Written evidence submitted by the Knowledge Exchange Unit (DIV0018)



  1. This submission comes from parliamentary staff in the Knowledge Exchange Unit (KEU), which works to facilitate the exchange of information and expertise between researchers and UK Parliament. The KEU is part of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), which is based in the Research and Information Team.


  1. Part of the KEU’s remit is to support engagement by underrepresented groups with Parliament. It does this for a number of reasons, including that a lack of diversity in the provision of advice to Parliament may undermine policymaker attempts to identify and address issues that disproportionately affect some groups.


  1. In the course of its work, the KEU has conducted qualitative consultation with a range of academic researchers to determine how to support their engagement with Parliament. This has included consultation with communities we have identified as underrepresented in Parliament: women researchers, researchers from minority ethnic communities, and disabled and differently-abled researchers.


  1. During these consultations researchers have described a number of barriers they have faced in academia, the higher education sector and industry more widely, which they said contributed to their underrepresentation. These barriers included a lack of consideration of diversity issues in funding decisions and a lack of role models in senior leadership positions.


  1. While we have not assessed the barriers described, because the issues raised are outside our responsibilities, we believe the information may be helpful to the Committee’s inquiry.


  1. KEU and POST conduct a range of activities to address barriers to engagement with Parliament for researchers, a number of which may be relevant to Government, academia and funding bodies. These include: creating opportunities for academics to work in Parliament; increasing the flow of information about parliamentary work to diverse researchers; and the provision of training and guidance materials in order to demystify the policy process.


Background to the information presented


  1. We know that researchers and experts from some communities and demographic backgrounds engage less with Parliament, based on both statistical and qualitative evidence. Taking select committee witnesses as an illustration of experts who engage with Parliament, the House of Commons Sessional Returns consistently show lower numbers of witnesses who are women. Data does not yet exist for other demographic groups, although more systematic data collection by select committees began during the 2021-2022 session.[1]  In terms of academic witnesses, research by Dr Marc Geddes in 2013-14 showed a predominance of Russell Group universities providing witnesses; 75.6% of witnesses from Higher Education came from Russell Group institutions (i.e. traditional research-intensive universities). In addition, four of the top five universities who gave evidence to select committees were based in London and the South East. [2]


  1. Anecdotal evidence uncovered through years of working with the policy and research communities also points to underrepresentation of certain groups. For example, in 2017, the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) and Parliament's Outreach team ran an online survey to better understand academics’ perceptions of barriers to engaging with Parliament. The survey received 1162 responses from academics and research support staff. The findings are not listed here, as they are not directly relevant to the focus of the inquiry, but are available on the Knowledge Exchange Unit’s webpages. However we would highlight that some respondents felt that their personal or professional background was a barrier to engagement, citing: age, career stage, class, disability, ethnicity, gender, lack of prestige of university, location of university, nationality, race, regional origin, research methodology, and subject discipline. 


  1. Since its creation in 2018 (bringing together staff in POST and Parliament’s Outreach team who ran the above survey), the Knowledge Exchange Unit (KEU) in POST has focused on exploring the potential reasons for these barriers and working to overcome them.  We have learnt from many researchers and experts about the barriers they encounter in engaging with the UK Parliament and the wider policy sector.  As well as the online survey referenced above, we have conducted qualitative consultation activities with communities we identified as underrepresented at UK Parliament: women researchers, researchers from minority ethnic communities, and disabled and differently-abled researchers. 


  1. In October 2019, we held an event with women researchers at which women researchers and parliamentary colleagues contributed ideas to strengthen Parliament's work with women researchers. In September and October 2020, we held a series of online discussion groups with researchers from minority ethnic communities; this was intended to be a face-to-face event but was adapted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In February 2021, we held a series of online discussion groups and an online survey with disabled and differently-abled researchers.


