|Last week I read Chanda's guest post at CV about diversity in science. I was about to write a comment, but it got way too long, so I decided to promote it to a post on its own.|
Let me begin with a disclaimer:
All members of our society should have equal opportunities to become scientists, irrespective of their race, gender, religion, or affiliation to other minorities. If you really need a reason for this, read the human rights. Unfortunately, this is not yet the case, neither in the US, nor in Europe. The cause for this is partly that higher education is money-wise often not favourable1, and sadly in many cases there do exist correlations between belonging to a minority (e.g. immigrants) and being faced with a difficult social background. Other reasons are traditions (physics is a boy-thing), peer pressure (white and nerdy), conflicting ethical values (does the bible mention dinosaurs?), and of course prejudices against minorities (small town guys are stupid).
Since my weekend has only 48 hours, these are the points I don't want to discuss today. What irritates me about the discussion on diversity in science is the entanglement between the issues of minorities in our society, the social diversity in the community of scientists, and the diversity on the 'marketplace of ideas'. An entanglement that should be approached with caution.
|Chanda's writing reminded me of the time when I was a graduate student. For a year or so, I was lucky to be part of a more or less frequently meeting group in which we would just discuss physics-related stuff. I learned a lot in these meetings, which in my opinion make a very nice example for the merits of diversity.|
There were five people who reliably participated2:
- Dr. Who, with a PhD in astrophysics and a diploma in mechanical engineering, whose invaluable skill was making estimations with a minimum of input. Typical sentence: 'Obviously A goes with the 3rd power of B, then X is approximately Y - modulo factors of 2 Pi or so, don't trust me on the signs.'
- Dr. 2B, about to finish his PhD on quantum field theory, who had a natural talent for teaching. He liked to pass on whatever he'd read in a didactic and understandable way. We'd let him talk whenever we were in need of some motivation, because his fascination for physics was truly contagious. Typical sentence: 'Last week I read this cool paper...'
- Dr. No, a nuclear physicist who returned to Germany after some years in the land of plenty, only to find flaws in everything. Unfortunately, he was most often right. On the other hand, he was the kind of guy who had ~100 publications at the age of 30, and reportedly drafted, wrote and posted a research paper within 24 hours. Typical sentence: 'But then the universe wouldn't exist'.
- Prof. Dr. Senior, with a permanent position and a little detached from the recent research. He efficiently provided us with missing links by always knowing who had worked on this or something like this, or giving references to original works on related context. He was also going on our nerves with political advises as to which topics were recommendable or not, and endless stories about the days back then. Typical sentence: 'This reminds me of the time when...'
- Then there was me. My role was it to look confused, ask for details on the allegedly obvious statements, (which I usually ended up figuring out alone), or to blow completely unrelated sentences into thin air, which could make the whole discussion completely spin off into another direction. If I have a typical sentence, nobody told me, but it probably ends with a question mark.
Besides me, all members of this group where German speaking, Christian, heterosexual, white men without visible disabilities.
On the other hand, I count myself a member of various minority groups: I'm a vegetarian, have freckles on my nose, am proud to drive a car with manual gear, and my clothes size is seriously underrepresented in North American stores.
I think this example makes it very clear that one needs to distinguish between different types of diversity, that I will call 'job-related diversity', and 'demographic diversity', the latter of which can be divided in 'readily detectable' and 'less detectable'. The influence of diversity on the efficiency of work performance is subject to active scientific research since at least a decade or so, though mostly for management in companies.
|Some references I can recommend are e.g.|
Diversity in Science
Of course, these investigations do not all apply to the science community, but the categories of diversity are useful nevertheless. Let's give it a try:
- Demographic diversity
- a) readily detectable:
- social background
- family status
- b) less detectable:
- life experiences
- sexual preferences
- moral and ethic values
- social skills
- political orientation
- education (when/where/what)
- job experience (how long, what)
- rank (student/postdoc/tenured/permanent)
- external goals ( publications/appreciation/income...)
- internal goals: (wisdom/curiosity/contribution to wellbeing of society... )
- tasks (teaching/researching/typesetting/numerics/laboratory work/public outreach...)
- connections (integration in community, friends, coworkers...)
- organization of work (always working on 5 topics at least/obsessed with zing-zong theory and nothing else3)
- divergent/convergent thinking
- teamwork (prefers single work or group work)
- rigor (fast and furious sketch of ideas/slow and thorough through all the nasty details)
- temper (secure player/high risk-taker)
(These are some points that immediately came into my mind. Feel free to let me know if you think I missed something essential.)
