The long tail of under-representation

I am by no means an expert on the subject of under-representation in the sciences.  There are some excellent academic bloggers who have done some great work in discussing issues around race and gender in academia (including DNLee, the tweeters at and using #BlackandSTEM – EDIT: this is an amazing post by Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein over at  This post is intended to highlight what I’ve observed and experienced over the past year or so, with a specific observation surrounding the EarthCube Early Career Travel Grant.

The issue of diversity is tricky in academia, because diversity means different things to different people.  In a phone interview I once asked what sort of supports the department had to increase diversity and was told that they had a number of women on faculty. Period.  Um . . . I guess that’s one aspect of diversity, but if that’s the end of it, then there are some problems that need to be addressed.

The National Sciences Foundation has specifically addressed diversity in the Geosciences with a number of initiatives, for example the “Opportunities for Enhancing Diversity in the Geosciences (OEDG) Program” which (as far as I know) lapsed in 2012, and the subsequent report “Strategic Framework for Education and Diversity, Facilities, International Activities, and Data and Informatics in the Geosciences” (PDF).  Among disciplines supported through the NSF the geosciences is one of the least diverse, and this problem needs to be addressed.

As part of the EarthCube Engagement Team I drafted the EarthCube Early Researcher Travel Grant along with my Team colleagues, who are all fantastic and engaging people and great scientists (you should join our team, check out the link).  In providing a larger pool of money for EC researchers from under-represented backgrounds we are recognizing that the causes of underrepresentation are not always overt, but are often structural, related to a lack of funding for travel (in this case), and, correlated to that, a lack of visibility for the research products that these researchers might be developing.

This brings up the secondary issue: Who is part of an under-represented group in the geosciences?

It should be clear that the NSF Geo does value diversity, and has explicitly laid out the groups it considers underrepresented:

“women, minorities (African-Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders), and persons with disabilities”

But this is not an exhaustive list.  If you’ve read Tenure She Wrote with any regularity you’ll have come across some of the posts by the author dualitea (see here, and here for some examples).  For me many of these posts have been eye-opening, and indicate the much broader set of individuals that are not well represented in the sciences, let alone the geosciences.  Along with trans academics we can include the broader LGBT community, potentially invisible, but also underrepresented.  In addition acclimatrix and sarcozona have posted about economic background and academia (respectively here and here).  There are obviously many groups of under-represented scholars that lie outside the defined bounds.  Even thinking about Terry McGlynn’s work on Small Pond Science (e.g., here and here), we could potentially include students from smaller universities.  Limited by lack of funding and opportunity, and in need of greater, and more flexible support from non-traditional sources (such as the EarthCube funding).

So, I bring this all up in an effort to answer a question we received about the Early Career Travel Grants: “What is an under-represented group”?

In our proposal we specifically phrased this portion of the text to read:

Individuals that self-identify as part of an underrepresented group within the geosciences may apply for a $1000 travel grant.

In response to the question as posed we have added further text to the grant:

Applicants are asked to self-report if they constitute as an underrepresented minority. This is to allow for a greater breadth in determining what constitutes diversity within the geosciences, but also to allow applicants to empower themselves by clarifying how this proposal and funding will help further the goals of a broad and diverse geosciences discipline.

I think this does two things.  It leaves self-definition open, and provides an opportunity for people to use their own voice to define the challenges they face in a non-judgemental way.  We’ve pointed to resources individuals can use to help define what it means to be under-represented in the geosciences, and, hopefully, provided a way to develop a voice around their place in academia and the geosciences.

Does this approach open the possibility that the grant will be abused by people who try to justify ‘under-representation’ that doesn’t exist: “White left-handed males” (my particular group)?  Maybe, but I’d rather see people get the money to break down barriers, than generate another barrier to access for people who really need it.

This is a long post, but I thought that it might be interesting for people, and I’m genuinely curious how people feel about this, so please chime in in the comments.

If you know anyone who might be interested in this grant, please forward the link on to them, and if you know of any networks we can use to advertise this and future funding opportunities more widely please let us know!

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Assistant scientist in the Department of Geography at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Studying paleoecology and the challenges of large data synthesis.

One thought on “The long tail of under-representation”

  1. I do think that it’s worthwhile to let individuals identify how they are members of underrepresented groups, or how support for them represents support in a direction that has historically been undersupported. It’s up to the funding agencies to determine priorities, however, so if you identify has a left-handed white male, then they can decide if that’s valid or worthwhile, which if they did so would be rather sinister (ha ha).

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