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The Equator Project- what did we do, why did we do it, and what did we find?

This article is republished from Geoscience for the Future with permission. Read the original article.

By Natasha Dowey, Sheffield Hallam University

The Geoscience community spends a lot of time talking about how Geoscience is crucial for a more sustainable future, and what Geoscience needs to do to achieve net zero. However, until very recently we very rarely talked about WHO is going to be doing this work, and the mindset needed to achieve it. 

It is now well documented that our subject is crucial to many of society’s significant challenges- not just the energy transition and net zero, but to all of the UN’s sustainable development goals, and to other global frameworks like the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction.  However, it is important to understand that this beautiful picture of possibility is not a given- for us to tackle these challenges, we need to work across communities, in an equitable, sustainable, and ethical way. How can we best do this? 

To create a just transition and sustainable future, we need to ensure equitable and sustainable practices within our own discipline. This isn’t an easy task, but in this week’s blog, I’ll share some insights from our Equator project, which is hoping to make a positive change.

Inequity in Geoscience

Why do we need to talk about equity in the Geosciences? Unfortunately, it is clear that geoscience in some of the richest countries in the world is not equitable. Articles in the past few years have highlighted inequity in geoscience in the US; we looked into the data on racial diversity available for UK geoscience– and it was similarly shocking. 

HESA 2020/21 Data for UK Domiciled students.  UG= All undergraduate full time. PG= All Postgraduate Research full time. Subject Codes : CAH level 1 (total); CAH Level 3: 26-01-02; 26-01-04; 26-01-06. Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (‘Mixed’/’Other’) are groupings used by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, and within this blog as a result, but it is important to note that these groupings homogenise different identities and obscure experiences felt by one race or ethnicity.

Over 18% of 18-24 years old in the UK identify as Black, Asian, or minority ethnic (based on census data that is now 10 years out of date), and over a quarter of science students in the UK come from ethnic minority backgrounds. However, in the geosciences, the figures are dramatically lower than this, with poor representation in both undergraduate and postgraduate study. During the period 2014 to 2019, there were two years for both geology and physical geography when no Black women took up full-time postgraduate study.

Why are the Geosciences so white? 

Many factors are involved in these disparities. The colonial legacy of the geosciences, white man stereotypes, a lack of visible role models, poor career perceptions, and accessibility of the natural environment are all factors influencing recruitment of a diverse cohort of undergraduate geoscience students. When at university, bias and discrimination, degree awarding gaps, very poor faculty diversity, a sense of isolation, hostile environments and institutional racism, alcohol culture and colonial curricula may deter Black, Asian and minority ethnic students from progressing into postgraduate research (for data and references supporting these factors, check out the free to access pre-print version of our paper here).

What needs to happen?

There are so many things that need to be done to improve this situation. Structural barriers and implicit bias that predominantly detriment underrepresented students need to be broken down. This includes making meaningful efforts to decolonise and address power imbalances, changing application practises to be based on merit and not on access to resources, making fieldwork more inclusive. Long-lived inequity can be addressed in the short term by providing ring-fenced opportunities for students of colour- interventions that have been proven to be successful in the USA. Meaningful steps are needed to broaden participation, ensuring that students from all backgrounds have opportunities to see the careers that geoscience can offer. We need to see this as a whole pipeline issue, from school, to undergraduate, to postgraduate research, to ensuring more diversity in lecturing staff.

The Equator Project

In 2020, our group began working on plans to tackle some of these challenges, focussing on improving retention and accessibility of postgraduate research for Black, Asian and minority ethnic students. We brought together a group of academics, students, grassroots organisations, professional bodies and an EDI consultant. We had large zoom calls discussing the issues, brainstorming what is needed, and what we could do. 

We were very keen to develop paid, ring-fenced interventions to create equitable access to opportunities and training, having seen evidence of such efforts having positive outcomes for students in the USA. We also wanted to work with those who ran PhD programs to ensure their application processes were anti-racist. But we needed time and money to achieve this. Our first funding bid was an epic rejection (so epic, it has its very own Twitter thread). But all was not lost- in December 2021 we found out we had won 6 months funding from the Natural Environmental Research Council, and the Equator project got started.

What did we do?

