Delivering workplace diversity in science takes time but there is cause for optimism. David Payne reports on a new collaborative approach between the Francis Crick Institute, Wellcome, and GlaxoSmithKline.
A Google Doodle earlier this month celebrated the 100th birthday of Sir John Cornforth, the organic chemist whose work on the stereochemistry of enzyme-catalysed reactions earned him a Nobel Prize in 1975.
The obituaries published to mark Cornforth’s death in 2014 allude to the scientist’s deafness from the age of 10, and the adjustments made both by him and his employer to address this.
As a chemistry at the University of Sydney, for example, he relied on textbooks because he couldn’t hear lectures (teaching himself German in the process).
And as a co-director of Shell Research’s Milstead laboratory in Kent, UK, an early type of fax machine was installed following his appointment in 1962 because he couldn’t use the telephone.
Victor Rothschild, Cornforth’s boss, was both enlightened and astute to recognise that it was in the company’s interests to enable a highly talented employee with a disability to do his job well.
At the time there was no statutory requirement to do so (the Disability Discrimination Act came into force in the UK in 1995), which denied many people with a disabilities the opportunity to reach their true potential.
The Google Doodle was timely, appearing two days after The Francis Crick Institute joined forces with global charitable foundation Wellcome Trust and pharma company GSK to host its inaugural symposium, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in Science and Health Research.
A diverse workforce is both good for business and for scientific discovery, GSK’s head of research Patrick Vallance told the meeting. “Attempts to improve understanding in the biomedical world don’t get solved by monolothic thinking,” he said. “The notion of people being able to be who they are, the best versions of themselves at work, to challenge ideas, is crucial to scientific advancement. And the more you can do truly diverse and inclusive, the better your business performance.”
But how do organisations deliver on diversity? The slow pace of change can be disheartening, Eliza Manningham-Buller, Wellcome’s first female chair, admitted, but organisations could learn from labs, where a “diversity of views and opinions and approaches always leads to better decisions.”
In 2016 the Trust decided to make diversity and inclusion part of its strategic priorities, allocating £12m to do so. Some of the cash will fund some “really solid research to understand where the problems arise, getting to the fundamentals” she told the symposium, adding: “The Wellcome is not a beacon. Our own house is absolutely not in order. The time is now ripe for a big step change.”
Jim Smith, Wellcome’s director of science, reminded Manningham-Buller that the organisations executive team comprises “a lot of white men,” adding: “Do we sack people like me?”
“We’re not going to sack you at the moment,” she replied good-humouredly. “We have to accept that some things will take time.”
Wellcome is currently looking for new governors, and one starting point might be increased diversity there, she suggested, adding: “It’s against the law only to look for women governors or governors from an ethnic background to give diversity. I think it’s quite likely they will be diverse.”
The organisation’s current board of governors is predominantly white and male. There are two women and six men, including Damon Buffini, the former head of private equity firm Permira. Buffini is listed by the newspaper New Nation as the most powerful black male in Britain.
Manningham-Buller became Wellcome’s first female chair in 2015, but she is best known for running the UK security service MI5 from 2002 to 2007. The once-secretive organisation is currently fifth in the Stonewall Equality Index of top 100 employers (the index recognises the UK’s top employers for lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans staff).
Her career at MI5 began at a time when being gay meant you were viewed as disloyal. Two “excellent intelligent” officers had opened up about their sexuality (removing the threat of blackmail in the process) but were sacked, she said. “That was the policy. It was incredibly stupid. I very nearly resigned at that stage, but I stayed and I fought.”
What does success look like? Ijeoma Uchegbu, professor of nanoscience pharmaceutical nanoscience at University College London, told the meeting she was optimistic for the future. “We’ve come along way . I don’t know when I last experienced a racial slur. It’s been a while.
“But I wish I was sitting talking to this audience about something else. I look forward to the day when I could talk about other things. The fact that we’re here shows there’s a failure in society. It would be quite nice to get to a point where we didn’t have to worry about these things.”
David Payne is chief careers editor, Nature
- See also:
- Grant support: workshops for women
- Most gay and lesbian researchers are out in the lab
- Ageism “as bad as racism”