On privilege

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Science  25 Oct 2019:
Vol. 366, Issue 6464, pp. 401
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaz8977

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This editorial is my last contribution in my role as Editor-in-Chief of the Science family of journals. I have had a front-row seat to learning about often astounding research across many disciplines. And I have overseen efforts at three mature journals and helped develop or launch three new ones. As I take stock of this tremendous opportunity, I have been reflecting on the characteristics of privilege, in science and in life.

I grew up on a college campus where my father was a mathematics professor and my mother was a physician involved in research. This provided me with encouragement for academic pursuits and access to many resources. I greatly appreciated this atmosphere, but it was when I started college that I remember first articulating an important aspect of my privilege. I realized that my fellow students were intimidated by faculty members and said to my roommate, “It's hard to be too afraid when you've seen the famous professor down the street shoveling dog poop off his lawn.” This seemingly trivial privilege had huge consequences. Early in my freshman year, I reached out to an assistant professor about potential opportunities in his laboratory. A month later, he invited me to help with a collaborative project, initially with menial tasks—tracing computer output onto plastic sheets—but it led to opportunities to learn about the project and to become assimilated into the laboratory environment. Over a short period of time, I was helping with other aspects of the research and handling my own project. More opportunities followed, as did authorship on research publications. My experience illustrates a central aspect of privilege—positive feedback loops. An initial advantage can lead to opportunities that, if capitalized on, can lead to additional ones.

As a white male, I rarely had to deal with racism or sexism personally. I also did not have to face the antisemitism that my parents, particularly my mother, had to confront. My family was relatively secure financially. I did need to earn money to help with my education, but I never felt exposed—I had a safety net. Although my childhood had many positive aspects, it was not idyllic. Both my parents had mental health problems that often dominated their lives. I lived with the disruptions caused by these issues. I was fortunate to have a brother, 15 months my senior, who shouldered much of the burden of dealing with my parents' needs, while I coped by spending time at neighbors' houses and playing organized sports. Because of the privilege of this support, these adverse events helped me become self-reliant, learn on my own, and develop problem-solving skills.

Over the past 3 years, I have worked with the editors of the Science journals to break positive feedback loops that can narrow opportunities more than is optimal for science and society. We have strived to increase the diversity of our advisory boards in all dimensions. We have collected and analyzed data regarding the diversity of authors and reviewers and have acquired tools that can help track editorial decisions over time. By spreading opportunities across a wider and more diverse set of individuals with different life experiences and interests, we hope to strengthen the scientific enterprise now and moving into the future.

This is very much a work in progress, and I am delighted that Holden Thorp, a colleague of many years, will bring his wide range of experiences and leadership to the Editor-in-Chief position. He joins a group of editors who take the responsibility of fairness and equity very seriously and are eager to create a more equitable future for science. Holden brings his own privileges to the position but also a longtime commitment to promoting diversity that equips him well to lead this team.

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