Diversity creates stability and resilience


Many inspirational people in my life are already charging ahead to meet our shared challenges.  If you’re looking for a pick-me-up, let me point you to some early wisdom that’s emerged immediately on the morning after the election: Josh Drew explained how  he’s approaching teaching the day after the election. Meg Duffy explains how she says “Yes” to make a difference. It’s taken me an additional day to reach that kind of positivity.

This election changed what it means to be a scientist in the United States. Yes, funding rates will still suck, but now scientists are enemies of the state. Our new president said that global warming is a hoax invented by the Chinese. And our new Vice President is a hardcore young-earth creationist, and he allegedly is having a heavy hand in shaping the cabinet.

I am focused on moving forward, which means we’ve got to size up the landscape. If you look at what Trump wants for scientific research, for energy and the environment, and for higher education, then know that the situation is grim. Read those links if you haven’t gotten your head around this yet. Because if we’re going to do our job as research scientists, and as teachers, then understanding our environment is critical.

As a senior scientist, a big part of my job is training scientists. Diversifying the national STEM workforce is a clearly stated national priority  — though I imagine this is probably going to change soon. Most of my students are members of ethnic minorities, many are in families that have recently immigrated to the US, and the majority of them are women.

Trump is not only anti-science, but he’s actually positioned the scientists in my lab as enemies on the basis of their identities.

There’s a lot of talk about love and hope and reconciliation. I’m all about the hope, but the only thing we need to reconcile right now is the distance between our perception and the reality. Whatever movement we build, it’s not going to reconcile with the fears fueled by systemic racism, anti-intellectualism, and male fragility.

Our hope for a better future is going to be built on optimistic and pragmatic plans to make this place work for all of us. This is in stark contrast with our new overlords — and those who voted them in — who think diversity is a source of weakness. As an ecologist, I know functional diversity results in stability and resilience.

Yes, let’s win hearts and minds. And start with the obvious fact that the United States has a huge problem with racism and sexism, obvious if you look at how people voted*.

I’ve wanted to spend time on this site talking about science, doing science, mentoring scientists, teaching science, and being a scientist. Instead, I’ve ended up spending a lot of time talking about the roadblocks put up for students from marginalized groups.

Man, I just want to do science. But just as much, I want everybody else to be able to do science.

Now we are facing an administration that is an enemy of science, an enemy of ethnic diversity, and an enemy of women. We are in this situation because Americans either agree with those issues or think that it’s not a big deal. So, it looks like I can’t shut up about it now.

People in my community feel that they are at risk, and that’s because they are at risk. A white nationalist bully is becoming president and almost nobody with federal authority will be putting brakes on him. I think we are safer here in Los Angeles, but let’s not fool ourselves that national elections won’t have national consequences.

It’s been one day, but all across America, we’ve seen threats and hate crimes skyrocket against muslims and people of color (search twitter for “Day 1,” if you have the stomach for it, to see some of these stories). As a scientist and a mentor I cannot separate this civic crisis from training the scientific workforce of this country. If you fear for your safety and if your government is a source of hate instead of a source of support, then training to be a scientist will always be a secondary or tertiary concern.

If I’m going to be an effective scientist and mentor, then I’ve got to reckon with the pain and fear that always been there. This election didn’t change the tune one bit, it just turned up the volume on the dial.

I’m not sure how to go forward, other than knowing that we need to engage more. That doesn’t mean that some of us need to invest heavily in engagement. This means we all need to engage. As Alan Townsend shared (below, click it to expand) we’ve got to let the members of our community who are in danger that we support and love them, and that we will fight for them:

On a day to day basis, I’m not sure what fighting for our community will look like. The public needs to hear directly from scientists what climate change is and what it means. They need to know how basic research is fundamental for progress and medical advances. That the exploration of space is inspirational and pragmatic. That every dollar that we invest in education actually saves us money by having better trained and more informed citizens.

Visibility as public scientists is a start. But we need to advocate for a diversity of voices in science, and for the training of a diverse scientific community. Because that diversity gives us strength, resilience and visibility. I’ve got a hunch that not many scientists voted for Trump. But demographically, we resemble his base, and we’ve got to change that if we’re going to build a scientific community for the future.

Hang tight, y’all. I care about you, and you are valued, and together we really are making a difference. We have accomplished a lot already, and there is so much more that we will do.



*I’m not going to join the corps of people attempting to explain precisely what was going on in the minds of Americans whose votes elected Donald Trump. He didn’t get a majority, and he didn’t even get a plurality. But our antiquated electoral system was designed to sustain slavery, so we got what we got, from white voters. About half of America is okay having an overtly racist, sexist, xenophobic bully run the show and represent us to the rest of the world.  His thuggery, violence-baiting — including an invitation to assassinate his opponent — were not deal breakers for my fellow citizens.

