Open letter to UKRI Chief Executive on recent decisions impacting EDI

6th Nov 2023

The British Neuroscience Association (BNA) has today written an open letter to the Chief Executive of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser, in response to the recent decision to suspend the Research England Equality Diversity and Inclusion Expert Advisory Group. 

The open letter expresses disappointment at the decision to suspend the group, and concern at the disruption that this action could have on UKRI's wider initiatives to promote diversity and inclusion across the research sector. It also urges that the group be restored as soon as possible.

The text of the letter can be viewed below. A copy of the letter has also been sent to the Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, the Rt Hon Michelle Donelan MP. 

Dear Dame Ottoline,

We are writing to you to express our concern at the recent decision to suspend operations of the Research England Equality Diversity and Inclusion Expert Advisory Group with immediate effect, and the broader implications of this decision on the research sector’s essential work in this area.

At the British Neuroscience Association, we know that research benefits when it brings together and builds on the diversity of views, backgrounds, and life experiences within the research community to help to tackle the complex challenges in neuroscience and science as a whole. We need the best people from all backgrounds and diversity of thought to tackle large neuroscience-related societal challenges like dementias and mental health problems. We are committed to making the BNA, and neuroscience in general, more equitable and inclusive, and are proud to be a supporter of the Declaration on Equity and Inclusion from ALBA – an international network of brain scientists committed to fostering fair & diverse scientific communities.

Research England’s first EDI Expert Advisory Group was set to play an important role in shaping a more diverse and inclusive higher education sector through the strategic advice it would provide. When the group was announced last month, UKRI highlighted that this group “will provide insight and perspective to support Research England in creating and sustaining the conditions for a healthy, dynamic, diverse and inclusive research and knowledge exchange system in English universities”, beginning with the development of a new EDI action plan. It also highlighted the group’s alignment to UKRI’s EDI strategy.

It is therefore very disappointing that the group has been suspended, further delaying long-overdue action to improve EDI. In March, the House of Commons Science, Innovation and Technology Committee report on diversity and inclusion in STEM highlighted that UKRI must use its EDI strategy “as a launchpad to promote diversity and inclusion across the research sector.” There are barriers faced by underrepresented groups in neuroscience and wider STEM fields that urgently need addressing at a nationwide level. Suspension of the full group due to social media posts of two of its members appears a completely disproportionate response, and calls into question UKRI’s will to progress its broader EDI ambitions, at a time when there is a strong desire across the sector for more to be done; as Dr Stephen Hill said, in the announcement of the formation of the EDI Expert Advisory Group, “The strength and volume of applications for this call demonstrates the real drive towards a more diverse and inclusive higher education sector.”

We are also concerned at the impact this decision will have on other UKRI initiatives, such as the EDI Caucus. The creation of an EDI Caucus is the most significant and ambitious step taken by UKRI to date to support EDI across the sector. Your public commitments to this project have stressed the need for the EDI Caucus to provide robust, evidence-based approaches to create an environment where “a diversity of people, ideas and perspectives” are welcome and valued. There is a risk that the suspension of the EDI Expert Advisory Group will disrupt this work.

The strength of feeling in the research community about this decision is palpable. We note that many committed individuals who give their time to UKRI committees have publicly suspended or resigned from their involvement in UKRI activities as a result of your decision.

We urge you to restore the Research England EDI Expert Advisory Group as soon as possible.

Yours sincerely,

Professor Tara Spires-Jones, BNA President

Professor Narender Ramnani, BNA President-elect

Professor Cathy Abbott, BNA Trustee for Research Policy

Dr Vasanta Subramanian, BNA Representative for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

Update: The BNA received a response on 16 November in which UKRI acknowledged the concerns raised in the letter above, and stated that their response to resolve this is ongoing. 

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