Scientific presses around the world have set aside their usual competitive priorities and agreed to simultaneously publish an essay that outlines how members of the international scientific community can nurture values of equity, diversity, and inclusion. The document, set to appear on Monday August 17, includes contributions from dozens of researchers and scientists around the world, primarily in the chemical sciences.
“It was surprising to me what incredible talent we were able to recruit over a short time,” says Michael Bojdys, who leads a research group at King’s College London. He was among a handful of primary authors who assembled the article over the course of just a few weeks, a team that included fellow academics, students in North America and Europe, and a Nobel laureate.
“It took a lot of multi-tasking and simultaneous work,” adds McGill University chemist Tomislav Friščić. “This also involved getting these other 30-some-odd authors on board, trusting us and giving us their opinions and saying yes, you can publish with us. It involved contacting chemistry societies from Australia to China to the US and beyond. At the same time, it involved these fantastic writing sessions that I can only compare to the writing sessions that I did when I was an undergrad in Croatia, where you start at 8 pm and you’re there until 6 or 7 am and there is a final product.”
The final product, “A diverse view of science to catalyze change”, places the onus upon each and every member of the scientific community to remember and respect the fundamental human qualities of their colleagues. Through outstanding examples such as Alan Turing, whose promising life and career were cut short in a society that could not accommodate his sexual orientation, the paper concludes that “marginalized scientists are often viewed just as a resource rather than the lifeblood that constitutes science itself.” The text also emphasizes how easy it can be for scientists who find themselves in the social mainstream to underestimate, misunderstand, or simply overlook the challenges posed by marginalization. And while what counts as “mainstream” can vary widely from one part of the world to another, the authors insist that the fundamental problem is a common one that demands a common set of solutions.
“This is not a 21st century problem that can be fixed with 21st century technology, this is an issue that spans all time,” says Isaiah Speight, a doctoral Candidate in the field of mechanochemical synthesis at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. He is also a National Student Representative for the National Organization for Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers, a decades-old body dedicated to assisting these minority professionals throughout their education and careers.
During the process of drafting the article, he notes, he realized that the task was not one of changing a few policies or regulations but rebuilding a venerable institution. And the knowledge that this message will cut across traditional disciplinary lines is less important than knowing that it could improve the lives of individuals struggling within those disciplines.
“I don’t care how many times this thing gets cited, or how many times it gets read,” he says. “If this paper starts one conversation somewhere, and it leads to a change after that conversation, I’m satisfied.”
For Safia Jilani, a doctoral candidate at Georgetown University working with nanocatalysts in electrochemistry, the paper was an extension of ideas she had articulated just a few weeks earlier for the ACS publication Chemical & Engineering News. “We can change the culture of science academia,” she stated, referring to the impact of #InvisibleWorkSTEM, a social media discussion dedicated to professionally recognizing work done that improves students’ lives. “When we value mentorship, support, and advocacy for future generations of scientists, we change the culture of academia and advance scientific progress.”
As one of the contributors to this outline of diversity, she also expresses that it is important to create support systems for marginalized scientists, not just in words but in actions.
“This article provides actionable recommendations both well-represented and marginalized scientists can do,” says Jilani. “We can have discussions around diversity where both well-represented and marginalized scientists can talk together in the same space, and this article is an example of that.”
As for reconciling the mainstream with the marginalized, César Urbina Blanco can contrast his origins in Venezuela with the much less varied social and cultural landscape he finds as a post-doctoral investigator at Ghent University in Belgium.
“Diversity matters because it increases the pool of tools available in our research team to develop innovative solutions,” he maintains, recounting how a problem he had been struggling with for months was solved in a day by a new member who brought an entirely different perspective from outside the group.
His observations were part of an extensive addendum to the published paper, which features short question-and-answer segments from each of the authors. This format and its potential of this section were regarded as significant enough by editors at Nature Chemistry to warrant an ongoing community blog that will invite participants from everywhere to continue chiming in on these themes with their own comments from different parts of the world. The potential impact of this forum has also attracted the attention of observers such the Young Scientists community of the World Economic Forum, which will also be distributing its own shorter, chattier version of the paper. Similarly, these initiatives are being highlighted on the WeChat platform of the Chinese Chemical Society.
According to Bojdys, who spearheaded the task of persuading various publishers to share this product, their willingness to do so spoke both to the universal nature of the issues at stake as well as the fact that paper was bound to generate significant attention wherever it happened to appear.
“This piece spoke for itself, it did not take too much convincing,” he says. “If people are not willing to follow the moralistic arguments, that this piece is timely and important, then they would at the very least have followed the bottom line, which is that it will generate traffic. And that it will, I’m sure.”
Above all, he points out, the authors worked hard to strike a tone progress and cooperation, as opposed to confrontation. “We would speak the language of a positive outlook, how science and academia could be,” he concludes. “This is what won people over, ultimately.”
Others, such as co-author Fraser Stoddart, who shared the 2016 Nobel Prize for his work on the design and synthesis of molecular machines, insist that they were won over a long time ago.
“We’re all Jock Tamson’s Bairns,” he says, summoning a traditional Scottish assertion that humanity is shared by one and all. He explains that an acceptance of mutual respect was part and parcel of growing up in rural Scotland, although much of his career has been spent struggling with individuals and institutions operating on the entirely opposite tack. Now that he is in an esteemed position to cultivate this virtue in a new generation, he is more convinced than ever of just how precious and important such initiatives are.
“Diversity makes it possible to do things that you could not conceive of otherwise,” he says. “I know it works.”