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Seminar on race within academia and the Hutton

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Orla Shortall, Carla Barlagne, Scott Herrett

We need to talk about race. Talking about race can make us uncomfortable and it might be a conversation we feel ill-equipped for. All too often those of us who are white make an unconscious assumption that the word ‘race’ doesn’t belong or apply to us. In a majority white country, or organisation, white can be seen as the default, the norm, and the word ‘race’ applies to people of colour. Race is a social construct that shapes interactions between people within society. In the past we may have grown up understanding that ‘racism’ was overt acts of verbal or physical aggression against people of colour. But the escalation of the black lives matter protests and research about race and racism filtering down to popular culture are challenging these assumptions. 

We wanted to start a discussion about race in research and research organisations, and the Hutton specifically, so we organised a seminar on the 2nd September. We shared three academic papers on the subject (links below). We started by summarising the three papers, followed by smaller group discussions around people’s knowledge and experience on this topic and what they’d like to see happen in the Hutton.

The papers show how ‘racism’ in research organisations can now be understood more in terms of unconscious biases and structural factors that mean it’s easier for white people (specifically, white cis gendered, able bodied men) to navigate the research environment. If we aren’t aware of these factors we’re bound to reproduce the same power structures. The papers described the challenges of ‘decolonising’ academia – changing what is taught on university curricula, removing structural barriers that make it more difficult for people of colour to get permanent jobs and move up through the ranks, and investigating the legacy of people and resources that institutions are built on. The papers showed that there is often a paradox where the (often unpaid) work of increasing racial equality within organisations often ends up on the shoulders of people of colour, who may already be experiencing marginalisation or disadvantage within this system. The papers also showed that marginalised people may be more likely to study marginalised subject areas which has implications for funding and career progression.

In the group discussion at the end of the seminar people fed back ideas about what they would like to see happen within the Hutton. This included more discussion of who the academics among us were citing in our work. More record keeping and statistical analysis on the racial diversity within the Hutton such as analysis of racial pay equality. Thinking about hiring policies that could tackle structural barriers. Investigating the legacy of James Hutton and TB Macaulay – not to dig up skeletons in the Hutton’s closet but to better understand the history on which our institution is built. Mechanisms that could support people of colour within the Hutton who may face additional challenges in their work. Enabling/supporting students of colour access to research careers by working on representation of people of colour within academia. Including more men in the conversation as the majority of attendees to the seminar were women. Several people voiced a desire for an informal group to organise more discussion within this area. We’ll organise a meeting to discuss next steps shortly so please do attend or get in touch if you’re interested in getting involved. 

Article links:


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post are the views of the author, and not an official position of the institute or funder.



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The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.