There are things we can do to make science leadership more representative

In this Q&A, our director Jeremy Farrar talks to Research Africa’s editor Linda Nordling about improving research culture and building representative leadership.  

Female researcher writes on whiteboard
Credit: Wellcome

This is an extract from a wide-ranging Q&A first published in Research Professional News.

What is the next step in building true representative leadership? 

JF: In terms of transforming the leadership of science, whether in terms of gender or ethnicity, there was this assumption that it was just a cohort effect, that when we had a 50-50 split between men and women at undergraduate, PhD, and early postdoc levels it would just naturally flow into subsequent leadership. But that hasn’t happened. It hasn’t happened in the United States, it hasn’t happened in Europe, and it hasn’t happened in Africa. You are right to say that if you look at Wellcome centres in Africa – Kilifi, Nairobi, Durban, and here in Cape Town – they are all currently run by male directors. And clearly that’s not sustainable. 

Now diversity and inclusion is one of Wellcome’s ten priority areas. It has grown over the last three years, and it’s one thing I hope I can shift in my last four years as director. We know there’s a drop-off in early or mid-career periods when a lot of the individuals who came through the undergraduate and postgraduate programmes are either lost to the system or don’t feel they have a place in the system. 

Do you know why? 

JF: Some reasons are obvious, to do with the way that society is structured. But you can’t assume that society is fixed in stone. You can do things in the research world in terms of the environment and culture you create, the flexibility you allow workers to bring to work. In grant-giving you can make sure you are much more flexible in the length of grants, that they are not fixed around a traditional sense of what a researcher is. 

We’d dearly like to address that anywhere we can, whether that’s in the United States, in Africa, or in India, while accepting that the cultural differences are profound. Wellcome has certainly contributed to the idea that the only thing that matters is the outcomes of the research, and what comes from it, and perhaps less about how it’s done. Unless you bring those two together – both what you achieve and how you achieve it – then I don’t think we are creating the sort of inclusive research environment that allows everybody to shine. 

Read the full Q&A in Research Professional News, 12 September 2019