As scientists and engineers, we feel privileged to have careers that contribute to the progress of knowledge and understanding. The rewards of participating in research and discovery and of mentoring emerging scientists are immense. Science itself is an extraordinary and essential institution. It continues to thrive after centuries of human ingenuity and effort, and to provide significant advancements for societal well-being in areas such as understanding and mitigating global environmental change, achieving innovations for improving public health, and creating technological solutions to widespread societal challenges.
However, science does not happen in a vacuum; it is a social process and therefore exhibits cultural norms and social patterns that affect scientific practices and outcomes. Opportunities and entryways into STEM careers are unequally available to all members of our society, with the result that the practice of science is limited demographically. Further, the benefits of the scientific enterprise have disproportionately benefited members of the upper echelons, and the scientific enterprise has too often been aligned with injustices that reinforce the oppression of the racially disenfranchised, women and LGBTQ communities. Finally, the culture of science has evolved in ways that reinforce its image as a career path that is unwelcoming to socially subordinated groups.
When budding scientists first enter the discipline, it is usually because we are inspired by curiosity, passionate about understanding the natural world and/or eager to contribute to a better society. We don’t typically know much about the culture of science at first. And we certainly do not realize the enormous historical legacy nor the social and power dynamics of the science ecosystem we are becoming a part of. We begin our careers in a focused disciplinary area, and we very slowly learn how to navigate the science system, the idiosyncrasies of the academy and the requirements for success in a STEM career. Not everyone who enters stays.
Looked at as a whole, the scientific enterprise comprises a system of people, ideas, projects, resources, norms and institutions. A “science of science” approach effectively highlights the deep interconnectedness between scientists, knowledge creation and knowledge, but it requires more study regarding the links between the diversity or lack of diversity of scientists and knowledge outcomes. This is because those who participate in science are not at all reflective of our society. African Americans, Latinos, American Indians and other racially disenfranchised persons represent only about 9 percent of STEM academic positions in the United States, and that number has barely grown over four decades. This percentage is in sharp contrast to the changing demography in the U.S. Women (primarily white women) now earn approximately 41% of STEM doctorate degrees and have increased their share of STEM academic positions to approximately 39% but are not at parity with men especially at higher career positions. Attrition of female scientists increases as they move up the career ladder, with a 19.5% higher dropout rate over male scientists.
Meanwhile, calls for broadening participation in STEM fields are increasing and many investments in excellent programs aimed at advancing STEM diversity, equity and inclusion have been made. Thus far, the majority of efforts have been directed at increasing entry opportunities and training a diverse STEM workforce: so-called “pipeline interventions.” So why has meaningful progress been so slow? The long answer involves a clear-eyed view of obstacles to equity (especially systemic racism and sexism in our society and therefore our science system), overrepresentation of a narrow demographic in STEM, outdated but entrenched leadership models, uniquely imbalanced and potentially harmful power dynamics in the academy, and many other issues. The short answer? It’s the system, not the participants. This means that we should be focusing more of our efforts on systemic reform for the future of science.
The current culture of our science system is an anachronism in today’s world and must change with the times. Today’s system remains rooted in norms and practices that were established decades ago by and for a narrow subset of society. Criteria for entry and advancement, definitions of excellence and success, institutional policies and values, and the incentive systems that determine STEM career trajectories all require a reboot if we are to diversify the system beyond the relatively unencumbered and advantaged members of society.
This is becoming increasingly clear via surveys of the scientific community as well. To its participants, our science system is increasingly perceived as highly competitive, aggressive, demographically exclusionary and still jarringly reflective of its historical roots in a Eurocentric, white, patriarchal society. To be a “successful” scientist today, one must follow a fairly predictable track up the career ladder that is increasingly competitive, monetized and metricized — raising the question whether we have come to a place where we value what we can measure rather than measure what we should value. One must continually compete for research funding, and one’s advancement, promotion and credibility are linked to how much grant funding is brought into one’s institution. This model can be even more challenging for scientists from racially disenfranchised groups and for women because of social and family pressures that may affect them differently, especially in early career stages. Also, research shows that women and racial minorities in STEM often wish to pursue scientific questions that are different from those of the socially dominant community of scientists.
The pressure to obtain research dollars is matched only by the pressure to publish research findings as quickly and as often as possible in the ‘highest-impact’ journals, and to increase the number of citations your publications attract (measured by various widely utilized performance metrics). Like research funding, the publish-or-perish treadmill also suffers from the question of what is most interesting to those in power in the science system. And our peer review system – depending on how it is implemented – suffers from explicit and implicit biases. Driven by metric-based criteria for recognition and promotion, thre prevalent transactional models of leadership in STEM do not select for a diverse, collaborative workforce.
Self-promotion is also a required skill in this environment. To succeed, one should be marketing oneself and garnering as much social media attention as possible (measured by Altmetric Attention scores and other indices). It’s obvious where this road can lead in terms of science quality and the social dynamics of vying for attention. In addition, subordinated groups in science are not as visible to the science press as are the dominant groups, and they are not perceived as the faces of science thought leadership. At times, social attention for scholars of color and for women may result in negative attention and/or retribution; see the recent case of Pulitzer Prize–winner Nikole Hannah-Jones, author of the New York Times’ 1619 Project, and the associated UNC tenure controversy.
