How do you fix a leaky pipeline? Improving conditions for Black researchers

  • 5 December 2022
  • Education, General, Technology
  • Dr Faith Uwadiae

Science and technology are suffering from a huge problem. One that it is starting to acknowledge but has not really comprehended the scale of the issue and the pace of change required to fix it. The UK government has a grand plan to strengthen the UK’s position as a global science and technology superpower, but for who? As it stands, the UK STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) workforce is overwhelmingly White and male (65%), with Black people only making up 2% of the labour force1. This means our sector is missing out on so much talent and consequently limiting its superpower.

The STEM sector varies extensively by discipline and location from academia to industry, therefore, to keep things simple I will focus on the underrepresentation of Black people within academia, and specifically the academic pipeline from undergraduate student to professor. Pursuing an academic career is incredibly hard and according to the Royal Society only 0.45% of UK PhD researchers will make it to professor2. It is not an easy journey for most, but it is a much harder journey if you are Black. Within science, engineering and technology careers, Black people account for only 0.4% of UK professors and currently only 3.6% of Black academics are professors compared to 13.6% of White academics3. Sadly, this opportunity is lowered further if you are a woman (30 UK Black female professors)4 or living with a disability (data not found but expected to be low). The loss of people of colour, women and others underrepresented groups from the academic space is often referred to as the leaky pipeline.

This leaky pipeline has many holes created by individual and systemic bias resulting from anti-Black racism that exist within society and the academic system, impacting the ability of Black people to thrive. This can take the form of microaggressions, which are everyday experiences of racism, such as questioning the seniority of Black academics or due to the continued exclusion of Black academics because of how the system is built5,6. These influence all aspects of the academic career from educational attainment, staff recruitment, career progression, pay and promotion7,8. A leaky pipe needs to be fixed! I don’t know much about plumbing but what I do know is that acknowledging that there is an issue but doing nothing, fixes nothing. This is where our sector has been for a long time and as a Black woman it is has been beyond frustrating to watch. There are solutions but they require a powerful will to change.

One approach is to think about how the water begins to flow into the pipeline and to see if you can pump more water through the system. For several years institutions and organisations have used outreach programmes to encourage more young people from underrepresented groups to study STEM subjects. Recently, I have been encouraged by the work of In2Research which aims to bridge the gap between undergraduate and postgraduate studies by raising aspirations and showing young people that STEM careers are an option9. This work provides individual students opportunities but does not push the system to change.

Another method is to increase the access to research funding as an approach to increase the number of Black researchers. Research careers can be made or broken by the ability to gain research funds to explore your ideas. However, Black academics are less likely than their White counterparts to be awarded research funding, for example, barriers to PhD funding were highlighted in the 2019 Broken pipeline report by Leading Routes10. Following the 2020 murder of George Floyd and the COVID-19 pandemic, more institutions are having conversations about the inequalities created by anti-Black racism within STEM. To acknowledge this unfairness, some institutions are creating dedicated funding streams for Black PhD and postdoctoral researchers to funnel more Black researchers through the academic pipeline, such as the Imperial College London James West Scholarships11 and the Sanger Excellence Fellowships at Wellcome Sanger Institute12. While this approach has many merits, simply adding more water will not fix the gaping holes.

Holes in a pipeline need to be plugged or we will continue to lose Black talent. Is it morally fair to add more people to a system that will not accommodate them because we have put limited effort into fixing these obvious gaping holes? The importance of this is emphasised by a report by the Royal Society that demonstrated that from 2007/8 to 2018/19 the numbers of Black students and staff within academia increased, but Black researchers still left at a disproportionate rate13. Therefore, without active steps we are bound to repeat the same mistakes just with more individuals.

