Diversity in Science

Diversity isn’t a bonus. The best science only happens when we look at things in new ways.

Each year around the holiday season, faculty members across Canada are asked to review research grant applications for the three federal granting agencies. This past season, I reviewed three such applications, all from faculty requesting funds from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). A new part of the applications this year is an increased emphasis on how the applicant promotes diversity in the training of highly qualified personnel. As one-third of the grant rating involves training, this change in emphasis is not trivial. Diversity in science and engineering has become a major issue for the granting agencies, and there are more programs focused on increasing diversity among scientists.

As in many professions, the demographics of those involved in science do not reflect the population at large. The number of females is often way below the expected 50 percent, and the numbers of Indigenous, visible minorities and non-traditionally gendered people are far below what might be expected if researchers in the various sciences reflected the population of Canada.

This lack of diversity is not unique to Canada. When I attend large North American scientific meetings (the Society for Neuroscience conference has about 32,000 attendees), what I see is certainly not reflective of the American racial mix. There appear to be very few African American or Indigenous individuals, despite a long history of various attempts to correct the imbalance.

The ‘comfortable middle’
Exactly where this issue starts is not clear. When early standardized tests are given on science, technology and mathematics, males and females show only small marginal differences in ability. Later tests are harder to interpret, as many social and cultural factors start to play a role. The lack of diversity in science may have a root in these cultural and social factors, but there may be additional reasons, like a lack of diverse role models.

We know that some of the imbalance may be due to what is known as implicit bias – bias that is very real but in some way unconscious. A large group of scientists was given a description of a job applicant and asked if they would hire this person, and if hired how much would they pay. There were two versions of the job description: one had a male name, the other a female name. Females were less likely to be hired and were offered lower starting salaries.

Some may ask why lack of diversity in science is a problem. Here are two reasons. First, there is the basic issue of fairness. Why should some groups have the opportunity to advance our knowledge and others not? But the second reason may be more important: different people ask different questions about the world and why we understand things in a particular way. People on the margins can see things that those in the comfortable middle miss. Often the best science results from a new way of looking at things, and having eyes that see what many may miss is an asset we cannot afford to lose. Diversity isn’t a bonus here; it’s central to how science works best.

I hope the NSERC policy (and similar policies) can result in true change in training and hiring by getting people to face their unconscious biases. As Christians, we know we are good at hiding our sins, and we pray for God to open our eyes to our unseen faults. Having our eyes opened requires a willingness to truly see as God sees, and the same may apply to our need to increase the diversity of those engaged in science. We need our eyes opened to our biases. Scripture is full of admonitions to be open to the stranger, the widow, those in prison, and the poor – the marginalized of those days. Christian scientists should be at the forefront of those working to make sure opportunities are available to all in society and not only the privileged.

Author

  • Rudy Eikelboom is a Professor of Psychology, at Wilfrid Laurier University, who has emerged from the dark side of the University after being department chair for 9 years and now teaches behavioural statistics to graduate and undergraduate psychology students. His retirement looms and he is looking forward to doing more writing on the implications of modern science for our Christian faith. Currently, he serves as a pastoral elder at the Waterloo Christian Reformed Church.

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