April 15, 2024

Staff at the UK’s national institute for artificial intelligence and data science have expressed “serious concerns” about the organisation’s approach to diversity after it appointed four men to senior roles.

A letter addressed to the leadership of the Alan Turing Institute (ATI) said the appointments showed a “‘continuing trend of limited diversity within the institute’s senior scientific leadership”.

The letter, signed by more than 180 people, questions whether ATI is following through on its commitment to inclusive hiring and urges the institute to look at gender disparity in its senior roles.

“This is an excellent time to reflect on whether all voices are being heard and if the institute’s commitment to inclusivity is being fully realised in our recruitment and decision-making practices,” said the letter. It was addressed to the institute’s chief executive, Jean Innes, chief operating officer Jonathan Atkins and Prof Mark Girolami, ATI’s chief scientist.

The letter, seen by the Guardian, was sent in response to ATI announcing in February it had hired four male academics to leading roles in sustainability, fundamental research, health and defence and national security. It said the senior roles were also preceded by the appointment of two men to new special adviser posts.

“Our intention is not to undermine the professional achievements of these esteemed colleagues and that we’re looking forward to working together with them. Rather, our aim is to highlight a broader issue within our institute’s approach to diversity and inclusivity, particularly in scientific leadership roles, with a specific eye towards gender diversity and inclusivity,” said the letter.

The signatories put a series of questions to ATI’s leadership about the appointment process, including what measures were used to increase applications from under-represented groups and how diverse were the genders on the shortlists for the roles. The letter refers to ATI’s equality, diversity and inclusion action plan and strategy whose goals include providing “visible leadership on diversity”.

Last year ATI warned of an “urgent issue” of gender imbalance in AI investment after it published a report showing that female-founded companies accounted for just 2% of AI startup deals over the past decade.

At ATI, management at the scientific leadership level referred to in the letter – people who oversee research into AI – has six women to 13 men, a split of approximately 32%-68%. The gender split among ATI’s total staff of 560 people is 53% male and 47% female.

One in four senior tech employees in the UK are women, according to the annual diversity in tech report by the Tech Talent Charter, a government-backed industry group, while 14% of senior tech role holders are ethnic minorities.

ATI’s chief executive said the part government-funded organisation was “committed” to increasing the presence of people from under-represented groups in AI and data science.

“Our appointments are made through free and fair competition and on the basis of merit,” she said. “We recognise the critical importance of diverse leadership and welcome dialogue with our community about what more we can do. As the national institute for data science and AI we are committed to increasing the proportion of under-represented groups in these fields.”

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