What remains invisible controls us the most: What really drives research?

Exploring this year’s Open Access Week theme of “Open for Whom? Equity in Open Knowledge,” Antoinette Foster reflects on underlying, often-invisible causes of exclusion and marginalization in research and calls on each of us individually to do the important work of critical introspection as an important first step in working collectively to make research more inclusive.

 

Does scientific research allow space for everyone, regardless of race, wealth, ability etc., to participate equally? 

Does your program, department, or institution explicitly or implicitly create a scientific research environment that selects for a specific demographic of people to participate and thrive?

First…

Who am I?
My name is Antoinette Foster. I am a black Latina woman, an activist, and a PhD candidate in neuroscience.

 

Who is this article for?
For people who believe research is not exclusionary, for those who believe it is, and everyone in between.

 

What’s my goal in writing this?
My objective is to present ideas to consider, evaluate, and apply your own critical thought process to. I hope readers remain curious, open, and honest about their thoughts and feelings as they read this. As researchers, our curiosity and ability to think critically represents core aspects of who we are. We strive to be seekers of objective truth, and we see value in alternative ideas that may hold merit. Your expertise in curious, objective, critical thought will be powerful tools in this discussion.

 

A common response to the questions above may sound something like this: “Of course we are a welcoming institute [department, program, work environment]. First of all, it is illegal to practice discrimination in the workplace. We let anyone apply to graduate programs, post-doctoral positions, and faculty/staff positions. In addition, we have ‘diversity quotas’ and pipeline programs to increase diversity. We even offer diverse individuals monetary incentives to come to our institution.” A typical retort might sound like, “Yes those things are true, but what about [insert an example of an exclusionary practice or inequity]?”. Then, a policy might be implemented to address the inequity; it is cited as an example of a proactive inclusion effort until another exclusionary practice surfaces. The scenario plays out over and over: wash, rinse, repeat. In a sense, both arguments are accurate. Some people are able to point to attempted efforts to create more equity, and others acknowledge areas that still need improvement.

I wonder if this approach makes sense. It reminds me of picking mushrooms. We pluck the fruiting body, addressing one mushroom after another, while completely overlooking the vast, strong, and invisible interconnected system beneath our feet. This foundational core of the mushroom is the very structure the fruiting bodies rely on for survival. The mushroom is merely a small manifestation of the much larger organism. Similarly, is it possible that the foundational core of academic research, ie. the core of what research is built on, undermines our own efforts to address social inequities seen in science? I cannot provide a comprehensive answer to these questions, but I would like to propose a possible framework to you while you consider these questions. 

I believe we can start to understand our foundational structure by understanding what the research community thinks is important- What are our collective values and beliefs? For instance, we value objectivity because we believe that science should not be influenced by personal interest or community bias. One way the scientific structure reflects this value is by requiring external review for publications and grant applications. Researchers participate within this structure by submitting publications and grants. We can view this participation as a behavior. The value of objectivity and the related beliefs, structure, and behaviors are woven into the fabric of the scientific culture. Therefore, a possible model to find our foundational structure may look like this: Our values (what we think is important), shape our research structure (how we organize ourselves to do science). Our values also influence our behavior and attitudes (how we actualize, manifest, and justify our values), and our structure provides the framework where we execute our behavior. These elements create our research culture. To summarize: 

Image description: Our values and beliefs influence our behaviors and attitudes which shape the structures we operate within, all of which are represented in our culture.

I use this framework to understand the relationship between our values and how we embed these values and beliefs into our structures and culture. I also use this framework to understand how our structure and culture drives, supports, and protects our behaviors, and most importantly, how this may set a foundation for inequity. 

What are other values we hold within research? As a neuroscientist, I am more familiar with values we hold within the scientific research community, but I imagine many values are universal. For example, we value researcher autonomy, i.e. that principal investigators (PI)/mentors should have autonomy over the direction of their research and how their lab is managed. Though this concept is not inherently bad, it becomes problematic when we assume PIs will treat their employees ethically and we grant autonomy without much supervision. We create a system (the lab) with little oversight and are hesitant to become involved when the environment seems amiss, all in the name of protecting autonomy. In the same vain, we value money. We might grant flexibility to unethical behavior if the PI receives large grants and runs a scientifically successful lab. We also value prestige and do not want to tarnish our program/institutions name, so we grant additional leniency to problematic behavior. Our actions, or lack thereof, speak volumes about how far we are willing to go to protect our core values. We can argue about the universality these specific values and behaviors, but I would bet most of us know of someone somewhere who has suffered as a consequence of “respecting” an employer’s autonomy. Our values of autonomy, money, and prestige lead us to behave in ways that protect our values, even in the face of dysfunction. In essence, our values can create and support systems that protect unethical behavior, while simultaneously devaluing those who are the target of unethical behavior. Unchecked values and behaviors allow us to create systems that have the potential to hurt others, often times victimizing those with less power. This is the opposite of inclusion. 

What are other unchecked values that may drive exclusion and inequity? Here are two additional examples: 

Value/belief: Sacrifice-We believe a “good scientist” puts science above all else.

