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The March for Science is forcing science to reckon with its diversity problem

Science has long been a white men’s club.

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Brian Resnick is Vox’s science and health editor, and is the co-creator of Unexplainable, Vox's podcast about unanswered questions in science. Previously, Brian was a reporter at Vox and at National Journal.

The March for Science, planned for April 22 on the National Mall in Washington, DC, has a lot of momentum in its favor. President Donald Trump’s blueprint budget proposal released last week contains cuts that would "cripple" science funding as we know it. Many scientists are livid.

The rally on the Mall and the satellite demonstrations across the globe seem likely to attract at least thousands. The movement has received endorsement from the country’s major science interest organizations, which are powerful nonpartisan sources of science advocacy.

So why the planning for it "plagued by infighting"? On Wednesday, Stat reported that a few members of the march’s organizational committee had resigned over debates of how strongly the movement should champion not only the cause of science-based decision-making, but other issues that challenge science, such as longstanding roadblocks to getting minorities and people of diverse backgrounds in scientific careers.

"Science" has never come together in such a broad display of political action. So it makes sense there’s some friction, and debate about the movement’s goals.

But the movement needs to reckon with this fact: Science has long struggled with diversity and inclusion. And scientists — who will plan and attend a march that seeks to bring all scientists in a unified front — need to remember that. On Twitter, geneticist Michael Eisen summed it all up well:


(This is just a selection of the whole thread, which you can read here.)

Science has longstanding issues with diversity and inclusion

For those who followed the debates around the Women’s March, this should sound familiar. In the lead-up, critics of that event worried that its intersectionality — acknowledging that "women’s issues" include the concerns of minority women, LGBTQ women, and other marginalized groups — would water down the impact of the event. By all accounts, it didn’t. The Women’s March was a resounding success, and it turned out to be a broad show of Trump opposition that made room for a wide range of grievances.

The March for Science has narrower aims. "It’s to send the message that we need to have decisions being made based on a thoughtful evaluation of evidence," Jonathan Berman, one of the group’s founders, told me last month.

Eisen brings up a crucial point: Historically, science and engineering has been a white men’s club. And evidence of discrimination and inequality still isn’t hard to find.

  • While minorities are awarded around 30 percent of all STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) undergraduate degrees, they only represent 13 percent of the STEM workforce. And these numbers have not changed much in the past 15 years.
  • Once in the halls of academia, or working in the private sector, minorities still face inequalities. In 2016, the National Science Foundation reported a substantial pay gap between non-Asian minorities and white STEM workers at every level of educational attainment: "On average, minority salary levels are 19 percent lower than those of whites and Asians at the bachelor’s level, 20 percent lower at the master’s level, and 16 percent lower at the doctoral level," the NSF found.
  • In 2011, a study found that white researchers are approved for NIH grants twice as frequently as black researchers.
  • Experiments find that just changing a name on a résumé to sound less white makes researchers less willing to hire them.
  • To this day, women represent only 30 percent of the STEM workforce, and also see a significant pay gap compared with men’s salaries.
  • LGBTQ scientists face high levels of discrimination and isolation in their labs.

In February, I spoke with Danielle Lee, an African-American biologist at Southern Illinois University who writes about diversity issues in science. She explained that efforts like the Science March have to explicitly have language about inclusion, because often the status quo is exclusion.

"You can’t say ‘science is for everyone’ and then don’t send an invitation out to everybody," she said. To this day, she said, "too few of us feel fully welcomed ... whether or not I’m at the table, you should recognize that I should be there and that I belong there."

Addressing inclusion and diversity is about values

Frustration with these debates has caused some of the Science March’s organizers to step down. And it’s fair to say the debate over messaging has shadowed the Science March since its founding.

The initial reason for the march was simple: to ensure scientific facts get a seat at the decision-making tables.

The organizers have been firm on that, but have wrestled with how to address diversity. (For more on that, sociologist Zuleyka Zevallos has a long post outlining the group’s scattered statements on diversity and inclusion issues.)

An early version of the march’s website, and a tweet sent out from the official March for Science account, borrowed heavily from language most commonly associated with identity politics (see below).

Many, including Harvard’s Steven Pinker, thought the phrasing signaled the event would be about partisan politics, not science. Pinker called such language a "distraction."

"Whenever scientists — or for that matter scholars in any discipline — convey the message that academia is a left-wing clique, they erode the credibility of the entire scientific enterprise," Pinker told me in an email. "Needless to say, we need to safeguard that credibility more than ever."

The March for Science has since changed the language. But it still lists diversity issues in science as a core principle. "All of these issues of inclusion are a part of our core values," Berman said. "But it is not going to be a march about identity."’

What the group and scientists at large have to reckon with is this: The arguments for and against prioritizing diversity at the march can both be true at the same time.

Statements of diversity and inclusivity messaging will inevitably signal a connection to liberal politics. (Yes, this is an unfair connection. But to be realistic — and pessimistic — we humans often rely on heuristics in drawing conclusions. A causal observer might read the march’s mission statement TV and implicitly think "liberal.")

But what’s also true is that not having that language could further exclude long-suppressed voices. The answer isn’t about just about truth; it’s about values.

And it seems like the March for Science has already made up its mind about what those values are.

It’s also worth considering how the Trump administration’s anti-science stances overlap with issues of inclusion. Trump’s initial immigration executive order impacted many Middle Eastern scientists who were on the wrong side of the border when the order came down. Trump’s budget blueprint seeks to reduce the size of the Pell Grant program, which helps low-income students pay for college. Some of those Pell Grant recipients go on to make great contributions in science and technology.

"Both science and diversity need to be embraced by people from all political perspectives," Caroline Weinberg, one of the march organizers, says in an email.  "Publishing a commitment to diversity isn't signaling liberal politics. ... For science to benefit all communities, we need greater diversity in science."