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Diversity: Broadening the Breadth of Science

Research moves ahead through innovation, which can be triggered by diverse perspectives. Consequently, academic, industrial, and government institutions work to attract people from a range of cultural, disciplinary, ethnic, and gender backgrounds as well as scientists with disabilities. The experts interviewed here assess the state of diversity in science and discuss ways to improve it.

Abbott ( | American Association for the Advancement of Science (
InterGenetics ( | Keck Graduate Institute (
Tufts-New England Medical Center (
University of California, Berkeley (

Science thrives on diversity. Systems biology, for example, arose from a collection of disciplines once thought disparate. Such diverse interactions also arise in other fields. According to Gibor Basri, professor of astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley, “The diversity of people who work on problems is tremendous in the sense that there’s a very international component to it, especially in astronomy.” He adds, however, “The faculty in the U.S. in very nondiverse, mostly older, white males. It’s a real issue of concern for us.”

In 2005, Donna J. Nelson and Diana C. Rogers, both of the University of Oklahoma, reported that faculties include fewer women even in areas of study where women earn more Ph.D.’s than men. For example, Nelson and Rogers found that women make up only 3 percent to 15 percent of the faculty at top institutions. That means that undergraduates might never have a female professor. Moreover, broad advances in science depend on participation from all backgrounds.

In some cases, diversity appears to be improving. Greg Dewey—vice president for academic affairs, dean of faculty, and Finnigan Professor at the Keck Graduate Institute—says, “I would say that the most improvement over the last 10 years is in gender diversity. In the biological sciences, we are seeing much stronger participation by women, and that’s creeping into chemistry. Math, physics, and engineering are not as diverse as you would want them to be. But we are seeing more women in biomedical engineering.” He adds, though, “At the Ph.D. level, you are getting more gender diversity, but you’re still not seeing a lot of women in higher rank academic positions.”

Dewey also says, “Racial diversity is still a problem.” He points out that academic science depends on a multicultural society. “Yet, you still have a problem with racial diversity in America, and that will be an ongoing problem because the pipeline of candidates is far from full.”

For most young people, career aspirations often depend on role models. Scientists need that, too. “The main issue is getting people to become faculty members,” says Basri, “and they might not enter the field if they don’t see a lot of role models.” He adds, “Young faculty members look to see if an institution looks like a congenial place to work, and they need to see someone they readily identify with there.” Dewey agrees, saying, “Young faculty members need role models and mentors. If you don’t have those role models in senior roles, that is a real problem.”

Increasing Variety

In some medical fields, however, more diversity appears. Harry Selker, executive director of the Institute for Clinical Research and Health Policy Studies at Tufts-New England Medical Center, runs a cross-disciplinary, clinical research program. He says, “In clinical research, there are more members of the minorities and women in general internal medical research and health services than in subspecialty-oriented and bench-oriented research.” He adds, “Traditionally, health services research has attracted people with social concerns that they wanted to see addressed, which may also explain the greater diversity.”

Selker works in an extremely varied intellectual environment. His institute includes economists, political scientists, and sociologists as well as traditional clinical investigators, statisticians, and informatics experts. He says, “We feel strongly that there is a crucial advantage to an institute and a particular lab when it has a diversity of disciplines, from social to biological sciences.” Still, that disciplinary diversity fails to meet all of Selker’s criteria for a balanced environment. He also looks for what he calls personal diversity. “Different kinds of people—introverts and extroverts, detail-oriented and big-picture people, for examples—have different strengths,” Selker says. “This turns out to be important because it provides a span of perspectives and thinking styles. We’ve benefited from that.”

Other scientists also believe that diversity extends beyond who scientists are to what they do. Craig Shimasaki, president and chief executive officer at InterGenetics, says, “A fully integrated diversity of disciplines is absolutely critical to science, but it is not yet fully embraced.” He goes on to say, “People tend to fall back on what they are familiar with rather than expanding or broadening an approach to a problem. Instead, they just go deeper into what they’ve already done before.”

Some studies—including the research on the predisposition to breast cancer being done at InterGenetics—demand an integrated team of scientists with a wide variety of skills. Shimasaki says, “We bring together geneticists, statisticians, and mathematicians with our molecular biologists.” This is necessary, since approximately 90 percent of the women who contract breast cancer do not have a strong family history of the disease. “To tackle this disease,” Shimasaki says, “you need to know the risk carriers.” Right now, Shimasaki and his colleagues believe that this requires a cross-functional combination of biological and informatic sciences—a diversity of disciplines.

Instead of just being a numbers game, though, diversity can be an industrial culture. Jill Mueller, group vice president of human resources for the global pharmaceutical products group at Abbott, says, “We greatly value diversity of all kinds, including race, gender, and disabilities. It is absolutely key to our business and has been for as long as I can remember.” She adds, “Just the other day, we were laughing that our campus looks like the United Nations because of the diversity of our people.”

