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What’s the purpose of a scientific career?

Why are African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and women underrepresented in academic science? A large literature answers this question by citing obstacles such as bias, lack of role models, and shortcomings in the academic preparation many members of those groups receive.

Much of this work rests on an unstated assumption that a research-oriented faculty career is so desirable that qualified scientists will naturally prefer it to other possibilities. If that were true, attracting more people from underrepresented backgrounds would merely require repairs to the “pipeline” that is supposed to deliver young people into those careers. In December, we reported on a study suggesting another possibility: The research career lacks elements that are important to many members of those groups; to attract them, then, the career itself needs retooling.

If you control for everything and you still see differences, the only thing at fault is the system itself.

—Kenneth Gibbs Jr.

Kenneth Gibbs Jr., a Cancer Prevention Fellow at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, and one of the study’s authors, points to work showing that scientists from underrepresented minority (URM) groups and women seek research-focused academic careers less often than males from well-represented groups, even when they have “the same level of research productivity and … the same mentoring. If you control for everything and you still see differences, the only thing at fault is the system itself,” Gibbs says in an interview with Science Careers.

Something “fundamental is probably influencing those choices,” Gibbs believes—most likely the “tension” many URM and female scientists say they feel between the culture and expectations that govern academic science and the values they bring to their work. Gibbs and his co-authors have examined the career motivations of minority scientists using focus groups, a survey, and interviews. Two published articles present part of this work; a third is forthcoming.

Kenneth Gibbs Jr.

Kenneth Gibbs Jr.

Courtesy of Kenneth Gibbs

This and other work shows that women and URM scientists on average “choose differently.” Their choices are made “outside of ability, outside of competence”—but in keeping with expressed desires to pursue social justice, community involvement, and altruism, he says. In contrast, men from well-represented groups more often seek academic research careers that incorporate the value of “scientific freedom, the ability to research what you want on your own terms.”

For scientists with strong social concerns, scientific and social motivations are “intertwined,” Gibbs says. He “chose science because I perceived that it would allow me to express the values that I already had: helping the world, using my work to help humanity, particularly the parts of humanity that have fewer resources than I have.” For those who share such motivations, both the scientific and the social are “necessary,” but neither is sufficient. It is therefore regrettable that “the system currently says that science—the research—is the essence, the end to which you work as opposed to the means to an end.”

A feeling of obligation

“[Scientific] research tends to focus on … individual enhancement,” Gibbs explains. But many people—“disproportionately, but not exclusively, scientists from populations that are underrepresented within that workforce”—bring to their scientific training an “ethos that I am obligated beyond my own personal advancement. … Every person comes from some sort of community, and that community has some sort of narrative. You develop your personal and community-rooted identity prior to your vocational identity.”

You take all that with you when you enter a career, Gibbs says. “[Y]ou don't leave your social background because you have a vocational background in science. All these things are always present. I am always a scientist. I am always a black man descended from slaves. I am always married to my wife. These things are always true all at the same time, and I think that sometimes we’re not thoughtful enough about how these things are in play.”

One scientist Gibbs knows—“from an underrepresented group [who] produced at a very, very high level”—turned down a faculty post at a top research university and “ended up teaching at an undergraduate-serving institution. He said that at the elite institution, his job would be to build as big an empire as he could for himself. That was not what he was motivated to do. He wanted to think about how he could influence more students. … He said, ‘How can I do the most good for my people? Can I do the best good by going to [the renowned university] and becoming very famous, or could I do that by doing the hard work of training students to move forward?’” A high percentage of black scientists on university faculties, Gibbs notes, work at master’s-degree-granting institutions, especially historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). (Two thirds of the nation’s HBCUs fall into that category, while a third offer doctorates.) Such schools have an enviable record as producers of black students who go on to obtain science doctorates.

Other recent publications reveal similar preferences. Dustin B. Thoman of California State University, Long Beach, and co-authors found “altruistic motives … uniquely influential to URM students,” often playing “an important role in influencing their interest in scientific research careers.” URM trainees from undergraduates to postdocs express a desire for “STEM training to include or make room for a social justice component,” report Andrew Campbell of Brown University and co-authors. The trainees studied want “opportunities to do science with a purposeful social justice component, a desire that does not preclude performing traditional bona fide research at the highest level. This desire appears to reflect the sense of disconnect and marginalization that trainees feel within the academy and the scientific community. It also appears to align with their concerns for issues such as health disparities, which are evident for underrepresented/disadvantaged groups.” Other studies we’ve reported on also found an important role of personal values in scientists’ career choices.

Gibbs emphasizes, however, that the various studies only reveal general tendencies within groups, while individual opinions cover a wide range. “Any number of underrepresented minorities or women only want to be basic scientists, and that's fine,” he says. And numerous men from groups well-represented in academic science harbor strong social motives. Overall, though, this values clash causes academe to “lose way more of the underrepresented folks, and there are smaller numbers of them to begin with,” he notes.

Making room for social impact

Academic science could attract and keep more URM scientists, Gibbs argues, by making room for their need to have broader impacts on society than basic research positions currently allow. “Those are values that I brought into science and that you hear many bringing into science,” he says. The tension between science values and social justice values grows as people advance in their training; they find that “[social] values are no longer able to be expressed. Not only are they not rewarded, but expressing those values makes you look less serious about the scientific work.”

For socially motivated scientists, “there are lots of ideas of what it means to serve in the community.” One could, for example, “spend 3 hours a week in an under-resourced school exposing children to what science is.” At present, such an activity “would not be valued” by academe as much as spending those same hours in the lab. Changing this “would take some thought about what our work structures are and how we evaluate people.” He believes change is possible though: “We do lots of really hard things in science. We’ve put men on the moon. We’ve done in vitro fertilization. We’ve pushed lots of boundaries.”

“What if someone were hired to do research and [also] spend 20% of their time extending that research to the community [through] K-12 education or working with low-income people [as part of] a tenure-track job at a major research university? What if that were well-supported throughout the system as a viable path?” Such a plan, the evidence suggests, could make academic careers attractive to scientists from a wider range of backgrounds, with a wider range of beliefs.

No single factor can explain the skewed demography of academic science, and no simple solution can fix it. But Gibbs’s critique has a great deal of explanatory value and could prove to have important implications for setting science policy.