Adventures in Ethics and Science

Here are some of the thoughts and questions that stayed with me from this session. (Here are my tweets from the session and the session’s wiki page.)

One of the things I found interesting about this session was that the session leaders’ approach to the broad issue of promoting gender and ethnic diversity in science, engineering, technology, and M [mathematics here? I get the impression that sometimes the M in STEM is math and sometimes it’s medicine, but I’m happy to set this taxonomic issue aside] was to look at particular initiatives, activities, or responses from smaller communities within the STEM galaxy.


It was not at all: “Let us, by describing the broad contours of the question, develop an answer from first principles.”

Rather, it was: “What have people done that works? Why did it work? How did the activity fit the needs of the population being targeted for outreach, or being supported in their activities, etc.? Which populations aren’t being reached, or getting as much out of what is offered when they’re reached, or might be getting different kinds of support through other channels?”

In other words, there was a focus on empirical data, and a recognition that “what works” depends on lots of local factors (where locality captures more than just geographic location).

I was very taken with the discussion of the outreach projects at University of Missouri-St. Louis. Setting up after school clubs as well as classroom projects about urban ecology is the kind of move that helps kids see science as more broadly engaging — the kind of thing people like to think about even when they don’t have to, and the kind of thing you might want to do with your friends. Kids in the program did real research, talked about it with scientists (and each other), and presented it at poster sessions (with one of those kids taking a poster to a national scientific meeting). But it strikes me as just as important that the kids, drawn into the program for urban and suburban communities, learned to work well with each other and form a real community of kids doing research together. That’s the kind of outcome it would be nice to replicate better in communities of “grown-up” scientists.

The survey data about the ways women geoscientists view the geoblogosphere was fascinating (and since I wasn’t able to tweet the histograms, you’re stuck with my “big picture” impressions of what was said; I’m hoping Anne can share more of the details when she has a chance). The caveat upfront that survey respondent were mostly white women — and that their experiences in geoscience can’t necessarily be universalized to draw conclusions about the experiences of all women in geoscience — was a welcome reminder. It also set me to wondering how much a scientific field seems welcoming or unwelcoming to prospective initiates based on features of its “form of life” (time in the lab versus time in the field, dissecting versus hammering, what the “big questions” are taken to be, etc.), and how much of the welcoming or unwelcoming vibe is due to the apparent composition of that disciplinary community.

The survey data seemed to bear out hunches some of us have had for a while about ways the blogosphere might end up supporting women in scientific communities — letting women geoscientists describe their experiences, letting other women geoscientists reading these descriptions recognize their own experiences as normal (and not “just in their heads”), helping more junior women find role models and mentors (even across significant geographical distance) and consider a greater variety of role models.

It was interesting to see, in the survey results, that women in academia and women working in geosciences for industry and the government had very different reactions to the geoblogosphere. While students and college and university faculty seemed to see the blogosphere as of value to them, the surveyed government and industry geoscientists were pretty negative about the blogosphere. The big question is what to make of this difference. Possibly it means that industry and government are already providing better support for women geoscientist — so the geoblogosphere isn’t adding value in the same way. But it’s also possible that government and industry aren’t providing such great support for women geoscientists, but that the geoblogosphere (which is heavily skewed toward academic women geoscientists) isn’t serving women geoscientists in government and industry especially well, either. Maybe if more women geoscientists from government and industry were blogging, women geoscientists from government and industry would get more out of the geoblogosphere. (Possibly the employers of women geoscientists from government and industry, and especially their attitudes about whether their employees ought to be blogging, even on their own time, explain their relative scarcity in the blogosphere.)

Clearly, there’s room here for further research to untangle just what’s going on.

In the discussion during the session, there was the familiar (but important) discussion about finding the right balance between visibility and safety for people who are not yet well represented in their fields. It’s nice to be able to describe your experience, and ask for advice, and vent about annoyances, without having simultaneously to be the Official Disciplinary Representative (aka “Role Model”) of Underrepresented Demographic X. On the other hand, having more kinds of people visibly participating in a field might be really important in making it more welcoming to other people drawn to the subject matter and the work but concerned about whether they will really feel at home in that scientific community.

Lurking in this discussion was another discussion about “nontraditional” career paths for people who study science. In some ways, even drawing hard lines between the traditional and nontraditional (in terms of jobs) may reinforce some of the default assumptions in scientific training that turn people off and discourage them from pursuing a field (or pursuing it at the graduate level) in the first place. Maybe it also brings with it assumptions about what kind of people fit the “traditional” career track best. If diversity in science is a serious goal, it seems important to at least examine these assumptions, if not to presumptively challenge them.

Personally, my hunch is that a scientific field that’s widely perceived as cool enough that all kinds of people want to think about it and interact with it in their spare time — even when they’re employed to do something very different — is going to have an easier time drawing in a diverse population of people to work in that field for a living.

One meta-comment on the session: The panel seemed committed to drawing on the very different (yet very relevant) expertise of both the presenters and the fairly large audience for the session, as well as to getting members of that audience to take on some of the labor of generating practical ideas for doing outreach — including the labor of capturing those suggestions in notes emailed to the session organizer at the conclusion of the discussion. This was not about academic discussion of abstractions, but about getting things done.

Comments

  1. #1 Kim
    February 1, 2010

    The histograms from the women-geoscientists-and-blogs survey are here: http://scienceblogs.com/stressrelated/2009/12/women-in-geoscience_and_blogs.php . (Unless Anne switched things around for ScienceOnline – I wasn’t there, so I don’t know.)

  2. #2 becca
    February 1, 2010

    This is a great summary.
    One of the things that Zuska mentioned in passing was the mentornet program, which I have found to be very valuable. So, it’s only my anecdote but you can add that to the list of ‘stuff that works’.
    (I added a link in the wiki, too)

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