The established measures of success select for highly competitive rather than collaborative environments; a STEM workforce lacking diversity; a narrow demographic at the top; a style of mentoring that elevates the success of mentors more than that of mentees; and potentially harmful environments for groups underrepresented in science. For example, a recent report on sexual harassment in STEM issued by the National Academy of Sciences reports that academic science is second only to the military in rates of gender harassment, taking an astonishing and corrosive toll on women who enter STEM fields. Minority scientists, who are too often unrepresented in scientific departments, are immersed in unwelcoming environments and historically not given credit for their research contributions. Given this state of affairs, the failure to “move the needle” on diversity, equity and inclusion in STEM seems not only understandable but inevitable. Even if successful in their fields, these dynamics can present a gauntlet of stressful hazards to the personal well-being of scientists. The toll is also seen in the harm done to institutional reputations when the behavior of some scholars becomes public.
So, why should we all care about this? Isn’t science progressing faster all the time? Isn’t the rate of research publications steadily increasing? Don’t many foreign scientists come to the U.S. to work in our first-class science system? Well, yes, all true—but creating systemic culture change in STEM in order to diversify the STEM workforce matters critically for the future advancement of science and the translation of its benefits to society. True diversity, equity and inclusion within the scientific community will have a major positive impact for addressing the increasingly complex issues that lie at the heart of the science-society-policy intersection. It matters significantly – arguably more than any other issue – for the future of science.
It matters because scientific conclusions are shaped by the kinds of questions asked, by who conducts research, and by who asks scientific questions (e.g., do health trials include all demographic sectors of society?). It matters because research demonstrates that better science outcomes, enhanced innovation, and increased creativity result from broader perspectives and diverse participants (e.g., are diverse viewpoints at the innovation tables?). It matters because research priorities that determine who benefits from science and technological advances are set differently by different identities in science (e.g., are technological advances considering impacts on all communities?). It matters because the vital link between scientific outcomes and evidence-based public policy relies on public trust in science—and public trust in science in turn relies on full participation, engagement and representativeness in science.
And finally, it matters because the scientific enterprise in the U.S. is funded largely by the public and should therefore include and benefit the entire public. Our science system is supported by societal investments, the so-called “Science Bargain” or “Science-Society Contract.” Many in science are unaware of a 1945 report called Science: The Endless Frontier, but that report was a landmark policy document for government (public) support of science in this nation. The report was published at the end of World War II by Vannevar Bush, director of the federal Office of Scientific Research and Development at the time.
Bush argued that government spending on university-based and research institution–based science during the war effort should be continued in our postwar society but redirected to the nation’s scientists who were pursuing basic research at our top universities. Thus, research universities and the federal government (and thereby the U.S. public) entered into an implicit partnership, with the shared goal of stimulating knowledge generation in the service of society. It seems obvious that, because the public underwrites the scientific effort in the U.S., the entire public deserves to fully participate in the system and to fully benefit from its advances. But that part of the vision remains unrealized at this moment in time.
And, if none of those arguments (societally relevant science, more innovative science, more representative science, enhanced public trust in science, financially responsible science) are persuasive, then transforming our science system towards a more just, equitable and inclusive enterprise is still imperative—because it is the morally right thing to do. In the current social context of renewed attention to addressing societal inequities and injustices across many of our American institutions, we cannot leave a science reckoning out of the mix. Science, too, is a social justice issue. A healthy debate regarding the historical inequities of the science system is already underway. Who gets to participate in science? Who benefits from it? Who is sometimes harmed by it? Who sets the important research priorities? When viewed through a social justice lens, the deep misalignment between societal demographics and practicing scientists today is clearly even more unsustainable.
The goal, then, is to build a STEM culture of inclusivity and a more representative science that becomes normative through a coordinated, systemic transformation. We have a unique opportunity to transform the current science paradigm given the social and political times we live in and given that the system is already recently disrupted. To succeed, long-entrenched obstacles to this vision will need to be dismantled: the aforementioned culture of science is one such obstacle. But there is much more: inequity in educational opportunity; myths of meritocracy; oversimplified metrics for success; entrenched legacy attitudes about excellence, competition and the faces of leadership; career advancement and tenure criteria that do not necessarily align with the values of diverse stakeholders; unwelcoming or hostile work environments in classroom, laboratory and fieldwork; and more.
In a sense, reforming our science system is both simple and complicated: simple in the sense that we just need the political will to transform; complicated in the sense that we are seeking to transform a complex and highly interconnected system with reinforcing feedback dynamics yet many disconnected components. These components include STEM educational systems, higher education, academic institutions, scientific disciplines and professional societies, individual scientists, science policies, the science publishing industry, research funding agencies, and more. All these components must coordinate and align for significant systemic change to occur. For example, increasing diversity of the STEM pipeline and those at early career stages will not ultimately be successful if the culture of academic institutions does not change to accommodate the lives of diverse participants or if bias keeps them marginalized or drives them out of the system.
Because advancing equity, diversity and inclusion in the scientific enterprise is therefore a systems-based challenge, it will require a more coordinated and centralized effort that includes all the embedded components working together towards common goals. Although complex and challenging, such an undertaking will be more than worth the effort. With enormous challenges and possibilities in front of us, science needs all hands on deck. Let’s create a science system that is by all and for all, adjust the course of the astonishing human history of science towards a more just and inclusive enterprise, and fulfill a more complete vision of the science-society bargain.
This is an opinion and analysis article; the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.
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