Major challenges for minority opportunities

31 October 2016 - By: Jonathan Smith

Major challenges for minority opportunities

Diversity Dinner

By Jonathan Smith

Once known as the Women in Science dinner, the SEB’s newly rebranded Diversity Dinner was held in Brighton during the Annual Meeting this year. As our guest speaker for the evening, Professor David Asai1, who is director of the undergraduate science education programme at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), USA, revealed his inspiring ideas for helping science and academia become more inclusive for minorities.

“Diversity poses our greatest challenge, and presents our greatest opportunity,” began David Asai, following a welcoming introduction from former colleague and SEB+ Section member, Dr Mary Williams2. Out of all the potential quotes he could have used to kick off the SEB’s inaugural Diversity Dinner, it was a big surprise when he cited Pope Francis, leader of the Catholic Church and, most certainly, not a scientist. David told the audience that he found the Pope’s second Encyclical3 on climate change and the environment – released last year – remarkable. “Scientifically, it is a wonderful essay,” he enthused, explaining that, although there is nothing new about communicating the importance of biodiversity and the environment to the public, the Pope added in his own perspective saying how climate change is affecting poor people. This perspective is what helped his message on the dangers of climate change engage so many people and was a stark lesson regarding the power of diversity.

The benefits of a diverse work force are clear to most scientists; however, science still has a long way to go in terms of the participation of ethnic minorities. Referring to Scott E. Page’s book4, David highlighted why science needs diversity: diversity is a property and a benefit of a group, and science is a group activity, involving collaborations, review panels and interdisciplinary cooperation. Diversity improves problem-solving because persons with different perspectives bring new strategies, new tools, and new ways to interpret data; the more difficult the problem, the greater the benefit of a diverse group of problem-solvers.  

A citizen of the US whose family is of Japanese ancestry, David is no stranger to the importance of diversity in science. “Ethnic minorities are by no means the only ‘diversity’ group in the population,” he clarified, “but I am focusing on this aspect today because it has a long way to go to improve in this area.” With around 37 per cent of the population made up of ethnic minorities, the US has a diverse population, which is set to exceed 50 per cent in a generation’s time. However, the fact that only around nine per cent of scientists come from ethnic minority groups, David made it clear that this represents a major opportunity lost for science and technology. 

So why does this disparity exist? “To overcome the shortfall in the talent pool, we need to discover the reality of what is happening,” said David, quickly moving to debunk the common myth that minorities are not interested in science. “University science courses actually start off with ethnic minorities overrepresented,” he told the audience. “But this trend reverses when you look at graduation rates, meaning that many ethnic minority students drop out during the course of their studies.” Challenging another myth, David revealed that drop-out rates among minorities is much higher than for all students even when controlling for preparation, such as maths and family support.  To identify the true causes, David advocated that we look for the problem within the academic system itself.

Even though universities across the world are trying to address the diversity issue in their student population, David believes that their good intentions are undermined by three important flaws in the system. First, many initiatives are aimed at the students, such as mentoring programmes.  While these activities perhaps are effective, “this is essentially ‘blaming the victim’, whilst not tackling the root cause of the issue,” said David, advising: “It would be better to allocate our resources to training up faculty members to recognise and tackle their own implicit biases.” His second point focused on the educational infrastructure and incentive system for lecturers. “At present, most undergraduate students are kept from doing real research in real labs until their final year,” he explained. “We need to provide more authentic discovery-based research opportunities for all students at an earlier age.”   As his final point, David highlighted issues of communication saying that, currently, there is not enough engagement between social scientists - who are measuring the effectiveness of interventions - and science practitioners: “We need to have discussions around what good mentoring systems and research environments look like,” he said.

David wrapped up his talk by highlighting the difference between diversity and inclusion. “Diversity can be empirically measured, whereas inclusion is an emotional value; budding researchers from diverse backgrounds must feel like they belong,” he said. In a culture where exclusion is increasingly valued by politicians and the electorate, we must learn to be truly inclusive in science and not just diverse.

Having savoured David’s words, whilst enjoying a delicious three-course dinner hosted by the Ship Hotel, the audience was ready to pose questions to the speaker. Ably chaired by the SEB’s Equality and Diversity group convenor, Dr Teresa Valencak5, a graduate student provoked the first line of discussion by suggesting that the silence of students in lecture halls might wrongly imply to many minority students that it is only they who don’t fully understand the subject being taught. David agreed, stating that lecturing without encouraging student participation is bordering on malpractice. The discussion then shifted to the roles of lecturers and their departments in the question of inclusivity, with one commenter playing the devil’s advocate and stating that researchers have to cope with too many academic pressures to spend time on outreach, and another adding that departments must make it easier for academics to create an inclusive atmosphere saying: “Tell your management what you think inclusion should be. Rebel!”

David wrapped up the proceedings, describing how impressed he was with the SEB’s focus on diversity and equality at the annual meeting. “It is clear that you [the audience] have already demonstrated your willingness to tackle this issue by attending this Diversity Dinner,” he remarked. With these words of encouragement, the SEB hopes to continue increasing its emphasis on inclusion and diversity and encourages all its members to consider supporting the next Diversity Dinner, which will take place during the main meeting in Gothenberg next year.





Category: Brighton 2016
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Jonathan Smith

Jonathan Smith served as the SEB’s press intern for the annual meeting in summer 2016, and has since contributed articles for the SEB’s bulletin. After obtaining an undergraduate degree in Neuroscience from the University of Bristol, he is currently studying for a PhD in locust neurobiology in the University of Leicester and runs an active Twitter account communicating his work.