Equator had three strands, based around three objectives, each run by one of our fantastic researchers. These included: 

  • A paid, ring-fenced Research School, which aimed to improve access and participation into geography, earth and environmental science (GEES) research, coordinated by Dr. Munira Raji.
  • A paid, ring-fenced Mentoring Network, with set out to improve sense of belonging and retention of students within GEES research, coordinated by Dr. Anya Lawrence.
  • A doctoral training working group, aiming to remove structural barriers to access and participation in GEES research, coordinated by Dr. Ben Fernando.
Equator Researchers (from l-r) Dr. Ben Fernando, Dr. Munira Raji and Dr. Anya Lawrence

Before getting started, we mapped out what we wanted to achieve long-term, and worked backwards thinking of the steps we would need to achieve this (and the risks and assumptions we were making). EDI consultant Anjana Khatwa and British Geological Survey EDI lead Keely Mills advised us in developing this Theory of Change document. We planned a monitoring and evaluation strategy, using qualitative data gathering. The team who had originally co-developed our ideas now became a steering committee* who worked with us throughout the project, sense-checking our methods and providing feedback and thoughts. 

Then we were off! Creating the website, planning communications and recruiting students to our mentoring network and research school. We were completely blown away by the interest in the project, both from students applying to take part and from academics, professionals and specialists keen to mentor, join our working group, and present at the research school. 

The Mentoring Network, which ran from January to May, involved 10 mentees and 20 mentors. The Research School, which ran in April 2022, involved 30 participants and more than 10 presenters and mentors. The working group involved 6 doctoral training organisations. All the interventions went ahead as planned, with participants anonymously feeding back on their experiences to help us understand what worked well and what didn’t.

Participants and presenters at the Research School used the Twitter hashtag #EquatorResearchSchool to share our experiences of the school

Initial reflections

We are currently writing up the details of our activities, with a full consideration of all feedback, for release in the autumn. What is clear already? The Mentoring Network and Research School evaluation surveys clearly demonstrate that paid, ring-fenced, discipline-specific initiatives, designed in collaboration with those who have lived experience of the issues being tackled, WORK.  Results from both our research school and mentoring network were incredibly positive, indicating not only that the interventions contributed to improved sense of belonging, broader networks, increased confidence and awareness of GEES careers, but also that the ring-fenced, paid nature of the opportunities was a very important factor in our participants applying to take part.

Responses from Equator Research School participants to the question “How do you feel about the following statements following participation in the Research School?” (GEES = Geography, Earth and Environmental Science) [29 respondents]
Responses from Equator Research School participants to the question “How important was it to you that….” [29 respondents]

The free text responses for both the Research School and Mentoring Network provide rich and thoughtful experiences and reflections, many of which speak to developing a sense of community, and a feeling of belonging.

“I learnt that there are people like me who have been on the same journey as me, and it was just so reassuring to know. and to know that they’re willing to help was great too. to gain insight about careers, conferences etc that others may already know was brilliant, feels like i’m not behind anymore”

Equator Mentoring Network Participant answer to the question “What did you gain from the mentoring network?”

“The research school felt like such a safe and inclusive environment to be in and I felt a great sense of belonging.”

Equator Research School Participant answer to the question “What did you enjoy most about the school?”

On the other side of the coin, the working group with doctoral training organisations highlighted just how hard it is to remove structural barriers to access; that even with the right people in charge, keen to make change happen, bureaucracy and resourcing in academia too often get in the way and prevent progressive and necessary transformation. Our team’s recommendations on improving the doctoral application process will be published along with our other findings from Equator in the autumn.

Equator has been a short-term, baby step towards the right direction. The six-month funding window made this project more rushed than we would have liked, limiting our opportunities for further co-creation and partnership building (vitally important aspects of EDI work). There is so much more to be done. Our hope is that, when we publish our results in full, funding councils and organisations will listen to and learn from the valuable thoughts and reflections of our participants, and drive the significant changes necessary to ensure a more equitable future for our disciplines.

About the author: Natasha Dowey is a Senior Lecturer in Geoscience at Sheffield Hallam University, editor of Geoscience for the Future and Equator project lead.

Suggested Further Reading

Byron, M. (2020) Acknowledging, confronting, and transforming extra-curricular spaces in geography. Area .

Lawrence, A. & Dowey, N. (2022) Six simple steps towards making GEES fieldwork more accessible and inclusive. Area.

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