Social justice activists have recently implored the scientific community to be more welcoming to diverse voices. Diversity of perspective is important in science. Without it, research becomes narrowly focused, and there are fewer new ideas.
Diversity of perspective can be the result of many different things, including differences in socioeconomic background, culture and country of upbringing, political views, family structure, gender, skin colour, sexual preference, disability and health status and other individual characteristics. These things frame our life experiences and can influence what we study and the careers we pursue.
The emphasis on race and gender over other forms of diversity is odd. Of course, gender and skin colour will inevitably impact life experiences and thus, perspective. The social justice movement may be focusing on those because they are easily observable traits that correlate with traits that are harder to see. Socioeconomic status, upbringing and cultural values may be harder to codify in employment and educational datasets. Race and gender can sometimes be proxies for harder to measure inequities. But focusing too heavily on these two traits leads us to overlook other important actionable items.
There have been calls in the STEM professions, particularly in academia, to increase the representation of black and indigenous people of colour (BIPOC). Data from the National Science Foundation shows that, relative to their proportion in the college population, BIPOC earn fewer STEM degrees at all levels than whites and Asians. This causes palpable discomfort among STEM academics.
The social justice movement claims that science is endemically, not just predominantly, white. They are referring not just to the people involved, but to the structure of science, which they say must be significantly altered—if not torn down entirely—and rebuilt in a fashion that allows more groups to succeed. According to this worldview, science is structurally white and western, and is thus unwelcoming to BIPOC, despite the valiant efforts of individuals not to be racist.
The implication that racism is inherent to whiteness often upsets well-meaning white academics who have no intention of being racist. Such people may have taken a day off to mark the #ShutDownSTEM protest, in order to examine any barriers to BIPOC success that they may have unintentionally supported. They may have meticulously educated themselves on BIPOC experiences and reflected on the messages of antiracism editorials. Their resentment at being seen as racist is somewhat understandable.
While it might feel justified to those who work closely with BIPOC communities, a strictly anti-white approach leads to unhealthy, unproductive emotions—resentment, fear and guilt—on the part of those who would otherwise be willing to help. Guilt begets tokenism—leading to frantic attempts to recruit scientists or students on the basis of superficial characteristics or to tally up how many BIPOC friends, co-workers or graduate students you have (breathing a sigh of relief if the number meets some arbitrary benchmark). Such resentment has been linked to backlash against diversity initiatives in some cases. Fear may lead to willingness to give up freedom of expression in exchange for top-down policies that temporarily quiet the conflict but do nothing to inspire deep and lasting change.
Within the social justice movement, this resentment at being accused of complicity in racism is known as white fragility—a simplistic, counterproductive accusation lobbed at those who express discomfort with conversations about decentring whiteness. STEM academia does have a specific culture. But is whiteness really the best way to describe it?
You Can Never Go Home Again
Dr Joshua Marceau grew up on a Native American reservation and was one of the rare members of his community who went on to pursue science. He eventually earned his PhD and is now in a postdoctoral program at a top research university.
He has told me that often, when a promising young person decides to pursue a western education, he or she is drawn into academic life and the tribe never hears from that person again. He has found that after ten years of being away from his own community, he has less and less in common with them. Simply by being in academia, he now speaks and thinks differently than he did as a curious teenager. He has become aware of new ideas and cultures that his tribe may not understand or even find interesting. His thinking style has changed from an intuitive style to the more analytical style that is characteristic of scientists.
This problem is not unique to BIPOC communities, of course. It is common for scientists to feel like the weirdos in their families. Even those who begin their careers wanting to help their communities may find their credibility diminished because they are seen as no longer one of them and no longer able to understand their issues.
Native American academics may be discouraged from mentoring Native American undergraduates, and told instead to focus on their own research. As a result, they may adopt the personality traits and behaviours of those with whom they spend the most time. Those behaviours are necessary to achieve the primary objective: publications and grant proposals.
