Inventing Ourselves: Responsibility and Diversity in Research

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How to Get Your PhD

This piece was a contribution to the wonderful book by Gavin Brown, Chapter X in How to Get Your PhD: A Handbook for the Journey (OUP, 2021). It shares one view on how we, as scientists, can respond to diversity and inclusion, and hopefully interesting to everyone (beyond the early-career scientist).

A letter to the new research student.

You are entering a world of knowledge and research that is constantly changing. For so many of us, that is its allure. Yet, for all our investigations into the natural, informational, mechanistic, or structural world, nature does not shape the world of research. We do: you and me. 

The custodian of a tradition of research, its accepted practices, conventions, and inventions, you now become. Acknowledging this fundamental role in the life of the researcher is to take a first step in the responsible custodianship of your field. If research is a reality created by its custodians, then you influence how this reality is shaped—by choosing how you, as a researcher, will shape and invent yourself.

Core to the Scientific Method

We can proudly say that the combined work of the fields of STEM have led to greater wellbeing for people across the world. But this also comes with a history that has led to significant harms. Examples take various forms. The role of mathematics, physics and computing in the devastation caused during the second world war is widely discussed1. In Tuskegee, scientists intentionally infected African-American farmers with Syphilis, conducting painful experiments and withholding treatment, for decades, even once a cure was  known—all to gather more data2. Darwin’s theory of sexual selection helped further entrench paternalistic roles of men and women and marginalised homosexual life3. The scientist is trapped by history, but need not remain trapped. And it is by understanding why things are the way they are that we can find release, into new and different ways of thinking, doing, undoing, and being as researchers. 

As you explore these hows and whys, common elements will emerge: elements of power, hierarchy, authority, and legitimacy in how knowledge is created and used. These are modes of organisation that can be productive, but when imbalanced, can lead to significant harm. As the early-stage researcher you might think you have no say in these processes, yet. Much of this book’s advice has been about ways of navigating this reality during your PhD. But this reality exists everywhere, in every career and at every stage. So the next step on your path is to, in your own way, find the means with which to restructure and challenge such systems of power, and towards responsible research. It is in this belief, of custodianship and responsibility, that you will find an obligation to fostering Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI).

It may be instructive to briefly define these terms:

  • Equity refers to the fairness of systems and fairness in access to opportunities that all people should have, recognising that there are existing barriers that prevent many people from effectively participating in research, and creating systems that remove such barriers. Figure 1 is a common and useful visualisation to understand why we use the word equity, and how it is different from equality.
  • Diversity refers to the ability of people across our different human identities (race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, amongst others) to be represented and participate in our work and research.
  • Inclusion refers to the ways in which people within our teams and research groups feel welcomed, accepted, respected, and empowered. 

Figure | Pictorial difference between equity and equality.4 

Greater equity, diversity and inclusion are efforts towards Transformation: the systemic and social changes that strengthens respect, responsibility and freedom in our communities. Transformation changes the way groups of researchers (and entire institutions) think, at a fundamental level. And if what we are interested in is transforming our fields of research—into those that avoid harm, take our commitments to scientific scepticism more seriously, that actively seek criticism and alterity, and sees our research as enhanced by others—then a different way of thinking is needed. Consequently, Transformation becomes more than a moral imperative. Transformation and diversity become a necessary part of the way we conduct our science: a core component of the scientific method. 

But What Can I Do?

As an early-career researcher, you can have an impact by reinvigorating and renewing your research group’s culture of inclusion. Look to making your lab meetings, seminars and retreats more inclusive by checking that everyone gets a chance to speak (look out for those who don’t often do so), by not interrupting nor allowing interruptions, being mindful of time and timeliness, sharing credit, and demonstrating and expecting healthy working hours5

Part of inventing ourselves lies in understanding those who are not us, and not like us. Make an effort to understand, deeply, the constant and greater effort that some of your colleagues and the people you encounter must make to operate in research today—often a burden that accumulates until it becomes too heavy to bear. These will later become the sites of your contributions to equity. By becoming more aware of those around you, you can notice these situations: where people stop colouring their hair or wearing makeup, start dressing differently, feel forced to speak differently, fear saying too much about themselves, are compelled to clarify their credentials when others need not, endure ‘random screening’ at the campus gate and the conference entrance when others are waived through—all in an effort to overcome illegitimate assumptions of voice and look and credibility and belonging; all in an effort to be taken seriously. Effort before any research is begun. Empathy is one of the greatest tools for Transformation and undoing injustice.

