Involving Underrepresented Minority Scientists in Climate Change Research

“Our people need to hear it from us.” 
 — Marei Spaola, Haskell Indian Nations University student, on the importance of American Indian scientists as informed voices for climate change dialogues in their own communities

Photo: EPA

A flurry of recent reports has made it clear that human-caused (anthropogenic) climate change is upon us, and serious efforts to 
address it need to begin now. The most recent report, The Third U.S. National Climate Assessment released May 6, 2014, repeatedly points out that racial and ethnic minorities are particularly vulnerable and already being impacted. This is old news for the Inupiaq residents of Shishmaref, Alaska, who have seen the homeland, where they have lived for centuries, sinking into melting permafrost while being hammered by extraordinary storm surges from the Chukchi Sea, as well as for indigenous populations of low-lying Pacific island nations such as Kiribati whose homelands are literally disappearing beneath the waves as oceans undergo thermal expansion. In the drought-impacted U.S.–Mexican border area, the socioeconomically stressed population can ill afford even higher temperatures and greater water shortages. For these communities, and others from which SACNISTAs come, anthropogenic climate change is no nebulous future danger, but current reality.

Training Scientists to Make the Case

Though our nation has had a long, frustrating public debate on how — or even whether — to address climate change, we will soon have to begin making some hard choices. When scarce resources are being allocated to mitigate and adapt to climate change, we must be sure that the physical, biological, and social scientific aspects of the particular problems our communities face in a climate-changed world have been well studied so that our needs can be addressed. To that end, we must have trained scientists from our communities ready to make the case to funding agencies for those studies, and then to take part in them. It would otherwise be too easy for the focus to be on other people’s problems while ours get overlooked.

SACNAS Science — Dr. Margaret Hiza Redsteer: Stories of a Changing Climate

Paving the Way

Our communities already do have scientists working in relevant fields. Several are highlighted on the SACNAS website: Dr. Margaret Hiza Redsteer (Crow), a geoscientist working on water issues for the Navajo Nation who has melded scientific data with the knowledge of elders to discover the ties between these problems and climate change; Dr. Daniel Mindiola, a chemist at Indiana University who seeks creative uses for greenhouse gases that keep them out of the atmosphere; and Dr. Timberley Roane (Lumbee), a microbial ecologist at the University of Colorado–Denver. (For budding bioscientists: According to an editorial in Nature Reviews Microbiology, we live in a “golden age for microbial biology,” in part because of problems that are being foregrounded by climate change. Dr. Roane’s current work is in another area of great ecological importance, using microbes to remove heavy metals from the environment.) Another example is Dr. Jeannine-Marie St. Jacques (Métis), a paleoclimatologist at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan who gave a well-received talk on megadroughts at a symposium I organized for the 2012 AAAS Annual Meeting in Vancouver. I learned from her that it was possibly due to a megadrought that my early Siouan forebears abandoned an agrarian lifestyle and instead pursued bison, the original American fast food.

Margaret Hiza Redsteer, U.S. Geological Survey

A Priority for Science Policy

This list is far from exhaustive, but we still need more scientists from our communities working on climate change issues to assure that our problems receive full attention when our nation and the world finally face up to the need to address climate change. It should be a priority in science policy at the federal, state, and (for American Indians) tribal levels to increase the number of scientists from our communities who can contribute.

While I have been framing this need in terms of social justice, it extends beyond that. If some Kennedy-esque figure were to ask not just what climate science can do for us, but what we can do for climate science, we should have some ready answers. I believe we do.

The most obvious one is that in our nation’s quest to remain at the forefront of science, we cannot afford to overlook any part of our talent pool. The National Science Foundation’s 2010 figures for U.S. doctoral scientists and engineers show that only 27,500 of the 805,500, or about 3.4%, fall into the categories of “American Indian or Alaska Native” and “Hispanic or Latino.” According to the 2010 U.S. census, we were then about 13.4% of the population, so a large part of the pool is indeed being overlooked.

Diverse Thinking NOT Thinking Differently

This is particularly unfortunate because of the added value we bring to the scientific table beyond mere numbers. Before going further, I must stress that I am making no claim that any of our groups are evolutionarily programmed to “think differently” than others, particularly because there are those who have used such claims to explain away the numbers in the preceding paragraph. Such claims are nonsense. For years I have fought against one that has been around awhile, that there is something about American Indians that programs us to be bad at mathematics. The modern version of this has generally been framed in terms of hemispheric dominance (the theory of the “right-brained Indian”), based on the notion that skill in mathematics resides in the brain’s left hemisphere. One might try to argue that this is perhaps just a statement about cultural imperatives that have shaped learning styles. However, the more ominous side of the theory is illustrated by papers published in reputable neuroscience journals in the 1980s claiming that measurements of Anglo and American Indian brains have shown genuine brain asymmetries in favor of left-hemispheric dominance in the first group but not the second. This, and further studies claiming inherent intellectual differences between American Indians and others, have either been convincingly refuted or not been replicable. But too many counselors still point American Indians away from mathematics-based careers in the belief that studies have shown that their advisees are doomed to failure.

