Monday, June 24, 2013

Advancing Science Through Diversity #OXIDE #TellurideScience #TownTalk

This week, I'll be talking about diversity with the public in the town of Telluride. Is such social science, presented by a molecular scientist, appropriate as a Telluride Town Talk on Molecular Science? This is a venue in which scientists typically speak about their research or their scientific interests in a context accessible to a general audience. It could be human health or climate change. In 2000, I spoke about the analogies between proteins and glasses, and in 2009, I spoke about social, economic and chemical networks. These topics are complex in the sense that they involve many particles that interact strongly with each other. However, they all act rationally. As such, they are not nearly as complex as problems in the social sciences in which individual agents—that is, humans—often act rather irrationally. The Open Chemistry Collaborative in Diversiy Equity (OXIDE) lies at the intersection of these fields. Our perhaps daunting task is to transfer the knowledge gained from the social sciences into reframed professional practices within academic chemistry departments in which diversity inequities are entirely eliminated. Ultimately, we expect that this will lead to demographics within our profession that are comparable to those of our nation. Working with social scientists, we also aim to give back to their field by providing data and analysis of our field.

That all said, you may still be wondering whether the subject is appropriate for a Telluride Town Talk. This question is actually two-sided: Why should molecular scientists spend their time working on these issues rather than focusing on their molecular research? Why should the public care about how a professional discipline is addressing diversity inequities within their ranks?

The truth is that the professional practices of a discipline need to be changed from within, and that means that chemists must be the drivers to the change. The most obvious symptom of the diversity inequities present within the chemical sciences lies in the low numbers of women and under-represented minorities among the academic and professional ranks of chemists in comparison with the demographics of our nation. With the population of under-represented minorities increasing, the need for them to have access to chemistry careers becomes an economic necessity for our nation. Otherwise, our nation will be drawing its talent of future scientists from a shrinking pool. So chemistry departments must become attractive and accomodating destinations for students and faculty whose backgrounds are as diverse as that of our nation. Meanwhile we need the general public to be supportive of the molecular sciences as a viable career choice. Otherwise, students will choose other professions leaving the sciences without some of the best minds. Thus we need a partnership between chemists and the public to advance diversity in the molecular sciences. As for the public, they should care not just because this mission is important to the nation, but also because the diversity inequities that we are finding are relevant in to all professions and organizations.