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UCL Public Engagement Blog



HARD TO REseArCH: Black Inclusion in Research

By Rory, on 15 August 2020


Image of a white chess set with one black pawn in the middle. Photo credit: Randy Fath (https://unsplash.com/@randyfath)

This blog explores the fluidity of ethnicity, the fact that there is diversity in Blackness and how to make research more accessible to different Black communities. It is the second in our series about research and how it excludes many people from getting involved. With a massive thank you to Cherelle, Fola, Melvina, Mable and Meerat for bringing it all together.

Although Cherelle, Fola, and Melvina are all Black women, there are significant differences in their self-identified ethnicity, which illustrates the dynamic nature of ethnicity over space and time, and the importance of understanding this in academic and research endeavours.

Cherelle and her parents were born in the UK, while her grandparents were born in Dominica. She identifies as Black British of Caribbean descent and has strong ties to her cultural roots of Dominica. The fusion of both cultures influences her ways of thinking and experiences.

Melvina was also born in the UK, but to parents who migrated from Sierra Leone. She fully embraces her identity as a UK-born African and as Black British and reports her ethnicity as both Black African and Black British depending on her mood, the person asking, and the possible consequences of her response.

In contrast, Fola was born in Nigeria and often describes herself as Nigerian. It was not until she became a British citizen that she began to sometimes refer to herself as Black British, not necessarily because she saw herself as British, but because of an awareness of the privileges one has in certain spaces through identifying with Britishness.

These varying reflections on self-identity and ethnicity are subtle, but important. While we could dedicate an entire blog series to unpicking the meaningfulness of race, ethnic categorisations and their use in research, we focus here on how to address the lack of representation of Black people in academia and reflect on three key questions:

1. If ethnicity is so fluid, how can researchers identify people from specific ethnic groups?

2. How can we move forward from the tired mantra of ethnic minorities being ‘hard-to-reach’?

3. What can we do (now!), to promote meaningful equality, diversity and inclusion in research?

Collage of photographs of a diverse group of black people with a person walking past and looking at it

Image is a collage of photographs hung on the wall, showing a diverse group of black people with a person walking past and looking at it. Image credit: Christian Fregnan, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam (https://unsplash.com/@christianfregnan)

If ethnicity is so fluid, how can researchers identify people from specific ethnic groups?

Whether we seek to engage Black people in our research as informants, participants, public contributors, research champions, or co-producers, it’s imperative that we consider who we are actually trying to engage with.

We need to move beyond the broad terms of ‘BAME – black and minority ethnic’ or ‘ethnic minorities’. Discussing underrepresentation at a granular level, through referring to specific communities such as Trinidadian or Jamaican, can help us to account for the diversity of ethnic groups when engaging them. To illustrate, a young Black person whose grandparents arrived in the UK as part of Windrush generation may not respond to a notice targeted at ‘Black Caribbeans’.

It is well evidenced that the experiences and outcomes of Black Caribbean people are different from those of Black Africans, for example in educational attainment at GCSE level. Thus, when thinking about engaging Black people in research, we ought to recognise that Black Africans, Black Caribbeans and Black Britons, wherever they were brought up, come from many and varied communities rather than a single ‘Black community’. In the process of identifying the specific communities we seek to work with, we should avoid the use of terms, such as first, second or third generation immigrants, as for some, it is an ‘othering’ status, which they might not necessarily identify with.

How can we move forward from the tired mantra of ethnic minorities being ‘hard-to-reach’?

Regarding entire ethnic groups as ‘hard-to-reach’ is questionable, due to the differences we outlined above. Furthermore, in the UK’s largest cities, different ethnic groups often live in pockets, alongside one another, meaning that our communities are actually quite visible and not, at all, hard-to-reach. For example, Caribbean people of all cultures, ages and generations, can be easily found in Lambeth and Somalis can be described as an emerging community in Camden, among other places.

Rather than looking outwards from research, could we look inwards? We argue that academia is designed in a way that makes itself inaccessible to people who are different from those sitting in the ivory towers.

Prior to even being able to access higher education, Black students are more likely to face adversity on a systematic level. For instance, data from the National Union of Students show that Black students often enter further and higher education without the same level of academic and study skills as their White counterparts, and then face further challenges in accessing funding for research, due to various prerequisites including an emphasis on prior attainment. Black students are under-represented in more prestigious academic institutions and are less likely to attain an upper second class or first-class honours degrees compared to their white counterparts. Even when underrepresented groups gain employment in ivory towers, they are subjected to systemic racism which impacts their confidence, opportunities and power to engage. Therefore, perhaps it is academia rather than communities that are hard-to-reach?

