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Science Must Be ‘By All and For All,’ Says Omenn Lecturer

Kenneth Gibbs at the 2018 S&T Policy Forum
Kenneth Gibbs delivered the 2018 Gilbert Omenn Grand Challenges Address. | Mark Francis Jones/

Scientific institutions need to increase diversity by placing more professors with underrepresented backgrounds on the faculty or in leadership roles, a change that can positively impact that quality and scope of scientific research, said Kenneth Gibbs during the 2018 Gilbert Omenn Grand Challenges Address.

The scientific enterprise should aspire to be “by all and for all,” cultivating talent, promoting “the full inclusion of excellence from across the social spectrum” and creating advances to benefit all, Gibbs said. However, “the society impacted by science does not really match with the people who do science,” he said.

Gibbs, director of the Postdoctoral Research Associate Training Program at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, spoke June 22 at the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Forum. Since 2015, the lecture series, endowed by past AAAS President Gil Omenn, invites a speaker to the Forum to explore the complexities at the intersection of science and society.

To diversify the academic workforce, departments must hire from underrepresented groups, he said. That remedy may seem simple, but the approach of increasing the diversity of the incoming talent pool of Ph.D. candidates has not translated into more diversity among the ranks of professors.

While the number of candidates from underrepresented groups seeking faculty positions in medical school basic science departments has increased sevenfold over the last 35 years, there is no relationship between the diversity levels in the talent pool and the makeup of professors ultimately hired, according to a study Gibbs conducted in 2016. While underrepresented groups – women of all races and black, Hispanic, American Indian and Alaska native men – make up more than 75% of biomedical science students at the undergraduate and graduate level, they number fewer than 25% of professors and assistant professors.

Gibbs offered an analogy from biology to get at why and what to do about it. The outcome – diversity in science, for instance – that results from a complex system is based on what has happened upstream, he said. If you do not change what is happening upstream, the results will remain unaltered. Changes must be made at the top, he said. Gibbs’ study determined that if two-thirds of medical schools hired and retained one faculty member from an underrepresented background annually for the next six years, the level of diversity among professors would align with talent pool demographics.

Research also has shown that diverse teams are better equipped to solve complex problems, Gibbs said. Who is represented in the ranks of scientists also has downstream effects on what gets studied – and who benefits from that research, he added.

For example, historical data show that heart disease – the top killer of men – has been studied and published on for more than 150 years – when science was almost entirely the province of men. By contrast, the first research on breast cancer – the top killer of women – doesn’t appear until the 1930s.

Ensuring that everyone can benefit from scientific advances is an ongoing challenge, Gibbs said. In 2009, 96% of samples in genome-wide association studies, the most widely used tool for uncovering the genetic factors involved in diseases, came from people of European ancestry, a level that does not reflect U.S. or global populations. By 2016, that percentage had dropped to 81% percent, but fewer than 1% of samples came from people of Hispanic, Pacific Islander, Arab or indigenous American backgrounds. Without changes, precision medicine will not be able to meet everyone’s needs, Gibbs said.

These omissions are not necessarily the result of malevolence, Gibbs noted. “Ignorance also leads to the same consequence: that your needs aren’t served.”

Gibbs quoted France Córdova, director of the National Science Foundation: “Science is too wonderful for it to be exclusive, and too important to leave anyone out.”