Building a Just and Fair Scientific Enterprise
The culture of science itself must change to fully reach untapped talent, enhance knowledge creation, and ensure the health and well-being of the nation.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the need to make equity a central principle in science was obvious. The scientific community has long discussed the need to go beyond the narrow definition of science as the pursuit and application of knowledge to solve technical problems in order to support the idea that science must start and end with people, society, and the planet.
It has become quite clear that, to fulfill this responsibility, scientists who are accustomed to asking “How would we do that?” must begin to ask more complicated questions such as “Should we do it?” and “Who might be impacted?”
Part of what this requires in practice is changing the institutions where scientists are educated to welcome students from all backgrounds—and that will mean changing the academic environment, the curriculum, and the cost of education. I am going to argue that significant changes to policy and practice are necessary to empower science and engineering to better serve society, but I’m also going to argue that the culture of science itself must change to fully reach untapped talent, enhance the scientific enterprise, and ensure the health and well-being of the nation.
This affirmation may come as a surprise in an essay about policy, but problems in the culture of science are an often-overlooked explanation for the lack of progress not only in addressing society’s concerns, but also in creating a more diverse science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workforce. Five decades of interventions and substantial investments have failed to produce parity among racially minoritized people and women in STEM—in part because insufficient attention has been paid to identifying and addressing those systems and behaviors that, though hidden, have debilitating outcomes.
It is also part of the culture that scientists and engineers themselves often serve as gatekeepers in controlling who is recruited, accepted, and socialized into the profession. As the sociologist Cheryl B. Leggon says in her 1995 article on the impact of science and technology on African Americans, “who does science is important for who will do science.” Further, the social and political contexts of science can’t be ignored, as they influence who studies, what is studied, how studies are funded, how findings are applied, how power dynamics affect the academic and research enterprises, and ultimately how science impacts society.
If the scientific enterprise made equity a central tenet of the way science is done, the future could be dramatically different—and better—than the world as it exists now. In this future, the face of the scientific enterprise is reflective of society, and neither skin color nor street address is a barrier to entry. The cornerstone of this vision is that education is a right, as well as an investment in the nation. Early quality education would be universal, as would access to enabling technologies such as broadband. Lifelong education would include literacy in science, liberal arts, engineering, social science, and critical thinking, and opportunities would be equitably distributed.
In this future, science is user-oriented, collaborative, responsible, and purposeful. Societal challenges and solutions to them are the work of scientists. But “scientists” would be broadly and inclusively defined, informally and formally trained, and they would come from academia, industry, and the community. All would be fully engaged in making a difference in everyday lives.
A just and fair scientific enterprise will require a humanistic approach to create equity in society. This change must occur at individual, institutional, and systems levels, as well as along the entire scientific career path, guided by the humanity that connects us. Because of the central role education plays in ensuring health, mobility, and well-being, educational reform is critical to this vision.
Simply put, the nation’s learning institutions must reorient themselves toward a mission of justice and must use that reorientation to shape institutional culture, policies, practices, and behaviors. That vision must inform concrete actions. Olin College of Engineering, where I am the president, has been committed to achieving gender parity among incoming students since its founding in 1997, and it has achieved that. Intentionality drove the desired outcome.
Likewise, science and engineering institutions must embrace a mission of helping students succeed and creating broadly educated, curious citizens. This involves ensuring literacy across a broad range of subjects and skills: not just STEM but also humanities and the arts, social sciences, and critical thinking. In addition to engineering fundamentals and technical skills, students need values and attitudes to lead a purposeful life and responsibly apply engineering for the good of society.
What does this mean in practice? At Olin, we see ourselves as a cause (not just a college) dedicated to educational transformation and public good. We achieve our mission through team-focused learning tied to solving real-world problems. Faculty and students see themselves as collaborators in learning. And starting with the admissions process, the whole community uses storytelling as a vehicle for forming and changing communities. Our goal is to transform engineering education by partnering with our students and other organizations to explore, develop, and share new educational approaches and environments that realize our vision of a world in which engineering is for everyone.
Finally, and crucially, we deliberately create a sense of belonging for everyone at the college—so that students, faculty, and staff all see themselves as vital parts of a learning community. We pay attention to equity and parity in gender and race from student admissions to faculty and staff hiring and retention. Policies for retention and recognition of faculty are explicitly aligned with the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion, allowing for innovative promotion practices, variable responsibilities, and flexibility in the demonstration of scholarship and impact. Our faculty are expected to demonstrate excellence in three overlapping areas: developing students, building and sustaining the college, and achieving impact outside the college. This, I believe, is an example of how institutions can shift their focus to distributing opportunities, rather than limiting access to them.
Institutional policy changes to promote equity and diversity are a first step in the larger task of reforming the system of scientific knowledge creation. American communities support the scientific enterprise through their tax dollars, but they do not benefit from its innovations equally. To remedy this, and truly transform all communities, institutions of learning must inclusively educate historically underrepresented groups who can bring their own perspectives, experiences, and interests to bear on problems of social significance. As the education leader Shirley Malcom wrote back in 1996, the situation requires more than policies; only structural change will create the transformation that is necessary.
And a significant part of this structural change must occur within the culture of science itself. It is time to look inward, taking account of the hidden behaviors, systems, and practices that play a role in limiting progress and advancement for racially minoritized groups in STEM.
Perceptions, stereotypes, and lowered expectations are all too familiar to students, faculty, and practitioners who are members of marginalized groups. This system of “weeding out” is a form of gate-keeping that works at all levels—from early childhood education, as documented by the economist Raj Chetty in his work on lost Einsteins, to faculty members who subtly insinuate that students of color should seek another major. It also extends to who is perceived as faculty and who is not.
