Responsible funding decisions: Managing unconscious bias at NERC

NERC – the Natural Environment Research Council – is the UK’s largest funder of independent research, training and innovation in environmental science, funding over £150 million pounds of research grants annually. To retain and build on their position of funding research excellence, NERC is working in partnership with Pearn Kandola to further increase the quality of funding decisions made and to limit the potential harmful impact of unconscious bias. Pearn Kandola were asked to produce bespoke training interventions for NERC funding decision makers, designed to introduce the science of unconscious bias to senior academics in order to help them understand their own biases and to take steps to manage bias in their decision making environments.

The concept of unconscious bias was introduced by Pearn Kandola at an NERC Peer Review College induction event attended by 100 participants. Following an interactive session which raised awareness of unconscious bias, attendees were split into their sub-groups and asked to identify bias in a simulation of a research grant decision-making session. Panel chairs received additional input with the latest research and thinking on group decision-making, challenging bias in groups and specific mechanisms to limit bias in group decision-making environments.

The feedback from the event has been very good, with participants even recommending the training to their own institutions after the event. More than three quarters of the people found it useful and most felt that they could use it as part of their NERC role. Post event comments included:

“Thought provoking session around the unconscious bias training.”

“Despite my initial skepticism, Rob Barkworth was absolutely excellent. It should be compulsory for NERC reviewers to sit through this (UB) material.”

“I was surprised how useful it (UB) was.”

“The issue of unconscious bias extends way beyond grant panels, so was very interesting to look at.”

The event generated considerable interest from the other Research Councils looking into this topic and has also provoked international interest in what NERC has done. The unconscious bias training underlines NERC’s commitment to making fair decisions and ensures the best research and researchers get funded. It also supports NERC’s commitment to equality & diversity and their taking an active approach in providing training and tools for this, not only for their own staff but for their wider science community as well.

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