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A Scientific Approach to Increasing Diversity in the Sciences

To reduce subtle biases that limit women and minority academic scientists, research universities should design diversity programs that adhere to rigorous scientific standards, according to a new paper co-authored by Professor Victoria Brescoll.

Researchers at Yale University, Skidmore College, and Leiden University aim to reduce gender and racial biases within the academic science community by applying the rigorous scientific standards of the lab to the design of diversity programs.

“Fair treatment of scientists is an essential aspect of scientific integrity, but we know from available research that conscious and unconscious biases exist within academia that limit the progress of women and minority scientists,” said Victoria L. Brescoll, assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management and a co-author on a new paper on this topic in Science. “Without a scientific approach to creating diversity programs and empirically measuring whether they achieve their objectives, we are likely to perpetuate the existing system that allows persistent biases to influence evaluation, advancement, and mentoring of scientists.”

Along with her co-authors, Brescoll proposes an evidence-based framework for creating effective diversity programs tailored to academic scientists. The straightforward framework of four design elements and three measurable outcomes is drawn from research on strategies to reduce biases and establish effective teaching methods, and from successful diversity programs.

Under the proposed framework, diversity programs should be grounded in current empirical research; use active learning techniques such as writing, problem solving, and group discussion rather than lectures or online training modules so participants actively engage with the course content; employ language indicating that we all share responsibility for diversity instead of assigning blame or responsibility for current diversity issues, which has been shown to produce a backlash effect and worsen bias; and include a plan for ongoing and rigorous evaluation of the program’s effectiveness with different groups.

Few diversity programs at research universities incorporate all four of the recommended design elements, and many incorporate none. And although many programs have been in place for decades, few have been evaluated to measure their effectiveness. The authors propose that the effectiveness of diversity programs be measured based on participants’ increased awareness of diversity issues, decreased bias, and readiness to act on diversity issues, rather than avoid them.

The authors suggest that diversity programs adopting these elements and outcomes be incorporated into existing training offered to scientists, such as courses in responsible conduct of research (RCR). RCR courses are already required for researchers who receive funding from U.S. federal granting agencies and cover critical topics, but do not currently include content related to diversity or bias.

“RCR courses were instituted based on serious concerns about the fair treatment of human and animal research participants,” said Corinne Moss-Racusin, assistant professor at Skidmore College and the lead author of the project. “The next logical step is to take the ethical and fair treatment of researchers themselves just as seriously, by adopting a scientific approach to ameliorating subtle biases that can undermine responsible research practices just as systematically as many of the topics already included in established RCR courses.”

“Scientific Diversity Interventions” is published February 7 in Science. Other authors are John F. Dovidio, Mark J. Graham, and Jo Handelsman of Yale University, and Jojanneke van der Toorn of Leiden University.

Department: Research