Enabling Disabilities
“A great many people who talk about diversity do not think it includes disabilities,” says Virginia Stern, director of the AAAS Project on Science, Technology, & Disability and director of ENTRY POINT! The AAAS Project on Science, Technology, & Disability will celebrate its 30th anniversary at the association’s annual meeting in February 2006. Stern says, “All these years, we’ve worked to bring role models to the forefront, but there is a shortage of role models with disabilities.” To help create more role models in the future, Stern and her colleagues provide technical assistance to students, employers, families, and counselors. This project also publishes the Resource Directory of Scientists and Engineers with Disabilities, and the fourth addition is due out soon. Stern says, “This is the best and only source of role models.”

In addition, ENTRY POINT! seeks out talented students with disabilities and arranges paid internships. “We have come to believe that these internships are critical in the pipeline for the companies,” says Stern, “because they have a chance to know students with disabilities, working with them over the summer. It is really an entry point into the professions.” This program receives private support from IBM and Merck, plus public support from NASA and the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration.

Today, the impact of decades of advocacy for people with disabilities can be seen in many institutions. At Tufts-New England Medical Center, Selker says, “One member of our research group was hit by a falling tree and became paralyzed and wheel chair bound.” To help this scientist, Selker and his colleagues secured a grant supplement to her NIH grant and created a new entrance ramp to the building and changed doorways on her floor—all to make the facility more accessible. “It’s all about treating people the way you want to be treated,” says Selker. He adds, “NIH provided the supplement, and it was relatively easy to get it funded. NIH was a great partner in this.”

Other universities also work to make life easier for scientists with disabilities. At Berkeley, Basri says, “My department right now has a quadriplegic student.” He adds, “Berkeley in general is especially friendly toward people with disabilities. There is lots of help for them, and it is a pretty friendly place for that.” Basri also mentions that people with limited mobility can focus on computer based research.

Removing the Obstacles
To make today’s world of engineering and science even more friendly to people with disabilities, Stern says, “You need a champion, someone who knows that diversity includes disability.” She explains that a manager in a company or agency who had a positive experience with a disabled scientist, engineer, or student becomes a champion. She adds, “Internships make it so managers and mentors gain experience that someone with a disability can be productive, creative, a team player, and an outstanding problem solver. In fact, anyone with a disability from birth or an accident develops persistence, which is basic to science and provides the ability to think out of the box.”

Many of the obstacles for a person with a disability start long before reaching a professional career. So Stern and her colleagues reach out to students all the way down to preschool. She says, “We show them that science and engineering are viable careers. If counselors don’t think science and engineering are possible careers then they are not going to encourage students with disabilities to get in college prep math courses. Then, when these students get to college, some doors are already closing. It takes an extra effort.” Sometimes that effort includes assistive technology.

Disabilities can also affect scientists later in their careers, just from aging effects. Stern says, “I get calls several times a year from AAAS members who are losing their vision.” She adds, “Sometimes a spouse or partner calls and realizes that the scientist is getting increasingly frustrated because he or she cannot read anymore or cannot read comfortably.” In those cases, Stern and her colleagues put the person in touch with experts who can help.

Spreading Diversity
Understanding the state of diversity can be easier than improving it. Moreover, the problems stretch from the past and into the future. Basri says, “The real problem is in grades K-12, and scientific leaders don’t have much control over that. Still, we can work with K-12 leaders to see what we can do.” He adds, “The state of science education in this country affects the under-represented populations more than others.”

Still, Basri sees things that can be done. “Leaders can point out when they have found something that works, and share it with other leaders.” Nonetheless, he adds that search committees must pick from small pools, in terms of underrepresented populations.

Dewey of the Keck Graduate Institute also sees potential approaches to improving diversity. He says, “Top scientists are incredibly influential, probably more so than they realize. They can be champions for young people and really help their careers.” In addition, the Keck Graduate Institute also makes life easier for young faculty members by using a contract system, instead of tenure. For example, Dewey says, “We had a woman who came to us as an assistant professor, and she had a child in the year of her arrival. She negotiated that upfront, but she even said that she never would have done that in a tenure system.”

At Abbott, Mueller sees many things that employees do to improve the company’s diversity. She says, “We have several forums and networks that are employee-run and sponsored by executives. They include the Black Business Network, Chinese Culture Network, Women Leaders in Action, and others.” She adds that these groups can make a large company seem like a smaller place that employees can navigate. “It is very important for scientists to meet colleagues in functions outside of R&D, as well as in the lab,” she says.

Following the Results
Although one of the first steps to increasing diversity involves improving the breadth of backgrounds in an organization, other steps remain. Basri at Berkeley says, “Once you get more diversity in a department or institution, it is essential that you pay attention to whether those people are flourishing.” So keeping track of a diverse staff makes the difference between success and failure.

In the end, making sure that a staff is diverse and productive enhances any organization. “The importance of innovative science is key in any industry,” says Mueller. “That’s how we run our business, because that diverse experience from different areas and countries is critical to moving innovative science forward.”

Mike May ( is a publishing consultant for science and technology based in Madison, Indiana, U.S.A.

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