UK’s largest non-governmental science funder is perpetuating systemic racism within the organisation and the research community, review finds

‘Wellcome is still an institutionally racist organisation’, admitted director Jeremy Farrar last week. He apologised that the organisation had not acted ‘with the urgency required’ following its commitment to becoming an anti-racist organisation two years prior. This came after the funder published an independent review of its anti-racism initiatives that concluded Wellcome is perpetuating and exacerbating systemic racism.

In 2020, Wellcome committed to developing anti-racist principles and an anti-racist programme, including changing guidelines on funding committees, reporting on ethnicity as well as gender and looking at providing targeted support to BAME and especially Black British grant applicants. The independent review stated that not only had Wellcome failed to meet its original commitments, but that ‘institutional racism has been allowed to fester within the organisation’.

University of Warwick chemist Binuraj Menon says the evaluation is ‘a grim read’ and ‘demonstrates the failure of Wellcome’s executive leadership team and those who oversee and chair anti-racist activities’.

Over the previous four years, grant funding success rates for UK-based Black, Asian and minority ethnic applicants were 8%, compared to 14% for UK-based white applicants. ‘Even after two years, there is still a lack of strategies for addressing Wellcome’s massive funding disparities between white and minority ethnic applicants. In 2019/20, no awards were given by Wellcome to UK applicants who identified as Black or Black British,’ comments Menon. He has argued that ingrained prejudices and a lack of action addressing discrimination are some of the main reasons why academic chemistry in particular is overwhelmingly white.

Wellcome’s statement is ‘a positive step toward publicly acknowledging their leadership’s lack of action and engagement in combating racism and fulfilling commitments made in 2020’, says Menon. But he finds it difficult to believe meaningful cultural change will occur without Wellcome addressing issues such as those that led to the resignation of their anti-racism expert group. The group, consisting of high-profile Black and other minority ethnic scientists, had been appointed in November 2020 only to resign in March this year after an unspecified incident. According to the independent report, this exacerbated staff distrust in Wellcome’s leadership and may be a source for growing skepticism from the research community. Wellcome needs to understand ‘that the actions required for any anti-racist activities are collective’, Menon points out.

In his statement, Farrar announced Wellcome’s intention to set up a ‘dedicated stream of funding available exclusively to researchers who are Black and people of colour, targeted at the career stages where this will have the greatest benefits for diversity’. They aim to have this in place within a year. For Menon this may be insufficient to overcome long-standing disparities, or even counter-productive, as it may catalyse further social and racial segregation among researchers. He thinks there are many ways Wellcome could solve the issues with current schemes.

Menon would like to see Wellcome and other funders require grant-receiving institutions to have Race Equality Charter (REC) awards. The REC scheme is comparable to the Athena Swan awards for gender equality within higher education and research. ‘So far, no funder has done this and as a result no universities take the REC as a priority… there are currently only 96 REC members, holding 23 awards between them. In contrast there are 1068 total Athena Swan awards held,’ says Menon.

In March, the Royal Society Of Chemistry released a report on racism in chemistry, which indicated that over the last decade there has been no real improvement in the representation of Black people in academic chemistry, and an ‘alarming’ attrition rate after first degrees. Black and Asian students are less likely to go to a Russell Group university than their white peers and are more likely to be unemployed after graduating.