Medical research seldom shoulders the burden of such hope and faith as it does today. Widely considered to be our greatest asset in our current predicament, its success has relied on a noble attempt to recruit the brightest in society, regardless of background. To deviate from such a custom would, in normal times, be considered dangerous.
Unfortunately, medical research is not immune to the political quirks of our time. The Wellcome Trust, one of Britain’s foremost medical research funders, has joined the vast array of British institutions to have adopted “anti-racism”, perhaps America’s most powerful cultural export. They announced this week a change in their recruitment strategy: a shift from the purely meritocratic towards the racialised.
In this piece I discuss the potential ramifications of this decision. But first, to provide the wider political context of education and employment in the UK, I must introduce the newly published report by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities (CRED).
The CRED report is a timely and considered analysis of ethnic minority Britain, yet many of its conclusions have attracted immediate repudiation. Glancing at the foreword, it is easy to see why: “Put simply we no longer see a Britain where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities. The impediments and disparities do exist, they are varied, and ironically very few of them are directly to do with racism. Too often ‘racism’ is the catch-all explanation, and can be simply implicitly accepted rather than explicitly examined.”
Outcomes in life are a function of several factors including deprivation, geography, familial stability, ambition, culture, religion and luck. I am focusing here on outcomes in education and employment, but it holds true for others. The report acknowledged that overt racism remains a reality in Britain, but recognised that ‘systemic’ or ‘structural’ racism has a slippery definition and is difficult to measure. Importantly, they found it to be a very minor contributor to observed racial disparities, compared to the other factors listed.
Critics argue that the report understates the extent of systemic racism. But even if that were so, these other major factors ensure that, even if racism were totally extinguished, disparate outcomes would nevertheless persist. Put another way, the observed disparities between groups are not ipso facto evidence for racism. Indeed, as Dr Thomas Sowell has pointed out countless times, ethnic disparities are the norm across land and time, for all sorts of outcomes, in all sorts of societies.
The report also echoed a sentiment which has been long overdue. The catch-all ‘BAME’ – a term contrasting minorities with white people – is unhelpful for an intelligent analysis of society today. For instance, Chinese and Indian people not only have better societal outcomes than other minorities, but are out-performing white people on numerous counts. Chinese employees earn 23% more than their white British counterparts, likely due to their higher numbers with a degree (75% vs 34%).
Drilling further within racial categories is even more illuminating. Black British children of Caribbean and African descent, even when sitting in the same classrooms, display strikingly different levels of attainment. The hypothesis that disparity means discrimination struggles to explain the data. Instead, the Timpson Review of School Exclusion in 2019 revealed that Black Caribbean pupils had a permanent exclusion rate of 25 in 10,000, compared to 7 in 10,000 for Black African pupils. School exclusions are intimately related to family breakdown, an issue which the CRED report helpfully discusses, noting that 63% of Black Caribbean children grow up in lone parent families. As the authors underline: the exercise is not to apportion blame, but to understand where the struggles are.
Thus two important points emerge: 1) lumping together large racial categories (e.g. black people or ‘BAME’ people) obscures where the true heterogeneity lies, and 2) tackling disparity requires addressing several underlying issues, each dwarfing systemic racism. Combining these two produces a corollary argument: institutions, if sincerely concerned with achieving parity of outcomes, should address the greatest problems afflicting certain minority ethnic groups. If too much focus is shifted away from these, towards the popular single issue of systemic racism against ‘BAME’ people, then disadvantaged groups will never be helped.
Back to the Wellcome Trust. In the same week as the CRED report, they released their strategy for ‘Diversity, equity and inclusion’. They aim to achieve 30% BAME representation among their staff by 2026, across all levels of seniority*. While acknowledging the limitations of the term “BAME”, they will nevertheless achieve this through “equal or higher rates in hiring, progression and retention”. In other words, they will no longer recruit individuals solely based on merit, but will now also consider their race. The justification is revealed in their adoption of “anti-racist principles”, which assume that under-representation is driven mostly, or entirely, by racial discrimination. As we have seen, this assumption, while undoubtedly true in decades past, is no longer borne out by evidence.
They report that 19% of their staff is BAME. Could it be that a finer breakdown would reveal an over-representation of certain groups such as Indian and Chinese people, who are numerous in academia, medicine and research? Would the Wellcome Trust be satisfied with 30% BAME representation, if it consisted entirely of Asian people? Or, more plausibly, are they aiming for a workforce that reflects the full ethnic diversity of London?
Either scenario produces an awkward reality: preferentially awarding jobs to under-represented ethnic groups necessitates withholding them from over-represented groups, lest the laws of arithmetic be broken.
In other words – to compensate for a weak and nebulous form of discrimination, they will instigate a strong and explicit form of discrimination, one which may fall not only on white people, but on certain ethnic minority groups too. To penalise people who have found a stable recipe for success is not justice; it is injustice. And this injustice is rendered even more bitter if, following a broad and rigorous investigation of ethnic disparities (e.g. the CRED report), the greatest underlying drivers are not systemic racism.
It is reasonable to ask: is their objective to drive the best life-saving research possible, or is it to respond to the political trends of our day? And to detail both sides of the diversity equation: to whom exactly will they give these jobs, and from whom exactly shall they be withheld?
The relative lack of progress of certain minority groups is understandably frustrating, and the desire to address the problem is admirable. I understand why the Wellcome Trust and many other private and public institutions have published these strategies†. But the problem is vastly more complex than the solutions suggest, and credit is due to the authors of CRED report for respecting this complexity. Their recommendations may be difficult and unfashionable – they may indeed even be slow – but such is the nature of mature, realistic and sustainable progress. Addressing the real issues that afflict struggling groups is where true justice lies, and more should be done.
We must hope that following the CRED report, British institutions like the Wellcome Trust shift away from policies that gloss over the deeper issues, and risk creating more injustice than they solve. No system achieves perfect meritocracy, but we should strive towards it and accept no deviation. For medical research is of critical importance – we need the brightest to drive it, regardless of their race.
* Interestingly, a pay gap report published by the Wellcome Trust in February 2021 revealed that BAME employees earn a higher median wage than white employees. Although white employees have a higher mean wage, they note that the median more reliably reports an average, as it is less affected by extreme outliers. They also note that no data for ethnicity was available for ~30% of employees.
† The Wellcome Trust is by no means alone. UKRI, the UK public body that directs research funding, last year published their recommendations of ‘positive action’ (synonymous with affirmative action). Across the pond, the same ideological pursuits, coupled with the same mathematical constraints, have produced some unfortunate results. Harvard and Yale, seeking proportionate representation of black people, have both been accused of discriminating against Asian Americans in admissions, who comprise 22% of freshmen at Yale yet 6% in the US overall.