When research is conducted, is it therefore surprising that research teams are mostly white and from higher socio-economic backgrounds?

With pressure from the Black Lives Matter movement and the higher education regulator, the Office for Students (OfS), there are various drives to improve representation. Whilst such efforts are significant and long overdue, there must also be an equal emphasis on creating an inclusive environment for people of all Black groups, as well as other minority ethnic groups, to thrive.

As a sector, to achieve equality in outcomes it is pivotal that we are proactive in our approach towards inclusion, instead of only focusing on diversity. We argue that the academic sector should engage in honest reflective practice and consider their entire approach to improving representation, from lecture content, to recruitment of research teams (not solely ‘back office’ staff), and the involvement of members of the public and/or those with lived experiences in research from design to dissemination.

Over the past few years, grant committees have increasingly required researchers to demonstrate how they will involve and/or engage patients and members of the public in their research, including in the design phase. Despite this, the majority of members of the public and/or those with lived experiences who engage in scientific research are white and have a higher socio-economic status whilst Black individuals are underrepresented.

This raises several questions, ‘Which barriers exist within the academic system to inadvertently (or otherwise) disadvantage Black individuals? Why might Black individuals, of all groups, be underrepresented in leadership roles as well as when engaging in research? How can we ensure that equality, diversity and inclusion are at the forefront of research involvement and engagement?


Image is of a lot of multi coloured picture frames leaning against a wall. As outlined in the blog framing people into the the singular category of ‘BAME’ or ‘Black community’ can result in low diversity in research settings. Photo credit: Jessica Ruscello (https://unsplash.com/@jruscello)

What can we do (now!), to promote meaningful equality, diversity and inclusion in research?

Given the recent spotlight on the Black Lives Matter movement, it is an opportune time to address tokenistic approaches to involvement in research and embed the principles of equality, diversity and inclusion in a systematic and measurable way. This could include taking the following actions:

  • Support access and outreach initiatives within higher education institutions to improve the recruitment and educational attainment of Black students
  • Make the essential criteria included in job descriptions more inclusive, so that they do not exclude those who have taken non-traditional paths or who have not had/felt able to take specific opportunities
  • Diversify recruitment panels, as it both increases diversity of thought and sends a message to job candidates, that ‘you belong here, too’
  • Reflect on and question our (un)conscious biases and preferences during the recruitment process
  • Provide mentorship opportunities to all members of research teams, to support career progression. This includes, for example, administrative staff who may quietly aspire to become more involved in research
  • Embed the principles of equality, diversity and inclusion in research from the outset and build in review points to ensure the co-production or involvement work remains authentic
  • Provide opportunities for everyone to offer fresh perspectives on research
  • Where members of the public share their knowledge and lived experiences, remunerate their contributions and facilitate this by including appropriate costings in applications at the bid stage
  • Register for alerts with funding bodies, to finance ongoing and responsive involvement and equality, diversity and inclusion initiatives.

While we cannot change a centuries-old system in a blogpost, we hope to have highlighted how the use of terms such as ‘hard-to-reach’, ‘ethnic minorities’ and ‘BAME’ can worsen marginalisation and systematic oppression It is therefore important that Black people have equal access to key positions at all levels of research, including senior management, in order to prevent continued exclusion.

Perhaps if we integrate the principles of equality, diversity and inclusion into all our research activities, from education, employment and recruitment through to research and dissemination, it will counter the idea of entire communities being ‘hard-to-reach’ and hail them as indispensable co-producers and leaders within research.

This blog was brought to you by:

Cherelle Augustine, Engagement Coordinator at NIHR Applied Research Collaboration North West London, Sickle Cell advocate and Co-Founder of charitable organisation Broken Silence in aid of Sickle Cell Awareness

Fola Afolabi, Graduate Management Trainee at Imperial College London

Dr Melvina Woode Owusu, Founder and Director of Purple Pen Research and Evaluation Consulting, and Research Programme Manager at University College London

Dr Mable Nakubulwa, Research Associate and Statistician at NIHR Applied Research Collaboration North West London, made significant contributions to this blog.

With thanks to Meerat Kaur, Interim Deputy Theme Lead, NIHR Applied Research Collaboration North West London for help with the coordination of this blog.


If you are interested, please have a read of our first blog in this series ‘Space wars: exclusion from research’. Watch this space for a third in the series coming soon.

If you would like to add to this conversation or if you have any questions about the work of the UCL Centre for Co-production, please get in touch by email at coproduction@ucl.ac.uk or say hi over on Twitter.


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