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Despite calls to action, black scientists remain underrepresented at neuroscience meetings | Spectrum

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Homogeneous crowds: The median percentage of black speakers at neuroscience conferences remains zero, even though institutions are committed to increasing diversity.

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Since the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, the proportion of presenters at neuroscience conferences who are black has only increased by 3 percentage points, according to a new analysis.

The study, published Thursday in Neuroscience of nature, compared the fraction of black presenters at 18 neuroscience conferences that took place from May 2019 to the end of January 2020 with that of 18 meetings that took place between October 2020 and the end of May 2021.

Only 3 out of 18 conferences in the previous period had black presenters, and black academics made up only 1.2% of the total number of speakers. By the end of May 2021, those numbers had only increased slightly: 7 out of 18 conferences had black presenters, who accounted for 4.2% of the total number.

In other words, the median number of black speakers at neuroscience conferences was zero for both time periods.

“It was pretty much what I expected, unfortunately,” says researcher Lewis Wheaton, associate professor of biological sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.

Seeing all of those zeros in Wheaton’s data was shocking, but not surprising, says Rackeb Tesfaye, a graduate student of Mayada Elsabbagh’s lab at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and co-founder of the advocacy group Black in Neuro. Data from the conference speaks to deeper and more systemic issues facing black scholars, whose work is less frequently cited in academic literature, who tend to occupy a disproportionate number of permanent positions, and who generally feel less secure. comfortable in academia, she said. Data helps illuminate issues and guide discussions, but at some point the neuroscience community must commit to using the talents and resources already available.

As an illustration, Black in Neuro attracted 70 abstract submissions from black graduate students when it hosted its own virtual conference in 2020, after the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) annual meeting was canceled due to of the coronavirus pandemic, Tesfaye said.

“If a group of interns are able to do that, it kind of raises the question: what are some of these committees doing? “

Land assessment:

The global conversation around breed looked promising in the middle of 2020, says Wheaton. “I’ve seen a lot of people passionate about social media and things like that, and I’ve seen a lot of calls even for change at [the National Institutes of Health]. “But while the organizers of the neuroscience conference began to ask for presenters in the months that followed, much of that enthusiasm and soul-searching has largely failed to translate into a commitment to fairness and equity. racial inclusion, said Wheaton.

To conduct his analysis, Wheaton combed through the selected conference programs and used the profile photos there or performed a Google Images search to visually identify black presenters. When in doubt, he contacted the individual presenters directly. Out of 512 presenters before February 2020, he identified 6 who are black, and among 479 presenters after October 2020, he found 20 who are black.

The annual meeting of the American Society for Neurorehabilitation (ASNR), for which Wheaton chaired the program in 2019 and 2021, was one of the top-ranked meetings for black speaker participation, with 9.7% of speakers black before the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests and 18.8 percent after.

The ASNR stands out because panel diversity is an active component of the organization’s review criteria, says Wheaton. When teams of demographically homogeneous scientists submit proposals for presentations, Wheaton and his fellow organizers ask them to include more ethnic minorities, women or academics from small universities in their projects and resubmit them. “It took that active desire to change things,” he says.

Wheaton excluded the Society for Neuroscience (SfN), whose annual conference kicks off today, from his analysis because the program did not clearly separate speakers from a list of co-authors on a given presentation. But SfN did a good job of intentionally pushing for increased representation among speakers and attendees, says Damien Fair, professor of pediatrics and child development at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, whose team presents. his research at the meeting.

A stronger science:

Part of the problem is that historical and structural inequalities have made the organizations hosting these conferences insufficiently inclusive, so that when decisions are made regarding events, black scientists and scientists from other under-represented groups are not properly represented. represented, Fair said. “There aren’t always many black scholars around the table to talk about black issues.”

Lectures are “the parades that show the emperor has no clothes,” says David Mandell, associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. “We can talk as much as we want about diversity, but until we are more aggressive and inclusive in our recruitment efforts and in supporting marginalized scientists, from undergraduate to faculty, we won’t have of diversity. “

Inclusion efforts are not just about meeting criteria, but ensuring scientists have equal access to career opportunities, says Wheaton. “If black scientists are not invited to make presentations on the platform, you are preventing these blacks from being able to disseminate their science nationally and internationally. “

Missing these opportunities prevents black scientists from meeting potential mentors or mentees, connecting with new collaborators, and exposing their work to potential grant reviewers, Wheaton says. “If you don’t actively do it, whether you like it or not, you are actively killing the careers of these scientists, including people who look like me.”

More diverse conferences and laboratories offer more opportunities to more researchers. And increasing the diversity of thought and background in a lab improves the quality of science, Fair says.

“The sheer variability and diversity of ideas will lead to better questions and answers to the scientific discipline itself,” he says. “We have known this for years.


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