The Future of Biology — Diversity Connects to Everything We Do

This past week, I heard about a strategic planning session to organize for the future of biology. Faculty members were invited to attend a day-long session, set priorities and initiatives, and create a financially sustainable teaching and research agenda. I wrote the following to the faculty who were invited to attend:

The argument of place is used to justify the displacement and marginalization of the topics of equity & diversity from agendas. People say, “We don’t have time to talk about diversity,” or “This isn’t related to the topic at hand.”

Equity and diversity are affected by every decision we make.

First, there are the logistical underpinnings of our constructed environment:

  • Who organizes the meetings?
  • Who chairs/facilitates the meetings?
  • Who determines what is on the agenda?
  • Who talks more? Who listens to whom?
  • What judgements run through our heads when different people are speaking?
  • Who interrupts whom? Who dismisses whom?
  • Whom do we acknowledge? Whose comments are documented in the minutes?

All of these questions are glimpses into how our behaviors and choices either create a productive environment or a hostile one.

Second, there is the interpretation of priorities. Consider the Big Picture Vision below:

Excerpt from the call letter to the committee

The first question on what are the areas of growth and opportunity is an exciting one. It is so broad and generous in its scope that you could ask 100 people and get 500 different answers. Try to justify how diversity is not connected to all of them.

The second question asks us to connect biology and other areas of scholarship. Honestly, we can connect biology to anything if we are creative enough (and we can find journals for it, too)! The bigger question here is, what counts? Do we value scholarship that promotes equity and diversity that is not published in a high-impact factor journal? Will we give tenure to people who publish successful books outside what has been historically valued in the Biological Sciences? What about people in biology who are interested in connecting their work directly to gender studies, education, race, and other areas of scholarship? Who draws the line in determining what is biology, what is interdisciplinary, and what is not biology? These decisions underpin our values and set the tone of inclusiveness for our departments.

The third question asks about for-profit entities in the academic mission in biology. The obvious connections here include the financial and proprietary relationships we form to support academic (ideally, unbiased) research interests. However, every entity (for-profit or not) has a set of values which either promote a fair and equitable society or not. An example of how this topic can be used to satisfy social dilemmas is creating a consortium of industry partners that invest in a pool of funds available for graduate students and postdocs subject to hostile work environments and seeking alternative funding and support. The role for-profit entities play in the academic mission depends on who defines our academic mission and how they define it.

For the fourth question, how do we educate and train the next generation of students, we have to ask, who do we imagine to be the next generation of students? What do we assume about their previous educational experiences and interests? How do we learn more about them? What are we training them for? Do we want students to connect biological subject matter with pre-existing knowledge? If we want to create an inclusive learning environment, we have to learn how we can change our pedagogical model to make it so.

The fifth question, how do biologists engage effectively with the public, draws a false dichotomy between us and them. Our interpretation of the term “the public” masks the heterogeneous groups of individuals that make up our society. What about non-English speakers? Do the people we engage with look mostly like us and our families? How inviting are we to working across differences?

The sixth question asks what formats encourage creative and surprising ideas in biology. Anyone can draw from experiences to share ideas about this. Who benefits from these creative and surprising ideas? How do we determine and assess this alleged “benefit”?

The seventh question assumes the need to strengthen connections with CHORI and LBNL. How many students volunteer at these institutions who come from our departments? Are there paid internships for low-income students? How can the connection between biological sciences and medicine/industry promote social equity in unprecedented ways? How can our collaborations be informed by social and bioethical values?

Diversity is not a bullet point at the end of a long list of other priorities. The act of not including diversity is taking a position in relation to diversity, and it is oppositional. Every single choice we make impacts who belongs and who is excluded.

Diversity connects to everything we do.

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