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22 Dec 2021

“COVID must not distract us from the fight for equality” – in conversation with Sir Jeremy Farrar

In the final ‘Women in COG’ event of 2021, Director of the Wellcome Trust Sir Jeremy Farrar tells COG-UK Executive Director Professor Sharon Peacock why diversity and inclusion must return to the top of the agenda.

Watch the full recording here or read our summary of the conversation below.

 

“The idea that in 2021 things are better, and therefore okay, is the problem,” explains Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust and one of the nation’s most trusted scientific voices.

“The challenges women and minority groups face in science today will be different to the challenges faced 20 or 30 years ago. It’s what it is today that matters, not whether it was worse in history.”

What is happening today is alarming. The challenges two years of pandemic have created for women, already less than 30% of the world’s researchers before COVID-19 struck, are estimated to have set back progress on gender equality by a generation.

And on racial equality, Farrar is candid. Despite a flurry of activity following the shock of George Floyd’s murder in May 2020, he believes the world has become distracted by the pandemic, himself included.

“I pay tribute to people who pushed Wellcome to becoming an anti-racist organization. Not just about equality and inclusion, but actually actively anti-racist…The danger is, as time goes on, and other issues come to the surface, that your shock of that moment wanes to some degree. It becomes the horrible phrase of ‘business as usual’.

“I almost didn’t realise I was doing that, but it did. And somebody called me up on that and said: ‘A year ago, this was the number one priority. You haven’t spoken about being an anti-racist organisation for weeks.’ And they were right,” he recalls.

“If you don’t use those moments to change the way you do things, you pay attention for a while, then it drifts away. Other things happen and that moment is lost. That is very, very dangerous.”

Many would perhaps excuse Farrar some distraction. He is the head of the world’s second largest independent charitable foundation – during a global pandemic. Until he left the role in November, Farrar was also a key advisor to the UK Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), under unrelenting pressure at the heart of the country’s public health response.

But, he says, that’s exactly why a revolution in how we think and behave is even more important.

“This has to be embedded within our thinking and very importantly, our actions – the way we communicate, the way we do everything. Because it’s us. It’s not us when we’re feeling rested and well, it’s us all the time. That is the challenge – making it us, rather than something we do.”

Part of the answer, as Farrar sees it, is for leaders like him to have “an absolute responsibility” for creating an environment “by which calling out, done in the right way, is encouraged and facilitated and let happen.”

Another is listening: “There’s a Vietnamese phrase ‘when you’re in conversation with somebody else, it’s probably better to speak less than half the time’,” says Farrar, quoting a proverb picked up during his nearly two decades heading up a clinical research unit in Ho Chi Minh City.

But equality also requires a societal shift towards more opportunity in education, or “the ability to let people have a second chance in education”, as Farrar previously described it in an interview for the BBC’s Desert Island Discs. It’s a point Sharon Peacock has spoken out about too.

Both scientists had a route into research that was far from straightforward. Farrar got there despite having to re-sit his A levels after failing them; Peacock earned her grades at night school and went to university as a mature student after hounding the admissions tutor.

“Social mobility through education and being able to get access to education so that you can do what you want to in your life is a really key enabler. Not only giving people the opportunity to have an education, but also having the role models,” says Peacock.

“Back then, I didn’t know anybody who had gone to university, and we didn’t have many books in the house, and it’s having that very early influence to help you think about an alternative life for yourself that’s so important.”

Farrar agrees: “I have taken recently to write to people that I have come across in my career to thank them. I realise that some of them are getting to be of an age where I might not see them again”.

The letter-writing is an approach Peacock shares. One of hers went to the admissions tutor who let her into the University of Southampton despite her grades.

“Very few unis accepted mature students back then. He must have seen something in me,” she recalls.

“A small act of kindness can completely change people’s lives.”

 

Watch the full recording of the event here or check out past and upcoming Women in COG events.