DOI: https://www.doi.org/10.53289/CFRM8074

Creating an environment for people to explore their potential

Lilian Hunt

Dr Lilian Hunt is the Equality, Diversity & Inclusion in Science and Health (EDIS) Lead in Wellcome’s Equity Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) team. They received their PhD in Genetics from UCL while at The Francis Crick Institute where they helped bring together the founders of EDIS in 2016. Lilian has since developed the coalition, supporting the 29 EDIS members to deliver on their EDI strategies covering inclusive research, culture and careers.


  • Work to create greater equity, diversity and inclusion has been taking place for decades
  • STEM is a creative activity and needs equity, diversity and inclusion to flourish
  • Many of the initiatives in the area come from the grassroots
  • The world of STEM reflects the imbalances of wider society
  • EDI is a matter of social justice.

EDIS is a coalition of 29 organisations across the life science and health research sectors with shared commitments around Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI), emphasising its importance as well as the need for senior leadership engagement and for collaboration.

It is important to note that this work is not new, it has been going on for decades, for example through Women in STEM and Black Women in STEM. There are reports that go back to the 1960s and 1970s, in the US, the UK and across the globe, providing recommendations that we would have expected to see taken up by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee.

The Government's response to the committee’s report talked about ‘entrenched imbalances’, which is really pale language. It does not address the fundamental problems of social injustice and inequalities. The committee itself has said that the response from Government was weak. I think the quote was: “It's a plan for a plan.”

The inquiry

In 2018, there was a My Science Inquiry where the public were invited to put their requests to the Science and Technology Committee. Professor Rachel Oliver first submitted the suggestion for an inquiry into the impact of science funding policy on equality, diversity, inclusion and accessibility. The current inquiry is therefore the result of a grassroots push, and much of the work in this area is still coming from community activism and collaboration.

The APPG on Diversity in STEM, established with the British Science Association as secretariat, followed shortly after the My Science initiative. After the 2019 election, committees changed and the inquiry was shelved. In 2020, the APPG set up an inquiry into Equity in the STEM Workforce, which generated a brilliant piece of work that provided a foundation for the Science and Technology Committee inquiry launched in 2021.

Evidence was submitted to the inquiry from the public, from communities and from a range of organisations. Unfortunately, their suggestions have been weakened and diluted in the final report.

It is really important to note the balance of power in society – the systems, the structures, access to and distribution of knowledge, resources, history, culture. People do not see that these forces pervade STEM as well: they believe that STEM is objective and that careers in STEM are structured in an objective way.

We are all products of what has happened in our lives to date and the people we interact with – from role models to our families and the people we work with – as well as our own personalities. This influences the way we prioritise, the way we interpret situations, even the way we carry out research and innovation.

Diversity and inclusion are fundamental to harnessing creativity and STEM is a creative pursuit. The idea that we would exclude any group based on their identity or experience, or even prevent groups from expressing their creativity within the STEM workforce, does our entire country a disservice.

It is crucial that we keep making that case, because there are too many people who just do not see a problem.

There were some very disappointing parts of the inquiry itself. There was an MP suggesting that young women chose physics at a particular university because of a ‘sexy professor’. Several people suggested that girls do not do physics because they are somehow conditioned not to like hard maths. There was an instance of a witness giving oral evidence being pressured to name and shame employers and leaders who were bullies – the committee did not consider the consequences for that individual.

There was disrespect for non-STEM subjects as well, by suggesting that STEM was more difficult and also more useful. Now, I am a geneticist myself, but I recognise that without the ability to interact with cultural and historical reference points, STEM tends to repeat the mistakes of the past in our methods and in our impact.

So the inquiry was not entirely smooth sailing, nor completely positive.

Social justice

One of points EDIS made was about social justice. This is about putting fairness at the heart of what we are doing here. This issue is not at root about business productivity, it is fundamentally about fairness. That is not just equality of opportunity, but also equality of outcomes, because the system has been so heavily weighted against some people for so long.

If we see that there is significant under-representation, and that barriers exist for some people in the STEM research and innovation endeavour, we have to counter this not just by levelling the playing field, but through a more active rebalancing, at least for a while until you reach equality. I use the metaphor of rowing down a river. Stop rowing and the river will still carry you in the same direction as it has always done, so we have to actively row against the stream to get somewhere else.

The Government response to the committee’s report has focussed on education: early years education and secondary education. Now these are really important stages on the journey. Yet the Government did not address the fact that science capital is built throughout a career, whether that is in research, in academia or in industry. Science capital is not just built on what you know but also who you know, where the opportunities are, engaging with people who fund your work or want to employ you. There are good reasons why Nobel Prize winners often have Nobel Prize winner parents and PhDs have PhD parents: it is because someone has told them how that system works, as well as the value and the benefit of it.

The Government response sets a 2030 target for a more diverse range of people to enter the science and technology workforce. ‘Entering’ the science and technology workforce does not mean staying, having a satisfying career and producing the best work. Further, it is not sufficient to just aim for ‘more’ diversity without any measurable targets.


People experience the culture within science and technology differently, for example there are varied opinions about the value of competitiveness. The Wellcome Trust’s Research Culture Survey found that 43% of researchers had experienced bullying or harassment while close to 70% had witnessed it. Those numbers are shocking. There are targeted interventions across the whole of the sector that can improve the situation.

EDIS put forward a number of recommendations to the committee. The first was for investment in inclusive STEM education with a focus on building science capital at all stages, including beyond PhD stage. We asked for proactive steps to remove bias and ensure equal outcomes. We want support for organisations to create change and embed good practice. Legal frameworks need to be updated, there needs to be greater dissemination and uptake of guidance. We want investment in positive culture and incentives that reflect diverse contributions – and when we say invest, we mean money. Finally, we want consistency in the design, implementation and monitoring of EDI interventions.