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Exploring 'Diversity in Chemistry'

Alumni joined members of the department, guests from industry and speakers from UK Research and Innovation, the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Proud Science Alliance and the BBC World Service, to explore issues around diversity in chemistry.

Following a very popular alumni event last year themed around 'Women in Chemistry', this year we widened the topic and discussed the factors hindering the recruitment and retention of under-represented groups in Chemistry more broadly.

At the event in February 2020, Conference Chair Professor Melinda Duer pointed out: "After our 'Women in Chemistry' event last year, attendees said: 'Great event. Now, what about all the other groups that face unwarranted challenges in achieving success in Chemistry?' 

So that's how we came to today, where we aim not only to celebrate diversity in Chemistry but also to understand how to take down the barriers that impede success, in particular for minority groups."

She added: "There is now increasing evidence that diversity amongst the people who are doing science promotes new research directions and greater understanding through the same scientific problem being seen from multiple perspectives."

During the course of the day, an array of speakers, panellists and workshop presenters discussed reasons why scientists from under-represented groups still struggle to be included in the research lab. Speakers talked about how unconscious bias and traditional attitudes to what constitutes scientific 'success' are proving stubbornly hard to alter.

"Unpicking all the factors that contribute to our view of science - and the true impact of the human biases that damage it and its practitioners - is a hugely complex problem," Melinda added. "So today we're focusing on two key aspects: how bias and prejudice affects scientific careers through the environment in the workplace, and through scientific publication."

Speakers came from organisations including the research councils' umbrella body UK Research and Innovation, and from scientific publishers Cambridge University Press. 

At the morning panel session, scientific journal publisher Fiona Hutton talked about her new journal Experimental Results. A former cancer research scientist, she has launched this new Cambridge University Press publication to tackle the crisis in the reproducibility of results and provide an outlet for standalone research that currently goes unpublished.

She says: "I've had countless conversations with scientists about the value of publishing all valid experiments, not just those that fit the narrative of a particular paper or which are deemed to have a high impact."

There were also speakers from AstraZeneca, the Royal Society of Chemistry, and the controller of BBC World Service English who came to give examples of what organisations in other fields were doing to increase the representation of minority groups in leadership.

There were also small-group workshops on topics ranging from overcoming 'imposter syndrome' to challenging the boundaries between science and art.

The day was considered to be a great success, not only bringing alumni back to the department, but also helping to bring positive change to departmental culture.

To that end, we are already planning our next event to take place in February 2020. See the sidebar, right, for details.

How we hope to improve next year's event

We received feedback on the event from participants and are taking it into account in planning next year's event.

'What was the best part of the event?’
The day included a morning session, three workshops and an interactive discussion with a panel of speakers in the afternoon.

Comments included: "The morning speakers were excellent and the content very informative"; "At the afternoon panel session, it was great to hear lots of different voices and perspectives"; and "The best part of the day was the mix of people - diversity!"

'How could the event be improved?'
There were requests for more time for everything from the lunch break to the time for questions.

Comments included: "I would have liked the opportunity to attend more than one of the workshops" and "I'd have liked more opportunity for discussion, perhaps in smaller groups". We are taking this into account and will allow more time for discussion at the morning panel session.

'What can we do for future events?'
Several attendees requested more events around diversity and inclusion in STEM, while others were interested in mental health and/or disability in science.

We have listened to this feedback and at next year's event, we plan to offer workshops on unconscious bias, hidden disabilities, and tackling bullying.

Our goal is to increase the recruitment and retention of people from under-represented groups to Chemistry.

Building on the momentum of our two previous events, which focused on Women in Chemistry in 2019, and broader issues of diversity and success in 2020, the 2021 event will focus on BAME students/researchers, and those with a hidden disability.

Our speakers and inter-active workshops will show alumni and Department members how their own unconscious biases and actions may be implicated in the barriers these groups face. We will teach how to recognise unconscious barriers, and provide simple steps for implementing personal and cultural change within this and other institutions.

More details about the 2021 event will be made available later this year.