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AAAS 2022 Annual Meeting: Strategies to Improve DEI in STEM

illustration of diverse group

Researchers and advocates have continued their efforts to increase diversity, equity, inclusion (DEI) in STEM fields after headlines about police violence and COVID-19 inequities brought more attention to the issues in 2021.

At the 2022 AAAS Annual Meeting, speakers stressed the need to move beyond recognition of the problems and shared evidence-based strategies that could improve DEI in education and workplaces.

Holding Space for All

In a session on diversity, equity and inclusion in STEM organizations, Sesha Moon, director of diversity, equity and inclusion at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, emphasized the need for action.

"LinkedIn found that over the last two years, there's been over 107% increase in chief diversity officers added to organizations," she said. "And while it might be well intentioned, how does that translate into impacts, and really making sure that we are transitioning from a space of being performative with these recruitments to a place where we're actually using DEI to drive performance?"

Real-world examples show how boosting diversity in a STEM workplace can increase performance, said Darryll Pines, president of the University of Maryland, who recently instituted a comprehensive onboarding program for all students, faculty and staff to share the university's DEI values from the start.

In a session on why diversity and inclusion initiatives matter, Pines, a professor of aerospace engineering, said he has seen diverse teams excel in international and national scientific competitions. "What we have found … is that when you bring a diverse group of people together, from either background of race and ethnicity, geography or genders, you bring the different mindset to a particular problem and it leads to greater interaction, greater agency related to the available set of solutions, and then it often leads to an optimal solution."

Many presenters at the meeting said DEI efforts sometimes stop with "diversity" and neglect improvements aimed at inclusion, equity and belonging. In undergraduate field education , for example, research conducted through the U-FERN project reveals some of the barriers faced by underrepresented groups in STEM when it comes to participating in fieldwork, from financial burdens to feeling unsafe or excluded from activities.

The rise of online learning during the pandemic offers some ways to expand inclusion, said Nia Morales, a wildlife biology professor at the University of Florida who has interviewed leaders of undergraduate field programs. One of the leaders with a disability interviewed in her study "mentioned that prior to Covid, none of their field courses had any virtual component or any component that didn't require you to walk somewhere," Morales said. "Now they are allowed a virtual version of field study, and that's being integrated into an option for their graduation requirement."

Mentoring is also essential for building inclusion, according to speakers in a workshop that shared practical advice with personal stories of how mentoring helped them establish a space in STEM.

"Family gives you lots of support for your day to day life … but I think for some us, especially those who come from those underrepresented backgrounds, for those first-generation students, our families don't know how to support us as we move along in these spaces, and so that's where I think your mentors come in and fill the void," said Brandy Huderson, a biology professor at the University of the District of Columbia.

By acting as mentors, the workshop speakers said, they hoped to make STEM fields more welcoming for future generations. "I'm sick and tired of seeing Black women sick and tired in this field, I'm sick and tired of seeing Hispanic women sick and tired," said Keila Miles, a neuroscientist working in Maryland's Montgomery County public schools. "I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired of the process and not truly having a space or someone that we can lean on to discuss some of the same things that we've gone through."

Other sessions at the annual meeting focused on the need to collect more data on underrepresented groups in STEM — one of the goals of AAAS' own ongoing DEI reports . In a workshop on policies to increase LGBT+ retention, researchers presented new data collected through a collaboration of the U.S. National Science Policy Network and the U.K. Science and Innovation Network.

Large national STEM surveys rarely collect data on LGBT+ attrition, which could affect grant funding in a way that contributes to inequities, said Anna Dye, a Ph.D. student at the University of North Carolina who has worked on the collaboration. "It's really important that these funding agencies have an idea of who these underrepresented groups are, so they can take appropriate steps to make sure that there is money available to help keep those communities in science."

Science Serving Communities

Equity is a focus of new research throughout the sciences, as many meeting sessions made clear. In his plenary lecture on addressing energy access in the 21st century, for instance, Deepak Divan said that carbon-neutral energy solutions have finally reached the point where they are cheaper and perform better than fossil fuel solutions. But technology alone won't be enough to ensure that only developed nations take advantage of this progress, he noted.

"700 million people live with no electricity and 3 billion live with extreme energy poverty, they earn less than $1.90 a day," said Divan, who is the John E. Pippin Chair and GRA Eminent Scholar and director of the GT Center for Distributed Energy at the Georgia Institute of Technology. "So there is not a lot of purchasing capacity that you have out there. It's a poverty problem."

In his McGovern Lecture , John Wixted, a professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego, discussed research from memory experiments that show why police should test a crime eyewitness's memory for a suspect only once.

Studies show that "the first test unintentionally but unavoidably and irretrievably changes the witness's memory for the suspect," said Wixted, who shared cases of people on death row who have been convicted by this type of tampered evidence. "It is other actors in the criminal justice system, not eyewitnesses, who are to blame for the wrongful convictions normally attributed to eyewitness identification."

In a session on how studies of crime have impacted criminal justice policy and racial inequity, the presenters shared research on boosting neighborhood efficacy to reduce crime rates, the troublingly high rates of violent death among people placed in the juvenile justice system and how criminal justice research is informing policies in cities like Miami and Houston.

Including affected communities in this research is important, said Alex Piquero, a sociology and criminology professor at the University of Miami. "There's a feeling among many residents of disadvantaged, marginalized, typically minority communities where there is high crime that their views have been ignored, that they've been neglected, that they suffer from forms of criminal justice intervention that are stigmatizing and violent themselves."

Advocacy and Solidarity

Science advocacy can help strengthen ties between researchers and the communities impacted by their work, as all work toward a more inclusive and just future, said speakers at a workshop on lessons for activism and movement building. Scientists can learn a lot from and gain from solidarity with social justice movements such as Black Lives Matter, they noted.

"What science advocacy and movement building provide that science alone cannot is community," said Dominic Bednar, presidential postdoctoral fellow at the School for the Future of Innovation in Society and School of Sustainability at Arizona State University. "It allows us to connect with one another, it allows us to think more broadly about how we disseminate information but also about how we can be more inclusive about connecting with folks."

Advocacy is especially critical for scientists who care about how their research is put to work on behalf of marginalized communities, said Dana Fisher, a sociologist at the University of Maryland. The past few years have shown that "science can become a tactic, science can become a tool, and science can become captured if we do not engage in the scientific discourse," she said.

"Science doesn't speak for itself, it must be spoken for."