Open Letter in response to the outcomes of the Independent Research Fellowship 2019

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28 September 2020

You may be aware that concern has been raised that only candidates identifying as male have been awarded NERC Independent Research Fellowships (IRF) from the 2019 call. The results were released on Monday 21 September on the NERC website.

NERC takes fairness in its grants processes seriously, and because of that I have reviewed carefully the outcome of the 2019 Fellowship round, and those before this. I am writing to inform you of the outcome of my review, and to describe the processes we are implementing to ensure our funding processes are equitable for all.

Firstly, the gender profile of those who accept awards does not always equal those who have been offered an award, or one stage back, invited to interview. In the 2019 round, four candidates identifying as female were invited to interview and declined to attend; of those interviewed two candidates identifying as female declined the offer of an award. In considering the diversity of the IRF community, it is important to distinguish between the award profile and the acceptance profile.

Secondly, I share below the outcomes of the IRF rounds since 2012, which is the inception of the scheme as a 5-year fellowship. The data are presented as a proportion of the size of the initial applicant pool of those identifying as female, and as male. The dashed line on the graph is the line of equity i.e. where there has been equal success to offer for candidates from the cohorts identifying as female or as male.

Males vs Females in line graph

This figure shows there is inter-annual variability in the % success rate of the initial applicant pool but no obvious bias in favour of applicants identifying as male or female.

While we consider the evidence shows the selection process to be a fair one, there remains the concern that there may be features of our fellowships that are influencing the decisions of female candidates, and we are taking up that discussion first with our boards and committees (as outlined below) to understand this better.

My communication to you, to address concerns about unfairness in process, is representative of our desire to move towards a system that shares understanding with our community more responsively. We in NERC, and as part of UKRI, want a competitive but fair research and innovation system, and one which supports diversity in our grant-holder profile. We have an EDI Action Plan and an important component of this is to establish a trusted evidence base from which we can identify and correct any inequitable processes in our funding streams.

We will share our findings first with our boards and committees who will review our conclusions and offer advice on process change if required, namely Science Committee in November 2020 and NERC Council in December 2020. Additionally, we will seek input in November 2020 from our strategic advisory groups through our NERC Advisory Network, Peer Review College Chairs, and training grant holders on our funding processes, and on ensuring our equality, diversity and inclusion considerations represent best practice.

I would also appreciate assistance in disseminating this communication to colleagues. This will help with future positive engagement, valuable to understanding how we can collectively encourage more diversity into all stages of environmental sciences.

Yours sincerely

Professor Susan Waldron

Director, Research and Skills, Natural Environment Research Council

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