The field of neuroscience is not diverse or inclusive for underrepresented groups, which consist primarily of women, racial minorities, and the LGBTQ+ community. In 2018, despite making up half of the doctorate students in neuroscience, women made up only a quarter of tenured professors . Similar trends hold for underrepresented minority students -- over the past 30 to 40 years, the number of assistant professors hired from underrepresented backgrounds has increased at a much slower rate than the number of candidates from these backgrounds . LGBTQ+ professionals in STEM on average receive significantly fewer career opportunities and resources, experience greater professional devaluation, social exclusion, and harassment from their colleagues, and are more likely to leave STEM . Current neuroscientists face immediate challenges and barriers to their success in the field, and greater efforts must be made to remove these barriers in a meaningful and comprehensive way.
In addition to immediate barriers faced by current scientists, barriers to underrepresented minorities entering science also contribute to the lack of diversity in the field. Despite roughly equal levels of interest in STEM, students from underrepresented minorities are about half as likely to complete a STEM degree in college compared to white and Asian students . Additionally, LGBTQ+ students are 7% less likely to pursue STEM careers after undergraduate studies despite comparatively higher participation in undergraduate research . This results in a limited pool of talent from which the field can recruit and hampers immediate efforts to highlight the research and work of people from underrepresented backgrounds.
Research suggests that more diverse groups of people come up with more creative approaches to solving problems . Still, while diversity is beneficial to science, people from underrepresented backgrounds deserve top quality scientific opportunities in their own right. Increasing diversity in neuroscience, and STEM in general, presents a complex, multifaceted problem that will require great effort to solve. Many of the barriers to equity in the pursuit of neuroscience are hidden and systemic; tearing them down will require the entire field to self-analyze and take action upon what that analysis shows.
The Importance of Diversity
Diversity improves science. Different people have different mental representations of problems and methods for finding solutions to those problems. Researchers modeled team selection among a diverse group of individuals and found that teams of randomly selected individuals outperformed teams of the best-performing individuals on problems . This is because individuals performing best on a particular problem have very similar mental representations for the problem and solutions for it, such that the team is not adaptable for solving a wide variety of problems. In other words, if one person is high-performing in a team, adding another high performing individual who thinks the same way improves the solution very little beyond what the team already has. An individual with lower accuracy but with a different approach brings more to the discussion that can be optimized for better accuracy . Based on this model, diversity is the driving factor of team problem solving, and groups of people from diverse backgrounds can come up with more creative, innovative solutions to society’s problems. Empirical studies confirm this. A study at three American universities found that groups that had greater racial diversity and vocal minority opinions were better able to synthesize solutions to more complex problems .
Aside from this, diversity among medical researchers increases trust from minority groups who have historically been marginalized and even oppressed by medical research, allowing us to better recruit from these populations to conduct studies on the issues they face . Diversity also increases focus on healthcare disparities, as underrepresented minority scientists often have a greater drive to reduce such disparities as well as a better understanding of how they arise . Thus, diversity in STEM is key to reducing barriers faced by underrepresented minorities throughout society.
Most importantly, we need to improve diversity and fairness in science because it is the most ethical way of conducting science. People from underrepresented backgrounds should be uplifted because they are valuable as people, not just because they improve scientific outcomes. Diversity, equity, and inclusion begin with people and must take a human-centered approach.
A Homogeneous History
The field of neuroscience has a history of racism and exclusion from its beginnings, and the harmful ideologies and motivations of many of the most famous scientists who first pioneered the field are ignored by the neuroscience curriculum today . One such scientist is the early modern European philosopher Immanuel Kant, who lived from 1724 to 1804. His ideas gave rise to Kantian Neuroscience and theories on how we process art; however, he claimed that Black people had no praiseworthy qualities in art or science. Another Scottish philosopher, David Hume, who contributed to an early Discourse on Brain and Consciousness, claimed that there never was a civilized person who was not white. Voltaire believed that Black people and white people were different species .
These early philosophers’ assumptions about race influenced some of the first experimentalists in neuroscience. Paul Broca is famous for identifying the region of the brain for speech production, named Broca’s Area. However, he strongly believed that the different races of humans were in fact multiple species, and this idea opened the door to belief in racial superiority based on evolutionary fitness . Later in the 1800s, Gustav Fritsch, lauded as a pioneer of motor function, went to Africa to collect human eye and hair samples to prove the genetic inferiority of Black people .
To provide an encouraging environment for potential neuroscientists who face barriers, these scientists’ shortcomings ought to be exposed early on in the classroom, and it must be emphasized that the neuroscience community aims to eschew their harmful ideas as much as possible. It may be well worth it to rename these brain regions that force people of color to so often recognize the individuals who engineered and were complicit in their oppression. The neuroscience community needs to do some serious thinking about the way it educates.
