Working Toward Diversity

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President and Senior Scientist Dr. Eric A. Davidson

The leaders of the six scientific and educational organizations in Woods Hole1 renewed their commitment to building a diverse and inclusive scientific community by signing an updated Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) at a recent ceremony at the Sea Education Association. The MOU was first signed in July 2004, and while the leadership at all six institutions has changed since then, the group’s commitment to support the Woods Hole Scientific Community Diversity Initiative has strengthened over time.

“We believe that we must create ‘pathways of opportunity’ that will attract people from underrepresented groups by showing that the Woods Hole scientific and educational community has opportunities beginning with primary education and leading to higher education, post graduate work, research and lifetime careers, both in Woods Hole and in the global scientific community,” the MOU states in part. “We believe that homogeneity among people is self-perpetuating and that in order to increase diversity, we will have to increase our efforts beyond what they are now.”

Perhaps the greatest success of the WH-DI to date is the Partnership Education Program (PEP). Sixty undergraduate students from 39 colleges and universities in the US have participated in the summer internship program, now in its fourth year. They receive four weeks of class instruction and four weeks of laboratory or field experience. The PEP program is funded by NOAA, with participation of scientists from all six Woods Hole institutions as instructors and mentors. Thirteen students are enrolled in the 2012 summer program which runs May 31 through August 10.

At the recent resigning ceremony, I asked this year’s class of PEP students what attracts them to science. Several of them responded eloquently about pursuing science in order to contribute to society and to make a difference, about their love of nature since they were small children, and their curiosity to learn more. While the institutional leaders who signed the new MOU are all white, five male and one female, and about 30 years older than the students, it was heartening to learn that the students had the same motivations that we did as young scientists, and that this motivation is clearly shared and articulated by a diverse group in the present generation of students.

The WH-DI has many unmet goals. Surveys of the staff composition of the six institutions indicate that minority representation is disappointingly low and has not changed much, if at all, since the first MOU was signed in 2004. The WH-DI has sponsored training for human resource departments regarding recruitment, and there is an active advisory board that plans annual events. We can claim some success in recognizing the problem, drawing attention to it at all levels of the organizations, and devoting significant staff time to addressing it, but we still have a lot of work and a long way to go to achieve our long-term objectives.

Acknowledging that properly increasing diversity at middle and upper levels of scientific institutions is a generational process that will likely take decades to accomplish is not very satisfying, but it does reinforce the need to support programs like PEP, as well as follow-on initiatives for scientists at all educational and career levels. One of the PEP students from a previous summer is now participating in a WHRC summer internship program in Russia (the Polaris Project), thanks to our collaboration with the PEP program to recruit participants from among their alumni. The diversity in science challenge is not confined to the US, and we at the WHRC have been actively engaged in training and capacity building among students and mid-career scientists from developing nations of Africa, Asia, and South and Central America.

The nations and the people within nations who are most affected by environmental degradation and climate change are those with the fewest economic resources to adapt. They must be part of the economic and environmental solutions, which means that they must be represented and actively contributing to science and policy efforts.

Change requires persistence, providing multiple opportunities for young scientists from all backgrounds to gain inspirational and practical experiences that propel them on a career path in scientific research and environmental policy. While we often tout our accomplishments in advancing scientific discovery and science-based solutions to the world’s environmental and economic challenges, we must not forget that training a diverse group of the next generation’s scientists and policy experts is an equally important product and must be part of the design of how we carry out our mission.

1The signatories to the MOU are the Marine Biological Laboratory, the Woods Hole Laboratory of NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center, the Sea Education Association, the Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center of the United States Geological Survey, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and the Woods Hole Research Center.

Read the Memorandum of Understanding

Visit the Woods Hole Diversity Initiative website