Plugging these holes involves acknowledging that the problem is in the pipework itself and not the water. One of the many reasons Black people don’t progress in academia is that promotion practices are often unfair, unclear and opaque. This phenomenon is clearly detailed in the ‘Staying Power’ report published by Nicola Rollock featuring interviews from 20 Black female professors that showed a messy journey to professorship, littered with hurdles, delayed promotions and racial abuse14. To tackle this, institutions must create clear promotion frameworks and ensure their systems provide equitable opportunities to Black staff. Many Black academics take on the free emotional labour of working towards racial equity and these contributions need to be rewarded in promotion frameworks. Furthermore, methods like blinding applications and using diverse interview panels are small changes which should be widely used to combat recruitment and promotion bias.

The overall environment which research is conducted needs to evolve. Research culture issues persist such as long hours, short term contracts and negative competition and these experiences can be worsened further when you overlay the additional burden of racial discrimination and bullying that Black academics face15-17.  Universities can do more to improve research culture conditions for all academics and provide additional support for Black staff. This involves creating strong reporting systems which have the power to tackle issues such as workplace bullying and racism so that staff experiencing abuse can have the support and institutional backing that they need.

Fixing the pipeline will not happen overnight, the issues are complex requiring institutions to individually assess, diagnose and come up with solutions. However, while permanent fixes are being engineered, we must also use temporary solutions for those navigating the system today. Some universities such as the University of Manchester have enrolled Black academics into accelerator programmes such as 100 Black Women professors NOW providing career coaching, mentoring and targeted development to help individuals navigate this flawed system18. Programmes like this are important and should be prioritised but we must always remember the problem is the system not the individual.

Leaky pipelines are not unique to academia but span the whole of the science and technology sector. To ensure Black researchers leaving academia do not suffer further, sector wide change is required. Everyone including universities, funders, government, learned societies and industry must play their part. I now work in research funding and know funders must also work harder to eliminate biased funding and employment practices, redefine ‘Research excellence’ to go beyond the status quo, while also using our power to hold universities accountable. In this article I have focused on Black academics but to solve the many problems in this sector I believe we need a whole system level approach, replacing the whole pipeline so we can create a better structure that works for everyone. It will be hard and taxing but is essential for the UK to fulfil its dreams and unleash our scientific and technological superpowers.



  1. APPG on Diversity and Inclusion in STEM (2020) The State of the Sector: Diversity and representation in STEM industries in the UK British Science Association: London.
  2. Royal Society (2010) The Scientific Century securing our future prosperity The Royal Society London
  3. Advance HE (2022) Equality in higher education: staff statistical report 2022 - data tables 3.21a Advance HE York
  4. Advance HE (2022) Equality in higher education: staff statistical report 2022 – data tables 5.9a Advance HE York
  5. Williams, M. T. (2021). Racial Microaggressions: Critical questions, state of the science, and new directions. Perspectives on Psychological Science16(5), 880-885.
  6. Nobles, M., Womack, C., Wonkam, A., & Wathuti, E. (2022). Science must overcome its racist legacy: Nature’s guest editors speak. Nature606(7913), 225-227.
  7. Pew Research Center (2021) STEM Jobs See Uneven Progress in Increasing Gender, Racial and Ethnic Diversity Pew Research Center Washington
  8. Advance HE (2021) Ethnicity awarding gaps in UK higher education in 2019/20 Advance HE York
  9. In2Science (2022) In2research December 2022
  10. Leading Routes (2019) The Broken Pipeline – Barriers to Black PhD Students Accessing Research Council Funding
  11. Imperial College London (2022) James West Scholarships Accessed December 2022
  12. Wellcome Sanger Institute (2022) Sanger Excellence Fellowships Accessed December 2022
  13. Royal Society (2020) Baselines for Improving STEM Participation: Ethnicity STEM data for students and academic staff in higher education 2007/08 to 2018/19 Royal Society London
  14. Rollock, N. (2019) Staying Power The career experiences and strategies of UK Black female professors UCU London
  15. Royal Society (2017) Research Culture embedding inclusive excellence: Insights on the future culture of research The Royal Society London
  16. The Wellcome Trust (2020) What researchers think about research culture Wellcome Trust London
  17. Woolston, C. (2021). Discrimination still plagues science. Nature600(7887), 177-179.
  18. Women’s Higher Education Network (2022) 100 Black Women Professors NOW Accessed December 2022

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