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Special Feature: Experiences of Ethnic Minorities in Science

When we decided to do a feature on ethnic minorities in science, it was a given that we would take an international approach. We have lots of experience addressing the issue in the United States, where policies aimed at promoting diversity in the sciences are mainstream. Those U.S. efforts have yielded only modest--some would say poor--returns. Yet in the United States, the issue is at least well studied.

In Europe, we found, the topic poses a greater challenge. On the old continent, issues of race and ethnicity are handled with kid gloves. Most often, they are treated as one with issues of immigration. At European and national levels, the issues of ethnic minorities are often tackled under the umbrella of social "integration" of people from abroad when they immigrate to a European country, and, if they stay, the integration of their descendants. The policy goal of opposing discrimination is slowly climbing the agenda, but up to now, the chief policy aim has been to incorporate immigrant-minorities into the society via access to training and employment while encouraging them to use the local language and to participate more in the local society.

Our approach to this feature, on the European side, mirrors the European emphasis on immigration. We have chosen to tell some stories of recent and short-term immigrants as, if you will, proxies for the broader population of ethnic minorities. Through this lens, the situation in Europe looks quite good.

Hear more about ethnic minority experiences on this week's Science podcast

The Science podcast this week includes interviews with some of the people profiled in our feature. The segment is introduced by our Educated Woman columnist, Micella Phoenix DeWhyse.

Babette Pain, contributing editor for the south of Europe, sent in a profile of Ahcène Bounceur , a member of Algeria's Berber-speaking minority who moved to France to study science. Bounceur's approach to succeeding in a new place was to work hard and stay focused, overlooking any slights that may have resulted from his national or ethnic heritage.

In the United Kingdom, freelancer Hannah Devlin tells the stories of three University of Oxford scientists , from Morocco, Malaysia, and Japan, who describe their experiences studying and working outside their native lands.

In the United States, of course, immigration and ethnic minorities are much more distinct populations, although there is considerable overlap. There are many stories to tell about the struggles and triumphs of African-, Hispanic-, and Native-American scientists, and many have already been told on our Minority Scientists Network and elsewhere.

Rita Thornton

For this feature, we decided to tell a story that has been told before in other venues. The extraordinary story of Rita Thornton and her sisterhood of doctors is already the stuff of two books and a made-for-TV movie. At mid-career and already a successful professional, Rita Thornton earned a Ph.D. her own way while making a difference in the lives of inner-city children. We missed the movie--as, we suspect, did many of you--so we asked Anne Sasso to tell the story again.

There is, of course, much more to say about these issues, both in the United States and in Europe, where long-settled ethnic minorities may face additional barriers simply because they have been in the system longer. Indeed, we suspect that recent immigrants have an easier time in European laboratories because (it is assumed) they represent the scientific elite in the countries from which they come; local, resident minorities do not benefit from any such assumption. Europe--and a few countries within Europe--has begun to grapple with the problems faced by resident minority populations. We will do the same in the coming months, so stay tuned.

Meanwhile, we've compiled a list of resources for ethnic minorities working in the sciences in both Europe and America.

Comments, suggestions? Please send your feedback to our editor.

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