Equity in Research

Equity in Research

In 2015, Black scientists made up 7.4% of social scientists and 2.5% of life scientists as reported by the National Science Foundation.  This is the reason that Society for Black Brain and Behavioral Scientists exists.  The lack of diversity in brain and behavioral research fields leads to a cyclical environment where Black scientists are unsupported and actively driven away.  There are a variety of reasons for this lack of diversity which gets worse as you go up in career level.  In order to combat the structural racism and inequality that isolates and excludes scientists of color, the academic system MUST change.  The following list contains suggestions for ways to address some of academia’s systemic issues that negatively impact the Black research workforce and the Black community at large.  This list is not comprehensive, nor does it contain guaranteed solutions, but it does contain possible avenues to attempt to reduce inequality and improve the research workforce.

1. Make open access the norm

Due to centuries of medical and scientific abuse, many African Americans distrust the research enterprise and are leery of researchers’ intentions.  This is only made worse by the fact that the general public does not have access to the research results paid for by their tax dollars.  With more transparency, the relationship between science and the African American community can begin to be repaired.  Additionally, many people are not exposed to science, and it is a privilege to have access to science as a career path at a young age.  By making research open access, a more diverse pool of students can develop a love for science.  We need to find a way to normalize open access research without draining scientists financially.

2. Raise minimum salaries and stipend levels

A $25,000 stipend equates to roughly $12/hour for a 40-hour work week.  This is not a livable wage, and many people cannot afford to work for so little in order move through the ranks of academia.  Besides the fact that this excludes many caregivers, parents, and those that must provide for other family members’ expenses, current salaries and stipends are not a fair compensation for the training, skill, time, and effort required to work in research.  To ask this of anyone, especially groups who have been economically disenfranchised is unrealistic and frankly, wrong.  Talented Black and other underrepresented candidates will simply turn to fields where their labor is appropriately compensated.  Raising compensation levels is a necessity, especially if academia wishes to continue the practice of prohibiting people to have other means of employment.

3. Fund research projects for graduate and postdoc trainees

Mentorship is critical to trainee success, yet students of color are more likely to report experiencing microaggressions, harassment, and discrimination during their programs.  They have little options for finding the most supportive environment for themselves, due to their stipends and research being funded by an advisor’s grant.  While there are options for trainees to get funding for their salaries, there need to be many more options for trainees’ research to be funded.  Much of current research is Eurocentric, and trainees that want to increase diversity in research (especially work involving ethnic/racial disparities or identity) are tied down to what their advisors are currently doing and will allow them to do.  By allowing trainees to receive funding for their research (funding that is not tied to a specific lab, mentor, or institution) they will have greater agency to find healthy and supportive mentorship environments and to do work that is relevant to them and their communities.  This can minimize the negative experiences scholars of color have and improve retainment in later stages of the career trajectory.

4. Fund a paid position for an advocate

Departments should fund a student and/or faculty advocate who has the power and authority to intervene with faculty and administration and to implement programming.  Many institution-wide initiatives have poor execution and are far removed from the everyday experiences of the people in a given workgroup.  Someone (who is not a colleague, collaborator, or instructor, etc. of anyone in the department) should be appointed to hear grievances, address concerns, and make systemic policy changes in the immediate environment without worrying about existing power dynamics.

5. Cap work hours

Though many scientists enjoy spending extra time on their work, overwork should not be the norm nor expected from any scientist.  As discussed previously, the compensation for most researchers is not satisfactory for a normal 40-hour work week, given the necessary qualifications.  Thus, requiring over 40 hours of work for subpar compensation is unreasonable, to say the least.  There needs to be a cultural shift from constant struggle and labor and a system put in place to empower those who are expected or asked to work beyond a typical schedule. 

6. Adjust productivity expectation given a normal work schedule

In order for suggestion #5 to be sustainable, the rat race of accomplishments needs to be adjusted to reflect reasonable attainment without overworking.  As scholars, we need to critically analyze the amount of time it takes to fulfill all the different tasks we are given and determine what can be done within a 40-hour work week.  Reviews for grants, publications, jobs, and school admissions should take into account these more reasonable metrics and not penalize applicants for not adhering to unreasonable “productivity” standards.  Scientists should be judged by the quality, rather than sheer quantity, of their work.  As the people who discover and report the effects of stress, lack of sleep, poor nutrition, and lack of exercise, we need to lead by example by encouraging healthy lifestyles in our workforce.  This must be done with systematic change that empowers scientists, rather than simply encouraging mindfulness and work-life balance.

