stephon_h_alexander's picture
Professor of Physics at Brown University; Author, The Jazz of Physics
Who Gets to Play in the Science Ballpark

I am worried about who gets to be players in the science game—and who is left out. As I was growing up in New York, I was always pushed and rewarded for my involvement in jazz. In the realm of jazz performances, I found that fellow musicians, elders and contemporaries, while demanding excellence, remained inclusive—everyone was given a chance to solo and, if you were good enough, you could get called back up.

Unfortunately, with exception to a few enlightened individuals, professional inclusion has not been the collective experience of underrepresented groups (this goes beyond ethnicity and includes individuals who also "think" differently) in certain scientific disciplines. Given the population trends, some argue that for the U.S. to be competitive in STEM related fields, we'll need to extend the scientific enterprise to the increasing Latino and Black populations. I worry that while funding structures tend to address this issue at the K-12 and collegiate levels, there has been little serious discussion about diversifying, recruiting and indulging in inclusive practices to persons of color in the academy. Time and time again, research has shown that a lack of role models, especially to underrepresented groups, negatively impacts excellence and retention.

Our ability to take on the issue of inclusivity in the scientific enterprise goes beyond the usual discourse surrounding affirmative action. No exceptionally talented individual, regardless of their background, should feel like an opportunity was bestowed to them because of a policy, instead of due to genuine appreciation of that individual's unique qualities, presence and abilities. One challenge that the scientific community faces now is to go beyond tolerance of difference in order to genuinely appreciate difference, including those that make us feel uncomfortable, especially those who see the world and think differently from us.

I understand that the issue of racial inclusivity is sensitive and loaded with complicated sociological and political overtones. I do think it is an elephant in the room that needs to be dealt with by us as a scientific community. We need to be honest and open. If the demographics of the U.S. and the world at large will look different, do we care to prepare our academies at all levels to share their resources and influence with them? In the spirit of my friend Brian Eno's contribution, I have taken the challenge to bring up something that may make people uncomfortable—

because it is more productive to do so than to be polite.