Why Science Outreach Can Support Diversity

Reading Unscientific America was an eerie experience for me. This book is more disturbing than most of the news I read online.

What bothered me most wasn’t the waning support for science research and science journalism. It wasn’t the social distance separating scientists from most people in the United States, either… although that is part of the problem.

Because of my experience writing about diversity and science, I took the ideas a step further and reached a disturbing conclusion. When they avoid communication, outreach and interdisciplinary thinking, science organizations may be unintentionally and effectively excluding a very large fraction of the population: women and people of color.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some minority-serving universities in the United States base 20 percent of science professors’ tenure evaluations on community service. At other universities, that expectation would be unusual.

Some research says women turn away from science majors because they don’t believe scientists help people. This stereotype isn’t true; anyone who watches TV shows like ER or CSI will see science majors saving lives.

Image of a man with a laptop
Science doesn't necessarily look like this.

If the dominant message says scientists don’t care about the rest of the public, that could contribute to public apathy about science funding. The authors of Unscientific America make a persuasive argument that we should train scientists to do outreach – and fund full-time jobs for them in that field later.

Here is the message I’m concerned could be countering attempts to diversify the science workforce:

If you enjoy communicating or want to contribute to your community, don’t choose a science major.

I blog about the personal, everyday relevance of science because I know these stereotypes don’t reflect reality. In one new industry – green technology – there are signs that women are taking an interest in science because they see their work as a social contribution.

Science is everywhere. It is relevant. It changes the world around us all the time. Science is everyone’s story.