We need to do more to promote diversity in science

by Madhumitha Rabindranath

Graphic Design by Amy Zhang

As part of my graduate seminar series, I recently attended a lecture on “diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in scientific research”. It was refreshing to see the issue tackled directly but I could not help but think that it is about time! With increasing public pressure catalyzed by the Black Lives Matter movement, various academic institutions are taking more active approaches to show their support.1 Some recent examples include land acknowledgments during presentations, department-specific DEI committees and representatives, new initiatives to attract diverse talent through fellowships, and scholarships. Although these measures are a step forward, the question remains if they are effective or merely tokenistic. 

Current policies tend to re-affirm the universities’ commitment to diversity which often includes trying to increase representation in their faculty and student body.1 This is crucial since representation greatly matters in any form.  Whether it is providing funding for under-represented students or hiring professors with diverse backgrounds and identities, these measures reinforce a sense of belonging. A recent study showed that approximately 54% of minority individuals comprised of mostly female respondents stated that interacting with gender and ethnicity-matched STEM professionals provided sufficient encouragement to pursue the associated professions.2 The exposure does not necessarily have to be direct interaction, as 56% of participants in the same study stated that increased media exposure of gender and ethnicity-matched STEM professionals (e.g., Instagram influencers) also provide a similar effect. This supports the policies that universities are enacting in hiring diverse role models in high academic positions and starting mentoring opportunities which can foster recruitment to academia. Newly hired academics from an ethnic minority, in turn, can become mentors themselves, continually increasing the representation of minority groups in science.3 Ultimately, increasing the number of individuals from various backgrounds in academia through institution-led DEI policies can help attract minority populations to these fields.

Low representations of minorities in academia can also present challenges in safeguarding DEI. Although dismantling the barriers to academia should be a priority for every member of an institution, the few minority professors or scientists hired at universities are often expected to tackle this behemoth alone.4 Known as “cultural taxation”, these professors are often asked to participate in DEI committees, mentoring upcoming scientists with similar backgrounds or any DEI-related commitments. Interestingly, most of these responsibilities are often under-recognized and uncompensated even though many universities proclaim their commitment to DEI.4 This “tax” infringes on the paid protected time that is required to complete research-related activities, including publishing articles especially in high-impact journals, which are particularly important for acquiring funding. This issue may further exacerbate the discrepancies in research funding awarded to minority-ethnic scientists. For example, African-American scientists are 10% less likely to receive funding from the US National Institute of Health.4 This disparity shifts the efforts of promoting DEI to tokenism as minority faculty members are seen as “representatives” of their associated ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and disabilities. These individuals should not be expected to carry the sole responsibility for changing the current scholarly climate which requires the collaboration of privileged allies and a conscious effort by institutions to tackle structural biases. 

Although some of the challenges faced by academic minorities can be overcome by increasing numbers, the promotion of DEI in academia should not be confined to this objective. Surprisingly, increasing exposure and individuals from a particular background may not lead to significant changes in the culture of their respective fields. A study published in JAMA Surgery found that male physicians tend to refer their patients to male surgeons while this effect was not seen with female physicians.5 The authors present a harsh reality that even with increasing females in this field, these biases will continue to exist as their results show no changes in over-referrals to males during the study period. This example further supports the idea that we cannot simply increase the number of individuals from a particular group; institutions need to do more. 

Some of these biases are so entrenched in academia that certain groups are often excluded such as scientists with medical conditions or disabilities.6,7 Ranging from inaccessible lab spaces and equipment to lack of support and mentoring, upcoming scientists with disabilities feel discouraged from pursuing graduate work or often fail to complete their degrees.7 This again illustrates that issues with DEI in science are not primarily about representation; tailored support systems need to be in place to adequately help minority students, faculty, and scientists. These past two years have shown that biases perpetuate systemically, and thus, to promote DEI in academia, sufficient time and effort must be invested to create a truly inclusive environment. Universities, professors, scientists, and students must play an active role, which can include participating in DEI training and advocating for their peers.

Ultimately, the current DEI policies and measures put forth by various institutions are a starting point. They seem to predominantly focus on increasing the number of diverse faculty and mentors but as illustrated, it is not enough. Measures need to be put in place to ensure that all individuals are well supported. Primarily allocating seats at the academic table for individuals from minority backgrounds is insufficient; institutions are also responsible for ensuring they thrive.


  1. Forrester N. Diversity in science: next steps for research group leaders. Nature. 2020;585:S65–7. 
  2. Kricorian K, Seu M, Lopez D, et al. Factors influencing participation of underrepresented students in STEM fields: matched mentors and mindsets. Int J STEM Educ. 2020;7:16. 
  3. Fadeyi OO, Heffern MC, Johnson SS, et al. What Comes Next? Simple Practices to Improve Diversity in Science. ACS Cent Sci. 2020;6:1231–40. 
  4. Gewin V. The time tax put on scientists of colour. Nature. 2020;583:479–81. 
  5. Dossa F, Zeltzer D, Sutradhar R, et al. Sex Differences in the Pattern of Patient Referrals to Male and Female Surgeons. JAMA Surg [Internet]. 2021 [cited 2021 Nov 23]; Available from: https://doi.org/10.1001/jamasurg.2021.5784
  6. Brown E. Disability awareness: The fight for accessibility. Nature. 2016;532:137–9. 7. Bayer GSM Skylar. Our Disabilities Have Made Us Better Scientists [Internet]. Scientific American Blog Network. [cited 2021 Nov 27]. Available from: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/voices/our-disabilities-have-made-us-better-scientists/