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AAAS Drafts Plans to Combat Systemic Racism in Sciences

2019-2020 S&T Policy Fellows class photo
AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows are among the association's most diverse groups, according to a new analysis. | AAAS S&T Policy Fellowships

The American Association for the Advancement of Science has released two parts of a draft plan that directs the organization to strengthen its advocacy on behalf of diversity, equity, and inclusion — while taking a hard look at its own demographics and related policies.

AAAS's "Addressing Systemic Racism in the Sciences" plans were developed by AAAS CEO Sudip Parikh and AAAS leadership, after discussions inside and outside the association prompted by a year that Parikh calls "an opportunity born of tragedy."

Protests over police brutality against Black people in the United States and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black and brown communities are sharp reminders that no part of society is immune from discrimination, Parikh said. "We haven't yet held a mirror to the scientific enterprise, and we may not like everything we see."

AAAS is holding up that mirror with a report published October 30, compiling demographic data on the association's Fellows, Science & Technology Policy Fellows, award recipients, Science authors, and AAAS governing bodies. These groups are critical to supporting diversity, Parikh said, because they represent the ways in which "AAAS functions as a career advancement enabler in science and engineering."

The report by Jen Sargent and Marietta Damond in the Office of Membership provides a baseline accounting of diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, and gender. Because most of the data are self-reported by individuals, there are gaps in coverage, said Damond. For instance, the Science family of journals authors and reviewers had the smallest amount of available data, with gender data available for 13% of the group (before using a statistical estimate that brought coverage up to 53%) and race and ethnicity data available for only 12% of the group.

Although the data are "messy," Parikh acknowledged, there are still some notable trends that shed light on how AAAS's practices may encourage or discourage diversity. For instance, "the S&T Policy Fellows look like America. It's extremely diverse, it's got great gender parity, has good geographic diversity," he said. "For the honorary fellows, the East and West Coasts and white males are overrepresented."

S&T Policy Fellows apply for the fellowship program, while honorary Fellows are nominated by colleagues, which could account for the difference, Parikh said, noting that the data offer a glimpse at how "baked-in" policies often can exclude minorities in science.

"Those policies, they do their work even if the people who are carrying them out have no racist tendencies, and it's the system itself that actually causes the problem," he said.

To bring these policies to light, AAAS will undergo the SEA Change self-assessment, said Shirley Malcom, AAAS senior adviser and the program's director. SEA Change provides support to universities and colleges as they transform campus cultures, policies, and procedures that disadvantage or exclude participation in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine.

Malcom and her colleagues are seeking support to modify and adapt SEA Change for educational and professional organizations, she said. "Some of the societies we work with in SEA Change — disciplinary groups and professional societies — have said, 'we don't think we can subject our community to something we're not willing to undergo ourselves.'"

SEA Change will move the AAAS demographic reports "beyond the numbers to how did we get to those numbers," Malcom said. "What are our processes in place that would support either diversifying those numbers or may be a barrier to diversifying those numbers?"

"This requires a certain amount of reflection," she added. "We're not going to move forward unless we're honest about what we find and what it requires us to do."

The second part of the draft plan, released in September, discusses how AAAS programs and initiatives can help increase diversity and equity throughout the scientific enterprise. Under the plan, AAAS will advocate for increased salaries for graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, mentor training, and funding for government and industry science programs for minority students.

The need for a financial safety net for young scientists has grown with COVID-19. The pandemic is having a disproportionate effect on women and people of color in the sciences, who are most likely to bear the brunt of a collision between career advancement and family and health responsibilities, said Malcom.

At the same time, more scientists are speaking bluntly and publicly about the impacts of racism in their fields. "We have not had that in the past, and so I live in hope that we are at a different place," she said.

Encouraging diversity is more than a moral issue, Parikh said. Countries like China and India draw on "huge human capital" for their scientific enterprises, and it makes competitive sense that the United States should expand its own pool of talent, he noted. "If we're only pulling from the East and West Coasts, and we're only pulling from communities that can afford to go into the sciences, then we are fighting with one hand tied behind our back in that global competition."

The third part of the AAAS plan, which looks at diversity within the AAAS staff, will be shared in late 2020. For the AAAS leadership, the most important part of the plans is to keep them moving forward beyond the draft stage.

Parikh recalled that AAAS had a similar moment of opportunity in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when students and younger scientists protested at the association's Annual Meetings for more inclusive policies. After the 1969 meeting, a Committee on Young Scientists was formed. Students began to attend Board meetings, and AAAS developed its first signature programs in education and advocacy.

But the committee disbanded within a few years, leaving many of the diversity issues it raised unaddressed, said Parikh. "My takeaway from that is that you have to keep up momentum, you can't stop talking about the issues at hand."

[A version of this article was published in AAAS News & Notes in the Oct. 30 2020 issue of Science.]


Becky Ham