Opinion: The big science problem that nobody talks about
A lack of diversity and inclusion are hobbling environmental researchers’ ability to solve societal ills.
Another International Women’s Month has come and gone, marked by celebrations of women’s contributions and evidence of progress toward gender equality. And yet true diversity, equity and inclusion — be it for women, people of color or other historically marginalized groups — remains an elusive goal in many aspects of life and work, including my own field of coral reef science.
According to research I conducted with 25 other scientists from 15 nations, a persistent lack of diversity is severely hobbling our efforts to protect both people and nature. We looked at the gender and location of authors of 1,677 articles on coral reef science published between 2003 and 2018. We found that the vast majority of scientists currently spearheading research into climate solutions are men who hail from the most affluent nations on Earth. Men made up 67% of published authors in this field as of 2018, a small improvement from 82% in 2003.
Meanwhile, scientists from the nations most impacted by climate change, a key focus of coral reef research, remain largely excluded from the process. According to our research, scientists from “Global North” nations, most of which have relatively higher average income, life expectancy, education level and other key measurements of economic and social status, made up 89% of published authors.
I see this in my work as a coral reef scientist, much of which focuses on “Global South” countries that tend to have newly industrialized or industrializing economies. Often when I find myself in a room with other scientists discussing the appropriation of funding or the direction of research around the world, I can’t help but notice that the faces of the people seated around me are almost uniformly those of white men from the Global North. Scientists from more affluent nations tend to steer decisions about funding and lead research teams, while local scientists are often excluded from research design and analysis, instead relegated to field assistant positions or tasked with logistics. And this lack of diversity is not unique to coral reef research. It is pervasive across the sciences.
Climate change, biodiversity loss and habitat degradation are harming people in the Global South more than those in the Global North. And yet, Global North scientists and others exclude people from the Global South from the search for solutions and in many cases blame them for the loss of nature. For example, experts from the Global North might frame a problem in the Global South as one of overpopulation or overexploitation of resources (e.g., fishing), ignoring the reality that many of these communities have no other choice for survival.
The loudest voice isn’t always right, and confidence doesn’t equal competence.
Even when diverse voices — from women, Indigenous people and members of other underrepresented groups — are in the room, they can end up excluded anyway because of biases and stereotypes that have found their way into research culture. Cultural norms surrounding women’s role in child-rearing often translate into fewer opportunities for career growth and development, a serious problem recently exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. And unequal power dynamics — between men and women, and between researchers from rich and poor nations — can result in harassment, bullying and other behavior that undermines personal well-being and productivity in the workplace. The loudest voice isn’t always right, and confidence doesn’t equal competence.
Climate change is an existential issue for people and the planet, and it’s difficult to overstate just how catastrophic the loss of coral reefs would be for life on Earth. Coral reefs cover less than 1% of the ocean floor but they are home to more than a quarter of all marine life. Half a billion people also rely on coral reefs for food, income and natural protection from storm surges that are becoming more frequent and intense as a result of climate change. Even the rosiest future scenario, in which we successfully limit planetary warming to 1.5°C by 2050, could still result in the loss of 70–90% of tropical coral reefs by the turn of the century. And if we fail to keep warming below 2°C, almost all of Earth’s coral reefs — so teeming with life that they’re oft-referred to as “the rainforests of the sea” — will be reduced to lifeless ghost towns.
We cannot afford to silence anyone who might contribute meaningful, lasting solutions. Scientists from the most impacted nations have insights, experience and expertise that are invaluable to addressing this global crisis. Right now, due to these systemic issues, we’re fighting climate change with one hand effectively tied behind our back.
Truly Equitable Representation
If progress toward diversification in coral reef science continues at its present pace, women won’t achieve equitable representation for at least another two decades. And considering that most of the world’s coral reefs are found in less economically advanced countries, truly equitable representation for scientists from those parts of the world will take even longer.
For the sake of civilization and the planet, we need to marshal all our resources to address this shared threat. We need the best and the brightest — from every corner of the globe, and from all walks of life.
Conservation and climate change are wicked, complex problems that require diverse participation if we are to find and deploy real, impactful solutions. For example, a spatial scientist can document trends in habitat declines from satellites, but local knowledge and social science can point us toward the actual drivers of loss. We need diverse representation and inclusion across research. This means not just inviting more diverse people into the room, but also ensuring that more diverse ideas and expertise make their way into the design and implementation of research. We need substantive change, not just ticking off “the diversity box.”
The Best and the Brightest
How can the scientific community fix this persistent lack of diversity and uncover novel solutions?
First, it should promote broader geographic representation among published authors. This isn’t simply a matter of slapping more names of people from underrepresented populations on research papers. We need to start much earlier in the process, by making sure there are underrepresented voices in the room where the fundamental decisions about research — the “who, what, where and how to pay for it” — get made. Collaboration with local experts and communities should be a central feature of all reef research, not an afterthought.
Second, the scientific community — and society at large — needs to address the long-standing and deeply entrenched cultural and institutional issues that stand in the way of diversity and equity. It’s tempting to think of these issues as relics of our past but, as our research shows, they remain very much a part of our present. There are a number of ways we can address this, including hiring more diverse leadership and ensuring pathways and opportunities for upward mobility (there’s often much better representation in entry-level positions).
Climate change is the biggest challenge we’ve ever faced as a species, and it doesn’t discriminate. For the sake of civilization and the planet, we need to marshal all our resources to address this shared threat. We need the best and the brightest — from every corner of the globe, and from all walks of life.
Editor’s note: The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily of Ensia. We present them to further discussion around important topics. We encourage you to respond with a comment below.
Gabby Ahmadia is a director of marine conservation science on the Ocean Conservation team at WWF where she provides programmatic and technical support on a range of marine issues. Gabby is interested in how we better design and implement conservation programs at the intersection of communities and coastal ecosystems (primarily coral reefs and mangroves). She has expertise in tropical marine ecology, community-based conservation, area-based management (i.e. LMMAs, MPAs), monitoring design and implementation, and impact evaluation of marine conservation interventions. Gabby is focused geographically in the Coral Triangleand Coastal East Africa.