Royal Society pilots Career Development Fellowship to support independent researchers from underrepresented groups

18 September 2023

A new Royal Society scheme to kickstart the independent research careers of researchers from groups underrepresented in UK STEM academia will open for applications this autumn.

The Royal Society Career Development Fellowship (CDF) will initially run as a pilot with researchers from Black heritage backgrounds. If successful, the pilot may be broadened to researchers from other underrepresented groups.

Applications will open in November, and approximately five fellowships will be awarded in the first year, to outstanding candidates who are completing, or have recently received, their PhD.

Fellowships will provide four years of funding, up to £690,000, to undertake curiosity-led research at a UK university or not-for-profit research institution. In addition, CDF researchers will receive training and mentoring opportunities through links with Royal Society Fellows, Research Fellows and professional networks.

The scheme has been developed following cross-sector roundtables and Royal Society-commissioned reports which looked at trends across 11 years of Higher Education Statistics Authority (HESA) data and benchmarked the Society’s early career fellowships (PDF) against the eligible applicant pool.

This process identified a need for interventions across the academic pipeline to support UK-based researchers from Black or Mixed Black heritage backgrounds, particularly researchers making the transition from postgraduate to early postdoctoral stages.

The HESA data for 2021/22 shows just 4% of STEM students at PhD level were from Black backgrounds, that falls to just 2.5% among STEM academic staff and this proportion is even lower at the most senior roles.

This latest programme builds on the Royal Society’s work over many years to ensure its grant schemes offer the flexibility, support and security needed to build a successful academic career.

Sir Adrian Smith, President of the Royal Society, said:

“The data is clear on the unacceptable underrepresentation of people from Black backgrounds in STEM academia. The transition from PhD to postdoctoral research is a critical stage where we are losing too many talented young scientists from underrepresented groups, and particularly Black backgrounds, who could become the research leaders of tomorrow.

“These Career Development Fellowships are designed to start addressing this by combining the independence of a fellowship, with a package of support to help establish and develop early career researchers.

Dr Mark Richards, Senior Teaching Fellow, Imperial College London and a member of the Royal Society’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee, said:

“Some people may be shocked that a scheme like this is needed in 2023, but the data present a clear case for action on the systemic underrepresentation of UK scientists from Black backgrounds in academia.

“That will take work across the pipeline, but it begins with those researchers taking their first steps in academia by providing security of funding, independence, and connections to collaborators and networks that all scientists depend on.

“Alongside the work of the Royal Society’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee, I hope this scheme opens up rewarding careers to many more talented individuals from diverse backgrounds – and when we look back in years to come, we see this as a turning point.”

In addition to the Career Development Fellowships, the Society supports a programme of diversity and inclusion activities that aim to promote the diversity of STEM education and careers, including:

  • In2scienceUK, which runs programmes aimed at empowering students from low-income and disadvantaged backgrounds to achieve their potential and progress to STEM and research.
  • In2Research, an initiative providing placements for STEM undergraduates from deprived socioeconomic backgrounds to continue on to PhD.
  • Destination STEMM, a mentoring scheme run with the Windsor Fellowship for Black students in Year 13 living and studying in Greater London.

The pilot scheme is being funded from the Royal Society’s Department for Science, Innovation and Technology grant.