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Fostering Diversity in the Earth and Space Sciences

One can only conclude from the small numbers of minority students pursuing degrees and careers in fields such as atmospheric sciences, oceanography, and geology that information about the many outstanding career opportunities available in the earth and space sciences is not reaching these communities. This failure to recruit and retain ethnic and racial minorities, and even women, in these fields is all the more remarkable given their profound relevance to civilization. Sustaining fresh water and energy resources; mitigating the effects of natural hazards such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, severe weather, landslides, coastal erosion, and solar flares; and dealing with the consequences of global warming and sea-level rise are issues that affect all populations, regardless of gender, ethnicity, or cultural traditions. So, why aren?t all members of human society participating in the basic and applied scientific research that will help address these problems?

The American Geophysical Union ( AGU), a global scientific society with over 40,000 members in 130 countries, has recently embarked on a path to aggressively confront the problem of underrepresentation in the earth and space sciences. Efforts to develop a long-range diversity plan at AGU have been motivated both by a desire to recruit the best minds to the enterprise and by several glaring statistics* concerning the future health of the scientific workforce:

  • More earth and space scientists are near retirement age (30% to 40% in some sectors) than are in any other age group.

  • Graduate enrollment within the earth and space sciences declined by more than 10% during the 1990s, and the number of white males earning geoscience bachelor's degrees--the traditional base of future earth and space scientists in the United States--has decreased by nearly 80% during the past 25 years.

  • Since 1980, the numbers of earth and space science academic programs, particularly at postsecondary levels, as well as total academic science majors in the United States, have declined.

  • In spite of increasing numbers of U.S. minorities in grades K-12, racial and ethnic minorities, women, and people with disabilities are not replacing the potential workforce shortfall in the sciences.

Working with its Subcommittee on Diversity, AGU?s Committee on Education and Human Resources has developed a long-range, strategic plan for AGU, to encourage meaningful change in the composition of the earth and space science community. AGU hopes to serve as a leader of and advocate for improving diversity in these fields, with the overarching vision that AGU reflect diversity in all of its own activities and programs. The four main goals in AGU?s diversity plan, and examples of specific programs that will be used to address them, are to:

  • Educate and involve the AGU membership in diversity issues.

    Through meetings and publications, AGU will inform its members about the need for increasing diversity in the sciences and educate them about issues surrounding minority participation in the sciences. For example, the 2002 Fall AGU Meeting will include several sessions that highlight various aspects of diversity; among these are sessions on workforce and demographic statistics, personal profiles of women geoscientists, and recent results from diversity programs funded by the National Science Foundation Geosciences Directorate.

  • Enhance and foster the participation of scientists, earth and space science educators, and students from underrepresented groups in AGU activities.

    AGU will profile and acknowledge the pioneering efforts of its minority members, and encourage their leadership in advancing the visibility and success of underrepresented scientists. AGU will also initiate opportunities for bringing teachers and science students from Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs), 2-year colleges and precollege programs serving underrepresented communities to its annual meetings, in order to expose them to research and career opportunities in the earth and space sciences. In a pilot program at its 2002 Spring Meeting, AGU hosted a group of 42 mostly African American (and nine hearing-impaired) high school students. After a morning session listening to AGU members describe some of the exciting research being conducted in the geophysical sciences, several of the students presented results from their own environmental research during a regular meeting poster session.

  • Increase the visibility of the earth and space sciences and foster awareness of career opportunities in these fields for underrepresented populations.

    Many minority students receive little exposure to the earth and space sciences in precollege or undergraduate curricula and have few opportunities to participate in research in these fields as college students. Lack of familiarity with these subjects by students and their parents hampers efforts to recruit minority students into graduate studies or careers in these fields. In order to educate these communities about these scientific fields and their professional opportunities, AGU will work to develop programs that increase the visibility of the geosciences at MSIs, as well as create and distribute culturally tailored career information.

  • Promote changes in the academic culture that remove barriers and disincentives for increasing diversity in the student and faculty populations and that reward faculty wishing to pursue these goals.

    The failure to diversify the faculties and student populations in most earth and space science departments suggests that there may be prohibitive barriers, inappropriate pedagogical practices, or insensitive policies that make the academic environment unattractive to underrepresented groups. AGU will work to educate geoscience department heads about the types of changes needed and successful strategies. Changing academic institution policies will require a coordinated effort between AGU and other organizations looking to reform science and math education.

AGU is at the heart of a global network of societies and individuals in the geophysical sciences. Through this network and work in partnership with other scientific societies, AGU can help to develop programs that will open the door to a new generation of earth and space scientists.

* Data quoted come from Guide to Geoscience Departments (American Geological Institute, Alexandria, Virginia, 2001); Graduate Enrollment in Science and Engineering Fields Increases for the First Time Since 1993 , NSF 01-312 (National Science Foundation, Arlington, Virginia, 2001); and Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering: Fall 1999, NSF 01-315 (National Science Foundation, Arlington, Virginia, 2001).

For further information about AGU and its new diversity plan, e-mail Jill Karsten at jkarsten@agu, Frank Hall at, or Roberta Johnson at