Universities and other employers in the US science sector must adopt practices that foster a safe and inclusive community, finds a report1 from the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), which outlines how such institutions can do so. The report calls for systemic change across multiple levels to account for the lengthy history of discrimination against people of colour and members of marginalized communities in the United States.
Susan Fiske, co-chair of the committee behind the report, says that bias and discrimination in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM) is structural1 in the United States. This culture, she says, results in policies that reinforce each other and attitudes that perpetuate lifelong disadvantages for certain groups. “The converging data from surveys and experiments and observations tells us that you can’t fix it by fixing individuals,” says Fiske, who researches psychology and social policy at Princeton University in New Jersey.
If universities and science organizations fail to adopt deliberate practices to diversify their research workforce, warns Fiske, they could miss out on the benefits that various perpectives can bring. Science is increasingly being pushed forward by the work of teams rather than individuals2. Diverse teams can outperform groups made up of similar people, even if those people are considered ‘top performers’3. Similarly, students who are members of under-represented groups innovate at higher rates than do those from majority groups, although their contributions are more likely to go unacknowledged — the ‘diversity–innovation paradox’4.
Systemic changes, the report says, are therefore required that go beyond simply hiring a quota of scientists who are members of minority ethnic groups: the changes must include fostering an environment in which those scientists can realize their full potential. In July 2020, Eddie Bernice Johnson, then a Democratic member of the US House of Representatives and chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, sent a letter to NASEM in the wake of racial-justice protests that had swept the nation following the murder of Black men and women by police. The letter asked NASEM to synthesize existing research on the career challenges faced by scientists from minority ethnic groups and to brainstorm solutions. Although the report focused on the experiences of Black academics, the committee also commissioned papers on the issues facing Indigenous, Latino/Latina and Asian people.
The committee highlighted the specific role of ‘gatekeepers’ — those who can permit or hinder access to resources — and what they can do to combat discrimination. But, the report notes, such individuals might themselves have subconscious biases. “You can’t be counted on to notice when you’re being biased,” Fiske says, adding that institutions should build expectations related to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) into job descriptions. Institutions, she says, should also adopt oversight policies that track gatekeepers’ decisions, including the recruitment, advancement and retention of students and staff members, and the reasons that people choose to leave. An individual’s bad experience might not amount to a discriminatory environment, she says, but if several people report that they had faced challenges, it could signal that an institution has failed to create a space in which scientists from under-represented groups feel safe and supported.
In addition, those who set priorities, such as principal investigators (PIs), have the capacity to create equitable spaces for scientists by setting examples of good behaviours and promoting an environment of psychological safety. Hiring more scientists who are members of under-represented groups avoids tokenizing any one person, and the report suggests that PIs set unifying goals for their team in which everyone’s role is clearly defined, celebrate the achievements of individual scientists, and downplay expectations of dress and appearance that cater to a majority population. Striving for an egalitarian atmosphere in which each team member has the ability to share input or feedback on their work can also lessen power differentials, especially if the team leader is from the ethnic or racial majority, the report notes. The authors also cite research showing that diversifying all levels of management increases group productivity5.
For Jesse Lee, a fifth-year PhD student in Gregory Beatty’s cancer-immunology laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, this type of group structure has led to what he calls “one of the more healthy lab environments” that he’s been a part of. Lab technicians are each trained in specialized techniques, such as mouse surgery or histology, and several technicians will collaborate on a project, training students as they go. This, coupled with Beatty’s hands-on approach to mentoring, means that “you’re constantly working together and coordinating how your things run through each team”, Lee says. “Everybody knows a little bit about everybody’s projects, and everybody’s always thinking about someone else’s project.”
The committee acknowledges ongoing work to foster inclusive communities by institutions — including historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) — that serve members of under-represented groups, and suggests that other institutions look to them as guides and partners. M. Roy Wilson, the president of Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, and a member of the committee, says that the culture of HBCUs goes beyond a student or faculty member simply seeing more people on campus who look like them. “If you talk to students who go to HBCUs, the things that they say about their institutions aren’t things I typically hear from other types of institutions,” he says, adding that any such comments probably relate to the resources, opportunities and mentorship that students receive.
Carl Pettis, the provost for academic affairs at Alabama State University (ASU), an HBCU in Montgomery, says that the university begins reaching out to potential students at a young age — from kindergarten, or age 5, through secondary school. ASU has also developed a pipeline to recruit students from community colleges that offer two-year associate’s degrees. At ASU, students receive mentoring not just from faculty members, but from peers as well. The report recommends that universities team up with HBCUs to learn from their processes, and Pettis says that ASU is always on the lookout for new partnerships. “Gone are the days where larger institutions are simply reaching out to show a little diversity in their proposals,” he says. “Now, you’re signing on with an HBCU because they are a quality partner and they provide quality students.”
The report represents several firsts for NASEM, including the integration of lived experiences of Black scientists alongside experimental data. “We’ve been forced to look at racism, including structural racism, and the effect that it has had on educational disparities,” says Marcus Lambert, a workforce-diversity researcher and associate vice-president for research strategy and operations at SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University in New York City . “Ultimately,” he says, “I think this will be a go-to resource for our STEMM community for many years to come”.
To complement data gleaned from an exhaustive literature search, the committee worked closely with NASEM’s Roundtable on Black Men and Black Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine to conduct structured interviews about their lived experiences. Their testimonials “add context to the data and add complexity that is oftentimes just not seen in raw numbers”, says Wilson. Although he has served on many committees, he says that the report is the first document he’s seen that includes these types of interviews. “It was a learning experience for me,” he says. “I think it’s a very powerful tool.”
The committee began meeting before a wave of legislation by some US states seeking to clamp down on diversity initiatives and the inclusion in university curricula of the topic of racism. In addition, reports show that although the number of DEI roles created to help companies and institutions achieve a balanced workforce increased by 50% following the murder of George Floyd — a Black man who was killed in an encounter with police in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 2020 — the attrition rate of those roles had risen to as high as 33% by the end of last year. Abby Ray, vice-president of marketing and communications at oSTEM, a national non-profit organization based in Grandville, Michigan, that advocates for people from sexual and gender minorities in science, says that such efforts underscore the need to keep pushing for change. “It is essential,” they say, “that we continue to uplift those individuals who have historically been oppressed and deliberately excluded from STEMM fields.”