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Working Scientist podcast: Why does diversity in science matter?

We all have the right to share in scientific advancement and its benefits - it's a fundamental human right. What's more, having diverse perspectives and ideas helps science to progress.

In the first episode of the Nature ‘Working Scientist’ podcast series featuring voices from the ISC’s network, Marnie Chesterton interviews ISC CEO Heide Hackmann, and Professor of Humanities and Critical Theory and Professor of Africana Studies at Brown University, Anthony Bogues, on why diversity is so important for science – and what the ISC is doing to combat systemic discrimination and broaden inclusion.

Listen to the podcast and find the full transcript below:


Simone Athayde: It’s fundamental, to have diverse perspectives. 

Jayati Ghosh: When you come from a particularly different reality, you are more aware of the assumptions that need to be changed.

Adam Habib: What we have to do is teach beyond national and continental and institutional boundaries.

Shirley Malcom: We can’t unsee the challenges, we need to then respond to them.

Marnie Chesterton: What do we mean by diversity in science? Is it about ideas? About representation? The people who work in science and those who set the research agenda? Is it about what gets taught on science curricula? Or is it about the stories we tell and the people we celebrate? I’m Marnie Chesterton, and on this podcast series from the International Science Council, we’re exploring diversity in science, what it is, and why it matters. Over the next six episodes, we’ll hear from people who are pushing for change in science as a practice, in science systems, and science research. We’ll be celebrating different perspectives, and looking at practical steps to support diversity in scientific workplaces, and how we can make things genuinely inclusive for those who can find themselves in the minority in science settings, whether that’s because of their race, gender, sexuality, class or disability. We’ll also be looking at what it takes to be a better ally. In this first episode, why does diversity in science matter?

We live in unprecedented times, from the COVID-19 pandemic, to the climate emergency, from the antibiotic resistance crisis, to addressing rising inequality. It’s no exaggeration to say that as a species, we’re facing threats on an existential level. 

Heide Hackmann: Well, I think it’s important to say that science has always been important, but never more so than now as humanity grapples with the problems of living sustainably, equitably, and of course, safely on planet Earth.

Marnie Chesterton: This is Heide Hackmann, CEO of the International Science Council, or the ISC. The ISC has existed in some form for almost a century, and aims to be a global voice for all types of science, including the physical, mathematical and life sciences, as well as the social sciences like economics.

Heide Hackmann: As a global voice for science, we seek to be an ally to the scientific community, and an advocate for the value of science on the global stage. Given the kind of complex global problems that we’re grappling with, we need to ensure that our science is as strong as it possibly can be. And that means that it should be rigorous and relevant, addressing the needs and interests of different communities in all parts of the world, and that it is future proofed. So how do we strengthen our science? One essential way is to make sure that it includes the perspectives, insights, the ideas, the talent, the voices, if you will of all scientists. If science is to deliver on today’s global demands, we need to draw on all the potential knowledge available in the world, we need to have at hand a global knowledge trust that is inclusive and diverse. And that’s why diversity is so important. In today’s context.

Marnie Chesterton: If we’re to have any hope of meeting the challenges we face, we need a science that’s fit for purpose, one that serves and represents people living across the world. But we’re not there yet. According to a study done by UNESCO, fewer than 30% of researchers worldwide are women. In 2019, less than 1% of UK professors were black. Science systems and research questions today lack diversity across many dimensions, race, gender, geography, ethnicity, social class and age. Tackling this lack of diversity first requires us to recognise that there is a problem. And the roots of this problem can be traced back a long, long way.

Anthony Bogues: We first have to acknowledge something that sometimes we don’t really acknowledge, because we think of science as kind of abstract system that science does have a history. And to understand science itself means that we need to begin to pay attention to that history.

Marnie Chesterton: This is Anthony Bogues, Professor of Humanities and Critical Theory and Professor of Africana Studies at Brown University. Now humans have been asking questions about the world and experimenting right from our earliest beginnings. Modern astronomy is based on learnings from the ancient Babylonians. And indigenous knowledge systems have existed for 1000s of years. But Anthony argues that by studying the development of modern science during the Age of Enlightenment in Europe, as well as the social and cultural forces of that time, we can gain some valuable insight into how we’ve inherited the science we have today.

Anthony Bogues: The history of modern science, and here I’m talking about, 15th, 16th and 17th century begins really, through a set of intellectual events that have really important in European history. The emergence of enlightenment, the rearrangement of the place of the human beings and in the so called Universal order, all of that happens simultaneously with the emergence of colonialism, and racial slavery. And so I think it’s important to understand that while science emerges as an attempt to understand the physical world, biological world, plant life, and so on. While all these things are happening, what you also get is a science of the human called that time science of man, in which there’s a hierarchy. And in that hierarchy, issues of race, and so called characteristics are, are deeply embedded. You cannot therefore separate the emergence of science, particularly science of biology, from a science of man. And you can’t separate the science of man from the hierarchical classification schemas that were organised at the time. So I think this is what I mean by to think about science, not as a kind of objective subject that comes into the world without any kind of human interference, but actually comes into the world because it is a human invention, comes into the world with a set of historical frames that actually shapes what it is that science is about.

Marnie Chesterton: If what we know today is science emerged this way, if it’s intimately bound up with a way of classifying human beings and putting them in a hierarchy, then how is that legacy felt now?