Bias as a Source of Disparity
In almost all cases, a self-analysis will reveal bias: an omnipresent factor that perpetuates gender and race imbalance and one of the most difficult ones to tackle. In a discussion of bias, it is necessary to acknowledge that much of it is invisible to us. Indeed, most of us are biased, sometimes against ourselves, and sometimes from an age as early as 3 . Bias can be found in the most unlikely of places. An analysis of paper reference lists in neuroscience found that articles with female authors were cited less often than their proportion in neuroscience research would predict. This trend was largely driven by men citing other men and including the contributions of their female counterparts less often . While roughly 43% of publication authors are women, the rate of female authors in four major neuroscience journals hovered around 35% in 2020, and given that scientists often cite top journals, this may be in part responsible for the aforementioned citation bias in the field .
These biases have harmful consequences. They reduce the quality of scientists in our field, as qualified women and underrepresented minorities are passed over in favor of less qualified, over-represented individuals . Furthermore, because scientists from underrepresented backgrounds are cited less, we leave important opinions and scientific perspectives out of the discussion, directly hampering the progress of the field. Most importantly, it ought to be troubling to us that access to and success in our field is unfairly set up.
Professor Jennifer Raymond cites her own bias against women in STEM, as measured by Harvard’s Implicit Association Test, and points out that all too often the simple acknowledgment of bias is refused by many scientists who pride themselves on being rational and objective. Science, in fact, has a history of portraying itself as a field that is rational and above bias. However, humans are inherently biased and have external motivations as scientists, so by definition, they will produce biased judgements . As humans, we make basic implicit assumptions about how the world works that bias our research . Pretending that sociological and psychological factors have no effect on scientific research is foolhardy at best and downright harmful at worst. Questioning assumptions whenever possible is a scientist’s paramount responsibility.
However, it’s worth noting that learning to curb individual biases may be similar to consciously curbing any of our other habits, such as biting our nails or speaking with filler words such as “like” or “um” . After all, our brains are flexible and can be trained even at the oldest of ages. While combating institutional racism and sexism is a much more complicated matter than simply correcting individual habits, the actions we take in our everyday lives to lessen bias can act as a catalyst for bigger change. In order to close the citation gap, we must actively cite women in the field as often as we cite men — this greatly amplifies recognition of the contributions of women to neuroscience and may play an important role in closing the gender gap in the field. Essentially, bias must be acknowledged and consciously tackled. There is no other solution.
Current Efforts to Improve Diversity
Major neuroscience conferences and institutions have diversity initiatives. These include the Society for Neuroscience, the Gordon Research Conference, the American Academy of Neurology, and many other such organizations. These initiatives are admirable -- diversity and inclusion efforts ought to be written into the philosophies of these institutions and should be organized and effective. However, top-down institutional change is notoriously slow and difficult, and cannot be relied upon to heal disparities. Diversity and inclusion should not be seen as the job of a bureaucracy removed from our daily lives. Ultimately, it is up to individuals to lead anti-racism efforts and advocate for systemic change in the field from the bottom-up, beginning with the influence we have in our immediate circles and daily interactions.
In keeping with this, an all-female group of American professors founded an organization called BiasWatchNeuro, devoted to tackling the underrepresentation of females in American neuroscience conferences . They track gender ratios of speakers at most major neuroscience conferences, giving them a rating based on a scientifically sound methodology. Furthermore, they encourage speakers and attendees to be judicious about which conferences they attend, actively attempting to shift quality neuroscientists into more equal spaces and reduce the prestige of conferences that cannot be bothered to appreciate the contributions of women in the field.
Another example of scientists who enacted bottom-up change comes from Puerto Rico, which ranks 6th among American states and territories in the number of universities per square mile . Members of the academic community in Puerto Rico created an initiative called NeuroBoricuas, which promotes liaison between universities and secondary education institutions around Puerto Rico. Scientists and university students run programs and labs for their high school counterparts, often using portable and easy technology like Backyard Brains to make education interactive. The organization now has representatives at 20 high schools and 18 universities around the island and is quickly growing . These efforts are critical to fostering interest in neuroscience among students, laying the groundwork for a more diverse field in the future.
Finally, Black In Neuro is an organization of neuroscientists, neuro-engineers, and science communicators devoted to celebrating, amplifying, and supporting Black voices in STEM . Major initiatives of the organization include interviewing members of the community and inviting them to speak and write blog posts, as well as providing resources and advice to undergraduates, graduate students, and postdocs. Despite having existed for less than 2 years, they have created a directory of more than 200 scientists, engineers, educators, and communicators, and over a thousand people from 65 countries attended their 2020 Black In Neuro Conference. In addition, all members of the organization are compensated for their work, sending a strong message that contributions in this sphere are valuable and necessary . These characteristics represent a strong model for what a neuroscience diversity organization should look like.
