ABRCMS: Promoting Diversity in Science

Nov. 8, 2016

In 2016, I attended the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS), for the second time in Tampa, Fla., where 4,000 primarily undergrad minority students will gathered excited at the perspective of a career in science. When I made my decision to join ASM as its CEO, I was very excited to learn that ASM manages the ABRCMS meeting. ASM is deeply committed to promoting diversity in science.

There are no doubts that issues about minorities, race and diversity are among the most polarizing topics in American society, and they are too often swept under the rug for fear of giving offense or in the desire to avoid controversy. This is why I am so glad that at ABRCMS and at ASM we can tackle these complex issues and work to find solutions to ensure the best workforce possible in science. This is an ambitious, challenging, and broad goal, and one too important to be brushed aside.

A few years ago, I read an illuminating book by social psychologist Claude Steele, now Dean of the School of Education at Stanford University, with the intriguing title of Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do. The book presents overwhelming evidence from solid scholarly behavioral research on the implicit biases that reside inside all of us. Steele is African-American, and the title of his book derives from a story told to him by New York Times reporter Brent Staples, an African-American friend who had been a graduate student at the University of Chicago. Staples observed that, while walking at night through the streets of Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood wearing a hoodie, oncoming pedestrians would cross the road so as not to be on the same sidewalk. To them, there was something threatening about a young black man in casual clothing at night in a sketchy neighborhood. However, when Staples—the same young black man, in the same outfit, at the same time, and in the same neighborhood—tried cheerfully whistling the “Spring” tune from Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” passersby were much friendlier. They would say hello and wouldn’t cross the road.

The evidence provided in Steele’s book, which spans an enormous range of situations and stereotypes, is solidly data-driven, based on the results from many controlled behavioral experiments that testify to these widespread biases. Steele’s point is not merely that negative biases exist—he says there are noxious biases about virtually every group in American life: young, old, male, female, Northerners, Southerners, geeks, jocks, Californians—but that often the real damage is internal for the person on the receiving end. Self-worth and personal expectations fall. The problem is especially serious when someone is made to feel out of place and under suspicion, such as an inner-city minority student on a college campus that seems populated only by privileged whites. A dynamic is set up, says Steele, where these individuals systematically underperform when compared with their already demonstrated potential. This is a real and difficult problem to address, particularly in science education. But if we are unable to foster a diversified and multicultural environment, we will lose talented individuals who cannot express their abilities or perform as well as they could. The power of diversity is that it creates better groups, better schools, and ultimately a better society.

Stereotypes are deeply rooted in our society. The challenge is to recognize them and to act. If you think that you are immune to bias, think again. Your immune system may be working hard to fight it, but the antigen is certainly around. Try taking the Harvard Implicit Association Test (IAT), which takes about five minutes. IAT is a very solid, robust, and validated instrument that has been used by hundreds of thousands of people. It is illuminating to see what kind of biases may be creeping into your daily life. When I took the IAT, my reaction was “Really?” But it was useful for me to take the test because I started paying much more attention to the issues of bias, diversity, and stereotypes. For example, I have started a diversity council at my daughter’s school, convincing principal, teachers, and parents how important it is for successful education to recognize differences and bias as a first step toward action. Interestingly, there are proposals that participants in NIH study sections take the IAT test before reviewing grants. I applaud the idea.

Diversity produces benefits, although it can be hard to look beyond the snap biases that, as Steele so clearly shows, pervade our daily lives. We know on one level that people from different identity groups or cultures bring different tools, ways of thinking, and problem solving to an open society. And yet, rather than leveraging those differences for the collective benefit, we often allow them to impede progress and innovation. Certainly leveraging diversity is not an easy job. The political scientist Robert Putnam presents data indicating that the level of civic engagement and general trust decreases when communities become more diverse. The problem is compounded; not only do people trust other groups less, they trust people within their own group less.

However, other researchers, most notably the mathematician, economist, and “decision scientist” Scott Page, author of the wonderful book The Difference, builds on organizational theorist I. D. Steiner’s work to provide us with an interesting conceptual framework. When we are tasked to do something as a group, we need to analyze the nature of the assignment. Is it a disjunctive task, where only one person needs to succeed in the group for the whole group to succeed, or is it a conjunctive task, where every member’s contribution is critical? A group tackling a complex math problem is an example of a disjunctive task. The more diverse the thinking, the easier it is for the team to solve the problem.  Football, though, is a conjunctive task. The players in each position must complete their tasks, or the the other players cannot succeed in their assignments. If a lineman fails to do his job, the quarterback gets sacked (ask Washington Redskins’ quarterback Robert Griffin III, a.k.a. RGIII, about conjunctive failures during last year’s playoffs!).

So, the more we can deal with disjunctive tasks, the easier it will be to leverage diversity and differences. The problem in research science is that tasks are rarely either disjunctive or conjunctive, but a mix of the two. The trick is to transform conjunctive tasks into disjunctive tasks. The best example is crowdsourcing, and the greatest current example is Wikipedia, where distributed problem solving became a powerful source of innovation. So, in this framework, where decentralized problem solving and innovation go hand-in-hand, diversity deserves some credit. We have to think of sharing ideas—and sharing our scientific community—not as protecting privileged information or advantages but as building a collective scientific enterprise, a lever large enough to lift the world, as Archimedes said.

I cannot wait for the curtain to go up on the ABRCMS meeting and to meet as many students as time will allow me, and most of all, ABRCMS 2016 attendees, I cannot wait to see what you will end up accomplishing in life! Enjoy the meeting, and smooth sailing in your scientific career!

Author: Stefano Bertuzzi

Stefano Bertuzzi
Stefano Bertuzzi is the CEO of the American Society for Microbiology.