Association Affairs

AAAS Annual Meeting examines need for diversity in science

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Science  30 Mar 2018:
Vol. 359, Issue 6383, pp. 1478
DOI: 10.1126/science.359.6383.1478

The Annual Meeting's Family Science Days offer hands-on experiences.

PHOTO: PROFESSIONAL IMAGES PHOTOGRAPHY

At a time when society needs innovation and technical solutions from as broad a scientific workforce as possible, AAAS convened a comprehensive range of presentations and discussions on diversity and inclusion at its 2018 AAAS Annual Meeting.

With sessions addressing issues from gender and racial imbalance to disability accommodation and combating discrimination against sexual orientation, the 15–19 February meeting provided a forum for diversity experts to share research findings on what works best to create an environment in science education and practice that is welcoming to all. The sessions were sprinkled throughout the 5 days of the annual event, known for its enormous range of cutting-edge science, as well as for presentations on science communication, policy, and culture.

Speakers at several sessions on diversity in science reported that the image of a scientist as an older white male persists.

“How dangerous is this normalization of what a scientist looks like, whether that's about gender or race?” said Melissa Creary, advisory board member for 500 Women Scientists.

Ryan Kish, senior program manager at Arconic Foundation, said that some manufacturing companies struggle to retain women and people of color because they feel unwelcome in a mostly white, male environment.

“These people who are trained in STEM are leaving because of cultural issues,” Kish said. At the same time, Kish said, companies face a “retirement cliff” within the next 5 years, and the pipeline of STEM professionals to replace those retirees is inadequate.

Speakers in a number of sessions pointed to implicit bias as a main reason that the science workforce fails to reflect the diversity of society. Amy Landis of the Colorado School of Mines reported that resumes bearing men's names are preferred two to one in studies investigating such bias in STEM.

“John is perceived to be twice as good as Jane, even if they have the exact same CV,” Landis said. She also reported that research has shown that white-sounding names receive 50 percent more callbacks for interviews, and applicants who identify as LGBTQ+ receive less consideration by search committees and more negative appraisals.

Landis and others recommended that members of the science community conduct self-appraisals of their own implicit bias using the tools available at the Harvard University (implicit.harvard.edu) and American Association of University Women (aauw.org/resource/iat) websites.

Overall, speakers also strongly recommended getting the word out to students in underrepresented groups that technical careers can be well paid and can offer an excellent quality of life.

NASA scientist Kartik Sheth, who has begun several successful programs to mentor students from underrepresented populations in science, said that inviting his students to dinner at the home he had built in Charlottesville, Va., was an “aha” moment for them.

“It's important for the students to see your life and see you as a real person and know that science is a viable career,” he said, adding that other mentors he has worked with have also adopted the practice of inviting students to their homes. “We need to open up our doors.”

Other news from the Annual Meeting

Outgoing AAAS President Susan Hockfield said in a meeting presentation that U.S. federal funding is necessary to support basic research “as the fundamental building block of all innovations.” Referring to the science advisory positions that remain unfilled in the Trump Administration, Hockfield said, “Our current government has not celebrated or appreciated the role of science. Bottom line, I think it is terrifying that our government is operating without the advice of scientists.”

Another presentation explained that researchers are able to grow cells specific to a vital organ—such as a liver or lung—and reproduce the environment of the organ on a small polymer chip. The chips can then be used to test drug treatments on a particular organ. “They are more true-to-life than cells in dishes and more humanlike than animal models,” said Geraldine Hamilton, president of Emulate, Inc.

A meeting briefing reported that people 80 or older with memory performance as good as people in their 50s or 60s showed less cortical thinning, reported lead researcher Emily Rogalski of the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. The “superagers” also had developed increased thickness in an area of the brain associated with decision-making, impulse control, and emotions. Superagers were more likely to report close, meaningful relationships with people in their lives. “There are brain benefits of having good friends,” Rogalski said.

  • * Becky Ham, Andrea Korte, and Kathleen O'Neil contributed to this article.

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