Diversity delivers innovation and drives scientific progress

26 Feb 2021

February has been LGBTQ+ history month and here at the Research Complex at Harwell, we have been taking the opportunity to reflect on inequalities in STEM. Diversity, equality and inclusion of both people and ideas is vital to achieving excellence in both research and innovation. Evidence shows that diversity delivers innovation, and innovation is the driving force in scientific progress.

However, studies show that inequality and lack of representation are still prevalent. Last year, a paper named the ‘Diversity-Innovation Paradox in Science’ was published, which had followed the careers of over a million US doctoral students for over three decades. The study revealed a ‘stratified system where underrepresented groups have to innovate at higher levels to achieve similar levels in terms of career prospects compared to their colleagues who are white, straight and male’ [1]. Innovation is important, particularly now during a year where the achievements of science have been relied upon more than ever and yet, the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated longstanding inequalities in health, employment and education throughout the UK [2].

A paper published last month in Science Advances revealed that 30% of LGBTQ+ professionals in STEM are more likely to experience workplace harassment in comparison to their non-LGBT+ peers [3]. Members of the LGBTQ+ community face discrimination when it comes to hiring. They can be subject to social isolation, endure limitation to their career opportunities and resources, and undergo professional devaluation by co-workers. All these not only potentially damage the careers of LGBT+ professionals but also their mental health. Such experiences are leading to many choosing to leave their professions entirely after years of dedicated study and top exam results.

This departure of skilled and experienced professionals from STEM because of negative treatment they receive in their work environments disrupts scientific inquiry and technological innovation. LGBTQ STEM professionals are also less likely than their peers to feel comfortable whistleblowing. Their greater fears of raising ethical and legal issues at work is concerning, as STEM professionals are increasingly on the front lines of issues of public safety and security’ [4].

There have been some extraordinary achievements made by LGBT+ scientists over the years – Dr James Barry, Angela Clayton, Alan Turing, Svante Paabo, Ben Barres, Tim Cook, Elena Rodriguez-Falcon, Sally Ride, Polly Arnold, David Smith to name a few [5]. Many discuss how these icons have broken down the barrier. But has this barrier really been broken, given the continuing discriminations multiple studies have raised? The royal pardoning of Alan Turing on 24th December 2013 was an early Christmas gift to the LGBT+ community. So, going forward, the question is how do we, as individuals who work within the scientific field, support the LGBTQ+ community more within our workplace?

One of the best ways is to become an ally. An LGBTQ+ ally is someone who supports equal civil rights and gender equality and challenges homophobia, biphobia and transphobia. To be an ally is to be an advocate for social change. The most important part of being an ally though, is to listen. Promoting equality, diversity and inclusion is at the heart of UKRI’s vision. If you listen to the UKRI podcast, set up last year as part of UKRI’s ‘Take PRIDE in research and innovation’ campaign, you will hear the personal stories of colleagues from STEM, including a discussion of the importance of LGBTQ+ role models and not being afraid to bring your whole self to work.

Take the time to look at LGBTQ+ in STEM advocacy groups such as charities Pride in STEM, 500 Queer Scientists and NOGLSTP. Read about some of the icons named above, learn their stories, and listen to their voices. Learn some of the facts and figures [6] surrounding the LGBTQ+ community. Familiarise yourself with the language, and look up terms that you may be unfamiliar with [7], and learn about the importance of pronouns: what they are, why they matter and how to use them. Challenge homophobia, biphobia and transphobia; call out inappropriate comments and don’t be afraid to stand up for your LGBT+ colleagues.

Representation and visibility are essential to achieving equality. The value and significance of the LGBTQ+ community to research and innovation cannot be overlooked. A paper published in The Lancet in December 2020 focuses on increasing the visibility of LGBTQ+ researchers in STEM creates ‘a crucial sense of individual belonging and security and those who are able to open about their sexuality and gender can serve as role models for the wider community [8].’

At the Research Complex at Harwell we are committed to support equality and diversity and enable inclusion for all. Director David Payne says “It is of crucial importance that as soon as you walk through the doors of Research Complex that people feel welcome, supported and safe. Nurturing this environment is vital if we are to sustain a truly collaborative, inspiring and creative place to perform science. Being an ally to the LGBTQ+ community by listening, and acting when required, is what good leadership is all about.”



  1. The Diversity–Innovation Paradox in Science | PNAS
  2. Researchers to look at issues affecting ethnic minority groups during Covid-19 | York Press
  3. ‘This deserves our attention.’ New data highlight LGBTQ scientists’ workplace challenges | Science | AAAS (sciencemag.org)
  4. Systemic inequalities for LGBTQ professionals in STEM | Science Advances (sciencemag.org)
  5. Celebrating Pride: the LGBT Icons of STEM – Springpod Blog
  6. LGBT facts and figures | Stonewall
  7. Glossary of terms (stonewall.org.uk)
  8. Increasing the visibility of LGBTQ+ researchers in STEM – The Lancet