Naivete in Science and Academia

We are in the middle, or perhaps still the beginning, of a pandemic. Protestors are finally being heard about black lives matter. One of the questions that arises as we see all of the inequities– many of us seeing them, perhaps, for the first time– is whether we will do anything about it.

We know there are inequities in academia about which students thrive, which faculty succeed, and which become leaders in their institutions and disciplines. Every time I participate in a faculty search and hear that the pipeline is too leaky– there are not enough women or black scholars in a discipline to be able to have applications much less interviews, I think back to my first position at Yale. I wondered when I arrived why there were so many new hires who were women or black faculty. I had heard the story that we didn’t exist or didn’t want to go into academia and yet every other hire was a woman or black person. Then I learned that the provost had offered a deal where for every female or black faculty hire, the department was given a second hire, and it made sense. The mysterious, unlikely and allegedly non-existent faculty hires existed after all, and we were incredible. Some of the leaders in our fields started together at Yale.

We have an opportunity in this time to try and deconstruct the systemic racism that runs through our institutions. First, we have to want to do it, and I’m not sure most academics have the stomach for it. We all struggled and sacrificed to get tenure and to move up through the system. Tenure, which was created, in theory, to protect academic freedom, is a funny beast. The AAUP lobbied for it and it was institutionalized in 1940 to protect faculty from being fired because wealthy donors objected to them. We claim it protects our right to speak and research controversial topics, and often my colleagues talk about how it is what makes them comfortable speaking out, but then why is it not applied to all faculty– to the teaching faculty, the newer faculty, or our adjuncts. Are we protecting the voices of those who have shown they understand and respect the system above other things?

In my role, I think a good bit about how we can help all of the incoming faculty to be successful. I also think about the students and how many times I have heard them ask why the faculty do not reflect their diverse races and backgrounds. I don’t think small tweaks to what we do are enough. What happened at Yale wasn’t a small tweak– it was a huge investment, and it did bring in a far more diverse faculty, but once we arrived, we were reminded over and over that we had to prove ourselves, or we wouldn’t belong.

We need to make big steps at every stage– recruiting, interviewing, mentoring, collaborating…. when I went up for full, one of the comments I received was an observation that I didn’t seem to collaborate much in my own institution. A colleague was surprised that I wasn’t on grants with other colleagues. I would sometimes be put on them, but in every case, when the funds were awarded and the budgets cut so was I. It isn’t an accident that most of my collaborations over the years are with female colleagues. They are excellent and they want to collaborate with me.

Every person has a different experience, but one of the commonalities of being one of the few in a field is that one is often excluded from collaborative opportunities.

In Europe, the commission that oversees EU research funds, the European Research Council, spent years mandating that projects needed to have more diverse leadership. I watched as my female colleagues who were so often excluded from opportunities to lead were able to lead, at least in part, and then in toto. They rocked it. They brought different perspectives, ideas, and approaches to challenges. They asked different kinds of questions. They had a seat at the table, and science was the better for it.

We can make this kind of change. It needs to happen. Most scientists, like most people, tend to iterate. But, put them together with a broader range of perspectives and experiences, and better questions and more creative, impactful answer will happen.

What needs to be done? We need to change how we do hiring. We need to think more broadly across our institutions and get out of the mindset of the department and committee that focuses down on small details. We need to set up mentoring that helps people form and maintain connections. We need to be more connected to and involved in our communities. We need to support our colleagues as undergrads, grads, postdocs, faculty– throughout their careers. The pet to threat construct needs to be dismantled.

Much of the science in the US happens at academic institutions. We need to change how those institutions function if we are to do the best work and find solutions to the enormous challenges we face. I want to change the structures of academia not because it can be done but because it needs to be done. I’ve been called naive for wanting to change them. Perhaps I am. Perhaps they cannot change, but if that it is case, I fear for our world and for the science we all need to heal ourselves and our planet. We have to try, and we have to do better if we want to do the best work.