Racism a 'pervasive problem in chemical sciences'

Royal Society of Chemists found researchers who are black or from minority ethnic backgrounds were less likely to be awarded funding grants

In a new report, the Royal Society of Chemists said structural racism has resulted in black and minority ethnic chemists getting paid less and being less likely to get research funding.

Talented black chemists leave the academic profession after undergraduate studies due to “pervasive” inequalities, according to a report by the Royal Society of Chemistry.

The report, Missing Elements, revealed disparities in treatment of people from black and minority ethnicities in the field restricted their access to research funding and left them underrepresented at senior levels in chemistry.

Head of the professional association, Dr Helen Pain, said the report’s findings showed “unfortunately, racism, discrimination and ethnic inequalities are a reality in the chemical sciences, just as they are in our wider society”.

Of the 575 chemistry professors in the UK, just one is black, the statistical data gathered by the Royal Society of Chemists revealed.

During his 15 years at the University of Nottingham, every single one of Professor Robert Mokaya’s research projects have been turned down for funding by the country’s main chemistry funding body, the UK Research and Innovation agency.

"That is not typical for a professor," he said.

"I have had research papers published which I would have expected would have enabled me to obtain funding to do follow-up research.”

Specialising in the study of materials for sustainable energy storage, Professor Mokaya has had numerous publications in scientific journals and was able to continue his research with funding from charities and learned societies, like the Royal Society, of which he is a trustee.

Professor Mokaya said he wondered if his rejections were typical for someone with his surname. The report’s findings suggest so.

Only 12 per cent of research grants awarded in the chemical sciences are to those from a minoritised ethnic background, and only one per cent identify as black.

As well as being less likely to win a bid for research funding, the report found those from minoritised ethnic backgrounds who did succeed got, on average, ten per cent less money than their white peers.

A lack of mentorship, sponsorship and networks was also found to debilitate progress among black and ethnic minority groups in the field. Participants in the report complained of a lack of role models “that look like me” and that “celebrated chemists” were always white.

“Unless somebody has got support from the community around them, it can be very difficult – you need references and you need people to talk about your abilities,” said Professor Mokaya.

“If those who are able to offer that support do not feel inclined to offer it, then it can disadvantage some groups.

"In academia you have to get signals from more senior colleagues that it is time to apply for a more senior role that comes up. Early in my career the signals I got is that this is not the place for you and it is not the right time for you,” said Professor Mokaya.

''This was the most difficult part of my career and this is where the main blockage is for black chemists. Once I broke through and was networked it got better''.

The Royal Society said it would establish a £1.5m funded race and ethnicity unit to push for systemic change and increased diversity. The society is also launching a five-year fellowship mentoring scheme for chemistry students.

“People need to engage with the data and the lived experiences in this report and not assume that it is going to be somebody else’s problem to deal with it. Everybody within the chemistry community and science in general can make a contribution,” said Professor Mokaya.

Updated: March 17, 2022, 12:28 PM