Open letter to the National Science Board

I had the opportunity over the summer to attend the National Science Board’s (NSB) listening event hosted at ASU. The NSB is the governing body of the NSF–they make policies, set the direction and priorities for the National Science Foundation (NSF). They are hosting these listening events around the country to get input from the community about the direction and priorities for the next decade of NSF work. The I feel greatly honored to have my voice included by the NSB and I wanted to use my privilege to draw more attention to issues around equity, inclusion and justice in STEM for the next decade of NSF work. This is the letter I wrote to the NSB:

I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to be heard by the National Science Board. I am a post-doctoral scholar at Northern Arizona University, specializing in Planetary Sciences. I offer my perspective as an early career scientist working on staying in my field. Today, I want to focus on what I perceive as not being talked about enough—equity, inclusion and justice in science and engineering. Without these three crucial ingredients, I believe science and engineering will not thrive in this upcoming decade.

I see the lack of equity, inclusion and justice in science and engineering as an existential crisis facing us in this upcoming decade. It seems to me, from my vantage point as an early career scientist, that my field fails to attract and retain many people without certain privileged identities (e.g., women, of color and white women, men of color, people with disabilities or chronic conditions, people who parent, LGBTQ+ people). The generations in this upcoming decade will be the most diverse in our history. Without showing people with non-privileged identities why they should join us in science or engineering, we face a lack of talent that will prevent science and engineering from thriving. Furthermore, the lack of justice and equity in the way we distribute funding and how harassment and discrimination in the academy are dealt with is going to be a liability for obtaining future research dollars from Congress. We need to face our demons, or we risk losing more than generations of talented scientists and engineers.

Luckily, there is a great deal of grassroots movement, in my field and many others, working toward more just, inclusive and equitable environment. With strategic support from the National Science Foundation, I believe we can make true and profound changes that will ultimately make science and engineering more excellent. I feel that the NSF needs to concentrate on three key areas to help foster equity, inclusion and justice. I suggest that the NSF could help make science and engineering more inclusive by (1) ditching the ‘pipeline’ metaphor for success and (2) making the tent bigger by funding new in-ward and out-ward looking research initiatives and policies. Lastly, the NSF can foster inclusion, equity and justice by requiring applicants to NSF grants to submit a number of pro-social policies in order institutions and departments to be awarded funds.

NSF needs to ditch the pipeline and pathway framing of success in science and engineering.

Pipeline leaks in the real world are universally bad. The leaking materials may not be intrinsically bad (like water) but when those materials are outside the pipe (watermain break) they can cause damage. When I hear ‘pipeline’ too, my mind jumps to oil pipelines which in the best case contribute to smog and global warming by transporting a carbon-rich material to be refined for personal and commercial uses. In the worst cases, leaking oil pipelines destroy peoples’ health, wellbeing, beloved and sometimes sacred spaces, livelihoods and environment. The academic pipeline metaphor has very little value[1]—like oil pipelines, the academic pipeline perpetuates polluted ideas ‘merit’ in racist and sexist ways and success thus contributing to a ‘smog of racism’[2] and sexism in our society. The pipeline only really serves those with power and privilege. The academic pipeline can also hurt peoples’ health and wellbeing (e.g., the mental health crisis among graduate students[3]), livelihoods by forcing people out of the programs and subfields, as well as contributing to a toxic environment in the academy. All of this while blaming the ‘leaks’, the people who are choosing to leave our fields, for damaging science and engineering as a whole.[4]

The remedy for this is a new framing of success[5] that actively identifies and sees many careers as important to the success and wellbeing of science and engineering all together.

NSF needs to fund new interdisciplinary efforts both within science and engineering but expand these to other fields as well.

If we normalize and value careers outside of traditional academia or national laboratories, if we make our tent bigger, we can make all aspects of science and engineering better.

I believe I am here in no small part to my privileges as a white, cis-gendered woman whose family’s cultural capital and at times financial capital has allowed me to find and take advantage of many different opportunities. However, I would not be here, a PhD holding scientist, without the inspiration of an incredible teacher in high school. Dr. Bruce Gordan taught my high school physics class and astronomy elective. His high standards and engaging style helped me learn about the universe and how things work in it—it was life changing. He, himself, is a professional scientist who focuses his efforts now on teaching. I believe we, as a scientific community, need to value his contributions to the scientific ecosystem in more concrete ways.

I suggest that the NSF promote and provide funding for inward-looking outward-looking interdisciplinary collaboration efforts with other fields. Interdisciplinary scientific collaboration has produced some of the most important findings in physics and astronomy in the past decade. The observation of the Higgs boson and gravitational waves took enormous efforts of many people with wide varieties of skills and knowledge. Similarly, I believe the next decade of scientific movement needs to include interdisciplinary collaborations with fields like journalism, teaching and policy to help inform, inspire and integrate the public and future scientists and engineers. Without inspiring teachers like Dr Gordon, who helped a teenaged girl see how amazing the universe is, inspiring her to go into science, we will not adequately attract the next generation of scientists and engineers. New funding opportunities could be created to develop curriculum, collaborate with K-12 teachers and classrooms, and educate the general public.

