How one science hub grapples with diversifying STEM

Emily Fishbein

As individuals and communities across the nation take a hard look at anti-Black racism and its lasting impacts, professionals and institutions in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields are no exception. On June 10, they held nationwide strikes that called for reflecting on complicity in anti-Black racism and developing action plans to address it.

Woods Hole, a marine and coastal science hub on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, joined the movement, with roughly 300 locals and scientists marching past the village’s marine and coastal science laboratories and demanding racial equity in their community and field. Woods Hole hosts six prestigious institutions: the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Marine Biological Laboratory, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), United States Geological Survey (USGS), Sea Education Association, and Woods Hole Research Center.

Formal efforts to diversify Woods Hole’s science community have been ongoing for more than a decade. Local advocates hope the current groundswell will open the door to deeper conversations and accelerate progress.

“It’s often uncomfortable to discuss race. The current surge has helped people dive in and overcome their inertia,” says Gwyneth Packard, a senior engineer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and co-chair of its Committee for Diversity and Inclusion, who identifies as biracial. “People are starting to have conversations they wouldn’t have had even a few weeks ago.”

She says Woods Hole’s scientists must continuously apply the same rigor and strategies they use in their scientific research to promote diversity and inclusion, and in turn enhance scientific advancement.

“Visible at all times”

Out of the six Woods Hole institutions, four provided staff demographic data upon request. The largest, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, told the Monitor 88% of its employees identify as white. 

Similarly, a spokeswoman for the Marine Biological Laboratory said 85% of its year-round workforce is white. Sea Education Association President Peg Brandon said while no up-to-date diversity data on employees is available, most are white. Out of 200 students from the past year’s semester-at-sea environmental science program, around 18% identified as non-white. Ninety-one percent of Woods Hole Research Center staff identify as white, according to a spokeswoman.

NOAA and USGS, the two federal institutions, declined to provide demographic data due to privacy policies. 

The data mirrors broader trends in STEM professions, particularly earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences, known collectively as geosciences. Racial diversity at the doctoral level in these fields has not improved in four decades, with 86% of doctorates awarded to white people.

A mounting body of research shows that socially diverse groups are more innovative and effective at problem-solving than homogeneous groups. Yet a study published in April by the National Academy of Sciences found that while U.S. doctorate recipients in the sciences from underrepresented groups were more innovative than those from majority groups, their contributions were more frequently discounted and less likely to result in academic positions. 

Homogeneity often self-perpetuates. “The less diverse a field, the less welcoming it is to minorities, and the more prevalent implicit biases become,” wrote diversity and inclusion researcher Kuheli Dutt of Columbia University in a 2019 Nature article

One Change.org petition with over 21,000 signatories calls for all professional geoscience societies and organizations to develop concrete anti-racist action plans. Started by geoscientist Hendratta Ali, the petition offers 15 suggestions including diversified nominations and awards committees, accountability for income parity, and the publishing of annual, data-rich reports to measure progress on serving and retaining minority geoscientists. 

For Woods Hole’s institutions, diverse representation is critical to building trust with communities affected by their research. Many of the topics Woods Hole’s scientists study – including climate change and the management of coastal and marine ecosystems and resources – disproportionately affect disadvantaged populations.

“If we as a scientific community want to have a broader impact and relevance across a range of communities, we must be willing to expand our professional demographic composition,” says Larry Alade, research fishery biologist at NOAA. 

As one of the few Black scientists in Woods Hole, where he has worked since 2008, Dr. Alade says he has had an overall positive professional experience, but that it took time to feel he could be his authentic self. Cape Cod itself lacks racial diversity – the census estimates more than 90% of residents are white and only 3.5% are Black. 

“There is a psychological effect that comes with feeling visible at all times. As an African American, there is a cognitive dissonance trying to navigate the culture when you are the only one who looks like you,” he says of his time at Woods Hole. 

Allies

On June 5, the leaders of Woods Hole’s six institutions, who have collaborated formally through a Diversity Initiative since 2004, published a statement acknowledging “profound issues of lack of diversity and systemic racism and bias present in our scientific community” and pledging to take measurable steps to address these issues.

Rob Thieler, a white scientist who is the diversity initiative chair and center director of the USGS Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center, says the local science community “needs to create a climate where diversity is an explicit and well-supported goal, visible and accountable to all.”

“We can aspire to being more than just a safe space for diversity. We need to become a courageous space where we acknowledge the hard truths and work as a community to address them,” he says.

Yet change has been incremental, say the four advocates interviewed. Over the past decade, one program under the diversity initiative has brought in more than 150 undergraduates – most from racial minority backgrounds – for summer internships. Only 12 participants went on to work at a Woods Hole institution.  

In 2018, the institutions commissioned qualitative research in Woods Hole to inform diversity and inclusion efforts. The ensuing report, written by Robert Livingston of Harvard University, describes a predominant perspective among respondents that Woods Hole is “an unhealthy work environment for people of color.”

“The Livingston report revealed some uncomfortable and disturbing truths,” says Dr. Thieler. He says the institutions have been working to follow the report’s recommendations, and that unraveling systemic issues takes sustained, multilayered efforts – and time.

Hauke Kite-Powell, a white research specialist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and chair of a diversity initiative committee, hopes the current social movement will push individuals to challenge their implicit biases more deeply. 

“The big shift has to come from individuals, who have to recognize the filters through which they see the world,” says Dr. Kite-Powell. 

Demonstrators at the June 10 rally appeared eager to look inward and work toward creating and sustaining a more diverse and supportive community.

“I have never really been a part of anything like this, but you see [systemic racism] day in and day out, and the suffering that’s caused, starts to click,” said Ryan Null, a white researcher volunteering at the Marine Biological Laboratory. “I’ve been trying to educate myself.” 

“I’m out here protesting for my colleagues of color and future colleagues of color, which I hope are more, because diversity in science matters,” said Suzanne Thomas, a white laboratory technician at the Marine Biological Laboratory. 

“Your heritage, your background, everything, contributes to science, because when we have a diversity of lives and diversity of minds, science is stronger.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated to include staff demographic data from the Woods Hole Research Center received after publication.

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