Barely 10 percent of doctoral degrees in the geosciences go to recipients of color. The lack of diversity limits the quality of research, many scientists say.
“A lack of diversity and inclusion is the single largest cultural problem facing the geosciences today,” Kuheli Dutt, the diversity officer of Lamont-Doherty Observatory at Columbia University, wrote recently in Nature Geoscience.
By Emma Goldberg
Dec. 23, 2019
When Arianna Varuolo-Clarke was growing up, her favorite evenings were spent watching the Weather Channel with her grandfather. She wanted to “chase thunderstorms” and understand where tornadoes came from, she said. She decided to become an atmospheric scientist. In 2014, she landed an internship at the National Center for Atmospheric Research as a college sophomore, and quickly realized that her path as a woman of color would not be easy.
“You’d walk through the halls and it’s a lot of old white men,” Ms. Varuolo-Clarke said. Still, she pushed forward and began her Ph.D. in atmospheric science at Columbia University last year.
The field’s lack of diversity gained new urgency in May when her graduate student cohort was targeted with a series of racist emails. The messages, sent to affiliates of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia by a person outside the community, said that black people were genetically inferior and did not belong in academia. It was “hurtful and invalidating” to be told that she didn’t belong in the world that had drawn her in since childhood, Ms. Varuolo-Clarke said. “It was an isolated incident. But it brought to the surface what still needs to be done in the field.”
In a commentary last week in Nature Geoscience, Kuheli Dutt, Lamont-Doherty’s assistant director for academic affairs and diversity, wrote that “a lack of diversity and inclusion is the single largest cultural problem facing the geosciences today.”
The geosciences — which include the study of planet Earth, its oceans, its atmosphere and its interactions with human society — are among the least diverse across all fields of science. Nearly 90 percent of doctoral-degree recipients are white. In the country’s top 100 geoscience departments, people of color hold under 4 percent of tenured or tenure-track positions. A 2016 survey from the National Science Foundation showed that representation of people of color in geosciences has barely budged in the past four decades, although significant gains have been made in terms of gender balance.
Asian-Americans are better represented than other people of color, according to Dr. Dutt, accounting for 6 percent of those earning geoscience doctorates in 2016. Between 1973 and 2016, just 20 Native American women, 69 black women and 241 Hispanic women earned Ph.D.s in the field, of some 22,600 total.
The field’s lack of diversity begins with a pipeline problem, geoscientists say. National surveys have shown that black people are less likely than white people to participate in outdoor activities. One survey, conducted in 2009, queried 4,103 respondents and found that African-Americans accounted for just 7 percent of national park visitors, and another survey found that they were more likely to report receiving poor service by park employees. Robert Stanton, the first black director of the National Park Service, has said that the idea that “black folks don’t like parks” has become a “self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Lisa White, a micropaleontologist at University of California, Berkeley, said most public high schools, especially those in urban environments, did not have the resources to organize outdoor field trips introducing students to the earth sciences. As the assistant director of education and outreach at the U.C. Museum of Paleontology, Dr. White has noticed that students of color tend to be more familiar with medicine, engineering, computer science and other STEM fields that lead directly to job opportunities.
I have read countless articles over the last half century about how our society needs to work harder to entice more blacks into ill-paid careers that don’t really interest them instead of letting them get the higher-paying jobs that find more appealing.
Compounding the pipeline problem is one of stereotypes. The typical earth scientist is often seen as a rugged white male.
“You think of a bearded guy on top of a mountain wearing flannel and hiking boots,” said Jonathan Nichols, an associate research professor at Lamont-Doherty. “We just had our big fall conference and there were 20,000-plus geologists, and you look around and it’s all old bearded guys.”
That stereotype, Dr. Nichols said, can make the field feel unwelcoming to people of color, who don’t see themselves represented at conferences and among faculty members. Dr. White concurred that the geosciences had an “image problem” that prevents young people of color from applying for research opportunities.
That lack of representation in turn affects the quality and focus of earth science research, especially on climate change.
“It’s not rich white people who will be impacted first and most by climate change,” Dr. Nichols said. “It’s the people in marginalized communities. And if you forget that this work isn’t just an academic pursuit, then why are you even doing it? You have to keep in mind the real impact.”
Lorelei Curtin, a fifth-year Ph.D. student at Columbia University, said her earth science classes could be enriched by a greater focus on nonwhite and Indigenous histories and voices, given that “Indigenous people have a unique connection to the land.”
