The pandemic is sabotaging the careers of researchers from under-represented groups, but institutions can help to staunch the outflow.
31 JULY 2020
Years of slow improvement in diversity and inclusion in science could come undone because of the COVID-19 crisis. In a June letter to Nature Ecology and Evolution, 19 researchers from around the world warned that job losses during the pandemic might pose “disproportionate existential threats” to researchers from under-represented groups, including women, people from minority ethnic backgrounds and those who are financially disadvantaged.
Co-author Raísa Vieira, an ecologist at the Federal University of Goiás in Goiânia, Brazil, says that the pandemic and related political upheavals are already eroding hard-won diversity gains in her home country. “It’s really sad to see what’s happening here,” she says. “It’s like we’re going back 30 years.” As the scientific director of Brazil’s National Association of Graduate Students, she is especially concerned about junior scientists at home and elsewhere. Although the pandemic affects everyone, she and others fear that the pain won’t be evenly distributed. She says it will take a concerted effort by institutions, funders and scientific journals to help ensure that people from under-represented groups can remain in science during the pandemic and beyond.
The pandemic threatens to make UK universities less diverse, says Christopher Jackson, a geologist at Imperial College London. As one of a very few Black Earth-science faculty members in the entire Northern Hemisphere, he’s familiar with the plight of under-represented researchers. He worries that as institutions try to cope with the virus and its consequences, diversity in hiring and promotion will become a low priority. “They’ll say this isn’t the time for progressive measures,” he predicts. “They won’t have the appetite for it. Certain racial and ethnic groups will be the hardest hit.” …
Minority-ethnic scientists in the United States are also having trouble hanging on, says Iris Wagstaff, a director-at-large of the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers, based in Annapolis, Maryland. There are no firm statistics on the financial impacts for different communities, Wagstaff says, but she is very concerned about what she’s hearing from her organization’s members. “Across the board, our students, postdocs and early-career researchers of colour who study science, technology, engineering or maths (STEM) are losing funding, and their job searches are interrupted,” she says.
It’s almost as if during a crisis, people tend to direct money to scientists who can save millions of lives rather than to poseurs who can check privileged race boxes.