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Diversity in the life sciences

in industryand academia.

By | November 7, 2005

The value of diversity has become almost a cliché in industryand academia. But the fact remains that representation of African Americans, Hispanics, women and individuals with disability in many areas of the life sciences still lags behind the representation of these groups in the general population. While half of California elementary school students are black or Hispanic, just 2% to 3% of University of California faculty belong to these ethnic groups. One in five Americans has at least one disability, but just one in 20 of doctorate holders working in the life sciences in 2001 were disabled. And as is noted in "Where are the Black Scientists?" in this special supplement of The Scientist on diversity, the representation of blacks among tenured and tenure-track investigators at the National Institute of Health has actually fallen in the past decade, from 2% and 4.5%, respectively, to 1% and 1.5%.

There's plenty of data that makes it clear we have a long way to go before the life sciences really look like the US, as the first section of this supplement demonstrates. Diversity, it should be clear from the outset, does not only refer to gender or the color of one's skin. As Trish Lawrence, leader of diversity at Pfizer Global Research and Development in Sandwich, UK, argues in her essay, "Why Diversity Matters," it also means having a group of scientists with different opinions.

Other articles in the supplement's first section, The Outlook, fill out the picture of just where we are today in terms of diversity in the life sciences and where we need to go. Massachusetts Institute of Technology biologist Nancy Hopkins, a national leader on the issue of women and science, describes how helping women to deal with family demands and attacking bias are slowly increasing female representation on her institution's faculty.

In the second section, The Profiles, we feature seven life scientists who belong to underrepresented groups, some of whom are long-time leaders in efforts to promote diversity in the field. Their stories help illustrate the real energy that varied voices and perspectives bring to the sciences.

Our final section, The Guide, includes a comprehensive gathering of diversity resources for individuals and institutions alike. This section closes with "Representing the Real World," in which four life sciences leaders talk about their own career paths and offer insights to young scientists just starting out. As our panelists and profile subjects make clear, mentoring – a crucial force that is near impossible to measure – was key to their success, along with their own love of science and drive to succeed. And many in the current generation of working scientists are giving back, by making mentorship a central part of their own work.

There are many programs at academic institutions and in industry that are designed to improve the situation. What's been largely missing from the discussion of diversity are clear metrics that can prove whether all these programs work. Some do: A study of one of the programs we profile, the University of California at Berkeley's Biology Scholars Program, has shown that 70% of minority students in the program who had intended to obtain biology majors succeeded in doing so, while 45% of minority students not participating did. And MIT and Princeton University have made strides in hiring women science professors.

While many of the other programs we feature in this supplement may be effective, it's often hard to tell because the evidence that a particular program worked or didn't work is not easy to find. The life sciences don't have time to spend resources on programs that don't work. The next charge must be to rigorously test existing programs, bolster those that work, and learn lessons from those that don't. We look forward to continuing to report on these issues in The Scientist, although we hope that such programs will one day no longer be necessary.

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