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Wanted: More scientists of color would make for better science

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a theoretical physicist at the University of New Hampshire, is one of about 100 Black American women physicists, but she nearly left the field in her first semester in college. She isn't the only scientist of color who thought of giving up before her career began.

Why it matters: Scientists and institutions have stepped up efforts in the year since George Floyd's murder to redress the underrepresentation of people like Prescod-Weinstein and other scientists of color among their ranks. That marginalization affects not only who pursues science as a career but the problems scientists address.

The big picture: Latino and Black students leave science degree programs at higher rates than white students and receive fewer Ph.D.s.

  • "I didn’t understand that this was entirely a resource question — that they (white classmates) had more opportunities than I had," Prescod-Weinstein, who recently wrote a book about her journey, told Axios. "I just thought I wasn’t good at solving problems."
  • People of color are underrepresented on university faculties and, in some fields, they are funded at rates lower than their white colleagues.

Science limits itself by excluding these groups.

  • For example, Indigenous knowledge about the history of repeated earthquakes predates scientific records in some places and can be used to reconstruct how often events occur, says geologist Rachel Bernard of Amherst College.
  • "One of the foundations of science is thinking about new ideas and questions. If you have people from similar backgrounds, there will be a narrow scope in terms of how they view the world. It is a danger to the field itself," says Pamela Padilla, a geneticist and dean of the College of Science at the University of North Texas.
  • Population genetics, which identifies the genetic differences among racial and ethnic groups, has a dark past in eugenics. Today, it aims to link those differences to a predisposition for disease.
  • That has produced a dominant fundamental framework of the biological world as one driven "strongly and preeminently by genes," with less incorporation of experience, culture and systemic forces, says C. Brandon Ogbunu, an assistant professor at Yale University who studies disease evolution and ecology.
  • "It isn't flatly and flagrantly racist," he said. "But the perspective shakes out of a racist view of the world."
  • “There is a shadow around this field where I am compelled in a lot of ways to make this point about what is broken and wrong about these perspectives in the field,” Ogbunu says. “I want to just do my day job. I want to be a scientist the way everyone else is." 

What's happening: Some institutions are putting resources behind hiring experts to evaluate their hiring initiatives.

  • The U.S. Senate has passed a bill that would authorize the National Science Foundation, which administers about a quarter of the total federal funding for basic science at U.S. universities and colleges, to lead on bringing more diversity to science.
  • A program founded by Vashan Wright of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, called Unlearning Racism in Geoscience (URGE), aims to educate geoscientists about racism and develop policies to fight it in a field that has been historically among the least diverse in science.

Between the lines: Improving representation alone won't solve racial injustices in science, Ogbunu and Bernard say.

  • "There are cultural norms that need to change for everybody," says Ogbunu. "Discrimination lurks in the margins of fields." Examples include not citing a paper because a name isn't recognized, subjective decisions about who is an expert, and professional networks whose social norms aren't inclusive, he says.
  • There is a view of science advancing through the work of lone geniuses, typically white men, when in reality it's a highly collaborative endeavor.
  • "If you just put butts in seats, you are going to create person-of-color versions of those scientists, and that isn't what you want. You want to change the whole thing," says Ogbunu.

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