Future Diversity Efforts
Significant work is still required to improve diversity in neuroscience, both within the field itself and in the educational pipeline leading up to it. Part of that work involves sociological research into what is effective. However, many STEM educational programs are not set up with educational research in mind, and thus fail to focus enough on collecting the necessary data. A study of research on improving interest in STEM during education found that many articles fail to include a control group or properly define the scope of their findings to the populations they studied . Further, few studies follow their participants beyond a few years, and this data would be critical to examining exactly what causes leakage in the pipeline from school to STEM careers. More thorough work and increased funding are required to fully research and address these issues.
However, we have certainly identified approaches that can help with retention. A major barrier to underrepresented Making special efforts to recruit people from underrepresented backgrounds as much as possible would reduce the effect that biases have on the diversity of the field. In addition, minimizing the impact of test scores on admission to science degree programs has been shown to reduce racial bias in recruitment. Scores on the GRE, for example, show virtually no correlation whatsoever with performance in graduate school, and underrepresented minorities consistently face systemic access and economic barriers that artificially worsen their performance . Scientists found that reducing the reliance of admissions on such exams increased racial diversity in neurology residency programs . Readers are encouraged to advocate for their local educational institutions to commit to these actions.
Summer programs that increase interest in STEM are a positive step. However, scientists who led TRY-IT!, a summer course designed to educate students about STEM, found that the benefits of summer programs for underrepresented students in STEM were generally dampened during the school year by systemic educational barriers. The scientists suggest that these educational programs should be long-lasting and standardized in school education to be most effective . This requires well-designed, easy-to-use tools that can be implemented across the curriculum. Standardization is also necessary because programs that recruit students by voluntary participation often end up with pools of students already interested in STEM rather than those who are not but could be, given the right opportunities. Finally, the researchers running TRY-IT! highlighted a greater need for student evaluation of such programs, including feedback on what works and what does not .
In contrast, there is plenty of feedback available from underrepresented groups on what their institutions can do to support them, and where this feedback does not currently exist, there are many people willing to collect it (see example, ). However, for maximum success, these efforts must be officially sponsored and institution-led with organized groups. All equity efforts on the part of employees must be compensated as any other work would be; a lack of such compensation indicates that we value the current inequitable system over a more equitable one. There are no more excuses; the time for change was long ago.
Three major trends emerge from the findings discussed in this article. The first is that any efforts to improve diversity must take a human-centered approach, recruiting and uplifting people of underrepresented backgrounds. Not only will this result in more creative solutions to increase diversity, but it will also build the trust that underrepresented minorities have in science, leading to a more positive perception and greater participation by these groups. This in turn leads to greater efforts by those individuals to improve diversity, illuminating a virtuous cycle that results from diverse recruitment: diversity begets more diversity. Finally, the fact that diversity also results in better science means that there is no excuse to avoid any effort to increase diversity in neuroscience.
The second is that efforts to improve diversity must target people from a young age to be effective. Internal biases, even those against ourselves, arise extremely early in people’s lifetimes, and efforts to improve diversity in STEM must be standardized in education to tackle these biases, ensuring that people from underrepresented backgrounds can feel motivated and comfortable with the idea of pursuing neuroscience. However, this is not sufficient to achieve diversity, equity and inclusion. Given that underrepresented groups are no less interested in science than their majority counterparts but face more barriers to achieving these careers, retention seems to be a far greater issue than interest. Neuroscience is discriminatory, and this is because people in the field are discriminatory. Diversity efforts that begin from a young age must continue throughout an aspiring neuroscientist’s journey to be successful.
Finally, efforts to improve diversity begin with us. They are not someone else’s job. At the end of the day, every initiative and study needs people behind it, and these movements will involve controversy. Members of the neuroscience community face a choice — to leave the action and work to others, or to be the change we wish to see in the world, the change that we know is necessary.
- United States Government Accountability Office (2018). Action Needed to Ensure Workforce Diversity Strategic Goals Are Achieved (pp. 1-56, Rep. No. GAO-18-545). United States Government Accountability Office.
- Gibbs, K. D., Basson, J., Xierali, I. M., & Broniatowski, D. A. (2016). Decoupling of the minority PhD talent pool and assistant professor hiring in medical school basic science departments in the US. eLife, 5, e21393. doi:10.7554/elife.21393
- Cech, E. A. & Waidzunas, T. J. (2021). Systemic inequalities for LGBTQ professionals in STEM. Science Advances, 7(3), eabe0933. doi: 10.1126/sciadv.abe0933
- Weekes, N. Y. (2012). Diversity in neuroscience. We know the problem. Are we really still debating the solutions? Journal of Undergraduate Neuroscience Education (JUNE), A Publication of FUN, Faculty for Undergraduate Neuroscience, 11(1), A52–A54.
