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Underrepresented Minorities in Science: Enhancing Diversity in Science


Creating a diverse work environment has recently become a strategic move for many progressive businesses that proclaim an advantageous strength through a diversified workforce. Similarly, academic institutions have praised the value of a diverse student and faculty population for enhancing public education. The concept of diversity is generally embraced in the interest of political correctness, but it is unclear whether it's meaning is similarly valued or construed. Opinion and debate over this topic has, in many cases, centered on numerical references--related to proportional ethnic and gender representation--without clearly emphasizing the significance of diversity.

Numbers on Race and Gender

Statistical data is undoubtedly a helpful tool that provides us with a tangible measure of racial and gender diversity. Consider, for example, the effect of legislation in California that abolished affirmative action policy in 1996. In the 4 years preceding this ban, the percentage of new women faculty hired by the University of California (UC) averaged 35.3%, whereas in the 4 years that followed it averaged only 26%. Data have also shown that although the total number of underrepresented minority resident students admitted to all UC schools did not change over the last 4 years, the percentage of minority students admitted to the first-tier schools (e.g., Berkeley) dropped significantly. Additionally, a proportional increase in minority admissions was observed for second-tier schools. A "cascading" effect was proposed in which minority students who would have attended a first-tier school under affirmative action have now been shuffled to second-tier schools. These data * tend to underscore the importance of programs targeting women and underrepresented minorities in maintaining a diverse student and faculty population.

However, the use of numerical data can also be misleading, particularly in attempting to simplify a very complex issue. Comparing numbers might lead us to think that Asian minorities are doing well and that encouraging such students to pursue a science or engineering career is unnecessary because their representation in these fields is greater than that of the general population. Yet, individuals of Asian decent are subject to many forms of personal and institutionalized racism that can limit their opportunities. Under the wide "Asian" umbrella are several groups that are clearly underrepresented in science, such as Vietnamese, Filipinos, and Pacific Islanders.

Minorities, as a whole, are challenged at various steps along the science career path, resulting in few of them at the highest levels. Take again the University of California as an example--the total number of minority tenured faculty, including Asians, is approximately 17%. Remember that this is in a state where the nonwhite population has reached 50% and is rapidly growing.

The use of numbers is further complicated when we consider that we might not necessarily expect to have a demographic population of scientists (or any given career) that directly mirrors the population of that region. There are many factors that contribute to an individual's choice in pursuing a career. Certainly there are biases that can be attributed to institutional racism, but also many that are a reflection of personal, cultural, or historical differences. Furthermore, equal representation does not necessarily reflect the climate under which any minority group exists within a dominant society.

Conceptualizing Diversity

Diversity is not a numerical concept, but rather one of inclusion that embodies more than differences in race or gender. However, race and gender become important contributors to diversity in a society where those differences are commonly used to set groups of people apart. The Chancellor's Committee on Diversity at UC San Francisco defines the concept well. "Diversity," they state, "refers to the variety of experiences and perspectives which arise from differences in race, culture, religion, mental or physical attributes, heritage, age, gender, sexual orientation, and other characteristics." This gets us away from the idea of creating a "melting pot" and into more of a "tossed salad" where the distinct flavors of all individuals are valued.

Creating a diverse environment requires a conscious effort to challenge our traditional ways of thinking. It's certainly easier and more efficient in the short run to remain focused on institutionalized doctrines. People who think alike can quickly agree and effectively carry out a specific task. This single-minded approach however fails down the line when conditions and environments change. Suddenly, people are faced with challenges that lie outside their scope of knowledge. A single-minded group might be confined to work on a specific task that in a changed environment may no longer be productive. On the other hand, a more diverse group might be better prepared to adapt to change and remain productive.

The inclusion of race and gender as criteria for enhancing diversity is important within American society. It could be argued, for example, that a state population comprised of approximately 30% Hispanics might be better served by a population of physicians with similar ethnic representation. But increasing the number of underrepresented Hispanic physicians would not simply be valuable for the sake of giving patients a choice to be treated by physicians of similar ethnic background. It is most valuable because it enhances the cultural competence and awareness of all physicians when it comes to treating a diverse patient population. By including women and members of minority groups, we are enhancing the capacity and effectiveness with which the medical community can perform.

A Diverse Scientific Community

Choices that steer and direct the path of science are often based on institutionalized preferences within the scientific community. By it's own nature, the advancement of science serves a public interest. And whether we like it or not, the general community entrusts itself in what science advocates. With this trust comes the responsibility of creating an institution that can best serve a diverse community.

Although the American scientific community has, for many years, enjoyed fruitful international collaborations, a white male majority has largely built the establishment in which science is practiced. We might be inclined to ask whether it matters who built the establishment as long as everyone can participate and benefit from it. The answer might be seen in a simple fable presented by R. Roosevelt Thomas Jr. and Marjorie Woodruff in Building a House for Diversity. A giraffe builds himself a comfortable, customized home with narrow halls, high ceilings, and tall doors. It is a wonderful home for giraffes, but when his elephant friend visits, it becomes readily apparent that the house is not right. The house makes his friend feel uncomfortable because it was not designed with an elephant's needs or customs in mind. The elephant cannot fully realize his skills and talents in a giraffe's home, possibly resulting in the appearance that the elephant is less capable.

In this context, perhaps we might see how an institution that was designed by any one group might become exclusive and homogeneous. Much like the giraffe's home, we must question whether the establishment that was built in the interest of pioneering scientists is one that fosters a mutual advantage for the diverse community that it serves. Standardized methods that are presumed to be fair measures of merit or ability must be reexamined with a new perspective that takes into account the diverse backgrounds of aspiring scientists. This is critical so that we aren't simply coloring the landscape with like-minded individuals that "fit in," but instead actually being inclusive, open to change, and learning from our differences.

Creativity and innovation are at the core of scientific practice. Scientists have learned that a broad knowledge base and an ability to work across disciplines are advantageous. We've learned from scientists like Galileo, Darwin, and Einstein that significant advances are made when we challenge institutional dogma and presumptions. Valuing distinct experiences and perspectives in science can provide an advantage while relying on preconceived notions cannot.

Diversity benefits everyone. Without it we are all disadvantaged.

Gilberto R. Sambrano has been a postdoctoral fellow at the UCSF Cardiovascular Research Institute since 1995 and is a former president of the UCSF PSA. He has represented postdocs' interests on campus committees, including the Chancellor's Committee on Diversity, and has participated in national meetings sponsored by the Graduate Research, Education, and Training group of the Association of American Medical Colleges.

*The data on the UC system come from the UC Web site as well as a research Web site called the Affirmative Action and Diversity Page. The data on women faculty are from a recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle .

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