Scientific Leaders Need To Address Structural Racism In US: Report

The report calls for institutions to take steps to boost the number of people from historically underrepresented racial and ethnic groups in STEMM.

Scientific Leaders Need To Address Structural Racism In US: Report
Leaders in the U.S. scientific community must dismantle the structural racism within their organizations and create an environment in which everyone feels supported, says a report released today by the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

The 359-page report includes 12 recommendations for leaders who want to foster change.  “There is no magic bullet; there’s no one single answer,” said Gilda Barabino, president of the Olin College of Engineering and co-chair of the committee that wrote the report, in a webinar today. “We need a multitude of approaches, and we need to do them strongly and meaningfully.”

A multipronged strategy is ultimately what’s needed to really move the needle, agrees Stephen Thomas, a professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, who was not involved in creating the report.

Past efforts have often involved incremental changes, says Thomas, a leader of the National Research Mentoring Network funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health: “Here’s a study here and let’s see if we can scale it, and here’s a study there and see if we can scale it—all one by one.”

In contrast, he says the report’s call for implementing many changes at once is “a move in the right direction and it’s very bold at a time when we’re literally seeing elected officials … undermine the very objective evidence that the research is pointing out.”

The report—titled Advancing Antiracism, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in STEMM Organizations: Beyond Broadening Participation—calls for institutions to take steps to boost the number of people from historically underrepresented racial and ethnic groups in science, technology, engineering, math, and medicine (STEMM). It also urges institutions to adopt policies and cultural practices that foster a sense of belonging.

“We need to move beyond diversity into inclusion,” says Mica Estrada, an author of the report and a professor at the University of California, San Francisco. “There’s always been a lot of emphasis on the numbers and people. We have to move to the next phase of this, which is changing the context in which people are working and learning.”

Minority-serving institutions—particularly historically black colleges and universities, and tribal colleges and universities—can be models for change, the report notes.

Those institutions have been particularly successful in creating a “supportive, inclusive environment for every member of the community with an expectation that they will excel, that they will get the support that they need,” Barabino said during the webinar.

“That is … a model that we really could scale … up because, guess what, it doesn’t cost money to actually be decent to another human being. It doesn’t cost us money to create environments where people feel that their voice can be heard, that they can be accepted as who they are.” (Barabino is also president of AAAS, which publishes Science.)

Other recommendations urge institutions to look for structural racism by looking at patterns of bias in data on hiring, promotion, graduate admissions, and awards; to examine gaps in pay and professional development opportunities between different racial and ethnic groups; and to conduct regular culture audits to assess the working conditions and environment.

“We really wanted these to be concrete, actionable recommendations,” said Susan Fiske—a co-chair of the committee that wrote the report and a professor at Princeton University—in today’s webinar. “It can be done.”

Still, Thomas wonders how institutions will be incentivized to implement change. “The next step is the oversight,” he says.

“I see no sticks,” he continues, referring to penalties for institutions that fail to address diversity, equity, and inclusion issues and structural racism. One possible “stick,” Thomas adds, would be to downgrade those institutions in annual university rankings.

The report didn’t set out to identify possible “sticks,” Barabino says. But, she adds, “there is movement afloat in various sectors to do exactly that—to say, ‘Why don’t we have metrics around diversity, equity, inclusion and include them in how we evaluate, in how we rank, in how we assess ourselves as institutions?’ I think more of that will be forthcoming”

Originally published at Science Org