7. Add service as a review criterion

Scholars of color are often called on to perform service at higher rates than their white counterparts.  Whether it be serving on diversity committees, mentoring underrepresented students, or performing community outreach (for just a few examples), marginalized scientists perform more work outside of the tasks required to complete research projects.  Even when not explicitly asked to perform service, many Black scientists choose to take on these responsibilities because the other option is tolerating an environment that may be uncomfortable or even hostile for them and those who follow in their footsteps. This leads to discrepancies in publishing rates and standard metrics of productivity.  Service should be added as a criterion to reviews for grants, jobs, and awards, and not simply because marginalized scholars perform more service which disadvantages them under current criteria.  Service advances science.  When scholars participate in service activities, they help to diversify research, prepare the next generation, educate their communities, and promote quality research practices.  These activities should be seen as a benefit to one’s record and an accomplishment.  Those who participate in service have a more nuanced view of the research landscape and their perspectives should be valued and rewarded.

8. Decentralize whiteness in research

Much of today’s research knowledge is based on observations in white populations.  Phenomena observed in white people is generalized to represent everyone, which may not be accurate.  The following four suggestions address some ways to combat this beyond increasing the number of underrepresented populations in research participant pools.

9. Require descriptive titles in publications and grants

It is important, especially in human subjects research, not to reinforce the idea that Caucasians are “people” and everyone else is a derivative of them.  Research studies that are conducted in entirely or primarily white samples should include this in their titles and descriptions.  For example, a title like “The effects of exercise on gut microbiota and cognition” should not be acceptable if the participants only reasonably represent one racial group.  Very often, studies with negligible or no minority participants are presented as an authority on the phenomenon at large, while studies with a majority of nonwhite participants are framed as “this phenomenon in African Americans”, for example.  The way we use language matters. By not explicitly stating the demographics of a study population, we reinforce the idea that ethnic and racial minorities are subgroups of the general human population, while white people can exist without race.

10. Require demographic breakdown on all studies

Since animal research requires you to report gender and strain of the animals in the study, this suggestion is most applicable for human research.  Human experience is very nuanced and varied, so it is difficult for any given research study to account for all conditions and their effects on results.  This is understandable, and it is not expected for a study to be able to generalize to the entire human population.  However, detailed demographics should be included (at least in the appendix) of every study so that people know who it does generalize to.  Journals and other entities should require demographic tables beyond simply reporting age, sex, and education.  Race, ethnicity, education, and income should be included in all human subjects research.  These are important factors that influence the interpretation of behavioral and biological data.  By not requiring this information to be disclosed, whiteness remains the default and research groups are not required to be honest about who their work is representing or the diversity of the samples. 

11. Critically analyze who model systems are representing

Even outside of human subjects research, it is important to critically analyze who is represented by certain model systems.  Are animal strains or cell lines mirroring processes that have only been adequately studied in white people?  If the topic has been studied in diverse populations, which groups are used as the basis for the model?  For example, when modeling Alzheimer’s disease in mice, are the mice developed to exhibit Alzheimer’s symptoms in the ways that are most common in African Americans, who are most likely to have this disease?  In a genome-wide association study, is the wild type of the gene actually the most common variant, or is it the one found in Caucasians because they are overrepresented in the participant population? 

12. Require scientific representation from marginalized groups on projects about them

While community advisory boards are necessary elements to ensure that research conducted on marginalized populations (or any population that the researcher is unfamiliar with) is ethical, representation and input should not stop there.  The general public does not have knowledge of the scientific process or the way in which research should be conducted from a researcher’s viewpoint.  Research groups should include scholars from the community being studied who have authority over the direction of the project.  There should not be studies on women’s behavior with no women on the research team or studies on genetics in African Americans with no Black people on the research team. Scientists should make a point to involve students, postdocs, and collaborators from the populations they are studying.  Review panels and study sections should include this in evaluations of the research team, which may help to mitigate the implicit and explicit racism/prejudice that is rampant in science today. 

13. Require Respective Contributions on grant applications

There is a problematic practice of principal investigators not writing their own grant applications and requiring postdocs or graduate students, sometimes even undergraduates, to write all or the majority of the application.  Trainees do not get recognized for this ghostwriting and do not receive any funds for their own research programs.  This is an exploitative practice that capitalizes off of early career researchers.  Trainees should not have to fund the entire lab’s research program.  These extra burdens are often placed on marginalized students who are deflected from pursuing their own career and research goals.   Grant agencies should require a “Respective Contributions” section that outlines who wrote and edited each section of a grant application. 

14. Black scientists in your research and syllabus

Acknowledge the work of Black and other underrepresented scholars in your presentations, classes, and publications.  Make sure to actively seek out these voices in the literature you read and the work you highlight.  Incorporate them into your class syllabus, invite them to speak in your department seminar, include them in your discussions of historical scientific advances and breakthroughs, and cite their papers in your manuscript. 

15. Use Black suppliers

Another way to uplift the Black community through research is to actively contract Black vendors and suppliers for your research needs.  Whether it be office supplies, equipment, software, or consulting, seek out Black suppliers or vendors with other marginalized identities.  Create institutional contracts with them and make them preferred vendors.