Climbing the Ladder of Equity

How can community science help us learn climb the ladder from Diversity and Inclusion and get closer to Equity?

By Raj Pandya, Director, Thriving Earth Exchange

The first rung of the equity ladder is diversity - having a scientific workforce that draws from and engages people from various backgrounds. Often, diversity is framed in terms of number or percentages: Can we build a scientific workforce reflect the diversity of our nation? The arguments for diversity seem to rest on an enlightened self-interest: More diversity brings in more skills, more creativity, and broadens the pool of people we have to recruit from. A more diverse workforce will be better able to connect with and garner support from a more diverse nation. But what does diversity in the sciences do for the communities that supply that diversity?

A second rung of diversity might be inclusivity. Diversity gets new people into the lab. Inclusivity is about how those people influence the culture and practice of the lab. It is helpful to think that diversity is about being invited to the party. Inclusivity is helping to build the playlist. Two stories to illustrate how far, though, inclusivity can be from diversity. A young woman once described to me how she “unzipped her real self and left it in the parking lot” so she could act white at work. At an affinity group of Asian scientists discussing the bamboo ceiling, or the lack of Asians in scientific leadership positions, we came up with the idea of assertiveness training for Asian scientists, so we could be more like our American counterparts. Not one of us questioned whether the promotion and tenure system relied too much on self-promotion and networking with current leaders.

What does the next rung of the ladder look like? If diversity is about reaching out and inclusivity is about shaping science and science leadership, then how do we get to equity?

I think getting to equity starts with recognizing that science is entwined with privilege and power. It is a privilege to do science. Science is knowledge and knowledge is power. Equity is how we deal with that entanglement and how we use power. Do we ignore the intersection of science and power? Do we use it to protect our own interests or do we use it to advance interests of people with less power? Do we work on the next super-collider or do we try to work with people in Flint to clean the water? Can we do both?  Do we use peer-review to preserve scientists’ ability to guide research priorities or do we explore ways of broadening participation in setting priorities? Again, are there ways to do both? If we are asking communities to participate in science, shouldn’t we also offer science to participate in their priorities? What if those priorities are social, climate, and environmental justice? Could science be an ally in larger efforts to advance justice?

Community Science connects science to equity and provides ways to answer these questions. It is a way to invite new people into setting scientific priorities. It shares power even as it enhances support for science. It offers science as a tool that communities can use to advance their priorities even as it advances science. Community Science positions itself naturally science as an ally in social, economic, political, and environmental justice. It is as simple as good manners. If we are asking communities to join us in science, we need to stand ready to join them in their priorities including priorities for justice.

In the 25-plus years that I’ve been a part of geoscience, I’ve seen our efforts move up from the rung of diversity to the rung of inclusivity. In that time, we’ve made progress, but it’s been slow. We still don’t have enough people of color, we still have bias, and we still haven’t embraced the power of science as a an agent for justice. I think if we do reach for the rung of equity, we could make real progress.  What would it take for us to really pull ourselves up?