  1. Participants in all discussion groups shared their personal experience of engaging with the UK Parliament and the policy sector, and the barriers they have faced in contributing expertise to Parliament.  They also contributed ideas on how they think Parliament can strengthen its work to support a diverse range of researchers to engage with Parliament. These events and activities brought together researchers from broad communities to start to get a sense of different experiences and barriers for some researchers.  However, we recognise the non-homogenous nature of these communities, and that intersectionality affects each individual's experiences. 


Barriers to inclusion in STEM in academia

  1. Our consultation activities have focused on the barriers faced by those working in research in engaging with the policy sector, and Parliament in particular.  However, in our consultations, we also heard about barriers researchers encountered outside Parliament, and/or before researchers reach the point of policy engagement, including with UK Government, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), other funding bodies and academia. 


  1. It is important to note that we have not assessed these barriers in detail, as they relate to issues outside of our responsibilities. As a result we cannot say how widely held these views are. Nevertheless, we believe the information may be helpful in informing the Committee’s inquiry.


  1. Women, people from minority ethnic communities, and disabled and differently-abled people spoke of a number of barriers to inclusion in academia and industry, leading to underrepresentation. Some barriers affect all researchers, while some are specific to particular communities or affect some researchers more than others. It should be noted that the barriers we heard about affect not just those working in STEM, but also academic researchers in other disciplines. We term these ‘indirect barriers to policy engagement’. 


  1. The indirect barriers to policy engagement identified by participants in our consultation activities included:

a)      Inequality in allocation of research funding. Participants stated that it is harder for researchers from minority ethnic communities to access funding than White counterparts, and that funding is often unsuitable for disabled researchers (for example, grants can specify what money should be spent on, but a disabled person might need something different to enable them to undertake the research).

b)      Lack of transparency on how funding decisions are made. Participants noted that there is sometimes little transparency about how funding is allocated, with no visible call. They find that often researchers who get funding for one project are more likely to receive funding again.

c)       Inadequate data collection on diversity in funding allocations. Participants have observed poor data collection practices around disability in funding applications, claiming that the numbers are not sufficient enough to aggregate anything meaningful around disability.

d)      Difficulties with career progression. Participants explained that the competitive environment of academia is difficult for people whose working time is limited. Many disabled people are unable to manage early career job insecurities in research.

e)      Underrepresentation in the research sector, particularly in leadership roles. Participants noted a particular underrepresentation of Black women, women of colour and disabled people at Professor level and higher in Higher Education. They have found that the lack of representative leadership makes it harder to find like-minded individuals in key decision-making roles to lead progress, and this manifests itself in a lack of support for the next generation of researchers from underrepresented communities.

f)        Lack of recognition for policy engagement from Higher Education employers. Participants said that time spent on policy engagement is not always recognised by their institution, making it harder to dedicate time to this activity especially for those starting their career or on fixed-term contracts.

g)       Lack of incentivisation for Higher Education Providers to focus on diversity. Participants found that there is no money attached to activities associated with diversity, which made them feel that diversity is seen as a bolt-on topic and not essential.

h)      Inequality in the school and college education system, leading to a lack of diversity in the pipeline of potential academics. Participants identified structural systemic inequalities in the education system, meaning fewer people from underrepresented communities joining Higher Education and progressing to research careers.


  1. An additional point made by participants in our consultations was regarding researchers who feel forced out of Higher Education due to inequalities and discrimination, and so become independent researchers or consultants. Not being attached to a research institution recognised by policy makers, plus less publication, makes them less visible to policy makers looking for experts.


  1. A number of participants in our consultation activities also identified direct barriers to policy engagement that they said led to underrepresentation of experts contributing to the policy sector, including Parliament:

a)      a lack of awareness or understanding from some individuals in the policy sector about diversity and inclusion, appropriate terminology and language.

b)      a narrow perception of ‘expertise’ by the policy sector.

c)       a lack of knowledge and transparency on how to engage with policy, how researchers are selected and how to keep engagement sustained. 

d)      the physical inaccessibility of the policy sector, particularly Parliament itself, in terms of the building and the location.  

e)      a lack of inclusivity in opportunities for researchers to engage with the policy sector. 

f)        a lack of senior level opportunities in the policy sector available for researchers and experts from diverse backgrounds.

g)       a low visibility of experts from diverse backgrounds to those in the policy sector.

h)      a perceived insufficient interaction with disabled people.

i)        a perceived lack of co-ordination across Government and with the devolved administrations about disability.