Primed to Deal with Wicked Problems

However, I do believe that many from the communities served by SACNAS have been culturally primed by a holistic worldview to be pretty good at dealing with wicked problems, of which climate change is a classic example. Wicked problem is actually a technical term, first defined by Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber in a 1973 paper describing the basis for certain dilemmas in urban planning. Though Rittel and Webber’s annotated 10-point definition extends over more than eight pages, Mike Hulme’s simplification of it captures the concept fairly well, and is easier to state: Wicked problems are “essentially unique, have no definitive formulation, and can be considered symptoms of yet other problems. Solutions to wicked problems are difficult to recognize because of complex interdependencies in the system affected; a solution to one aspect of a wicked problem often reveals or creates other, even more complex, problems demanding further solutions.” Rittel and Webber describe at length why attempts to solve wicked problems via linear reasoning, as traditionally taught in university STEM courses, are not generally successful.

2013 SACNAS Keynote: Dr. Robert Megginson

A Holistic View Is Key

I believe that the cultural backgrounds and history of American Indians, and more broadly of all the communities served by SACNAS, contribute to our ability to think about and deal with wicked problems that have only incomplete solutions. These are best approached holistically with all the information at hand while avoiding preconceptions about how to use that information. A good example is Dr. Redsteer’s approach to dealing with a wicked problem, the difficulties the Navajo Nation faces in finding a high-quality and reliable water supply, described in her SACNAS video. A scientist’s university training would likely suggest that the right tactic would be to collect data, analyze it, and consult the scientific literature to decide which approaches might work, and Dr. Redsteer has certainly done that. But if no more than that were done, then a scientist could bang her or his head against a wall for years trying to devise an ultimate solution to a problem that may have none. Dr. Redsteer went well beyond that by consulting elders and the community to discover the historical and current cultural contexts in which a partial solution would have to work with no perfect one available, then stepped back to look holistically at everything she had learned and what it was telling her. Here is what she says about the result:

I don’t really have a whole lot of solutions right now [to the ultimate problem of how to get the Navajo more water], but I think the first thing is to recognize that something is happening so that people, not just on the Navajo Nation but in the surrounding communities, understand how endangered their water supplies are, and try to manage their water supplies more wisely.

From her holistic look at the historical, cultural, and community aspects as well as the scientific ones, Dr. Redsteer has concluded that at this point the real problem is not how to solve the Navajo Nation’s water shortage quickly, but is finding strategies to live with that shortage. The partial solution she describes will do that while she and others continue to work on understanding and addressing the root causes.

Full Understanding of the Threat

People in our communities need to understand fully the danger climate change poses to us, particularly because many contrarian voices out there are trying to convince us that there is no real need to worry.

We certainly know, and research has substantiated, that information to our communities about important issues impacting us is best received by those communities if it comes from knowledgeable people within those communities. As Marei Spaola puts it in the quote that begins this article, “Our people need to hear it from us.”

All Hands on Deck: An Interdisciplinary Approach

My final point is addressed directly to students and to practicing physical, biological, and social scientists. I fully recognize that anthropogenic climate change may not be what gets you up in the morning (and “keeps you up at night,” as Dr. Redsteer says in her video).

You may not wish to spend your lives working on this wicked problem, but the field is so interdisciplinary that you can almost certainly make contributions no matter what your scientific interests are.

Psychologists will find problems worth attacking, as has organizational psychologist Keith James (Onondaga) in his examination of the impact of organizational ethics and practices on climate change. Judging from student participation in the SACNAS conference, many of you are heading for a biomedical career, and you will find a plethora of challenging problems in those areas into which you can sink your teeth. Political scientists will be interested in the difficulties Bert Bolin, the first IPCC chair, faced in dealing with the response of political systems to challenging global problems, and perhaps make contributions themselves in that arena. Computer scientists, both hardware and software specialists, will appreciate how their field has contributed to the successes and controversies of climate science, and perhaps see where their own contributions could enhance the former and reduce the latter. And mathematicians have much to contribute, particularly by helping us better understand tipping points and their warning signs.

I’ll end with a final quote about climate change from Dr. Redsteer’s interview:

It’s actually worrisome that people are so insulated from the natural world that they believe that the birds and the bees and the butterflies are going to be hurt, but not them. I think it’s a very egotistical position for human beings to be in, to think that they are so above the natural system that it’s not going to have any effect on their lives.

I am confident that people in our communities generally know better. We can be part of the solution. We must be part of the solution. Please consider making a contribution.

This article is based on a keynote presentation by Dr. Megginson at the 2013 SACNAS National Conference in San Antonio. View a video of his talk.

About the Author

Dr. Robert E. Megginson (Lakota) is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Mathematics at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and a lifetime member of SACNAS. Dr. Megginson has also served as Deputy Director of the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in Berkeley and Associate Dean for Undergraduate and Graduate Education in the University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. He has been named a Fellow of both the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Mathematical Society, and in 1999 received the American Indian Science and Engineering Society’s Ely S. Parker Award. His current research interests include the mathematics of climate change.


Originally published with references at sacnas.org