Wellcome to favour funding bids from minority applicants

Change comes after consultants find leading biomedical research funder is ‘still an institutionally racist organisation’

August 10, 2022
Source: iStock

The UK’s leading private biomedical research funder has said it will change its grant-making processes to favour applicants from diverse backgrounds. 

The change comes in response to an evaluation by a group of consultancy firms, which found the Wellcome Trust’s two-year-old anti-racism programme had made “limited progress”. 

While the funder had brought about “some positive behavioural and practice shifts, there has been insufficient action taken to allow this commitment to take root”, they say. 

From September 2023, the funder said it will apply “positive action principles” to its grant-making decisions, “so that when applications are of similar merit Wellcome will favour those which broaden the diversity of the pool of people it supports”. 

It will create a dedicated funding stream for researchers from ethnic minorities, “targeted at the career stages where this will have the greatest benefits for diversity”. It will also appoint a new executive team member, reporting to director Sir Jeremy Farrar, who will lead its equity, diversity and inclusion efforts. 

THE Campus resource: The promotion process needs bigger, better data if we’re to make it fairer

“Wellcome is still doing too little to use its power and influence to counter racism. We have fallen short of commitments made to colleagues and to the research community,” said Sir Jeremy. “As a consequence of us not doing more and not acting sooner, Wellcome remains an institutionally racist organisation.” 

The chair of the charitable foundation, Julia Gillard, said the changes were “fully supported by the board” and “just the start of a renewed focus on anti-racism”. 

The report was based on group interviews with staff and grant holders, surveys, and a review of existing Wellcome data on race. It was put together by the Social Investment Consultancy, The Better Org, Lyn Cole Consultancy and Ngozi Cole, a freelance writer.

Aside from the tiebreak funding criterion, the consultants say it is “critical” to have more diverse staff working on funding committees “to ensure that the decision-making processes are reviewed through an anti-racist lens”. 

They found that the application of anti-racism principles to funding committee decisions was limited to discussions alone, with no training of performance indicators being used.  

A 2021 survey of Wellcome staff found 45 per cent of those working on its research programmes disagreed that internal performance and promotion decisions were made fairly, while one in five staff identifying as black or a person of colour reported receiving racist or classist comments, or regular microaggressions – subtle or unintentional discrimination. 

More general anti-racism progress at Wellcome has been blocked by a lack of diversity among senior leadership, the consultants say, with the burden of changing things falling too much on minority staff networks. 

The March resignation of Wellcome’s anti-racism expert group, appointed in November 2020, could cause “growing scepticism” about the funder’s commitment to anti-racism among researchers, they add.


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