Ms. Curtin helped start a book club at Lamont-Doherty called Race Talk, which brings together geoscientists for discussions on race and white privilege. The group has read “Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence,” by Derald Wing Sue, as well as “Home,” by Toni Morrison. Ms. Curtin said that scientists were not accustomed to conversations that center on individual stories and experiences rather than data, so sensitive discussion of racism presented a challenge.
Dr. Dutt, Lamont-Doherty’s diversity director, joined the Observatory 11 years ago as its only person of color in a leadership role. Since then she has led trainings for geoscientists on recognizing their implicit biases to foster a more racially inclusive environment.
Her article in Nature Geoscience last week, titled “Race and Racism in the Geosciences,” was so popular that the journal’s editors removed its pay wall.
Back in 1943, George Orwell wrote:
Nazi theory indeed specifically denies that such a thing as “the truth” exists. There is, for instance, no such thing as “Science”. There is only “German Science,” “Jewish Science,” etc. The implied objective of this line of thought is a nightmare world in which the Leader, or some ruling clique, controls not only the future but the past. If the Leader says of such and such an event, “It never happened” — well, it never happened. If he says that two and two are five — well two and two are five. This prospect frightens me much more than bombs — and after our experiences of the last few years that is not such a frivolous statement.
Ironically, Hitler tended to associate the potential power of the atom with Einstein and “Jewish Science,” so that was one reason he was unenthusiastic about developing an atom bomb, which is the only thing that could have made his comparably expensive “German Science” ballistic missiles into a war-winning weapons system.
BY THE WAY, December is one of the three months of the year (along with April and August) when I ask you for donations.
Large or small, I find each to be a personal message of encouragement to keep doing what I’m doing. I more or less figured out the basic logic of the 21st Century, which hasn’t made me popular, but with your support I can keep on keeping on pointing out how the world works.
Here are eight ways for you to contribute to me, iSteve:
First: You can use Paypal (non-tax deductible) by going to the page on my old blog here. Paypal accepts most credit cards. Contributions can be either one-time only, monthly, or annual. (Monthly is nice.)
Second: You can mail a non-tax deductible donation to:
P.O Box 4142
Valley Village, CA 91617
Third: You can make a tax deductible contribution via VDARE by clicking here.
Please don’t forget to click my name at the VDARE site so the money goes to me:
VDARE has been kiboshed from use of Paypal for being, I dunno, EVIL. But you can give via credit cards, Bitcoin, Ethereum and Litecoin, check, money order, or stock.
Note: the VDARE site goes up and down on its own schedule, so if this link stops working, please let me know.
Fourth: if you have a Wells Fargo bank account, you can transfer money to me (with no fees) via Wells Fargo SurePay/Zelle. Just tell WF SurePay/Zelle to send the money to my ancient AOL email address steveslrAT aol.com — replace the AT with the usual @). (Non-tax deductible.) Please note, there is no 2.9% fee like with Paypal or Google Wallet, so this is good for large contributions.
Fifth: if you have a Chase bank account (or even other bank accounts), you can transfer money to me (with no fees) via Chase QuickPay/Zelle (FAQ). Just tell Chase QuickPay/Zelle to send the money to my ancient AOL email address (steveslrATaol.com — replace the AT with the usual @). If Chase asks for the name on my account, it’s StevenSailer with an n at the end of Steven. (Non-tax deductible.) There is no 2.9% fee like with Paypal or Google Wallet, so this is also good for large contributions.
Sixth: send money via the Paypal-like Google Wallet to my Gmail address (that’s isteveslrATgmail .com — replace the AT with a @). (Non-tax deductible.)
Seventh: [Warning: Does this still work?] You can use Bitcoin using Coinbase. Coinbase payments are not tax deductible. Below are links to two Coinbase pages of mine. This first is if you want to enter a U.S. dollar-denominated amount to pay me.
This second is if you want to enter a Bitcoin-denominated amount. (Remember one Bitcoin is currently worth many U.S. dollars.)
If Coinbase isn’t working, what other Bitcoin intermediaries would you recommend? My goal is to not get audited by the IRS. The SPLC has been out to get me via the IRS for about 15 years, so I am fastidious about paying my taxes. For several years, Coinbase instantly transformed any Bitcoin donations into cash so I didn’t have to worry about the cost basis of capital gains on Bitcoin, but instead just reported income.
Eighth: At one reader’s request, I recently added Square as an 8th fundraising medium, although I’m vague on how it works. If you want to use Square, send me an email telling me how much to send you an invoice for. Or, if you know an easier way for us to use Square, please let me know.