How UK science fails Black scholars: Number of minority ethnicities dwindles at every stage of academia

How UK science fails Black scholars: Number of minority ethnicities dwindles at every stage of academia


In 2018, Robert Mokaya – from Kenya – discovered that he was the only Black chemistry professor in the United Kingdom. For a decade, he’d assumed there were others who he hadn’t met until investigations by the UK Royal Society of Chemistry revealed his lonely status.

“Somebody said to me, ‘You’re an endangered species. When you retire, there won’t be any,’” he says. “It is a terrible statistic.”

Stark figures like these abound at the top echelons of UK academia. UK physics has no Black professors, according to 2020-21 data disclosed to the UK Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA). Black people make up 4 per cent of the country’s working-age population, and 8 per cent of its science undergraduates, yet just 0.6 per cent of its science professors.  

In all academic fields, just 160 of the United Kingdom’s 22,855 professors are Black (among those, just one-quarter are women). And the representation of researchers of Asian, ‘mixed or multiple ethnic groups’ (as the UK Census and HESA terms it), or ‘other’ ethnicities also dwindles with seniority, especially in science.

UK undergraduates from minority ethnic groups are largely better represented than in the general population. But that representation declines among more senior academic levels whereas the proportion of white scientists rises in such positions.

Black academics see a sharp drop from junior to senior scientific levels that is well below their representation in similar age groups in the wider UK population. A finer-grained analysis shows that, in particular, people of Black Caribbean, Bangladeshi and Pakistani ethnicities are under-represented.

Analyses that examine broad UK categories of ethnicity (such as Black or Asian) don’t show that certain ethnicities within these groupings are particularly under-represented.

Data gathered by Nature show attrition at almost every stage of the UK academic journey. Those who study these inequities say that responsibility shouldn’t be placed on individuals who are struggling to thrive in UK academia. Rather, the system needs to change, with institutions asking what about their environments and structures is inhospitable for some academics. “They don’t need anything other than a fair system,” says Mokaya.

There are some positive signs. Undergraduates in the United Kingdom are more diverse than its wider population, across almost all minority ethnic groups. Yet particular science courses struggle to attract students from marginalised ethnicities. More than 8 per cent of degree students in science subjects in 2020-21 were Black, but only 3.4 per cent were in the physical sciences, for instance.

Overall, engineering or vocational subjects such as law, business and medicine attract a more diverse range of students. Some science subjects attract fewer Asian and Black students than do courses perceived to lead to higher-wage jobs such as business studies. For Black undergraduates, business studies and law are among the most popular subjects.

Some of the reasons are financial, says Mahrukh Shameem, a PhD student in immunology at the University of Sheffield, and an advocate for equity, diversity and inclusion. People from minority ethnicities in the United Kingdom are often from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds.

The trend is not universal, however – a 2020 UK government survey showed, for example, that people from Pakistani and Bangladeshi ethnic groups had the lowest household incomes, whereas people from Indian ethnic groups had the highest income of all groups. This might sway some students to choose degrees that lead to financially secure jobs such as engineering or medicine, she says.

Cultural factors play a part, too: some students in the UK South Asian community, for instance, might have an expectation they’ll be relied on to support their families financially across generations, Shameem adds.

Physics tends to be perceived as a “quest for knowledge” – a luxury, says Mark Richards, a physicist at Imperial College London and member of Imperial As One, the university’s race equality advisory group. That’s despite physics graduates often securing a range of prosperous jobs, from banking to the public sector, he says.

The pattern perpetuates, says Hussain, when prospective students feel they won’t belong on a course because they don’t see people like themselves doing it, or because its contents don’t reflect their culture or the contributions of people like them.

That’s something Shameem has felt at first hand: “I haven’t met a single Pakistani female principal investigator or lecturer, and I’ve been in academia for a decade,” she says.

The proportion of Black students in postgraduate science drops sharply compared with those at undergraduate level. For instance, just 3.8 per cent of students who started research master’s or PhDs in science subjects in 2020-21 were Black, compared with 8.3 per cent of those who started first degrees in those subjects three years earlier (an approximate way to follow cohorts; both statistics refer only to students who lived in the United Kingdom before starting their course).

In taught science postgraduate courses, however – those that do not involve research – 8.2 per cent of students are of Black ethnicities. Fewer students of Asian ethnicity also continue to postdoctoral research than could be expected on the basis of undergraduate science populations. In the majority of subjects, the representation of white students rises.

The proportion of Black and Asian students in postgraduate research courses in science subjects drops sharply compared with the undergraduate level. The trend is reversed for white students. Shameem is not surprised by the drop. Relatively few students from lower socio-economic backgrounds know that PhDs exist and that they are often funded, she says.

But socio-economic factors only go so far in explaining the trend. A student’s undergraduate experience also has an impact, says Wayne Mitchell, a molecular biologist at Imperial College London and co-chair of Imperial As One. If they feel they’ve been “banging their head against a brick-wall”, they are not likely to want to continue, he says.

UK universities often suggest that the drop-off is down largely to students’ choice, says Hussain. In fact, he says, there are structural barriers that affect selection. Universities tend to want PhD students with top grades, for instance. Yet students from marginalised ethnicities are less likely than their white peers to leave university with top grades, even when their school grades suggest they are equally able, which affects their ability to go on to further study.

  • A Nature report
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