Anthony Bogues: You have two things. One, you have a way in which these things shape how people are treated, i.e. at a medical level, you know, when somebody goes into the doctor’s office, and then you also have a way in which this racial regime of knowledge then suggests the power, and those who are in charge, some people can’t do this, and some people can’t do that. And in both those cases, what you are looking at is how the life chances of people are impacted upon concretely. It then means that, you know, universities and science organisations and so on, have to look at those two things you have to look at, how do you transform medical education? How do you transform your institutional culture, which will allow you know what people call diversity, but which will allow other folks to be able to participate to their fullest capacity in science?

Marnie Chesterton: These are big questions for everyone working in science, and they’re more pressing today than they’ve ever been. But there’s another more fundamental issue at the heart of this. Is broadening diversity about making more productive science with better outcomes for humanity, or at an underlying level, should it be about basic rights about justice and equity?

Heide Hackmann: You know, it’s perhaps a little known fact that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes the right to share in scientific advancement and its benefits. Now in line with this, the ISC has always upheld as a statutory principle, the so called universality of science. And that means that everyone should have the right to participate in science, to become a scientist and to contribute to scientific advancement themselves if they want to do so. It also means that everyone has the right to enjoy the fruits of scientific knowledge. And our task as an organisation and as the global voice for science is to ensure that that commitment is translated into practical positive change.

Marnie Chesterton: So how can we bring about this change? In 2020, the death of George Floyd in police custody created shock around the world, and reignited debates about the extent of systemic racism in our societies. For the ISC, this meant thinking critically about what part it could play in tackling systemic discrimination, and deciding to take a more public stand.

Heide Hackmann: So we published a statement on combating systemic racism and other forms of discrimination in science, calling on our members but also our international partner organisations to join us not only in updating our understanding and our dialogue on discrimination in science, but also in initiating new urgent and concrete action, that should be aimed at correcting discrimination in ways that have real consequences for those who have been and continue to be left behind. We really felt that staying silent at this point in time, and not taking action was akin to enabling persistent systemic discrimination to continue unabated, and it was time to step up for change.

Anthony Bogues: I think that they are signs of change. And those signs of change don’t necessarily come from inside they are usually push from the outside, whether it is Black Lives Matter, or whether you know, 40 years ago, it was the civil rights movement, people demand representation within the institutions of society, and demand that certain kind of confrontation, and which one looks at what, what is it that’s been taught? And then how can we transform what has been being taught to make that much more representative, quite frankly, of the human species? I think therefore, while there has been changes, and what, what one also needs to think about how to accelerate those changes, how to make those changes, also sustainable and therefore permanent.

Marnie Chesterton: Creating sustainable, permanent change in science won’t be easy, and it might make us uncomfortable. But perhaps we have to get comfortable about that.

Heide Hackmann: It’s about showing global leadership, the global voice for science has little value unless it is a responsible voice. As scientists we call regularly, consistently for transformative societal processes for systemic social change to safeguard the sustainability of our planet, and the future of humanity, as science itself is not exempt from the need for transformation. And that transformation requires an openness to having difficult conversations, on the conversations around discrimination, they need to be about what has worked to improve diversity in science, where the barriers lie, what still remains to be done. And I would add a healthy degree of critical self reflection on the part of international organisations like the ISC.

Marnie Chesterton: There are huge challenges ahead for humanity. And we need science, all the sciences to face them. In just the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has completely reshaped the world. And it’s unclear if it’ll ever be the same again. But amidst the chaos, there is hope that we can make it a better place.

Anthony Bogues: What gives me hope is when I think about science, when I actually think about various forms of domination, I know that we are not where we were 100 years ago. And I think that too, when one thinks about science, and I think you know what human science is primarily, then it is always about us, grappling with those different difficulties, and us bending the arc towards a different kind of world. That always gives me hope.

Marnie Chesterton: That’s it for this first episode in the series on diversity in science from the International Science Council. The ISC has launched a project on combating racism and systemic discrimination in science, in partnership with other organizations, matching its public stance with some critical self reflection, and action for change in science systems. You can learn more about the project and the ISC’s mission online at Next week, we’ll be hearing from scientists working in the Amazon and in Ghana, trying to make the research process more inclusive of local people perspectives and indigenous knowledge will be asking how can diversity create better science.

Heide Hackmann is Chief Executive Officer of the International Science Council.

Anthony Bogues is a writer, curator and scholar, the Director Center for the Study of Slavery & Justice, and the Asa Messer Professor of Humanities and Critical Theory at Brown University. He has written extensively on African and African Diaspora political theory and intellectual history with a particular interest in the evolution of knowledge and science systems with regards to the relationships between science, society, and race . He was an Honorary Research Professor at the University of Cape Town and is a visiting professor and curator at the Visual Identities in Art and Design Research Center, University of Johannesburg. He is the author/editor of nine books in the fields of political thought and critical theory, intellectual history, and Caribbean art. 

In 2020 Anthony Bogues participated in and ISC-hosted Virtual Circle Table on Combating Systemic Discrimination in Science at the Falling Walls Conference – find out more and watch the video.

The ISC initiated this podcast series to further deepen discussions on broadening inclusion and access in scientific workplaces and science organizations, as part of our commitment to making science equitable and inclusive. The series highlights work being undertaken through different ISC programmes, projects and networks, and particularly ongoing initiatives on Combating systemic racism and other forms of discrimination, and on Gender equality in science. Catch up on all the episodes here.

Download the full ISC statement on combating systemic racism and other forms of discrimination here. 

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