Families know that this can happen when their children leave home to pursue higher education. This is an issue in rural and tribal communities around the world. It is for this reason that many close-knit cultures, including American religious communities like the Amish, are not huge fans of higher education. They do not want to lose their children to these secular, worldly institutions.
Claims abound that, since academia is white, success in academia means adhering to white standards. But, in predominantly non-white countries with well developed academic systems, such as India, these kinds of personality changes still occur. Science did not originate in Europe. The Chinese, Egyptians, Indians, Arabs and many others contributed significantly to the knowledge, tools and conventions of modern academia. To accuse the international scientific community of spreading whiteness is not only white-, American- and Euro-centric, but ignorant of history.
Yet, academia has undeniable cultural norms. So what are they?
International, Urban and Secular
What people think of as whiteness is in fact an international, urban and secular worldview. Academia is a true melting pot. Researchers from many cultures come together, even when their countries of origin are at war with one another, in order to find solutions to problems facing humanity. Individual scientists may maintain some aspects of their ethnic and family heritage, even their religious beliefs. But, in the main, they share an urban, international, secular worldview with other scientists. This shared worldview greases the wheels of scientific progress. Difference is wonderful. But if we are too different, we cannot communicate. The urban, international secular viewpoint provides the common ground that, for better or worse, is necessary for science to function.
But is it necessarily unequivocally good to become an internationally minded, urban, secular thinker? The STEM professions share the idea that having a secular, international education is essential to getting along with others in our increasingly connected society. In some sense, this is true. An international, urban, secular education makes us aware of many cultures and ideas. In a truly collaborative sense, we take the best ideas from each culture and apply them to major human challenges using rational methods. These Enlightenment values drive science. People exposed to the international, urban, secular worldview may be more likely to appreciate the role that science plays in shaping civilization and allowing us to make better decisions.
However, some cultures value family, religious beliefs and community over broader intellectual pursuits. Many black Americans, for example, are Christians, and have a deep attachment to family and community. The secular values of the academy may conflict with those deeply held values and draw the students away from their communities. Native Americans have similar spiritual connections with their tribal communities, which they do not wish to give up. But the all-consuming nature of STEM academia may require members of these communities to make difficult choices and this dilemma may underlie the unexplained aspects of the leaky pipeline theory of STEM career attrition.
Of course, many black and indigenous people do pursue academia and feel fulfilled by it. But science may never exactly reflect an idealized cross-section of humanity, even after we have removed all barriers to entry and developed successful minority recruitment programs. Some societal differences may be simply a result of different group preferences, rather than top-down injustices, and scientists should not be in the business of telling people what they should want. If people say they are happy with their choices, we should believe them.
Salad Bowl, Melting Pot or Lifeboat?
Is the solution to the diversity problem in STEM to change academic culture into more of a salad bowl than a melting pot? Or should we reconsider our efforts to remake science into a multi-ethnic utopia, and instead respect the rights of individuals to choose the lifestyles they prefer? Would we still be able to conduct science internationally if we were to offer an alternative to the international, urban, secular worldview? Some people have been attempting to do this through efforts to indigenize science, but this may introduce concepts that run contrary to foundational principles of experimentation.
There is nothing objectively better about becoming a scientist than choosing some other career path. Furthermore, even within STEM, there are plenty of careers that allow much more room for family, faith and other non-intellectual values than that of being an academic researcher. An undergraduate research experience does not have to lead to a career in academia. A university education is not the only path to success or happiness, and it is certainly not a guaranteed path to power, as defined by the social justice movement.
Most academics are overworked and stressed about having to compete for scarce financial resources. There is tremendous pressure to publish and write grants. The further down the STEM pipeline, the more difficult and demanding the job becomes. There are fewer and fewer tenure-track positions available for the skyrocketing supply of new PhDs. Even if funding were to be increased, it cannot be increased indefinitely. How much funding is enough to be fair? Should we be encouraging any bright young students to go to graduate school—let alone BIPOC students? We may be setting them up for further exploitation and failure in an already stressed system. For similar reasons, Marceau has told me he feels conflicted about mentoring Native students interested in STEM.
