Diversity in energy research

13 May 2021

UKERC’s commitment to Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) is active and ongoing. Historically, energy research has been a homogenous discipline. We want to widen participation and bring new, diverse voices into the conversation, attracting talent from a wealth of backgrounds to ensure the academic community truly reflects society and benefits from the abundance of knowledge within it.

One way we are striving to achieve this is through the Whole Systems Networking Fund (WSNF), funded by Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) through the UKERC Phase 4 grant.

Interdisciplinary conversations

Whole systems research is about studying subjects in their entirety, intentionally exploring how the technical, social, environmental and policy elements of a system are connected and fit together as a whole. Researchers that work closely with those from other disciplines gain fresh perspective and learn to approach problems in novel ways, in turn sharing expertise from their own fields. However, interdisciplinary conversations can be hard to initiate, especially for groups who fall outside the traditional scope of energy research. The purpose of the WSNF is therefore to facilitate collaboration. It aims to be truly inclusive, inviting everyone to participate, benefit from networking opportunities and build lasting relationships that span the energy research community.

Gender balance in energy research

The WSNF first ran in UKERC Phase 3 (2014-2019), funding 18 projects that explored a range of topic areas including fossil fuels, renewables, nuclear, hydrogen and energy storage. Addressing the prevailing gender imbalance in the field was an urgent area of focus, as women are significantly underrepresented in grant applications for energy projects.

By designing the appropriate mechanisms to encourage participation from female researchers, we demonstrated it is possible to mainstream gender balance into the energy portfolio as 80% of the funding was allocated to projects led by women. One such project, led by researchers from the University of Exeter, analysed gender-based data and spoke to female energy academics about their lived experiences. The resulting report, called Power Shift, outlines their findings and makes recommendations on how UKRI, other funders and universities can better support and progress female academics working in the sector.

That said, gender imbalance still persists in energy research and the work is far from over. There are also many other groups that continue to be overlooked and left outside of traditional energy research.

Addressing diversity issues more broadly

Our aim for the WSNF in UKERC Phase 4 is, therefore, to address diversity in a broad sense, encompassing both Protected Characteristics as defined by the Equality Act 2010 and diversity of circumstance. We are looking to broaden both the people and institutions we engage with, bringing in new partners that both we and successful applicants have not worked with before. Our objectives for this round are to:

  1. Improve EDI across the energy research space
  2. Offer career enhancement opportunities for Early Careers Researchers (ECRs)
  3. Widen participation to share experience across disciplines and the four UK nations
  4. Undertake collaborative research with non-academic partners to investigate policy-relevant challenges that could be solved through a whole systems approach

We will be running both a workshop and an online survey to help shape the first call for proposals, which will open in mid-2021. More details will be released about both of these activities in the coming weeks.