If you set down to have a conversation with a black woman about her lived experiences in the US, I don’t think you can deny the depth and breadth of racism in the US. It’s folly to imagine that this was not a big part of what happened in the election, if you actually listen to what Trump and his supporters have said, and what his supporters are doing.

It’s been 152 years since Lincoln barely squeaked the 13th amendment through Congress to end slavery. And many people have yet to deal with its legacy, as large swaths of us are refusing to even agree with the most fundamental idea that the lives of black people actually matter. We’ve got a long ways to go.

If you’d like to split hairs about the difference between being racist and xenophobic and the willingness to accept a racist and xenophobic president, then that’s not really a discussion I’m willing to humor on these pages.

5 thoughts on “Diversity creates stability and resilience

  1. There were ripples of the election results felt here in Sweden too. I was teaching at Stockholm University as a part of a workshop yesterday. We spent the day talking about science communication with a group of young scientists from across the life sciences. It was a really inspiring day but I started off trying to process the election results on the train ride there. I had so much hope that we would see a qualified woman president leading the USA and it was hard to accept that it wouldn’t be. As a Canadian and having spent 5 years in the USA this felt personal and close to home for me. It was heartening to see how many Europeans felt that way too. One of the other teachers was especially inspiring for me as she advocated that we should be even more motivated to share our science with broad audiences in the wake of the election. Anti-science, anti-expert and anti-knowledge movements are not new nor are they limited to USA (Trump) or UK (Brexit). We as scientists have a responsibility to make our science accessible. If we don’t do it, who will? So in the wake of these results, I am going to do more to make my science accessible.

    It feels like there is so little that we living outside the USA can do right now. But we can support our friends, colleagues and collaborators. We can work towards science being more diverse in our own countries and support that movement elsewhere. We can advocate diversity in our invited speakers, for example. We can be open and supportive when we all come together such as at conferences and we can demand those conferences have diverse invited speakers. We can take a hard look at our own environments to see how similar anti-science elements operate at home. And we can spread our knowledge as far and as wide as we can. It is not the time to hide in any ivory tower anywhere in the world. If we believe our science matters now is the time to share it. And while sharing your science why not also support minorities in science by highlighting theirs?

  2. I’m already feeling ‘at risk’. I’m my first year into the graduate program… and at a tipping point where, if I quit and go BACK to my old job, I won’t be too far in debt… but if I stay through next semester, I’m in a catch22. I’m taking a serious gamble. In the environment pre-November 9th, I was pretty safe… yes, the degree would cost $$, but the bump in pay would more than make up for it.

    But, if the market tanks, if schools and nursing homes lose funding from the gov’t(I’m speech language pathology)… then there’s if He sees fit to revoke all of the education funding and credits that previous democratic presidents started that are allowing me to continue my education. See?

    Everyone keeps telling me, in so many ways, that ‘this too shall pass’ and that there are checks and balances in place… but I don’t see it.

    I’m a woman. I grew up poor and in mixed neighborhoods. And this bully, quite literally stands in the way of my continued success in this society.

    What do we do? Suggestions are welcome. Do I quit? Do I chance it?

  3. Thanks so much for this post. I’m not emotionally settled enough to express my own thoughts coherently. Your post captures my concerns and fears. I also am wondering how to fight back.

    I’m not sure there is a problem with lack of scientists speaking out. Prominent scientists have been speaking about climate change. My big question is: how do we get people to listen? How do we cut across the denialist claims in an age where people choose information sources that feed them only what they want to hear?

  4. Terry, I feel an existential angst as I enter the classroom on Friday. I feel like we are preparing our students for a world where evidence is examined and evaluated and used for decision-making. A world in which reasoned consideration of evidence sways minds. I feel like we are preparing our students for a world that no longer exists in the USA. And I have been thinking this way for the last 20 years.

    Thus, am I ethically in dereliction of my duty as an educator, even an educator in science? And if we stay true to science education, how do we prepare our students for a world in which it is already difficult to get employment and will probably only get harder for them and in which the skills we are teaching them are neither valued nor welcome?

    We are currently covering nutrient cycles in my ecology course and we teach our students about carbon cycling. Do we need to preface that with the acknowledgement that the government coming into power in January does not believe in the magnitude and sources of these fluxes and the logical consequences of them? Or do we just stop teaching it because it really does not matter in a fact-free world? Or do we continue teaching it as if nothing has changed? It is still the carbon cycle after all.

  5. Trump has no plans for scientific research, I doubt he even know what entails. Money, that’s all he has plans for. I personally would like to see actual scientists take a visible role in our elementary schools-the kids would love it.

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