How geoscientists are making their field more welcoming

Elizabeth Smith was featured in this article by Virginia Gerwin, which originally appeared in Nature as a career feature.

Grassroots initiatives aim to make the discipline more inclusive of researchers from under-represented communities.

The broad fields of Earth- and geosciences continue to be the least diverse in academic science research. However, the lack of diversity can, in part, be explained by hostile and exclusionary behaviour, according to a February survey by the ADVANCEGeo Partnership, a network of societies that aims to improve workplace conditions in the Earth sciences (E. Marín-Spiotta et al. Earths Future 11; 2023). Racism, sexism and ableism continue to be problems in both education and workplace environments. For example, the number of people of colour receiving a PhD in geosciences in the United States has not risen much beyond about 10% in the past 46 years.

During 2019, US-based geoscientists distributed the workplace-climate survey to more than 2,100 members of 5 Earth- and space-science organizations. They found that, whereas most participants experienced positive behaviours, those in historically excluded groups were exposed mainly to negative behaviours. The authors concluded that deeply entrenched historical biases in these workplaces had led to the ongoing patterns of exclusionary conduct, which contributes to the loss of diverse talent.

People of colour, women, scientists with disabilities, non-binary and lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, pansexual and asexual (LGBQPA+) scientists experienced interpersonal mistreatment, devaluation of work, discriminatory language and sexual harassment more frequently than did people not identifying as part of those groups. Of the 14% who experienced sexual harassment, the vast majority were from historically excluded groups.

More than one-third of those surveyed — notably, half of Black respondents – considered leaving their institution or making a career change. “This is a snapshot. It shows a lot of people leaving disciplines, but the survey doesn’t capture those who already left,” says study co-author Erika Marín-Spiotta, a biogeochemist at the University of Wisconsin– Madison. In recent years, university departments, federal granting agencies and other US institutions have invested tens of millions of dollars in efforts to improve workplace climates throughout the geosciences. Nature spoke to five researchers spearheading programmes that they hope will make geosciences a more welcoming space.

The Researchers

All five researcher stories are not re-published here. Readers are encouraged to read the article in full here.

  1. Vashan Wright, Geophysicist at the University of California, San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla
  2. Erika Marin-Spiotta, Biogeochemist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and lead principal investigator of the ADVANCEGeo Partnership
  3. Elizabeth Smith, BLISS researcher and Research meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Oklahoma
  4. Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, Director of the Office of Science for the US Department of Energy in Washington, DC
  5. Juliet Crider, Geoscientist at the University of Washington in Seattle

Each researcher shared different perspectives, ideas, and initatives. Wright discussed book-club champions of change, and Marin-Spiotta pointed out the importance of keeping conversations going. Berhe highlighted the imporantance of a living wage to encourage inclusivity, and Crider described the benefits of virtual field expereinces.

Elizabeth Smith, Build a climate based on values

Elizabeth was interviewed for this piece. The resulting write up is duplicated below. Over the past few years, I have led a series of sessions to collaboratively update the US National Weather Center protocol, including the rules that make fieldwork physically safe. We are now building on that to make fieldwork more accessible for people from different backgrounds. The centre’s building, in Norman, Oklahoma, houses both the National Severe Storms Laboratory, where I work, and the University of Oklahoma School of Meteorology. As a result, we can have a variety of people out in the field together — from first-year university students to senior government-agency scientists. The sessions are now more of a two-way conversation than a sterile one-sided training course that people sit through, often begrudgingly. As a result, people are more engaged. For example, our high-level static field protocol document now includes team-created standards for behaviour, as well as the consequences for engaging in unacceptable actions. The team took ownership as we built this for ourselves.

In 2022, I noticed that student volunteers at the centre were from much more diverse backgrounds than in previous years. For example, the university received an NSF supplement for a hearing-impaired student who needed a sign-language interpreter for multiple weeks in the field. It was great to foster this level of accessibility in the field, which is uncommon.

As a federal agency, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is also actively working on building formal training requirements for fieldwork, which most often takes place, for example, on its research ships and aircraft. Some of our work has informed its effort.

Overall, we’ve had a positive response to this participatory approach, even though discussions can get uncomfortable. As part of the training, we conduct a survey asking, among other things: have you experienced harassment? Have you witnessed harassment? The numbers match the statistics we see in the literature: 20–30% of employees have witnessed harassment. Session attendees are always surprised to see that. They think that these behaviours must only be happening elsewhere. It’s eye-opening to see it is in your own workplace.

Dr. Elizabeth N. Smith
Dr. Elizabeth N. Smith
Research Meteorologist

Elizabeth joined NSSL as a research meteorologist in January 2020, where she focuses on boundary-layer processes relevant to near- and pre-storm environments and convection initiation.