STEM Diversity, Public Understanding & the Power of Communication

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By Gabriel Montaño, PhD, SACNAS President
6 min read 

Recently, the question why does diversity matter in STEM has again been asked, this time as the Supreme Court reheard Fisher v. the University of Texas—a case that concerns the constitutionality of using race as a factor in college admissions.

As part of the questioning, according to transcripts from the hearings, Chief Justice Roberts asked, “What unique perspective does a minority student bring to a physics class?” When asked to clarify, he stated, “You're counting those [physics classes] among the classes in which there are no minority students, and I'm just wondering what the benefits of diversity are in that situation?” In other words, Justice Roberts is repeating the oft-accepted adage that science is objective and colorblind, thus, why should diversity matter in such a circumstance?

Questions that matter

Given such comments, it becomes clear that educating the public as to the advantage of diversity in STEM is needed, even at the highest levels. Too often, this discussion becomes immediately polarized over the issue of racial preference when that is not what is at the heart of the debate. Immediately, both sides begin to talk past one another, convinced of their correctness and little to no advance in the discourse is made.

The questions under debate in the case of Fisher v. University of Texas are what truly is objective evaluation and why does diversity matter? Justice Roberts is not alone in questioning how diversity could matter in an objective STEM field. The underlying assumption is those with the best grades and highest scores should be admitted because they’ve earned the right through their demonstrated, objective work. With respect to his mention of a physics class, the assumption is that science is objective, thus diversity should play no role. Such logic is flawed as it infers objectivity in final assessments in terms of grades and test scores, uniform starting places on paths to success, and fails to regard what diversity could possibly add to a STEM discipline.

Inferring objectivity of final assessments assumes that all achievement starting and end points are the same, regardless of the path and effort to get there. In general, we all believe in equal opportunity for everyone. The difference is, unfortunately, some think it already exists. Fundamentally, the two opposing sides are not really in that much disagreement. As underrepresented minorities, we too want to be judged by our merit and our accomplishments. What we ask is that those accomplishments be taken FULLY into consideration from beginning to end.

Delta of performance and potential

Although not perfect, the University of Texas system has attempted to truly normalize the starting point in their assessment efforts. In science, we use delta to measure change: we determine the magnitude of the total change. Thus, when attempting to be objective in our evaluation of the success and potential of an individual, wouldn’t we obviously want to do the same? Affirmative action has not been about providing advantages to minorities, it’s been about equalizing the field and removing the inherent advantages enjoyed by the majority of this country since its beginning. It allows for true objectivity in evaluating performance and potential.

Secondly, recent research highlights that groups of diverse individuals have been demonstrated to be more effective at addressing complex problems. Last year, Summer Leadership Institute (SLI) alumnus Dr. Kenneth Gibbs addressed this issue in his blog for Scientific American, which highlights the recent work of Professor Scott Page and states, “The ability to see the problem differently, not simply ‘being smart,’ often is the key to a breakthrough. As a result, when groups of intelligent individuals are working to solve hard problems, the diversity of the problem solvers matters more than their individual ability.” This leads me to think one of two things in regard to Justice Roberts’s comments: either he doesn’t think physics generates very hard problems or, as with many others, he fails to appreciate the value of a diversified, educated society. The single, greatest asset the United States has is its diversity; it’s what makes us intellectual and creative leaders, and it is a waste of resources if we do not seek to maximize the potential of that asset. As members of a society that celebrates the intersection of science, culture, and community, SACNISTAs have an opportunity and obligation to lead the discourse on the necessity of STEM diversity and address concerns in STEM and STEM education that could inherently, and often times disproportionately, affect our communities.

Science is color-blind?

There is an oft-used phrase: science is colorblind. This is meant to infer that, as scientists and engineers, we are objective and do not discriminate based on racial, ethnic, or cultural identities. Too often, it also means that our cultural, ethnic, or racial identities are inconsequential to our work. In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, a good scientist does good science, but a good scientist needs to be welcomed and valued by their mentors, colleagues, and institutions. We need to be allowed to bring our whole selves to our STEM endeavors and not have to constantly justify or question our presence in the STEM classroom, the lab, the bench, and the field.

As STEM students and professionals of color, we must not get discouraged by the continued need to justify our presence in higher education and this nation’s scientific endeavor. We need to persevere in raising awareness about the imperative for open-mindedness in our scientific circles, the benefits of diverse perspectives, and the absolute necessity of training a diverse STEM workforce to meet the pressing realities of the 21st century. Not everyone understands the strength of diversity in STEM, and it will continue to be underappreciated without our representation. It’s not enough to merely be a part of the STEM community; we must be knowledgeable and active communicators. We have an opportunity and responsibility to bridge the gap between culture and science and, in doing so, demonstrate the true power of diversity in STEM.

Change through communication

This issue of SACNAS News demonstrates the power of communication from diverse perspectives in STEM and the roles SACNISTAs are playing. This is demonstrated by the discussion in the article about the Thirty-Meter Telescope controversy in Hawaii on how to navigate the waters when science, culture, and community clash. Adriana Landeros shares her story of perseverance and inspiration in her journey from incarceration to science, demonstrating that success in STEM cannot always be judged by a solely objective scale, that success must be viewed in the context of the path one takes. Jacob Martinez describes his path from biology student to entrepreneur as founder and executive director of Digital NEST, creating a modern path for communicating science across generations.

We must, like the authors in SACNAS News, continue to share our stories and perspectives. Giving voice to our experience is critical to raising awareness and effecting change at the highest levels.

About the Author

Dr. Gabriel Montaño is the president of SACNAS and Technical Staff Member in the Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

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