Implications of these groups being underrepresented in STEM roles in academia

  1. The main implication of this underrepresentation is the lack of representation of diverse STEM experts in policy making, and scrutiny of policy by Parliament.  If the policy sector’s engagement with STEM in academia and industry does not involve women, people from ethnic minority communities, disabled and differently-abled people and those from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds, then issues that disproportionately affect those groups may be missed.  The diversity of thought and challenge that comes from engaging with diverse communities may also be lacking in policy making and policy scrutiny.


  1. The 2019 Liaison Committee report on The effectiveness and influence of the select committee system noted the need for a greater diversity in the contributors to committee inquiries in order to enhance the quality of scrutiny.


What could be done by UK Government, UK Research and Innovation, other funding bodies and academia

  1. Researchers who took part in our consultation activities suggested a number of actions that could be taken to address the barriers faced by underrepresented communities in STEM in academia.


  1. It is important to note that we have not assessed these solutions in detail, as they relate to issues outside of our responsibilities. As a result we cannot say the extent to which underrepresented groups would support these solutions. We also cannot say the extent to which the organisations mentioned are already acting on these points (for example, UKRI describes work on its website that may be addressing some of these issues). Nevertheless, we believe the information may be helpful in informing the Committee’s inquiry.


  1. Suggestions we received for UKRI and other funding bodies included:

a)         Funding a target number of researchers from underrepresented communities.

b)        Introducing a policy that UK research councils will not support universities unless they can show how they are inclusive of diverse communities, for example in how they ensure that promotions are transparent and inclusive.

c)         Commissioning research into educational and leadership inequalities for researchers from diverse backgrounds.

d)        Explicitly stating support for disability and differently-abled status of researchers in funding bids, and giving sufficient data for meaningful analysis and incentivising disability disclosure.

e)         Allowing reasonable adjustment costs as separate costs, rather than being included as part of the overall funding ceiling. Allowing additional time for research to be undertaken by disabled academics who may need to take longer to complete research.


  1. Suggestions we received for academia included:

a)         Having a renewed focus on broadening access and participation.

b)        Increasing the visibility of diverse academics.

c)         Examining undergraduate and postgraduate students and the attainment gap in terms of diversity, and putting actions in place to mitigate issues.

d)        Taking action to increase the diversity of those in management and senior roles.

e)         Reviewing academic promotions to ensure inclusion in promotion processes.

f)          Diversifying the material included in university teaching and curriculums.

g)         Supporting Equality, Diversity and Inclusion networks at the institutional level.

h)        Incentivising disclosure by recognising disability and differently-abled status as a formal barrier in Higher Education student admissions and staff recruitment, and being clearer on what access support can be provided for applications and interviews.


  1. Suggestions we received for the policy sector, including the UK Government and Parliament:

a)         Offering accessible and inclusive teaching, mentoring and coaching focusing on ways and opportunities for researchers to work with policy.

b)         Continuing opportunities to contribute virtually to policy activities, initially started during the COVID-19 pandemic, which can help to mitigate barriers around physical access, time commitment, travel costs and social anxiety.

c)          Reaching out to and engaging with existing researcher networks and academic representative groups, particularly those made up of and/or representing diverse communities.

d)         Providing fellowships and opportunities in the policy sector specifically for researchers from diverse backgrounds.

e)         Ensuring all opportunities for researchers to engage with policy are accessible as standard.

f)          Reflecting on perceptions of expertise and inclusive practices within teams and organisations.

g)         Advocating for equity and inclusion for researchers and experts across all sectors.


What has KEU/POST done to help address underrepresentation of researchers from particular groups in engagement with Parliament?

