Black scientist using a microscope

There is increasing awareness of racial inequality in science funding

Skynesher/Getty Images

Just 10 senior researchers who received public funding in the UK during 2018-19 were Black, the first breakdown of UK science funding by individual ethnic groups reveals. The number, just 0.5 per cent of the total, was described as “profoundly upsetting” by the government body in charge of funding.

Racial inequalities in funding by the UK’s seven research councils, which coordinate around £8 billion of government cash, have come under growing scrutiny in the past year. But the disparities between ethnic minorities have been masked by lumping individual ethnicities together under the banner of Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME).

Researchers can apply for three categories of funding, in descending seniority: principal investigator (PI), co-investigator or fellow. Today, data published by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), which coordinates the research councils, shows that just 10 Black researchers were awarded PI funding. Out of the total 2045 PI roles funded, 210 went to people from an ethnic minority.


Of the fellows who received funding, just 60 were from an ethnic minority, compared with 250 white fellows. The number of Black fellows is so low – between one and four – that UKRI didn’t release the number for fear of identifying individuals. That picture isn’t new, the organisation says: between 2014 and 2019 there has always been fewer than five Black fellows each year.

As the UKRI points out, both of these proportions are below the proportion of Black people in academia and the wider labour market, while the figures for co-investigator were more in line.

“It shows that funded Black applicants are vanishingly small,” says Izzy Jayasinghe at the University of Sheffield, UK, who is a member of The Inclusion Group for Equity in Research in STEMM (TIGERS). The figures show that Black applicants are underfunded by at least three times what would be expected given their wider labour market proportion, she says.

Michael Sulu at University College London, also a member of TIGERS, says: “It tells you everything you would assume, which is essentially that black staff must work with others to gain funding as a co-investigator and are unlikely to be leaders.”

By comparison, researchers of Asian ethnicity received a higher proportion of funding compared to the proportion of Asian people in academia and the wider jobs market. This appears to be the driving force behind the proportion of ethnic minority co-investigators growing between 2014 and 2015. From 2016-17 onwards, those researchers exceeded the ethnic minority proportion of academia and the labour market.

Ottoline Leyser at UKRI said in a statement: “These data spotlight the stark reality of the persistent systemic racial inequalities experienced in the research and innovation system. They are profoundly upsetting, but perhaps the most upsetting thing about them is that they are not surprising.”

More on these topics: