Scientists seek diversity in science

July 10, 1992

By Judith Goldhaber

National Science Foundation Director Walter Massey summed it up best when he remarked, "This meeting could prove to be a watershed event in how we begin to address the issue of broadening the base of science."

Massey's remarks were made at the conclusion of an unusual three- day conference called "The Changing Culture in Science: Bringing it into Balance." UC Berkeley's Center for Particle Astrophysics (CfPA) was chief organizer and host of the conference, which was held in Berkeley June 21-23. LBL was one of a number of co- sponsoring institutions.

Said Massey, "I've been to a number of conferences in my career on how to increase participation in science and engineering. Most start with the thesis that we need to figure out how to get more underrepresented groups into the system, as if the system itself were some pre-existing entity ordained by God. This conference is saying, "Let's look at it in a broader way . . . let's look at what the system is and how it needs to change and adapt to who the people are."

The purpose of the conference was to examine the traditional scientific culture and to discuss what can be done to change the "chilly" climate in the nation's research and educational institutions to a more welcoming, inclusive, and diverse one.

About 125 people -- women and men representing many ethnic minority groups as well as the white majority -- from campuses and laboratories around the country attended the conference. They were welcomed by CfPA Director Bernard Sadoulet and UCB Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien. In a special program, participants told traditional creation stories of the Lakota Sioux, Mayan, Hindu, African and Hebrew peoples, while astronomer Sandra Faber of UC Santa Cruz described the Big Bang theory of modern cosmology.

The participants then met in small groups over three-days to discuss such topics as balancing career and family; building a diverse and inclusive community; and enhancing scientific excellence through cultural change. Participants from LBL included Jigna Desai, Judith Goldhaber, Kathie Hardy, Saul Perlmutter, Pier Oddone, Natalie Roe, Herbert Steiner, and Lab Director Charles Shank.

The groups developed their discussions into specific written recommendations, which included: improving the mentoring network for undergraduates and graduate students; changing the graduate school paradigm from one of "weeding out" to one of "nurturing"; providing on-site childcare at universities and scientific institutions; providing incentives for teaching and mentoring to balance the drive to "publish or perish"; and paying undergraduates to work on research teams.

These recommendations were presented to a 13-member "integration team" composed of leaders of the national scientific community -- people in a position to implement, follow up, or carry the recommendations to a higher level. The team included, in addition to Massey and Sadoulet, such scientific leaders as LBL Director Shank; Richard Tapia, professor at Rice University; Shirley McBay, president, Quality Education for Minorities; and Leon Lederman, Nobel laureate in physics and former director of Fermi National Laboratory.

In the final session, the integration team responded to the recommendations. Sadoulet remarked on three recurrent themes that seemed to emerge from the meeting: scientific passion, nurturing, and outreach. He also proposed a new metaphor that may describe the scientific enterprise better than the old hierarchical pyramid: a "saturated solution" in which "ideas are there, and need only a seed to make them crystallize."

Shank spoke about the need to restore trust in the fairness of the scientific community. He commended the participants for their commitment to the broader issues of the scientific culture. Such commitment was not evident, he recalled, in the mostly white male environment of his own student days.

Fiona Goodchild of UC Santa Barbara stressed that those who enter an entrenched culture "have a right to think that they can change that culture," and that such change is healthy.

In his concluding address, Massey spoke of his own odyssey as a black man from Hattiesburg, Miss., to his present position of leadership in the scientific community. He said that as a young man at Morehouse College he deliberately chose theoretical physics in order "to escape the real world" --that is, he selected a field where he hoped he could be judged solely on the merits of his work. But in the 1960s, as a young faculty member at the University of Illinois, he became drawn into the civil rights struggle following the mass arrest of a number of black students on campus, and found that he had to balance his love for science with other demands. Later, at Brown University, he developed an innovative program to train teachers for inner-city schools.

Finally, Massey stressed that, "In the rhetoric of recruiting, we have not sufficiently emphasized the joy and passion of science. That, after all, is why most of us are in science, and our goal should be that everyone should have the opportunity to share in it."

The conference was sponsored by five National Science Foundation Science and Technology Centers, LBL, UCB, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the U.S. Navy.