In any system in which there is competition for limited resources, hierarchies emerge. Those who are better at getting the resources will get them, even if all sources of bias and discrimination have been eradicated. We are seeing evidence of this in our failure to close the achievement gap, even after decades of programmes designed to do so. Any research project needs a minimum amount of money to accomplish something meaningful, even if efficiency is maximized. Removing competition and evenly dividing limited science funding among more people, regardless of merit, would cripple all projects.
Capable STEM undergraduates may never find a job after completing a PhD and entering a profession in which less than 10% of proposals are funded and professorships go to only the top 1% of candidates. Many early career researchers find themselves hopping between 1-2 year post-docs, unable to put down roots and start families. For communities where family is paramount, this is potentially unacceptable.
Then there are the problems caused by attempting to increase racial diversity in STEM by intentionally selecting underprepared students on the basis of their racial characteristics alone. I participated in a National Science Foundation REU selection committee during graduate school. The push to bring Native American students into the program was noble. But many of the Native applicants were drastically underprepared—albeit for reasons unrelated to intelligence or ability. Underprepared students are more likely to have a bad experience and lose interest in science. If the experience is positive, great. But, even with strong mentorship, eventually the training wheels have to come off and applicants have to face the full extent of the competition—even if that isn’t until the first post-doc or first professorship. Generating new science knowledge is hard. At the postgraduate stage of the STEM pipeline, it is too late to prepare members of disadvantaged, underrepresented groups for research careers.
If young people, regardless of race or ethnicity, grow up without the guidance of a pro-academic, pro-international, secular, urban leaning family, many of the soft skills for surviving complicated bureaucracies will be learned too late and they may always remain at a disadvantage compared to their international, secular, urban-oriented peers. They could still succeed—successful early childhood interventions exist. But, why encourage members of underrepresented groups to take this chance, when they have already been through enough?
There are other gainful STEM employment opportunities outside the academy—some of which do not require a graduate degree at all. Why gamble with young students’ lives just to make ourselves feel as if we are part of the solution? The only way to make this approach workable would be for every academic raised with international, urban, secular values to duck out of the race in favour of a candidate without those values. This would effectively be treating academia as a lifeboat. Such an approach is unlikely to be popular.
There are plenty of well-paying career paths for members of BIPOC communities that do not require graduate school or even a four-year college degree and that provide the time and stability required to nurture family and faith. Telling people that they must risk losing their tribe, if it is a source of safety and solidarity for them, is not healthy. Academia is a culture in which work is worshipped and, while some may thrive in that environment, it is not for everyone. Plenty of white people also struggle to balance the demands of academic life with their other passions and would benefit from this advice.
Instead of lamenting the existence of the so-called “leaky pipeline,” academics should avoid making their colleagues feel guilty about leaving academia to pursue jobs in industry or work part time so they can spend more time with their children. In a pluralistic society, we need to acknowledge that there is more than one valid way to live. It isn’t whiteness that needs to be decentred necessarily, but the all-or-nothing pursuit of this international, urban and secular worldview as the ideal route to happiness.
I have worked with many impressively qualified students from around the world. Science has always benefited from cross-cultural exchange. It would be absurd to suggest that race, gender or ethnicity should be used to judge scientific ability. The obsession with recruiting scientists on the basis of these traits is peculiar.
We should always be vigilant about making sure opportunities exist for those who want them. But recruiting more BIPOC scientists in the name of diversity can come at a cost—both to those we wish to help and to the scientific community as a whole. There are other ways to channel a passion for science aside from academic research, and we should consider guiding more science students toward those paths.
Note: The views expressed in this article are personal and do not necessarily represent those of Misra’s employer.