Black female academics and activists who sent an open letter to UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) over a year ago, voicing concerns over unfairness in the agency’s funding decisions say the agency’s response offers nothing new.

‘I consider it to be inadequate – they’ve had an entire year to compose the response, and there’s no new insight in it,’ says Ruby Zelzer, one of the authors of the letter. ‘UKRI has acknowledged that there is persistent systemic racial inequality, but what they’re doing towards actually fixing it is a different question altogether.’

Last year’s letter drew attention to the failure of UKRI and the National Institutes of Health Research to award Black academics any of the £4.3 million they allocated to explore Covid-19 and its disproportionate impact on Black and ethnic minority communities. UKRI acknowledged that no equality data was collected, and that one member of the assessment panel is a co-investigator on three of the funded studies.

UKRI met the instigator of the letter, inclusion and accountability researcher Addy Adelaine, last October but only published an open response this month. It said ‘we recognise we have a lot more to do to tackle the long-standing and pervasive structural and systemic inequalities’ holding back UK research. It committed to expand data collection and analysis to better understand the causes of inequalities; pilot and monitor interventions such as anonymous applicant review; introduce a narrative-style CV as standard format; and publish an equality, diversity and inclusion strategy this autumn. The letter doesn’t state who has developed the strategy, nor whether Black academics were involved.

‘It feels like we’re just told – this is what we are doing, this is the ongoing process, but nobody’s actually saying: come into the room, collaborate with us, continue to discuss with us until we get to the point where action is actually happening in UKRI that does result in inclusion,’ says Zelzer, who has a background in materials science, but left academia after her PhD. She now actively campaigns for the inclusion of Black women, because of her experiences as a postgraduate student. But with so few senior Black women – just 36 professors in the UK – UKRI should widen the net to include women at other levels, she adds.

UKRI’s own analysis of the ethnicity of applicants and awardees shows that in the five years to 2018–19, just 10 (male and female) principal investigator awards were made to Black researchers – a proportion lower than their representation in both the labour market and among higher education staff. Across all five years there were fewer than five Black fellows, and none at all in the engineering and physical sciences.

‘I think having this data is really, really important but it’s also important to acknowledge there is enough data to show that there are problems,’ says Divya Persaud, a PhD student at University College London and one of the letter’s 3000 signatories. ‘That’s where a lot of researchers like myself get frustrated – how long do we have to wait for you to actually lay out a plan?’

‘Transparency is a big portion of establishing a good faith dialogue – having people say: “We’re working on it, but it’s difficult to come up with solutions for these reasons.” That level of honesty doesn’t make an organisation look bad.’

Anonymous peer review in the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s New Horizons pilot is one solution that will be extended in a second call this autumn. A spokesperson said 74% of reviewers ‘felt the anonymisation removed bias from the process and two-thirds felt that it helped them to focus on assessing the science’.