In addition to these outward-looking efforts, inward-looking efforts are also essential. These collaborations could include working with scientists and professionals in fields such as psychology, sociology, anthropology and history to understand the culture of science and engineering to help remove barriers and biases in it, to enhance excellence. It is essential that if we bring more people into the sciences, we help them be successful by improving the culture and systemic barriers within the academy. Furthermore, these inward-looking interdisciplinary efforts will be so much more impactful if they are done by people who are invested in our fields because they themselves identify as scientists and engineers.

I have had the opportunity to collaborate on two projects in the psychological sciences. While I am certainly not an expert in psychology, I work in these collaborations to help improve my subfield. However, I am constantly told by both supervisors and informal mentors that these efforts are not worthy of my time or will most certainly not help me obtain success as a planetary scientist. I feel that this needs to change. I hope that my inward-looking efforts will be seen by more people how I see them—valuable research focusing in making my field more inclusive for all people within it.

By funding inward-looking and outward-looking interdisciplinary efforts, the NSF will be normalizing and valuing many people with multiple career trajectories, in function and in fact ditching the pipeline as defining ‘success’. This cultural change will result in more inclusive fields and ultimately strengthen our community. Seeing value in these interdisciplinary collaborations will significantly increase inclusion in the field by allowing many types of research to be considered ‘important’, ‘scientific’ and ‘meritorious’. However, there is no denying the stubbornly extant barriers to non-white men in science and engineering.

NSF needs to promote equity, inclusion and justice in science and engineering, in additional concrete ways.

The barriers and biases to white women, men and women of color, people with disabilities, chronic illnesses or conditions, people who are neuro-atypical, trans and gender non-binary people, people in the LGBQ community, Veterans and people from lower socio-economic statuses are clear, systemic and well documented[6]. These barriers must be destroyed through honest reckoning with the past and with our own unconsciously held beliefs on the individual and intuitional levels. We also need to put in place ‘real mechanisms of power so that all members of the institution can hold each other accountable”.[7] We need to replace negative, sometimes toxic, cultures reinforced by these barriers and biases with inclusion, equity and justice.

Inclusion—the experience of belonging to a department, field, identity—is essential for growth and excellence in our fields. Without it, people will continue to leave our fields, preventing science and engineering from reaching our full potential. Similarly, equity—the act of giving every what they need to be successful[8]—is necessary to achieve inclusion. Without policies and practices that can meet scientists and engineers where they are, we cannot ensure that every person can be successful in our fields. Justice will be achieved when we remove the systemic barriers and biases facing everyone who does not identify as white, heterosexual, cis-gendered and male. When we truly reckon with our history of exclusion, commit to ‘fairness of treatment and due process’[9] in adversity is when every person can truly be able to be successful.

To achieve equity, inclusion and justice, the NSF must require proposers to submitt institutional policies and practices that include: codes of social conduct specifically focusing on anti-bullying, anti-sexual, racial or other protected class harassment, managerial training for faculty who supervise early career professionals (undergraduate students, interns, graduate students and post-docs) that includes inclusive, supportive and responsive techniques to ensure equity of treatment, fund programs to teach the teachers—most professors are not formally trained how to effectively teach students; including inclusion and equity as cornerstones of teaching practice would significantly improve classrooms and help capture the attention of the next generation of scientists and engineers. Additionally, institutions and departments funded by NSF should be required to have their written policies for graduate students and professors reviewed by the NSF to ensure that they are meeting standards of equity and inclusion. These policies must include formal grievance policies in cases of protected-class harassment or bullying by supervisors; parental or other dependent care leave policies; pathways for academic achievement for folks with disabilities, short-term or chronic conditions; pro-social codes of conduct providing guidelines of professional behavior for professors and graduate students alike. These written policies should include mechanisms to remove toxic actors or people who egregiously violate the codes of conduct. Having such policies and practices will foster accountability to end may of the systemic barriers and biases facing our missing fellows in science and engineering and help to create more inclusive spaces which will ultimately make science and engineering better.

The ideas I have offered here—validating multiple ways to be a scientist by making the tent bigger, ditching the pipeline as a definition of success and promoting equity, inclusion and justice in science and engineering—I hope will help bring more people into science and engineering, help us improve as a community. The lack of equity, inclusion and justice in science and engineering is an existential crisis of our time, but the NSF can help foster accountability to reach a more just, equitable and inclusive field but putting into practice ideas like mine and many more.

[1] The Problem With the “Pipeline” A pervasive metaphor in STEM education has some serious flaws. (2017) Elizabeth Garbee; link

[2] Tatum, B. D. (2017). Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?: And other conversations about race. Basic Books. Pg. 86

[3] Evans, T. M., Bira, L., Gastelum, J. B., Weiss, L. T., & Vanderford, N. L. (2018). Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education. Nature biotechnology36(3), 282.

[4] The pipeline isn’t leaky (2013) Melissa Vaught; link

[5] A Metaphor to Retire. (2015) David Miller; link

[6]Gender Bias in Academe: An Annotated Bibliography of Important Recent Studies (2015) HASTAC Team; link

[7]‘Caltech astrophysics and harassment: Lessons learned’ (2019) by Casey Handmer, link

[8]What the heck is equity? (2016) Kris Putnam-Walkerly & Elizabeth Russell; link

[9]Marin Luther King, Jr and the Definition of Justice (2014) Dr. Jason Michael Williams; link

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