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Almost £500,000 has been awarded to a major new project led by Heriot-Watt University to improve equality, diversity and inclusion in the science sector, using virtual reality gaming technologies.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (ESPRC) revealed today (Aug 9) that it had granted the six-figure sum to a ground-breaking study entitled, Disability Inclusive Science Careers (DISC).

Starting in December, the two-year project aims to improve the recruitment, retention and progression of postdoctoral disabled scientists through an online training portal designed to support employers in disability.

Disabled researchers, managers and employers are co-designing the DISC web tools alongside a Heriot-Watt research team and their Programme Lead, Professor Garry Pender.  Training includes immersive virtual reality games for line managers and research leaders, giving an insight into the lived experiences of disabled employees.

DISC will also provide training for disabled people to support their career development and will be rolled out across all participating organisations.

Project Director Kate Sang, Professor of Gender and Employment Studies at Heriot-Watt University, said on the award: “We are absolutely delighted with this funding award, which will allow us to look in greater detail at the challenges fsaced by disabled people in science.

“Virtually nothing has been done to assist disabled researchers in this sector and it’s very exciting to see the ESPRC invest so heavily in a group of people that have been largely neglected.

“One in three employees in Scotland are disabled, which is a significant proportion of the working population.

“It’s important we do not ignore them, but instead look at how to improve the working practice in this sector.”

The DISC project is in partnership with the University of Edinburgh, University and Colleges Union Scotland and the National Association of Disabled Staff.

It follows a pilot programme led by Heriot-Watt between January and June last year that found disabled people were being forced to leave scientific careers due to a range of social and physical obstacles, such as inaccessible laboratories, social barriers and a lack of managerial understanding of disability inclusion.

Professor Sang, who earlier this year was appointed to the Scottish Government’s expert panel on single use plastics, added: “We now have the chance to take the findings of our pilot work and engage in co-design research to improve this sector.

“Having disabled people working in science is a very positive position to be in. The more diverse the workforce, the more diverse the research and that is better for science.”

The ESPRC has awarded funding for 11 projects across the UK to improve equality, diversity and inclusion within engineering and the physical sciences. The projects have been funded through the Inclusion Matters call, the first initiative of its kind which has been launched as part of the collective approach by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) to promote equality, diversity and inclusion.