  1. KEU and POST have undertaken a number of activities to address the underrepresentation of researchers from particular groups at Parliament. It is important to note that we continue to adapt our approach based on feedback from those we engage with. Some of our activities that might be relevant to other sectors include:

a)              A weekly round-up email of opportunities for researchers and experts to engage with UK Parliament, such as select committee calls for evidence, academic fellowships, training and events.  This aims to provide an accessible, straightforward way for any researcher or expert to keep up to date with opportunities to contribute to UK Parliament.

b)              Online training on ways and opportunities to work with Parliament, ensuring recordings and resources are available for those unable to attend. We monitor the diversity of those registering for our online training to identify and remove or mitigate any barriers for particular communities.

c)              Parliamentary Academic Fellowship scheme and POST Fellowships, which create opportunities for academics to engage with Parliament in a supportive and exciting way.

d)              Continued work to build relationships with networks of researchers from different communities to reach a diverse range of researchers with opportunities to work with Parliament.

e)              Support to other policy teams in Parliament to help them work with a diverse range of experts from the research community, including advocating for virtual participation where possible and transparent diversity monitoring of researchers contributing to Parliament.

f)               Providing Parliament with a central team able to coordinate conversations on these issues and to help facilitate the responses needed.

g)              Seeking to share our work on these issues on our website.


Naomi Saint, Knowledge Exchange Manager, POST

Dr Sarah Foxen, Knowledge Exchange Lead, POST

Dr Laura Webb, Knowledge Exchange Manager, POST

Oliver Bennett MBE, Head of POST


January 2022



We would like to thank the researchers and experts who contributed to the KEU’s consultations, particularly those who reviewed the written outputs, as named below.

Dr Ellen Adams, King’s College London; Dr Larissa Allwork, The University of Derby; Dr David Atkinson, York St John University; Martell Baines, Leeds Arts University; Dr Julie Bayley, University of Lincoln; Dr Amy Benstead, University of Manchester; Dr Gayle Brewer, University of Liverpool; Dr Helen Carasso, University of Oxford; Kingsley Chukwu, King’s College London; Dr Katherine Deane, University of East Anglia; Dr Mercy Denedo, Durham University; Dr Kamala Dawar, University of Sussex; Professor Mandeep Dhami, Middlesex University; Dr Yota Dimitriadi, University of Reading; Dr Charles Ebikeme, London School of Economics and Political Sciences; Dr Carla Finesilver, King’s College London; Mirika Flegg, University of Brighton; Dr Riya George, Queen Mary University of London; Dr Anita Z Goldschmied, University of Wolverhampton; Lorna Hollowood, University of Birmingham; Dr Karen Latricia Hough, Sheffield Hallam University; Dr Kristy Howells, Canterbury Christ Church University; Dr Zeynep Kaya, University of Sheffield; Professor Clare Kelliher, Cranfield University; Dr Wei Liu, King’s College London; Dr Katharine Low, Royal Central School of Speech and Drama; Dr Julia Makinde, Imperial College London; Professor Louise Manning, Royal Agricultural University; Professor Uvanney Maylor, University of Bedfordshire; Dr Nazia Mehrban, University of Bath; Dr Lata Narayanaswamy, University of Leeds; Dr Miriam Nweze, University College London; Dr Bridget Ogharanduku, Sheffield Hallam University; Dr John Oyekan, University of Sheffield; Dr Rachel Payne, Oxford Brookes University; Dr April-Louise Pennant, Cardiff University; Dr Lindsey Pike, University of Bristol; Craig Potter, University of Kent; Maria Prince, Ulster University; Nesrine Ramadan, University of Oxford; Dr Michelle Sahai, University of Roehampton; Dr Zahida Shah, Solent University; Dr Javeria Shah, Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, and Social Performance Network; Avnish Verma, University of Liverpool; Dr Meesha Warmington, University of Sheffield; Dr Becca Wilson, University of Liverpool; Dr Anica Zeyen, Royal Holloway, University of London



[1] Select committee witness diversity statistics, House of Commons Sessional Returns

[2] Geddes, M, Taking Evidence, 2016