 2019 by Dr Nicola Rollock, found that there are only 85 Black male and female professors in UK higher education institutions – 0.6% of the UK professoriate. Considering the proportions of white and Black people at all faculty levels, white academics are almost two and a half times more likely to be professors than their Black counterparts.
 
The data are starker when disaggregated by gender. The report reveals that just 25 of the UK Black professors are women, and that Black female professors experience a messy and convoluted path to professorship that is characterised by a lack of transparency and fairness. A different report by AdvanceHE, also published in 2019, found 35 Black female and 90 Black male professors in the UK. These pieces of research highlight the urgent and critical need for action to increase the talent pool of Black researchers.
 
Research funders need to create a framework to which they can hold themselves and research institutions accountable. Under this framework, institutions should provide evidence of a diverse and inclusive workforce in funding applications. Then, funders should only allocate funding to institutions that meet the principles of the Race Equality Charter, which encourages higher education institutions to take racial inequality and institutional and covert racism seriously.
 
This framework should also include ensuring that we establish diversity in research project teams, especially if individuals from particular ethnic minority backgrounds are a focus of the research, so Black people and people of colour aren’t put into a ‘Petri dish’ to be studied from a white perspective.
 
Mentorship is very important. Those of us who have unfortunately not had mentors at key stages of our research careers know the extra burden we had to experience. I did not have a mentor throughout my PhD, but I now mentor other Black women to give them the opportunity I didn’t have. I have eight mentees and I dedicate a lot of time to helping them.
 
Mentorship fatigue does happen, as many Black academics mentor several others for the reasons I do. We do this from our hearts and all of this labour is unpaid. I feel it’s time for research institutions and funders to acknowledge this type of work and to step in with support.
 
Furaha is a health and equalities researcher, mental advocate and writer. She co-signed an open letter to UKRI following the news that no Black academic leads had been allocated UKRI grants for research projects focused on the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on ethnic minority communities.

 

Lynn Asante-Asare: “I’ve lacked people who understood my experiences”

I’ve recently completed my PhD in cancer research and I’m now a medical student hoping to continue working in oncology further down the line. I’ve had an amazing time working at a Cancer Research UK (CRUK) institute, but I’ve always lacked mentors who understood my experiences as a Black person and allies who were aware of what I was going through or had the confidence to engage with me on topics surrounding race.  

Funders have a huge role to play in growing the diversity of candidates who apply for PhDs. And they shouldn’t just support schemes with money alone – funders and institutions should proactively go out there and search for diverse talent pools. For example, they should focus on engaging with university societies that have students from various ethnic minority backgrounds and with external organisations that support Black students. 

We also need to celebrate the work of Black researchers more and shine a spotlight on their careers to show Black students that a career in research is possible for them too. I'm passionate about sharing my own experiences and I’ve written a lot of online profiles about my career and background and posted YouTube videos of my research. I’ve also mentored Black sixth-form pupils and undergraduate students. These approaches give more visibility to Black researchers so that younger people can see them as role models. Social media, in particular, can also be an incredibly useful and powerful tool to reach younger people, network and promote a variety of career paths in cancer research.  

An indirect way to support career progression is to make the environment healthier in a way that supports ethnic minority researchers to apply for and succeed in securing certain positions. We need an environment in which our differences, whether cultural or socioeconomic, are celebrated and not used as sources of disadvantage. Throughout my career there might have been funding pots and other academic opportunities I could have gone for, but I was often engaged in outreach activities and my time was limited. There was always some trade-off between the time I could spend supporting my community and pursuing additional research opportunities. 

We should work together to share the effort that will bring change for the better. This is why it’s so encouraging that we’re actively having these conversations in which non-Black people and allies are present.  

Lynn did her PhD at the CRUK Cambridge Institute and is now completing her medical training at the University of Leicester.

 

Dean Fennell: “Data could help break down racial inequality”

We need a clearer measure of racial bias to deal with it appropriately. We must use data to show what this bias actually looks like. Fewer researchers from ethnic minority backgrounds get research grants, but is this because not enough people apply, because of unconscious bias or because of the quality of the research proposal? Data could help to generate the evidence required to break down racial inequality step by step.

