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Diversity and inclusion

Science needs structural reform to tackle racism, says report

21 Feb 2023
shoes between a yellow line
Dividing line: US National Academies report calls on organizations to take measures to better support minoritized individuals (courtesy: iStock/stevanovicigor)

US educational institutions and workplaces must be pro-active in combatting racism and supporting people from minority groups. That’s the conclusion of a new report from the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) that was initiated in response to the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 that followed the murder of George Floyd.

Written by an 18-strong committee, the report was instigated by Eddie Bernice Johnson, former chair of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, who called on the national academies to examine anti-racism and inclusion in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM).

Surveying historic cases of discrimination and including interviews with minority STEMM professionals, the report lays out measures for leaders and managers to make STEMM more inclusive of people from Black, Indigenous, Latine, Asian-American and other communities. Fay Cobb Payton from North Carolina State University, who co-wrote the report, says it also provides “a comprehensive vision for the future of diversity science”.

One recommendation is for STEMM centres to attract minoritized individuals and improve their sense of inclusion by integrating the principles of minority-serving institutions (MSIs). They include “historically black” colleges and universities (those set up before the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 to serve African Americans) as well as “tribal colleges and universities”, run by American Indian tribes. The report adds that “predominantly white institutions” should seek sustainable partnerships with all MSIs.

Positive environments

The report also says that STEMM “gatekeepers” – such as university deans, administrators and lab directors who control resources, recruitment and workplace atmospheres – often cannot assess their own biases. Such gatekeepers, it adds, usually have “attitudinal biases, cognitive mechanisms, and social motives that keep the white status quo intact”. People in gatekeeper positions must ensure that all member of their group feel psychologically safe, the report says, and also “promote equal status among team members”.

Susan Fiske, a social psychologist from Princeton University who co-chaired the report, told Physics World that despite scientists striving for objectivity in their data, they can be full of biases. “The problem is structural,” she says. “The pressures on people and the positions they are in determine their behaviour.”

That view is echoed by NASEM president Marcia McNutt. “We must move beyond simply promoting numeric diversity,” says McNutt. “That is insufficient to achieve inclusive excellence in STEMM.”

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