Challenging scientific bias

  • November 27, 2013
Challenging scientific bias

Caitlin Casey is working on ways of highlighting bias which leads to some groups being under-represented in science.

While scientific research pushes the boundaries of human knowledge for the better, the culture of extreme competition within academia can give rise to unfair advantages.  It doesn’t need to be that way, claims Gates Cambridge Scholar Caitlin Casey [2007], who recently published
a column in Nature
suggesting one way academia can become more inclusive and welcoming to under-represented groups while remaining equally competitive intellectually.

Casey, with her colleague Kartik Sheth, designed and carried out an in-person workshop and online survey for the international astronomy community to help level the playing field.  The workshop focused on a series of hypothetical scenarios applicable to astronomers’ lives that fell in the academic “grey zone”.  These scenarios dealt with instances of sexual harassment, plagiarism, bullying, unconscious bias and stereotypes that might not be severe enough to report to authorities, but could hamper fair academic discourse, especially for under-represented groups.

The workshop was first conducted at the Aspen Center for Physics in June 2013 at the “Obscured Universe” workshop, for which Casey was one of the organisers, and later brought to, an online blog which supports a community of 3,000 professional astronomers.  After discussing a range of hypothetical scenarios together and ranking them along a `continuum’ of behaviour from desirable to undesirable with workshop and survey participants, Casey and Sheth revealed that none of the scenarios were actually hypothetical – all came from first-hand experiences, either their own or their colleagues’, in the past few years.  Several colleagues (including senior male professors) who had previously been sceptical about claims of harassment or unconscious bias admitted the exercise was eye-opening, making them think differently about their own everyday interactions.

“This is one of the first times astronomers have discussed issues of academic workplace behaviour openly at a science meeting,” Casey explains. “It was great to see everyone engage and empathise with realistic scenarios that affect our everyday productivity.  To have it happen in the context of a world-class meeting on galaxy evolution, with a diverse group of researchers who otherwise might not have shown up, was incredible.”

Gates Cambridge

Casey says that her time as a Gates Cambridge Scholar, doing a PhD in Astronomy, was essential for driving her interests in diversity and equity. “The Gates community is incredibly diverse and made me think about my career as an astrophysicist in a broader context.  While it’s unlikely I’ll save lives or cure diseases studying astrophysics, I can always work to make access to science more equitable.  Part of that is making academic discourse more inclusive.

“The word ‘diversity’ has something of a bad reputation in the physical sciences,” she continued. “‘If you care about diversity, you probably don’t care about high quality research,‘ I often hear.  The reason most astronomers and physicists get defensive about diversification is that they perceive it attacks them (mostly Caucasian males) and dilutes the quality of cutting-edge science.  In fact, the opposite is true.  By not fostering a healthy workplace environment for women and minorities, we’re cutting out a huge fraction of the creative intelligence we could otherwise have access to.

“Everyone can be an advocate for equity, not just those from under-represented groups,” Casey emphasises.  She hopes the column in Nature extends the reach of such an exercise beyond the astronomy community to other science fields.

Casey is now a McCue Postdoctoral Fellow of Cosmology at the University of California, Irvine where she studies galaxy formation and evolution in the early Universe.

Picture credit: xedos4 and


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