In my own engineering training, I did not see faculty who looked like me, and I was acutely aware of others’ perceptions of what an engineer looked like. When I began my academic career, my first set of students initially did not perceive me to be a faculty member. On the first day of classes, I arrived early to the assigned room, wrote my name and the course name on the board, and waited for the students to arrive. Nearly 10 minutes in, I heard students in the hall and even observed a couple poking their heads in, but no one entered. Finally, I stepped out of the classroom and asked the students if they were there for Chemical Engineering 1421. They said yes, but the instructor had not arrived. They seemed shocked when I told them that I was the instructor. Later that week, when I tried to place a book on reserve for the course, the student worker at the library testily replied that only faculty could place books on reserve.
From my experience, the innovation system often renders members of underrepresented groups and their contributions invisible or undervalued. Experiences like mine are not unique; indeed, they are well documented in the literature. One potential explanation for this lack of visibility is what the psychologist Isis Settles and her coauthors describe as “epistemic exclusion”: “an experience in which faculty of color are deemed illegitimate members of the academy, and thus their scholarship is devalued.”
Epistemic exclusion can manifest in myriad ways. Here’s one I’ll share. During a time I was carrying out an active research program while also leading diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts for my institution, I learned I had been left out of a newly formed research collaboration in my area of expertise. When I asked a colleague why, I was told they thought I was only doing DEI work. Being pigeonholed like that has happened to me throughout my career and, I am sure, to countless others. It is yet another conundrum faced by members of racially marginalized groups: being seen when there is service work to be done—sometimes referred to as a cultural tax—and being unseen when it is time for collaboration, recognition, and promotion.
It is interesting and troubling that, as an African American woman at a near solo status in my career, I could be simultaneously hypervisible and invisible. It reminds me of the protagonist’s opening declaration in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man: “I am an invisible man.… I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.… When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.”
We should not underestimate the links among invisibility, identity, and recognition. As the writer and educator Christopher Emdin has explained, assimilation to white norms and the pressure to leave one’s ethnic identity at the door—which is the case in science—stymies creativity and expression, challenges identity, and disadvantages ethnic minority students.
Another factor that plays a role in our invisibility is small numbers of racially minoritized women and men at science institutions. Often referred to as “the small N problem,” the lack of disaggregated data disproportionately centers majority experiences, rendering invisible the specific experiences of marginalized groups and contributing to further marginalization. As the education specialist Tia Brown McNair and her coauthors point out in From Equity Talk to Equity Walk, gathering appropriate data also demands a robust process by which practitioners make sense of the data to inform their actions.
At a systemic level, this exclusion effectively limits innovation for the nation as a whole. The number of inventors in the United States could be four times higher if women, underrepresented minorities, and individuals from low-income families became inventors at the same rate as white men from high-income families. Those who do “get through the gates” often find their innovations discounted and have less successful academic careers—a challenge described as the “diversity-innovation paradox” by the computational sociologist Bas Hofstra and his colleagues.
What’s more, this system inevitably restricts the type of invention and innovation that is produced. In a recent report in Science, the researcher Rembrand Koning and his coauthors confirmed the inventor gender gap and demonstrated that, for US biomedical patents from 1976 through 2010, “patents with all-female inventor teams are 35% more likely than all-male teams to focus on women’s health.” They point out that who invents affects who benefits from inventions. Because women are less likely to obtain these patents, important discoveries are lost.
I know firsthand the particular insights, expertise, and passions diverse researchers bring to the innovation system. When I chose to study sickle cell disease for my doctorate, part of my motivation was that I wanted to use engineering principles to solve a problem in medicine and I wanted to solve a problem that disproportionately impacted African Americans. Even as a graduate student, I knew there was a real intersection among race, health, and politics; that nexus has been a strong driver for me throughout my life’s work. Many more people like me, who are motivated to give back to their communities, will find solutions to society’s most complex problems if they are provided the right opportunities.
I have shared these examples from my own career because I believe that, together, scientists and institutional leaders need to see the culture of science in full, acknowledging what is hidden. But I also want to focus attention on another overlooked process that is embedded in science’s system: the phenomenon of the invisible hand.
It is the invisible hand that can open doors, tap shoulders, guide and position, and, in many other ways, shape career pathways for those fortunate enough to be a member of the majority or normalized group, the most resourced group, or the group in power. This phenomenon is all around, frequently—sometimes inadvertently—acknowledged. Once, for example, an individual on an all-male panel at a leadership program I was attending stated that he had never applied for any of the administrative roles he held throughout his career, including his current position as senior vice provost. According to him, he was tapped for each one by another man. In his remarks, he gave no indication of realizing that others could rightly perceive him as a beneficiary of “opportunity hoarding”—gaining privileges because of access to an insiders’ network not available to everyone.
Although it’s tempting to believe that hard work is the key determinant of getting ahead and that social factors don’t matter, such myths of meritocracy and color-blindness themselves serve as powerful gatekeepers. In reality, structural inequalities often tend to reward those who are already privileged. Left unchallenged, the myth perpetuates power imbalances and inequities, stifles innovation, and puts the entire scientific enterprise at risk.
The scientific enterprise must move beyond these myths to make science an endeavor in which everyone who does the work belongs, and no one has to give up their various self-definitions to take on the identity of scientist or engineer. Science should be a place where people bring their whole selves. And when we hold a mirror to ourselves, our institutions, and our systems, science’s reflection should be representative of our society, our cultures, our communities, and our values.
To build the optimistic future I envision for humanity, scientists must first look inward. Leaders and educators must recognize that who does science determines who will do science, as well as defining the kinds of questions that will be asked and the kinds of problems that will be solved. In order to truly transform science to meet the complex challenges that society faces, both institutions of learning and the culture of science must begin to change, embracing the goal of a just and fair scientific enterprise as a cause to guide our actions today.