Tackling Racism

DOI: https://www.doi.org/10.53289/LUVG7650

Increasing diversity is good for everyone

Ijeoma Uchegbu

Ijeoma Uchegbu FMedSci is UCL’s Professor of Pharmaceutical Nanoscience, a fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences, an honorary fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry, a governor on the Board of the Wellcome Trust and Chief Scientific Officer of Nanomerics Ltd, a UCL spinout company. She has served as Chair of the Academy of Pharmaceutical Sciences and chaired EPSRC and Science Foundation Ireland grant prioritisation panels. She is the immediate past UCL Provost’s Envoy for Race Equality, a role in which she led on race equality work at UCL.


  • Research has demonstrated that diversity has wide societal benefits
  • The education system does not work for some sections of society
  • Some groups become progressively disadvantaged as they progress through school into university
  • A transparent race equality strategy is needed to transform our education system
  • Courses have to be designed to meet the needs of all the students.

I am a scientist and inventor of Nanomerics’ Molecular Envelope Technology, a drug development technology which was created in UK academia. The technology is being used to develop medicines with reduced side effects and improved efficacy. We have licensed a number of assets to companies on the NASDAQ. We work with Big Pharma and mid-tier pharmaceutical companies.

Why care about diversity – because it is a social justice issue, or because it is good for society? In my view, it is good for everybody. ESRC research has found that diverse management teams tend to be more innovative. Diverse juries tend to be superior in their decision-making, because they rely on the data rather than on assumptions about ‘people like us’. In public companies, ethnically diverse boards tend to be more profitable, according to a number of McKinsey studies. In academia, working across geographical boundaries and across ethnicities tends to result in more citations.

In UK academia, there is reasonably good participation from all ethnicities. About 2% of academic staff are Black, while about 4% of the general population in England and Wales is Black. Yet when the focus is on professorships, you are more likely to be a professor if you are white, but you are really very unlikely to become a professor if you are a Black individual. The number should be 4% if it reflects the census data but it is actually 0.7%. If you happen to be a female professor and you are Black, then you are part of a very small number of individuals. So, there is a real problem in the system.

I believe this all stems from an education system that is not fit for purpose. When a child is about 11, Black and white pupils are performing at the same standard when it comes to English, mathematics and science. Pupils that are of Chinese or Indian heritage are outperforming white students. At A Level, to progress to a research career, students should try to go to a research-intensive university. To do that, three A grades are necessary. Around 11% of pupils will get three As. Yet only half that number of Black pupils will achieve this. They have been destroyed by our education system; it is not serving their needs and is not fit for purpose.

Pupils of Chinese and Indian heritage are still doing well, but once they get to university the gap they had over white students disappears in three years: they had that advantage for a decade, but it has gone in three years. So, universities are also not fit for purpose because they are not serving this group. Black students are very unlikely to get a good degree.

With that disadvantage, they cannot command a good salary in the workplace. Go into the workplace with A levels and there is already a gap to white counterparts. With a degree, the gap is even larger. I spent many an evening persuading my four daughters that they should go to university, yet I wonder whether I should have done so if they will end up having worse pay rates.

UKRI published data on research awards shows that Black Principal Investigators are almost non-existent. Now, I have been a PI and I have received funding from UKRI for two decades. Yet that is very unusual. So for Black individuals who have managed to get through the system, have achieved A Levels and got into university, got a good degree and a PhD, they are still less likely to be funded by UKRI. At the Wellcome Trust, the story has been the same, but we are doing something positive about it. Where two grant applications are similarly ranked, we will now select the grant led by a person from an under-represented group.

UCL has removed the names of eugenicists from its buildings.

A race equality strategy is needed across our whole education system. Schools should be rewarded for eliminating any type of award gap and universities should be similarly rewarded. The relevant data should be published because when the data is visible to everyone, people will start to take action.

UCL now has a race equality charter. We say to people: ‘If students at UCL are likely to leave with a worse degree, they will go to Kings or Imperial. If they are not choosing your course, it will close, so it is in your interest to make sure that students get the degree and the award that they deserve.’

We have made some changes. We now have a Centre for the Study of Race and Racism. We have removed from our buildings the names of eugenicists who said that Black people were no better than baboons. Over half of UCL students are from ethnic minority backgrounds and faculties have been reducing their awarding gap year-on-year. More people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups are being promoted into the senior grades.

A final example of why this is important can be seen in a study by Greenwood et al published in 2020. This was a very high-profile study of 1.8 million new-born infants and their outcomes. It found that a Black newborn was half as likely to die if it was cared for by a Black physician. We must make sure that Black newborns, and especially those with complex medical issues, are cared for by people who look like them because they will have a better chance of survival.

A study has found that a Black newborn was half as likely to die if it was cared for by a Black physician. 

We need better representation, we need to train people in our universities of different complexions and from different socio-economic groups, so that we do not encounter the same problems we had during COVID, where under-represented groups suffered disproportionately.