gino_segre's picture
Professor of Physics & Astronomy, University of Pennsylvania; Author, The Pope of Physics: Enrico Fermi and the Birth of the Atomic Age
Diversity In Science

In a recent U.S. Supreme Court hearing regarding affirmative action in higher education, a Justice posed the question, “What unique perspective does a minority student bring to a physics class?” If physics were the work of robots, the answer would be none. But physics, as all of science, is approached with the biases and perspectives that make us human. Both disciplined and spontaneous, science is an intuitive as well as a systematic undertaking.

It is the people who comprise physics graduate schools, institutes, and faculty—their interests, their backgrounds, their agendas—who drive the direction of physics research and scholarship. And it does not take much imagination to picture what different directions this research might take, were the pool of scientists not heterogeneous.

Science has become increasingly collaborative in a way that makes diversity a paramount necessity. Until recently it was the work of single individuals, primarily white males from northern Europe. It was rare to find a published paper with two authors and one with more than three was essentially unheard of. A change began at the time of World War II and it has grown since then.

Large science collaborations encompassing diversity of gender, race and ethnicity have become a new norm. ATLAS, a group that has been a major contributor to CERN’s discovery of the Higgs boson consists of 3,000 physicists from 175 institutions in 38 countries working harmoniously together. Even though a single large instrument such as a particle accelerator or a large telescope is not required in biology, we see parts of the field moving in the same direction with the Human Genome or Human Microbiome project. A different kind of complexity, the assembling of disparate parts of the pattern is needed there.

The news is that science’s success in such endeavors is creating a recognized model for international collaboration, climate change being the most conspicuous example.

The diversity in approach engendered by diversity in background has been a powerful combination in science. It is no secret that in a fairly recent past if physics graduate school admission had been based on achievement tests, the entering class would have been composed almost entirely of students from mainland China. Most of these schools believed that such a homogeneous grouping would not have benefited either the students or the field. It would have reinforced conformity rather than encouraging the necessary originality and entrepreneurship. It would have reinforced conformity rather than challenge assumptions.

Science’s future, both in the classroom and in research, is tied to an increased ability to achieve diversity in gender, race, ethnicity, and class. If those communities of learning are not established in a classroom setting, science will suffer.