17 January 2022

If the Government is serious about growth, it’s time to take on the ‘EDI blob’

By

Robert Conquest’s second law of politics states that any organisation ‘not explicitly and constitutionally right-wing will sooner or later become left-wing’.

There can be few finer examples of his axiom than UK Research and Innovation’s recently published ‘equality, diversity and inclusion strategy’ – a 19-page document accompanied by a four-page glossary of key concepts such as ‘decolonisation’, ‘intersectionality’ and ‘microaggression’.

Although largely overlooked amid the furore over Downing Street parties and Chinese spies, this strategy – and the kind of thinking that underpins it – is likely to prove of far greater consequence for Britain in the long run, not least because of the strong links between R&D investment, productivity gains and GDP growth.

UKRI is the umbrella organisation for the UK’s research councils, the R&D funding bodies upstream of research institutions and the universities. It doles out £8bn of public money a year (about 80% of government spending on research in the UK), covering everything from Early Modern literary studies to nuclear fusion.

The organisation’s budget is also set to double over the next five years, as the Government strives to make the UK a ‘science and technology superpower’ and address our anaemic productivity growth. Balancing the books over the next five years also depends on this growth arriving as expected.

The funding channelled through UKRI is thus fundamental to the macroeconomic course being charted by the Government. But if Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng were to scrutinise UKRI’s EDI strategy, he would discover that it is not just exorbitantly wasteful, but actually antithetical both to research excellence and to growing the economy.      

First, there is the time, energy and money going into what the authors call ‘our EDI journey’. The document reveals a plethora of networks, initiatives, projects, surveys, pilots, toolkits and resources used in ‘developing and implementing training, processes, governance, and risk and assurance mechanisms’ on EDI. These include a vast data-harvesting process which has already spawned dashboards and lengthy reports.

Then there are the management structures: a ‘People, Culture and Talent Board’ oversees the strategy, aided by an ‘external advisory group for EDI’. There are also the lower level EDI functionaries. One of UKRI’s research councils is currently recruiting for a ‘Research Portfolio Manager: Equality, Diversity & Inclusion’ with a starting salary of £32,000. Taking into account employer NICs, that will cost the taxpayer about £36,000 per annum. By way of comparison, it costs about £24,300 a year to fund a PhD at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology at the University of Cambridge – the institute where James Watson and Francis Crick uncovered the double-helix structure of DNA.

It doesn’t take a PhD to work out which use of public R&D funding is likely to have the greater impact on UK productivity growth. 

While one job at one of UKRI’s nine constituent organisations might not sound like much, given the scope of the ‘EDI action plans’ set out in the strategy, this is clearly just the tip of the iceberg. In addition to dedicated EDI staff, there’s training for everyone else. The Medical Research Council (MRC), for instance, has 49 people in one cohort undertaking ‘accredited EDI training’.

More worrying than all the goings on at UKRI, however, is how EDI imperatives are cascading down into the universities. This is no accident. The document’s anonymous authors note ‘the unique role we [UKRI] can and should play in leading and driving systemic and structural change’. 

In practice, this will entail reconfiguring ‘incentives’ through ‘embedding inclusive practices in the design of research and innovation’. In other words, using the purse strings to compel researchers and institutions to adopt EDI ideology. That means researchers will be ‘expected to prepare a full equality, diversity and inclusion plan’ as part of grant applications. Other funding bodies, including charitable trusts, are developing similar requirements. For example, since April 2019 it has been mandatory for all Newton Fund applications to include a one-page Gender Equality Statement

There is already solid evidence of a long-term decline in research productivity, linked to various factors (hence DORA). One of these is funding processes. A post-doc researcher will typically spend 30-40% of their time applying for funding – time which could be spent at work in the laboratory or library. UKRI’s EDI strategy will only make this worse.

On top of all this, the organisation is now funding academics to undertake specifically EDI-focused research projects – £600,000 towards projects ‘to explore and improve EDI within environmental sciences’, for example. That’s £600,000 that can’t be spent on anyone, whatever their ethnicity or gender, actually doing environmental science.

If the Chancellor is looking to find cost savings across government, then the Treasury should be asking: what proportion of UKRI’s £8bn budget goes on EDI jobs and projects instead of advancing knowledge and developing new technologies?

In any case, UKRI’s emphasis on ‘treating people equitably to achieve equality in outcomes’ strongly suggests that actual R&D is a second-order priority for the organisation. After all, there is no Nobel Prize for taking part.

Of course we want research opportunities to be open to everyone, regardless of gender, creed or ethnicity – but the EDI strategy is nothing more than virtue-signalling social engineering, feeding on and into the campus wokery threatening Britain’s world-class universities.

A reader could be forgiven for missing the thrust of the document, however, given how badly written it is. Indeed, the whole thing is replete with corporate verbiage and the argot of the EDI ideologues – the sort of insidious synthesis identified in Vivek Ramaswamy’s recent book on the woke-industrial complex.

And UKRI directly supports this complex too. Its sixth ‘EDI action plan’ for strategic ‘Priority 3A’ is: ‘evidencing our progress by working with external assessors to evaluate, benchmark and understand our performance, for example our recent Inclusive Employers Bronze Standard award’.  

Inclusive Employers is one of a growing number of EDI assessors, like Stonewall, Athena SWAN and Inclusive Companies, whose business model consists of providing kitemarks to corporations, charities and public sector agencies. They charge thousands of pounds for EDI audits, and often have a line in ‘toolkits’ and training on EDI topics.       

This points to a wider problem for the economy. Just as the universities are downstream of the funding bodies, so industry is downstream of the universities. Today’s undergraduates, studying at institutionally woke universities, are tomorrow’s corporate workforce.  

Economists debate why the UK’s economic productivity growth has been so weak over the last decade. There are clearly lots of factors at play. But the growth of private sector EDI non-jobs and regulations is probably part of the story. The triumph of the UKRI EDI mandarins so neatly captured by Conquest’s second law should therefore be of grave concern to everyone who wants Britain to prosper. For a cash-strapped government focusing on R&D as an engine of economic growth, this applies doubly.

Ultimately, if the Government is serious about its economic vision, then it needs to get serious about recapturing the commanding heights of the knowledge economy from the EDI blob. 

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Karl Williams is a Senior Researcher at the Centre for Policy Studies.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.