There is a good reason why demographic diversity is desirable on a very general level: it makes for an open-minded community that embraces differences. I'd say demographic diversity reflects in the climate at the work place. I want my colleagues smiling and motivated, and not scared to go to work.
But what we also see from the above list are two things:
First, it is not at all clear why and how demographic diversity should relate to job-related diversity.
In some cases one might be able to establish correlations. E.g. I would expect that on the average people with children are less risk-taking, or that a difficult social background disfavours a high number of connections.
However, in general the relations will be weak and I don't think these are topics we want to consider when hiring people. I don't want to end up wondering if a preference for heavy metal music goes better with solid state physics, or whether classic music is a more appropriate choice for string theorists.
Second, it's not at all clear that diversity (of whatever type) is a guarantee to increase progress.
Indeed it isn't. Diversity is not a cure for every problem but it comes with difficulties of its own. To put it simple: scientific controversy is healthy, and constructive criticism is a challenge that prompts new ways of thinking -- which is good. But constant disagreement hinders progress and doesn't get us anywhere. If we want to use the merits of diversity we'll have to balance its use.
As an example, consider how job-related diversity has been promoted in inter-disciplinary categories, like theoretical biophysics. This is a great thing, and I find these seminars often very interesting and inspiring. I always appreciate to hear something new. But for my everyday work, I don't want to be tied to that biophysicist and his proteins.
What Can We do?
The bottom-line of the above is that job-related diversity needs to be managed wisely. We want to use the whole variety of different approaches, but not wash out focused work on specific problems. This brings me back to what I've pointed out earlier (see Science and Democracy, Science and Democracy II): our community has grown very much, very fast, but lacks a proper administration and management. It's about time we investigate under which circumstances science works best.
Indeed, I do think that we have a lack of job-related diversity right now. You can improve the situation yourself. Try this:
- Go to your colleague three doors down, and have a discussion about his/her work4.
- Register to a conference that's not directly related to your work, even if that means, you won't get a talk. Drop the thought that this is a waste of time.
- If you're organizing a conference, invite researchers from related fields to give plenary talks.
- Read a paper by someone who you haven't met in person.
- Don't call someone a crackpot just because you don't like the subtitle of his book5.
- Do actually look up some of the references from 100 B.C. that your white-haired colleague mentioned.
- I await your suggestions...
Perimeter Institute is a prime example for an excellently balanced and managed use of job-related diversity.
Chanda has given a very nice list of what you can do here. I'd like to add some points. The first is that a serious problem are financial barriers to higher education. If you live in a democracy, what you can do is register to vote, and vote the right person - or better, become politically active yourself.
However, the representation of demographic diversities in theoretical physics isn't a problem we can solve without taking into account sociological and traditional barriers that I mentioned in the beginning. As I've pointed out elsewhere, just demanding that demographic diversity should reflect in the scientific community without realizing that the society might not yet be ready for this, is pretty short sighted, and can actually be counterproductive.
But a considerable amount of these barriers is based on wrong or missing information about what it means to be a theoretical physicist. If I average over my experiences, many people seem to think a theoretical physicist is something between an astronaut and a daydreamer. After mentioning what I do for a living, I have actually been asked whether I could maybe repair the fridge, or explain the weather forecast. And then there are those who just conclude I am still a student, or something-like-that6.
What you can do is to spread the fascination of understanding the laws of nature, and examining the mysteries of our universe. And explain how that works in pratice.
It is in this regard that I appreciate every popular science book which succeeds in bringing our work into the attention of the wider public, and also books that feature theoretical physicists as main characters.
And finally I have made a nice circle to justify why I spend my time writing pieces for the blog.
Footnote 1: This was the reason why there were no tuition fees for German Universities for a long time. In principle a good idea, though with foreseeable backlashes. Lately it has been improved just to end up even worse.
Footnote 2: Names changed.
Footnote 3: Zeig mir den unteren Topf.
Footnote 4: Here, discussion doesn't mean you try to convince him of what you wrote in your last paper, but half of the time you should l-i-s-t-e-n. Even if he's a postdoc from Nowhereland.
Footnote 5: If you want to know what lets me doubt whether I want to stay a physicist, listen to this, e.g. at 22:10 min. How diverse were the opinions in this room that it seemed a good idea to laugh? How come that during the whole hour nobody spoke up and said, look, backstory or not, there's a considerable amount of truth in Swoit's and Wolin's books. See also Clifford's and Peter's post.
Footnote 6: Recently, I have been promoted to an expert on wireless networking.
TAGS: SCIENCE AND SOCIETY,PHYSICS, DIVERSITY, MINORITIES