When I walk into a scientific meeting or conference, I often ask myself: how many underrepresented minorities (URMs) representing American institutions do I see?
I am a Ph.D. candidate in marine science. My concentration is geological oceanography and my research field is paleoceanography, the study of the world’s oceans on geologic timescales. I am also Latina. At scientific meetings, I am surrounded by scientists of every variety: geochemists, physical oceanographers, and glaciologists, to name a few. The range of expertise is extensive, but the goal is the same: to understand how Earth has changed over hundreds to billions of years. However, while I see great diversity in disciplines and sub-disciplines, I often see very little racial and ethnic diversity.
Why is this issue important? This is a question scientists must answer when addressing the societal relevance of their work, and it is the same here: what does society as a whole gain from diversifying the geosciences? I found my answer in a recent news feature in the journal Nature, which highlighted both the measureable and qualitative benefits of diverse laboratories. Members of diverse research groups saw a positive correlation between ethnic diversity and paper citations, more efficient communication within individual labs, and greater collaboration between academics and local communities. While the article does not focus specifically on geoscience research groups, the message is clear: greater diversity in the lab leads to greater scientific and societal gains. But, this isn’t what I see in the geosciences.
As I stand amidst a sea of scientists engaged in conversation, feeling nervous and a little out of place, I ask myself again: how many URMs do I see? The number depends on conference size and location, but I estimate that URMs (those of Hispanic/Latino, African American, and/or Native American/Alaska Native descent) make up about 5-10 percent of total attendance at any given geoscience meeting. This estimate is not far off from the number (~15 percent) reported by the U.S. Census Bureau on racial and ethnic representations in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).
Why the disparity? There is no one answer to this question. The reality is that racial and ethnic representation is ingrained in a complex web of social issues. However, one potentially large obstacle facing racial and ethnic minorities in the United States is limited exposure to the geosciences, which includes the earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences. This may be partly due to the emphasis placed on earth science relative to other subjects in grades K-12. While my public school district excelled in other respects, it did not include a rigorous earth science component. Through the efforts of dedicated educators, this is changing, but I think the problem extends beyond the classroom. There is a lack of diversity in outdoor spaces.
Growing up in Southern California, I lived for the hours that I spent hiking and exploring nearby chaparral scrublands, oak-covered hills, and rocky intertidal environments. I especially loved the beach, where I would spend hours swimming in the waters of the chilly Pacific. As an adult, I would harness my childhood fascination with the natural world to pursue both a master’s and a Ph.D. in marine science and to become an avid hiker and rock climber.
As an undergraduate student, I recognized that my enthusiasm for the outdoors influenced my field of study. However, I didn’t realize that access to outdoor spaces profoundly shaped my experience until years later, when I was a graduate student. Unfortunately, it was accompanied by a blinding realization: very few geoscientists and oceanographers look like me. It was then that I finally started to evaluate the link between minority participation in the geosciences and access to the outdoors.
The disparity in outdoor participation among ethnic and racial groups in the United States is well documented. A National Park Service (NPS) survey conducted in 2008-2009 demonstrated that white non-Hispanic respondents represented the majority (78 percent) of national park visitors. Second place went to visitors who identified as Hispanic or Latino/a, followed by African American, Asian, and finally Native American/Alaska Native respondents. This underrepresentation doesn’t vary for NPS units surrounded by urban areas or areas proximal to diverse communities, suggesting that the proximity of underrepresented communities to national parks and monuments is not the main issue.
More recently, the Outdoor Foundation found that only a combined ~27% of Outdoor Participants ages 6+ identified as non-White or Other; compare this to the ~40% of the total population that identifies as Latino/Hispanic and/or non-White, and it becomes clear that outdoor participation is uneven. The same report showed that individuals who had participated in outdoor activities as children were more likely to participate in outdoor activities as adults. Therefore, underrepresented minorities, who are less likely to participate in outdoor activities as children, would be less likely to participate in these activities as adults. These facts highlight the potential for future generations of Americans to continue to be underrepresented outdoors, with broader implications for how we, as a society, manage entities like our national parks.
Although we can’t say that outdoor access definitely impacts participation in earth science programs, the lack of diversity observed in outdoor spaces is mirrored in geoscience enrollment in U.S. institutions. Between 2000 and 2013, URMs obtained 12 percent and 14 percent of earth/atmospheric/ocean science undergraduate and graduate degrees, respectively. These numbers are noticeably low even compared to natural sciences as a whole, in which URM students obtained ~21 percent of undergraduate and graduate degrees. When compared to engineering and the mathematical, biomedical, and social sciences, earth science showed some of the least diversity.
The issue of low URM enrollment in the geosciences is multidimensional and pervasive at all levels (undergraduate, graduate and faculty), and increasing minority participation in outdoor spaces is not a cure-all. But what if we, as citizens, started working harder to make outdoor spaces and the geosciences accessible to a range of underrepresented groups, including the LGBT community and those with physical or learning disabilities? What if more students allied with underrepresented groups already working to increase their presence and visibility outdoors and in the earth sciences? What if outdoor enthusiasts made concerted efforts to volunteer in outdoor programs that specifically encourage minority participation? Or university administrators and civil servants worked to actively recruit URMs at all levels of academia and government?
At the very least, we enrich lives and re-forge cultural connections with nature. At most, we see our country’s greatest strength, diversity, reflected in outdoor places and scientific spaces.