25th Jan 2023

New insights into the experiences of different groups at research conferences in the UK

Research conferences, symposia, and meetings, form a key part of academic life across all subject areas from the life and physical sciences, to the arts and humanities. Conferences provide a platform for sharing the latest knowledge in a specific research field, networking with peers and collaborators, and building connections which enable career development, and the creation of new projects and funding applications.

As a leading provider of research conferences, focussed on genomics, health and disease, Wellcome Connecting Science has always been interested in the experiences of delegates at our meetings. We know, both from individual feedback, and longer-term analysis, that our conferences provide excellent opportunities for knowledge exchange and networking; and have led to the development of new project and grant proposals, research collaborations, and journal publications. This is great news if you are ‘in the room’ and actively participating in these meetings; but what about those who aren’t in the room, and why might they be absent?

We were aware that our delegate base achieves broad parity in relation to gender, but is not particularly diverse in relation to race and ethnicity. We commissioned Sea-Change Consultancy, a behavioural science-led consultancy with a focus on diversity and inclusion, to explore the views and perspectives of researchers from racially minoritised backgrounds on their experiences of scientific conferences.

Using both quantitative and qualitative approaches Sea-Change have identified a number of themes relating to the experience of those from minoritised and non-minoritised groups at research meetings in the UK. Although based on a small sample, an anonymous survey revealed that those from minoritised backgrounds faced more financial challenges in attending research conferences (including our own), and were less likely to feel welcome at these events. As part of in-depth interviews, the intersections between race, gender and career-stage became more evident; with barriers to conference attendance relating to time, funding, and caring responsibilities cited broadly, but with minoritised groups being impacted more by some of these elements.

It is only by stepping back and asking members of the research community about their experiences, that we are able to build our understanding of how we can improve our own offer, and influence others.

Dr Michelle Bishop, Associate Director Learning and Training, Wellcome Connecting Science 

This report has produced a number of important insights and recommendations, both for our programme and the conferencing sector in general. We are now actively considering how we respond to these, to ensure that we are able to implement effective changes through spring and summer.

We were delighted to work on this project, as rather than making assumptions, we were able to surface root causes of the issue, enabling Wellcome Connecting Science to put in place more effective solutions for their programme.

Tinu Cornish, Director, SEA-Change Consultancy Ltd

As a programme we are committed to ensuring diversity and inclusion are embedded in all our activities, and reducing structural barriers to progress wherever we can. We will use this report to identify where we can make meaningful changes to our learning offer to ensure that there is equity of opportunity across the UK research community.

Dr Ireena Dutta, Associate Director Programme and Strategy, Wellcome Connecting Science 

We will provide updates on our progress, as we move from reflection to action, so sign up to our newsletter or follow us on social media, to keep in touch with our programme and our Learning and Training team. We are also interested in sharing our experiences with stakeholders in this sector, and if you would like to receive a copy of the full report please contact Dr Michelle Bishop or Dr Ireena Dutta.