Genomics Professor’s Story Stirs Discussion on Bias in Science

A focal point of the scientific community’s efforts to address bias has examined ways to avoid having it influence the peer review process, an important entryway for scientists to advance. | pressmaster/AdobeStock

Edward Smith, a professor of comparative genomics at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, is focused on ensuring underrepresented minority scientists succeed – something that has made him “as proud of these researchers as anything else in my life.”

“I believe the career I have carved out for myself will help pave the way for future generations of underrepresented minority scientists to thrive, and for all members of the scientific community to be more culturally sensitive than those who came before them,” Smith wrote in a column published in the 30 September edition of Science disclosing his own experiences with bias.

Smith brings to this perspective his experience “being a black scientist in a white world” as a Sierra Leone native who came to the United States to earn a Ph.D. in genetics, stayed, worked his way through multiple research labs and rose to a coveted position at the Blacksburg, Va. university. Along the way, he endured “blatant and subtle” discrimination, he wrote in the Science “Working Life” column.

At Virginia Tech, as it is commonly called, Smith created pathways to help underrepresented scientists pursue and earn Ph.D.s. He pursued and eventually secured, despite two rejections, a National Institutes of Health grant to fund a university program targeted at helping minority postbaccalaureate students remain competitive for admission to top-tier research institutions.

The university has seen 84 students move through its program, 85% of whom are now enrolled in doctoral programs at universities such as Yale and the University of California at Los Angeles, among others. Twenty-eight have earned doctorates and are now working at universities and in industries, said Smith, who is currently studying the molecular mechanisms that drive genetic differences in inflammatory responses in birds.

The scientific community has long grappled with how to address bias. A focal point has involved how to remove bias from the peer review process, an important entryway for scientists to advance.

A study published in the 27 September edition of JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, examined how bias impacts the peer review process of medical journals by comparing what happens when study authors are identified for reviews, known as a single-blind review, and when the identity of study authors is kept from reviewers, known as double-blind reviews.

The study found that the affiliations of study authors may sway peer reviewers looking at their scientific papers. Reviewers were more likely to recommend that papers be accepted, and to praise the scientific approaches of the authors when the researchers were identified along with their academic affiliation.

AAAS, too, has repeatedly addressed this issue, including at symposia on the exploration of the early underpinnings of gender bias in the scientific, technical, engineering, and mathematical fields for elementary age girls, and on new ways to expand the numbers of underrepresented groups in those fields – both held at its 2016 Annual Meeting in February.

In April, AAAS hosted a multidisciplinary forum on implicit bias in the peer review process, recognizing that scientific publishing is a gateway to success for scientists and that diversity is needed to spur creativity and innovation.

AAAS Board Chair Geraldine Richmond, who convened the 28 April forum, said unconscious assumptions about gender, ethnicity, disabilities, nationality, and institutions clearly limit the diversity of the science and technology talent pool and undermine scientific innovation.

On 29 September, AAAS hosted a lively online discussion on Reddit’s “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) forum on implicit bias in science – a discussion Smith joined, along with Shirley Malcom, AAAS’ director of Education and Human Resources programs, Caleph B. Wilson, a biomedical scientist with Cellectis, a biopharmaceutical company, and Avery Posey, Jr., an instructor in the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

The session generated more than 1,300 questions and comments on everything from why minority faculty have fewer publications than white faculty, to whether political correctness constrains research, to how best to expand diversity in academia. It received more than 2,100 upvotes – a show of approval – from Reddit users and those landing on the site’s homepage.

“Bias is deep. We all have it,” said  Malcom in an interview before the moderated online forum. “We have to put processes in place that do not allow our biases, implicit or explicit, to be the factors that sway whether or not someone gets hired, promoted or recognized with an award. We need to increase the sensitivity and recognition to the fact that we all have these biases, that they are real, and that we can be a bit more intentional about confronting these facts and considering them when making decisions.”

Smith’s column represents a way to acknowledge bias in the scientific arena, added Malcom. “The notion of how we evaluate the value, the qualities, the experiences of people without simply looking at their color, accent, gender, disability, gender identity, or what institution someone came from – all which have nothing to do with whether the person is capable, smart or can bring something to the party,” she said. “We have to work on this, talk about it and recognize it.”