  • Toxic when: We believe this regardless of a person’s financial stability, family or community support, mental health, etc.
  • Excludes: Those with less wealth who cannot afford unpaid internships or low wage stipends, single parent homes with little support, those with mental health needs (anxiety and depression are common in researchers
  • Selects for: Those with financial resources, community support, & access to health care
  • Embedded in system/behaviors: Acceptance to graduate programs is dependent on previous (typically unpaid) internships. We view sacrifices made as a badge of honor regardless of the impact of the sacrifice on the individual. 

Value/belief: Similarity- we value those who have similar values/paths as ourselves. We believe similarity is better. 

  • Toxic when: The decision-making bodies are homogenous and we consciously/unconsciously select for people similar to us 
  • Excludes: The demographics of people not represented in the decision-making process
  • Selects for: The demographics of people represented in the decision-making process
  • Embedded in system/behaviors: Homogenous decision-making bodies, biased grant funding based off value similarities or ‘scientific nepotism’ (association with well-known scientists results in a higher likelihood of funding/acceptance into positions)

These factors all shape and protect one of our most dangerous attitudes in research: If I can do it, why can’t they? If this woman can do it, why can’t she? If this black person can do it, why can’t another? We compare individual characteristics without examining the entire system. We subconsciously engage in determining someone’s ability and worth based off of simple comparisons and anecdotal evidence that does not consider the larger structural inequities. 

If culture is merely an assembly of shared attitudes, values, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization, we must ask ourselves what these attitudes, values, and practices say about our research culture. As a black Latina woman from a low-income background, research culture holds values, beliefs, and attitudes that lay the foundation of a system that actively excludes someone like me. We can have as many pipeline programs as we want. We can require and attend cultural sensitivity trainings. We can abide by “diversity quotas” and include the words “diversity, equity, and inclusion” in every mission statement we make, but until we become deeply introspective about what our real values, beliefs, and attitudes are and how they drive the structures we create, we will continue to participate and perpetuate an exclusionary culture. 

Whew! Now-breathe.

These problems are deeply interconnected and challenging, but remember…

Anything we’ve created, we can change.

These problems are not too big.

But where do we start?

Start with the only thing you have control over: yourself. Start with self-assessment of your own values. There are many free online resources to help guide you. If you value autonomy, money, and prestige-great! Now, ask yourself, “At what cost?”. Do I believe in autonomy to the point of abuse? Do I value prestige over safety of others? Finding your limits helps ground you for your next steps.  

Now that you are armed with your own values as a guide, determine the values of your program/department/institution. Is there alignment or misalignment? Collaboration is key here. Different perspectives will help you gain a fair assessment of your organization’s values, so talk to your colleagues. It would be helpful if these colleagues were diverse in a multitude of ways as they may notice implicit values you don’t. Is your department lacking diversity? Reach out to colleagues in different departments or even across institutions: the values that set the culture may be universal. 

Now for the hard part - you must ask yourself in a moment of genuine honesty - Are my values, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors contributing to a toxic/exclusive culture? Is the institution/department’s values, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors contributing to a toxic/exclusive culture? It’s okay if there are incongruencies between where you are and where you want to be, as long as you are prepared to shift in order to align yourself with values that are supportive and inclusionary. Fight the temptation of becoming paralyzed with guilt or shame at your own shortcomings, as this only inhibits productive change. Instead focus on how best to align yourself with values that support the behaviors you wish to see in yourself and in your environment -that’s your goal. 

Critical introspection is imperative. Without it, we will passively accept our participation and consequently reinforce the toxic aspects of academia. With it, we acknowledge the power and influence unchecked values, structure, and culture has on us all, and we better equip ourselves to create deeply meaningful change. 

I genuinely believe that most people do not want to hurt others and we hold similar values in that regard. I also believe that many of us are out of alignment with our values; whether that is shown explicitly or implicitly through our compliance in harmful systems. This includes me. Critical introspection underlies this year’s theme for International Open Access Week, “Open for Whom? Equity in Open Knowledge” and motivated OpenCon organizers to use this year to reflect and rebuild their systems to center equity and inclusion. Their recognition in the importance of values-based decision-making serves as a powerful example for all of us: as we grow and evolve, we can always shift our practices to reflect what we think is important. This flexibility can happen any time; it is never too late as long as it happens with intention. 

These problems are large but they are rooted within us through our values, beliefs, attitudes, and behavior, so it makes sense to start within ourselves. adrienne maree brown, author of Emergent Strategy, says that what we do on a small scale is reflected on a large scale. Molecules make the protein which makes the cells that makes the organisms that create the ecosystem, and so on. If you change all of the molecules, you change the ecosystem. If we remain open, reflective, and critical, we are engaging in the initial but most important steps of inclusion.   

Author: Antoinette Foster, PhD Candidate at Oregon Health and Science University
Edited by Lucille Moore & Valerie Osterberg

Note: This is cross-posted on the OpenCon Blog website at https://www.opencon2018.org/blog.

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