November 9, 2021


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Tags: Action, Black, calls, Meetings, Neuroscience, remain, scientists, Spectrum, underrepresented


Categories: autism

Regardless of calls to motion, Black scientists stay underrepresented at neuroscience conferences | Spectrum

Homogeneous crowd: The average percentage of black speakers at neuroscience conferences remains zero, even as institutions commit to increasing diversity.

Cimmerier / Getty Images

Since the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, the percentage of black moderators at neuroscience conferences has increased by just 3 percentage points, according to a new analysis.

The study, published Thursday in Nature Neuroscience, compared the proportion of black speakers at 18 neuroscience conferences held from May 2019 to late January 2020 with the proportion of 18 sessions held between October 2020 and late May 2021.

Only 3 out of 18 conferences during the previous period had black moderators, and black academics made up just 1.2 percent of the total speakers. By the end of May 2021, these numbers had risen only marginally: 7 out of 18 conferences had black moderators, who made up 4.2 percent of the total.

In other words, the average number of black speakers at neuroscience conferences was zero for both periods.

“Unfortunately, it was about what I expected,” says study researcher Lewis Wheaton, associate professor of biological sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.

Seeing all of those zeros in Wheaton’s data was staggering but not surprising, says Rackeb Tesfaye, a graduate student in Mayada Elsabbagh’s lab at McGill University in Montreal, Canada and co-founder of the Black in Neuro advocacy group. The conference data speaks of deeper, more systemic problems faced by black researchers, whose work is less cited in the academic literature, who tend to hold a disproportionately low number of permanent positions, and are generally less comfortable in academic settings, she says. The data helps shed light on the problems and spark discussion, but at some point the neuroscientific community will have to commit to harnessing the talent and resources already available.

To illustrate, Black attracted abstract submissions from Black PhD students in Neuro 70 when it hosted its own virtual conference in 2020 after the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) annual meeting was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, Tesfaye says.

“If a group of trainees is able to do this, the question arises: What are some of these bodies doing?”

Assess the field:

The global race discussion seemed promising in mid-2020, Wheaton says. “I’ve seen a lot of people enthusiastic about social media and the like, and I’ve seen a lot of calls for change at [the National Institutes of Health]. “But when the organizers of the neuroscience conference began asking for speakers in the months that followed, that enthusiasm and introspection largely did not lead to a commitment to racial justice and inclusion, Wheaton says.

For his analysis, Wheaton combed through the selected conference programs and used the profile photos they contained or performed a Google image search to visually identify black moderators. In case of doubt, he contacted individual speakers directly. Out of 512 moderators before February 2020, he identified 6 who are black, and out of 479 moderators after October 2020, he found 20 who are black.

The American Society for Neurorehabilitation (ASNR) annual meeting, for which Wheaton served as program chair in 2019 and 2021, was one of the highest-level meetings for black speakers attending, with 9.7 percent black speakers ahead of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, and 18.8 Percent after that.

What distinguishes ASNR is that board diversity is an active part of the organization’s review criteria, Wheaton says. When demographically homogeneous teams of scientists submit proposals for presentations, Wheaton and his co-organizers ask them to include more ethnic minorities, women or scientists from smaller universities in their projects and to resubmit them. “It took this active desire to change things,” he says.

Wheaton excluded the Society for Neuroscience (SfN), whose annual meeting begins today, from his analysis because the program did not clearly separate speakers from a list of co-authors of a presentation. However, SfN did a good job deliberately pushing for greater representation among speakers and attendees, says Damien Fair, professor of pediatrics and child development at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, whose team will showcase their research at the meeting.

Stronger Science:

Part of the problem is that the organizations hosting these conferences are not sufficiently inclusive due to historical and structural inequalities. So when decisions are made about the events, black academics and academics from other underrepresented groups are not adequately represented, Fair says. “There aren’t always many black scholars at the table when it comes to black topics.”

The conferences are “the parades that show that the emperor has no clothes,” says David Mandell, professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. “We can talk about diversity whatever we want, but unless we become more aggressive and inclusive in our recruiting efforts and the support we offer marginalized academics, from bachelor to faculty, we won’t have diversity.”

Inclusion efforts aren’t just about meeting criteria, it’s about making sure scientists have equal access to career opportunities, says Wheaton. “If black scientists are not invited to give platform presentations, you deny these black people the opportunity to disseminate their science nationally and internationally.”

Missing these opportunities prevents black academics from meeting potential mentors or mentees, connecting with new hires, and presenting their work to potential grant reviewers, Wheaton says. “If you are not actively doing it, whether you intend it or not, you are actively suppressing the careers of these scientists, including those who look like me.”

More diverse conferences and laboratories offer more researchers more opportunities. And increasing the diversity of thought and background in a laboratory improves the quality of science, Fair says.

“The sheer variability and diversity of ideas will lead to better questions and answers about the actual scientific discipline,” he says. “We have known that for years.”

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