Tackling Racism

DOI: https://www.doi.org/10.53289/NFCM3188

A coordinated approach is needed to deliver permanent change

Karen Salt

Dr Karen Salt is Deputy Director of R&I System Diversity and Security at UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). She has the task of driving UKRI’s cross-organisational strategic thinking and policymaking on system diversity and Trusted Research and Innovation. She has over 27 years’ experience engaging and co-creating solutions with communities, organisations, charities and governmental bodies. An expert on governance, systems and transformative change, she has led and managed interdisciplinary research centres, collaborative research teams and large research projects.


  • Racism is not just a process, but an experience. The key is in putting the lived experience, the people, alongside processes
  • Change is happening, in many different programmes and initiatives across the sector
  • Programmes to tackle racism by universities can place additional workload demands on existing staff
  • Initiatives need to be scaled-up and coordinated
  • The next challenge will be supporting new activities while bringing existing programmes together.

As a Black academic woman, I have carried out a significant amount of work on inclusive transformation. Yet the problem that we are trying to address – racism – is deeply embedded in all aspects of our society and needs to be tackled at this level.

This is fundamentally about everyday experience. Although it is important to talk about the data of grants and hiring practices, it is vital to get a sense of what it is like to live in societies in which racism persists and understand its societal impacts. Then, hopefully, we can work together to find ways forward.

I can share some personal experiences around recognition and belonging. For example, in one instance, a white male member of an institution was convinced that I was part of the cleaning staff in the building and did not think to check before handing me materials to be thrown away. His presumption was that I could not possibly be a faculty member, as few faculty members looked like me, so I must be a member of the cleaning staff.

I have been followed by security guards around buildings where you need a faculty swipe card just to get in. I was told that they knew every face that should be there and they did not recognise me – so I had to prove that I belonged. Preconceptions and behaviour run deep.

As Director of the Centre for Research and Race and Rights at the University of Nottingham, I led various research projects and with multiple grant holders. Before I joined UKRI, I had six active grants and a huge research team. There were postdocs, community researchers and a variety of different activities within the programme. I was also director of a PhD programme with a majority Black student body. This was an anomaly, having so many Black students (all supported by fellowships, by the way) and it entailed a great deal of work to attract sufficient funding from different places.

In my present role, I draw upon that experience in traversing disciplines, cultural organisations, independent research organisations and National Labs, as well as various different industry partners from Rolls Royce to GSK. In addition, the role involves talking with Government.

To be clear, this issue is not just one facing Black scientists. There are plenty of similar stories about Black politics, about Black cultural organisations, or Black philosophy. Yet I can see the amazing work that folks have been doing across various different domains. The transformations that have happened with the widening participation programmes around postgraduate work, around tackling barriers and creating opportunities for postgraduate researchers, for Black and minority ethnic students – these can be clearly seen.

There has, in fact, been a hiring bonanza over the past three to four years. Suddenly universities are advertising roles aimed at Black and ethnic minority groups. They have, however, been packaged up into career slots: this is for undergraduates, this is for postgraduates, these are for these other groups. Yet this all imposes demands on senior Black academics and researchers to service this increase in representation – in terms of admin, mentoring students, working with community organisations and charities, perhaps being asked to be on boards and committees for every single academic year.

Many of these new roles come with an expectation that people will join straight after their PhD or first postdoc. Some who lead university departments want to decolonise the entire curriculum and get their new entrants to work on every single committee. In an ideal world, people would come in and be given some space to figure out what they might do. They might receive some nurturing and support to allow them to flourish and move forward.

Established in 1988, the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship programme aims to help remedy the problem of underrepresentation in the faculty ranks of Higher Education.

Given the current push (and to be clear, it absolutely needs to happen) some care has to be taken on how it is implemented. There needs to be a recognition of the load being placed on people, from those working with BlackinCancer to Deputy Deans and all the way through to people who are working across policy and Government. It is a lot to ask for every single organisation to wake up to racism and suddenly transform itself: new groups, new teams, new structures. I am not trying to deny the work that needs to happen, nor the urgency of it. But people have to deliver these changes and that involves a great deal of work.

This is a really interesting transitional moment with a large number of important initiatives, for example, the Windsor Fellowship, the UCL initiatives, the Royal Society of Chemistry and Wellcome programmes. Communities have been actively engaging in this process through being on various different networks and groups, from the British Antarctic Survey all the way through to the RISE network, which is UKRI’s Black and ethnic minority staff network.

There is however the question of scale and how to achieve this effectively: otherwise, a great deal of work will remain in various different silos. One initiative that could be transformational for the UK would be to create something like the Mellon Mays programme in the USA. The defining feature of this programme is its size. It brings together 51 different institutions and membership requires them to commit to a range of objectives. The programme is focussed on under-represented faculty. It challenges institutions to work out how to create a cohort, determine what that actually entails and then requires them to create the conditions to enable that group to both learn and grow – from undergraduates all the way through to, ultimately, job market support. There are other programmes, too, that do similar jobs with conferences, mentoring, bringing different sorts of groups together, but also providing places for people to publish, as well as opportunities for them to continue to build their profiles.

I am not trying to suggest that we should stop any of the work currently underway. However, to scale up, we have to band together. We need to create a system with a single focus where all the energy sits, and to which everybody looks first. By bringing everyone together, including Government, this central structure can play a very strong role and ultimately support a number of these different complementary programmes on a consistent basis. In that way, we become less reliant upon charities, or people's goodwill, in order to move forward.

The challenge is to knit these various different initiatives together so that we are not pulling against each other. Instead, we can recognise different groups as inspirational but we can harness all of this energy and actually move forward. In so doing, we can recover the passion that ultimately brought us to research and innovation in the first place.