As you progress in your research path, you can find ways to use your new-found tools of inclusion and empathy in broader settings. You might consider the new starters in your group and help put together or update a starter guide to help them navigate their new, unfamiliar, possibly daunting surroundings. You should commit some of your time to talk about diversity, allowing different opinions, seeking the support of supervisors and leadership at the earliest stages of your efforts, and supporting a collective transformation.  

You will also become more critical of yourself: you will look more deeply at your own collaborators and the diversity of identities and inclusion in your teams and papers; you could keep a log of people who you have invited as speakers at events and track the way you contribute to representations of excellence in your field; you will encounter situations of tokenism, understand its genesis, and instead work towards genuine inclusion; and you will become aware of the glue-work6 being done—important functions, not really part of anyone’s role, but that enables effective teamwork and success—and whether it is shared equitably in your working environment and striving for it to be so. Importantly, you will recognise that the work of transforming your field must involve transforming yourself

The specific ways in which you make contributions to diversity and Transformation are part of your journey in creating a new research reality; and it won’t be hard to locate resources, organisations, and grassroots groups that can be called upon whenever you need support. But take heed, ‘to act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger’.7

Every person we meet will understand diversity and Transformation in their own way. These are the differences we are actively pursuing, and difference is part of our journey, as difficult as it might sometimes be. We cannot flee the reality of who and where and why research is presently done; there will be disagreements as to how to enact transformative change; creating the language and trust to talk about identity and inequality is hard; we cannot shy away from divergent socio-political viewpoints; people can and do change their minds over time; we will encounter discomfort and ourselves become uncomfortable and unsettled.

A Final Thought

I have found my own efforts towards Transformation to be both enriching and enraging, satisfying and futile, empowering and humbling, but something I and many others remain committed to. The work of diversity is itself important, and creates better teams and better research environments for everyone. But the work of diversity takes its most powerful role when it becomes part of a critical scientific practice, part of our commitment to creating a more sceptical research-self, and defines the responsibility we assume as custodians of our fields of research.  

When we invent ourselves, we leave the rooms of research that are familiar, to instead explore its larger house. Quickly are new doors flung open, and new ways of seeing and doing research found. As the history of science tells, it is in these new rooms that our greatest advances are made, all in a new reality, a reality shaped by us: me and you.

Exercises for the reader:

  • Find examples of cases of harm in the history of your field, and how social and technical values and questions are discussed.
  • Reflect on your personal understanding of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.
  • What barriers to being effective research students can you remember discussing with friends and colleagues?
  • What is one small thing you think can transform your research group into one that is more inclusive and encourages diversity?

Some References

  1. Examples include, G. Farmelo (2013), Churchill’s Bomb: A Hidden History of Science War and Politics. Faber and Faber Publishers; and E. Black (2001), IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation, Crown Books.
  2. A. M. Brandt (1978), Racism and Research: The Case of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study,  The Hastings Centre Report, 8 (6), pp 21-29.
  3. P. Hardman (2001), What can Darwin Teach us About Sexuality? Darwin and Gender Blog.
  4. Image from Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (rwjf.org).
  5. For advice on  inclusive meetings see 500womenscientists.org/inclusive-scientific-meetings
  6. Tany Reilly, Being Glue. noidea.dog/#/glue 
  7. From James Baldwin, in ‘My Dungeon Shook. Letter to my nephew on the one hundredth anniversary of the emancipation’.

If you are a new PhD student (especially in the UK), get a copy of the book. If you want to cite this, reference below.

S. Mohamed (2021). Inventing Ourselves: Responsibility and Diversity in Research. Chapter X in How to Get Your PhD: A Handbook for the Journey Gavin Brown Brown (ed), pp 215–221. Oxford University Press.

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