A policy framework for inclusive research design

Dr Lilian Hunt, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in Science and Health Lead at Wellcome, tells us about a framework to improve inclusive research policies and its potential impact on future research design.

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Dr Lilian Hunt

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A policy framework for inclusive research design
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As global research funders, it’s our responsibility to ensure the research we fund is inclusive in both design and practice so we can drive equitable health solutions. This means researchers must consider how diversity – biological, social and societal – is integrated into their research design, impact and interpretation. And we must support researchers by embedding policies that uphold this.

With this in mind, I worked alongside Professor Londa Schiebinger and Dr Mathias Nielson to identify and review how national research funding agencies integrate sex, gender and diversity analysis as core criteria for the research they fund. We then developed a five-part framework for funders to design and implement these policies. Here’s why. 

The policy framework 

National research agencies are responsible for promoting excellent research for the benefit of everyone in our society. Equitable research design can improve research methodology and ensure research is responsive and applicable to the public. To do this, we need to look at embedding diversity across the entire research cycle – from identifying a problem statement, designing the research, collecting and analysing data and sharing findings – and how funders can support researchers throughout this process.

Sex and gender policies of national funding agencies were at the forefront of the research, as many policies exist in these areas and have been in place for several years in some countries, so we could help funders to understand what best practice and progress look like.

The research consisted of a document review, a pilot study, guidance from an expert advisory group and a global survey. From this, we developed a scoring framework to assess funders in 22 countries across six continents. We then proposed a five-part framework for inclusive research policy design:

  • Definition of terms 
  • Proposal guidelines for applicants 
  • Instructions for evaluators 
  • Training for applicants, evaluators and staff 
  • Evaluation of policy implementation

Overall, we found some national funding agencies had good practices and policies in specific parts of the framework, but few were great across all five areas – with the evaluation of policy implementation being the weakest area.

"Each component of our five-part framework process for policy development is important to the success of policy implementation. A simple policy mandate to include [sex, gender and diversity analysis] in research is itself not enough, and, when poorly executed, can lead to harm."

'A framework for sex, gender, and diversity analysis in research', Dr Lilian Hunt, Prof Londa Schiebinger and Dr Mathias Wullum Nielson

What is the impact of the research? 

It can help research funders plan, implement and evaluate their own policies and practices

Our aim was to help funders to achieve more equitable funding outcomes by identifying existing practices that they could build on, adapt and refer to when designing their own policies. Access to this type of framework is essential to focus the attention of funders and bring about a cultural shift that prioritises sex, gender and diversity analysis in research. Insights from 22 countries provide a holistic view of practices across different contexts that can be used by funders that don’t currently have or that want to improve inclusive research policies, with guidance on what to focus on and how to self-assess.

It can improve research quality and support global collaboration

Having a core framework of expectations is important for funding agencies in different countries and contexts to work together. It allows researchers who are collaborating across borders or seeking co-funding to know what is expected of their research proposals and develop a shared understanding of research excellence worldwide. As the framework considers different sociocultural contexts, it can also help to drive research that can be adapted and applied to diverse groups of people.

It highlights the need for improvements in policy evaluation

It’s important to evaluate and track the impact of sex, gender and diversity analysis in proposals and funded research, the impact on evaluator comments, and if this type of analysis makes it into research outputs, for example, peer-reviewed publications. However, our research found that policy evaluation is lacking in many contexts. Now that funders know there is a problem with evaluation of policies, they can work to improve it.

What's next? 

We are proud of this work and the impact it could have on research practices globally. Wellcome is also developing its own policies to ensure the research we fund considers diversity. In doing so, we will co-develop principles of inclusive research design and practice and embed these across the research cycle using the policy framework to ensure they are effective and impactful and that the research we fund is equitable, representative and enhances excellence in science.

In addition, we are funding Medical Science Sex and Gender Equity (MESSAGE) research to co-develop a sex and gender policy framework for funders and regulators in the UK specifically, including educational and training materials to improve gendered health outcomes. Our work with Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in Science and Health also continues to ensure concepts of diverse and inclusive research are shared across the whole science and health research ecosystem.

  • Dr Lilian Hunt

    EDIS Lead


    Dr Lilian Hunt is the Equality, Diversity & Inclusion in Science and Health (EDIS) Lead in Wellcome’s Culture Equity Diversity and Inclusion team. They manage the EDIS coalition supporting its members, developing its strategy, and delivering events and research. Lilian draws on their research experience, lived experience as a queer person in science, and EDI knowledge to drive an evidence-based approach to inclusion.