- Hughes, B. E. (2018). Coming out in STEM: Factors affecting retention of sexual minority STEM students. Science Advances, 4(3), eaao6373. doi:10.1126/sciadv.aao6373
- Hong, L. & Page, S. E. (2004). Groups of diverse problem solvers can outperform groups of high-ability problem solvers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 101(46), 16385-16389. doi:10.1073/pnas.0403723101
- Antonio, A. L., Chang, M. J., Hakuta, K., Kenny, D. A., Levin, S., & Milem, J. F. (2004). Effects of racial diversity on complex thinking in college students. Psychological Science, 15(8), 507-510. doi:10.1111/j.0956-7976.2004.00710.x
- Sierra-Mercado, D., & Lázaro-Muñoz, G. (2018). Enhance diversity among researchers to promote participant trust in precision medicine research. The American Journal of Bioethics, 18(4), 44-46. doi:10.1080/15265161.2018.1431323
- Marrast, L. M., Zallman, L., Woolhandler, S., Bor, D. H., & McCormick, D. (2014). Minority physicians’ role in the care of underserved patients. JAMA Internal Medicine, 174(2), 289-291. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.12756
- Abiodun, S. J. (2019). “Seeing color,” A discussion of the implications and applications of race in the field of neuroscience. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 13, 280. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2019.00280
- Broca, P. P., & Blake, C. C. (1864). On the Phenomena of Hybridity in the Genus Homo. Edited, with the permission of the author, by C. Carter Blake. London: Anthropological Society of London. doi:10.5962/bhl.title.26325
- Raymond, J. (2013). Most of us are biased. Nature, 495(7439), 33-34. doi:10.1038/495033a
- Dworkin, J. D., Linn, K. A., Teich, E. G., Zurn, P., Shinohara, R. T., & Bassett, D. S. (2020). The extent and drivers of gender imbalance in neuroscience reference lists. Nature Neuroscience, 23(8), 918-926. doi:10.1038/s41593-020-0658-y
- BiasWatchNeuro. (2020, October 15). Journal Watch. Retrieved from https://biaswatchneuro.com/journal-watch/
- Newton-Smith, W. (1980). Is science rational? Social Science Information, 19(3), 469-499. doi:10.1177/053901848001900301
- Andersen, F., Anjum, R. L., & Rocca, E. (2019). Philosophical bias is the one bias that science cannot avoid. eLife, 8, e44929. doi:10.7554/elife.44929
- BiasWatchNeuro. (2019, October 16). About. Retrieved from https://biaswatchneuro.com/about/
- Sierra-Mercado Demetrio, Ferrer-Acosta Yancy, Colón-Mercado Jennifer, Bravo-Rivera Hector, Ramos-Medina Liorimar, Torrado-Tapias Aranza, Vega-Medina Alexis, et al. NeuroBoricuas: Revolutionizing education by incorporating neuroscience laboratories in schools of Puerto Rico (2017). Society for Neuroscience Abstracts, 022.08SA; November; Washington, D.C. 2017.
- BlackInNeuro. (2021, January 24). Mission Statement. Retrieved from https://www.blackinneuro.com/mission-statement
- van den Hurk, A., Meelissen, M., & Langen, A. V. (2018). Interventions in education to prevent STEM pipeline leakage. International Journal of Science Education, 41(2), 150-164. doi:10.1080/09500693.2018.1540897
- Moneta-Koehler, L., Brown, A. M., Petrie, K. A., Evans, B. J., & Chalkey, R. (2017). The limitations of the GRE in predicting success in biomedical graduate school. PLoS ONE, 12(1), e0166742. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0166742
- Spector, A. R., & Railey, K. M. (2019). Reducing reliance on test scores reduces racial bias in neurology residency recruitment. Journal of the National Medical Association, 111(5), 471-474. doi:10.1016/j.jnma.2019.03.004
- Boelter, C., Link, T. C., Perry, B. L., & Leukefeld, C. (2015). Diversifying the STEM pipeline. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk (JESPAR), 20(3), 218-237. doi:10.1080/10824669.2015.1030077
- Vander Kaaden, K. E., Ryan, C., Rivera-Valentin, E. G., Phillips, C. B., Haber, J., Filiberto, J., et al. (2020). Creating inclusive, supportive, and safe environments in planetary science for members of the LGBTQ+ community. Accessed January 26, 2021. https://repository.hou.usra.edu/bitstream/handle/20.500.11753/1693/LPI-002543.pdf