Increasing the talent pool in Engineering and Physical Sciences

Posted by Dr Alison Wall on 26 March 2015

Tackling the diversity challenge in The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is at the top of EPSRC’s agenda and the top issue for me now as the lead for EPSRC’s Building Leadership strategy.

We are committed to promoting equality and diversity in all our activities, both as an investor in research and doctoral training, and as an employer.

EPSRC, along with the other Research Councils, has just published data on success rates for research grants and fellowships analysed by gender, age and ethnicity, together with an analysis of the Higher Education Statistics Agency’s (HESA) data on the research population in each Research Council area. Now we are looking in detail at the figures for our portfolio, in terms of our themes and types of research award, to help us decide where to focus action.

The picture in terms of gender is stark. Our analysis of HESA data shows that, of the academic population that is eligible to receive support from EPSRC, 16% are women and within this, we know there are issues with career progression. Ever since my first degree at Imperial College, I’ve been used to being in environments with more men than women. However, there are times when I am still surprised by the extent of gender imbalance in a meeting.

On a more positive note, it’s fantastic to see work to promote diversity here in the UK and world-wide and it feels like now is a time to make real progress. At the international level, there is the UN HeForShe movement and the importance of diversity in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) being highlighted by President Barack Obama at this week’s White House Science Fair. Closer to home, I’m impressed by the enthusiasm and commitment of our partners in universities, government, business and the professional and learned societies to promote diversity. We will continue to work closely with them and our colleagues in the other Research Councils.

The other thing I’m finding hugely encouraging as I learn more about equality and diversity, is that if we make progress, we can expect to see improved research outcomes and a better engagement of all of our talent (see for example, the Science and Technology Committee report Women in Scientific Careers 2013 - 2014 and the 2014 special issue of Nature and Scientific American).

The question for us is what areas can EPSRC influence and where should our focus lie? Firstly, we must look at our own processes to ensure there is no bias, particularly within the peer review process. Some of us have just completed unconscious bias training as a first step ahead of deciding how to expand this more widely across EPSRC and to our panels and peer reviewers. We will also consider anonymous peer review.

We have a target of 30% women in the membership of each of our Strategic Advisory Teams (SATs) and our Strategic Advisory Network (SAN). The recent refresh achieved close to this for most SATs, but we are reopening recruitment for two SATs to try to get closer to this target. I believe these targets for our Council, SAN and SATs should be more ambitious in our next delivery plan and that we should have targets in relation to ethnicity and disability too.

The issue I expect to be harder to tackle is to increase diversity in the research pool. Later this year, we will share data and talk with universities and other partners to see what’s working well within the diversity arena and what initiatives are being successful. We want to hear good ideas and positive examples from university partners of good practice and examples of success so that we can learn from this.

There are excellent talented women in engineering and physical sciences. When we were thinking of the panel membership for our recent ‘ Science for a Successful Nation’ conference, it was obvious very quickly that we had excellent leading women for each seat.

However, as I look at the scale of the problem and the slow pace of progress so far, I am increasingly convinced that we will need some form of positive action to make progress more quickly. Our Council has asked us to be bold and I look forward to working with our partners to decide what actions will be most effective in bringing about long term change and a truly diverse research base in engineering and physical sciences.

Editor's Update: In July 2015 EPSRC made the following announcement: The EPSRC Council has set a 50% target by gender for our Council and SAN by 2020 and a 30% target for female membership for our College and SATs by 2020, the end of the next Delivery Plan.


In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

Alison Wall
Name: Dr Alison Wall
Job title: Associate Director
Department: Building Leaders
Organisation: EPSRC