Systemic racism is really hard to call out on an individual level. This is why we need some form of auditing process in which institutions can objectively look at what they're doing and uncover any issues of bias. Funders would benefit tremendously from having an idea of how different research institutions rank and measure in terms of diversity. This ‘diversity index’ could be a mechanism to ensure that funding goes to institutions that promote diversity. It could be similar to the Athena SWAN (Scientific Women’s Academic Network) charter.

We also need to champion transparency, and both funders and research institutions should publish diversity data, including a breakdown by disaggregated ethnic minority groups to help us understand where bias may be present in the system. 

Focusing specifically on research funding decisions, a lot of work can be done to minimise the chance of racial bias. Firstly, a double-blind process in applications would help reduce the possibility of unconscious bias. Secondly, funders need to ensure that funding panels and committees include individuals from a diverse range of ethnic backgrounds. This goes beyond Black scientists – lay committee members can also have an important role.  

We also need to build on initiatives like unconscious bias training, so that they don’t just become a ‘tick box’ exercise. Bias doesn’t change after just 30 minutes of training. Funders and research institutions need to think about how they can develop the training and potentially make it part of a bigger framework.  

Dean is chair of thoracic medical oncology at the University of Leicester and group leader at the Leicester Experimental Cancer Medicine Centre, of which CRUK is a major funder. He is a speaker at Black in Cancer Week (11–17 October 2020). 

 

Faith Uwadiae: “We should build support networks and safe spaces”

When I finished my undergraduate degree, I was very confused about what to do next. It’s important that students have people around them who can give them guidance about where to go. As a Black student, sometimes you don’t have that support network that is going to push you along.  

There were lots of Black students around when I was doing my undergraduate degree. However, as my career progressed and I became a PhD student and then a post-doctoral researcher, I began to notice that Black academics were becoming few and far between. Now, when I look at young Black students and early-career researchers, I can’t help but think about who will support them. Personally, Twitter has been the main tool I’ve used to put myself out there and proactively find like-minded people to build my support network.  

I often find myself in situations in which I’m made to think whether the whole system is rigged to disadvantage me because of my race. And this is very hard to tackle. This is partly why networks that focus on race equality and equity are so important, because they’re safe spaces for discussion and for everyone to learn and educate themselves about these topics. 

It’s important that these spaces are not just for ethnic minority members of staff but also include allies who are interested in hearing about our views and learn from us. It’s wonderful that CRUK and the Francis Crick Institute have these staff networks; we need now to expand them and use them to connect researchers who have similar experiences and to help them find potential mentors.

I’ve been lucky to have a mentor and have had one mentee too. Funders need to encourage mentorship by acknowledging this activity on funding applications as extra work that a researcher is doing, and that this makes them a more well-rounded academic. And mentoring Black students doesn’t have to completely fall on Black academics, as there aren’t many of us. Funders have a responsibility to help create an inclusive environment in which non-Black academics feel empowered to support the next generation of Black researchers.

To increase diversity in cancer research we need to actively fund a pipeline of Black students. Having PhD programmes or grants ringfenced for students who are from ethnic minority communities would be really positive. Funders should also actively engage with more ethnic minority researchers so they can join research funding panels and committees and bring their invaluable perspectives to funding decisions.   

Faith is a postdoctoral researcher at the Francis Crick Institute in London, of which we are a major funder. 

 

We’re very grateful to the brilliant panellists and participants of the virtual discussion event for sharing invaluable insights into how we can do more as a funder to understand and tackle racial bias and inequality. Their useful recommendations will feed into a refreshed action plan we’ll publish later this year. As we implement initiatives to bring about positive change and a more inclusive culture, we’ll continue to engage with our Black and other ethnic minority researchers in ways that recognise the identities and perspectives of different ethnic groups as distinct. 

                                                                           Iain Foulkes, Executive Director Research & Innovation, CRUK 

 

Black in Cancer Week (11–17 October) is an insightful week of events organised by Black in Cancer highlighting cancer disparities and the work of Black cancer researchers. We are delighted to sponsor Black in Cancer Week.

 

 

 

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