The Color of Science and Its Recorders

A very impressive group of science luminaries – including 10 Nobel laureates — turned up to kick around ideas and observations at today’s inaugural World Science Summit. And then there was this morning’s master of ceremonies: Alan Alda, an actor who clearly loves science and scientists. The real disappointment for me was who didn’t show up, or perhaps wasn’t even invited.

Women peppered the audience. And there was a dash of color…but only a dash. You could count on part of one hand the number of nonwhites in attendance this morning. Clearly, science diversity was not an issue on the summit’s agenda.

Some of the attendees were journalists, and anyone who is fairly familiar with the science-writing community knows that we are a fairly homogenous bunch – color-wise, at least. Science News has proved a major training ground for a great many up-and-coming science reporters. And in 30 years – which corresponds to perhaps 90 interns – I think we have hosted two blacks, one Hispanic, and three Asian-Americans. (All six have been women, by the way.) Not a very impressive track record of boosting diversity.

Yes, we try to get the best of the crop of writers exiting graduate schools. But I’d like to think there are more writers of color out there. And if not, perhaps the graduate schools – and intern coordinators at newspapers, magazines, and broadcast outlets – should brainstorm on how to recruit more entrants from traditionally underrepresented communities.

It’s not, of course, that skin color necessarily makes a difference. But a sea of skin tones reminiscent of a Crayola box would suggest the influence of many cultures – and many different ways of looking at the world, including science. I, for one, think we might find answers to some of life’s more intransigent problems if we took a more diverse range of approaches, ones colored by, perhaps, our different ethnicities, economic backgrounds, and family structures.  

I realize that this event was designed to fete and probe the wisdom of the science community’s movers and shakers. And in reaching positions of accomplishment and esteem, people tend to accumulate a little gray hair. So the age of many attendees is fairly understandable.

So too, unfortunately, is their dearth of skin pigmentation. Science has not always welcomed minorities. I’m not sure how much it turned them away. But until fairly recently it hasn’t put much effort into recruiting a diverse cadre of practitioners. So the rows of pale skin at this event reflects who was attending science and engineering graduate schools from the 1950s through at least the early ‘80s.

The big question is whether the 20th annual science summit will arrive in vivid color.

PALE SKINS Alan Alda, far left, pitches questions to one of the distinguished panels of scientists at today’s summit: Nobel physicist David Gross of UC-Santa Barbara (near left), University of Chicago astrophysicist Michael Turner (center); Nobel physicist Horst Stormer of Columbia University (near right), and New York University neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux (far right). Raloff

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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