Science is Better When it’s Diverse

Associate professor of anthropology Deborah Bolnick and graduate student Sam Archer, in the laboratory. Bolnick is one of a group of anthropologists who have documented how bringing diverse perspectives into scientific inquiry goes beyond increasing representation in the lab: diversity transforms the very practice of science. (Photo by Bret Brookshire)

A group of anthropologists has taken a major step in demonstrating the concrete impacts of diversifying the voices, histories, and lived experiences represented in the field of science.

In a special Vital Topics Forum to be published in the June issue of the journal American Anthropologist and just released online, 20 Black, Latinx, Indian American, Indigenous, White, feminist, and LGBTQIA scientists and anthropologists document how bringing diverse perspectives and knowledge purposefully into scientific inquiry goes far beyond simply increasing representation in the laboratory: diversity transforms the very practice of science. Diverse and inclusive perspectives offer the opportunity, and the skill set, to ask different questions than those of traditionally more homogeneous scientific teams, rethink scientific methods, reckon with science’s history of abuse and exclusion, and expand the boundaries of scientific knowledge.

The Forum, titled “How Academic Diversity is Transforming Scientific Knowledge in Biological Anthropology,” was edited by UConn associate professor of anthropology Deborah Bolnick and colleagues at the University of Notre Dame and Dartmouth College.

“Scientists with diverse backgrounds and experiences ask different kinds of research questions, develop different study designs, and adopt different approaches to data collection and interpretation, leading to new and expanded scientific knowledge,” says Bolnick. In other words, according to the researchers, changing who we are in science also entails changing what we know.

The Vital Topics Forum was inspired by a high-profile symposium held at the 2017 American Association of Physical Anthropologists meeting.

The editors and authors write on the fraught history of anthropological inquiry, initially infused with the white, male, Eurocentric perspectives of those studying the “Other with a capital ‘O’,” as Bolnick puts it. Many of the founders of anthropology, she notes, dedicated their careers to cataloguing what were, from their perspective, innate racial differences and inferiorities in the bodies of Indigenous, African, Latinx, and other marginalized peoples.

In contrast, African-American, Latinx, Indigenous, and other marginalized scientists more often draw attention to the negative consequences of colonialism, race and racism, and societal inequities, which shifts our understanding of what underlies racial disparities in health, body composition, and behavior, say the researchers.

Studies of the genetic makeup of Indigenous communities have also been affected by the perspectives that researchers bring to their work. Even recent studies of North American Indigenous people focus on genetic relationships and assumptions of biological “purity,” which undermine the social, political, and legal contexts that constitute tribal belonging, write coeditor Rick Smith, Neukom Postdoctoral Fellow of Anthropology at Dartmouth College, and Bolnick in their article on “situating science.”

United States Senator Elizabeth Warren’s use of DNA testing in 2018 to assert Native American ancestry was informed by the mistaken assumption that identity, group ties, and tribal belonging are encoded in our DNA. In response, Bolnick and Smith reminded reporters from Forbes, Slate, The Boston Globe, and other news outlets that genetic connections do not grant a person tribal belonging, and that tribal belonging has a complex cultural, political, and legal fabric.

Indigenous peoples alone, and not non-Indigenous scientists, hold the power to define who their people are, says Smith.

“The problematic focus on biological purity has led researchers to sometime exclude certain Indigenous community members from study, producing a biased and incomplete picture of genetic diversity in Indigenous communities,” Bolnick adds.

Multiple recent studies show that science and social science research teams with a diversity of members create higher-quality scientific outcomes, notes co-editor Agustín Fuentes, the Edmund P. Joyce C.S.C. Professor of Anthropology and chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame. The real power of this Vital Topics Forum, he says, is the individual researchers who narrate the way their personal histories have impacted the way they do science, and how they use that awareness to produce better science.

“This move is to push against the assumption that science is neutral or unbiased,” says Fuentes, “that you step into the lab and out of society, out of your own implicit or personal biases. That’s never been the case, and it shouldn’t be. We should strive for awareness of bias and understanding of how such biases affect our science.”

“Marginalized people have always known that science is partial and that it is political, because we have suffered the consequences,” adds Smith. “There’s been this idea that ‘real’ science only includes a narrow set of perspectives about how the world works, but that’s because access to science has long been denied to marginalized people. The resulting lack of diverse ideas in science isn’t evidence of its neutrality; it is evidence of its exclusionism. Diversifying science brings with it the possibility of changing science for the better.”

Contributors to the volume come from diverse sex, gender, class, racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds, and represent graduate students through full professors, as well as research areas spanning anthropology, genetics, and human biology.

One example, written by Smith and UConn graduate student Samantha Archer, shows how people who identify as LGBTQIA are positioned to break down the artificial boundaries that have long separated the humanities from the natural sciences.

“In the past decade or so, academia has seen a push for more LGBTQ people to go into STEM fields,” says Archer, who is a member of Bolnick’s lab group. “In addition to implementing policies that help make queer and trans people safe in our laboratories, we also need to ask how queer people’s lives and experiences can strengthen the science being produced. A queer framework works towards undoing the stark binary that pits the humanities and natural sciences against one another, and bisexual people are one of these groups that know from lived experience how to translate between and beyond this binary. We want our work as academics to reflect that refusal to see it as such.”

Bolnick, Smith, and Fuentes would like to see more tangible training grounds, and inclusion, for under-represented groups, like the Summer internship for INdigenous peoples in Genomics (SING) and the Increasing Diversity in Evolutionary Anthropological Sciences(IDEAS) programs. For example, the SING program trains people from North American Indigenous communities about the uses, misuses, and limitations of DNA research with Indigenous communities. The program recognizes that genetics must be contextualized as part of a rich sociocultural history, and aims to empower Indigenous participants to use genomics as a tool to support the interests of their communities.

The authors of these essays aim to communicate their work broadly, hoping the volume inspires other fields of science to work harder on not just including people from marginalized groups, but embracing their diversity of perspective as a vital augmentation of the process of science.

“Diversity is not just about visibility and representation,” concludes Smith. “It is about making new and vital science together.”


By Christine Buckley | Story courtesy of UConn Today

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