Nov 05, 2021
– 18:00 - 19:30
– Museum für Naturkunde
Panel Discussion at the Berlin Science Week
Diversity Instead of Uniformity
How Does Diversity Advance Scientific Progress?
Mehr Diversität bereichert die Wissenschaft
Text by Wiebke Peters (published in: FVB-Verbundjournal 117/2021)
Greater diversity enhances science
Eliminating inequalities and paving the way for more diversity is a declared goal of academic research. So far, however, there has been too little progress and action in this direction. A panel discussion at Berlin Science Week 2021 revealed why this is the case, and what obstacles stand in the way of greater diversity.
The panel discussion entitled “Diversity Instead of Uniformity – How Does Diversity Advance Scientific Progress?”, held at the Museum of Natural History on the Berlin Science Week Campus on November 5, 2021, was initiated by BR50. This abbreviation stands for Berlin Research 50, an alliance of non-university research institutions in Berlin. Their goal: to strengthen Berlin as an international science metropolis. The fact that internationality and diversity are closely linked was immediately apparent from the opening statements of the four panel guests drawn from BR50 member institutions. “Diversity plays a key role in creating and sharing knowledge on a global level,” remarked Professor Luc De Meester. The Belgian Director of the Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries (IGB) is the only man on the panel. Dr. Franziska Emmerling and Ivona Kafedjiska agreed that diversity is the key to making science more successful and sustainable. Both scientists are committed to achieving greater diversity in research: Franziska Emmerling heads a department at the Bundesamt für Materialforschung und -prüfung (BAM), and co-founded the Ladies Network Adlershof (LaNA). Ivona Kafedjiska is a doctoral researcher at Helmholtz Center Berlin for Materials and Energy (HZB), and is the 2021 spokesperson for Helmholtz Juniors – the network that unites all doctoral researchers within the Helmholtz association –, and a N2 board member – the network that unites all doctoral researchers within the Max Planck Society, Helmholtz Association and Leibniz Association. Panelist Dr. Noa Ha emphasized the structural challenges of diversity: The main way to advance diversity, she said, is to challenge norms and change perspectives. The urban studies researcher is the deputy head of the National Discrimination and Racism Monitor at the German Center for Integration and Migration Research (DeZIM).
What does diversity mean?
Strengthening diversity means promoting talent and eliminating inequalities. Suppressing diversity means losing potential instead of developing and utilizing it. “The world needs diverse approaches if we are to find appropriate solutions to complex problems such as climate change,” stated Ivona Kafedjiska. Yet key academic positions are dominated by middle-aged, white males. Diversity looks different.
Institutions would need to change, as would our understanding of how research can become more diverse, added Noa Ha. Access to knowledge is a core problem of diversity at the global level: Who has access to specialist literature, such as journals, and is able to attend conferences? “We need to democratize knowledge and discuss it more broadly than before,” the scientist remarked.
Reduce bureaucracy, improve access opportunities
Bureaucracy is a major obstacle to greater diversity at German research institutions: Non-European researchers have to go through great efforts and pains to have their residence permits renewed, stated Ivona Kafedjiska. It drains them of energy, which is then lacking for their work. Luc De Meester called on institutes to get involved more closely, not just by providing information, for instance, but also by offering concrete support and providing services. This begins with seemingly trivial things, such as ensuring that any relevant information for employees is in two languages.
One might also think of initiatives focusing on early career scientists from the Global South. IGB established a postdoctoral fellowship specifically for a junior researcher from the Global South. The person’s potential, rather than the number of publications, is the deciding factor when it comes to filling the position.
Lack of attention
There is too little knowledge about ways to promote diversity, besides a lack of attention. Both deficits need to be addressed by offering diversity awareness workshops and training, urged Franziska Emmerling. This applies not only to researchers, but also to people who provide science support services, as Luc De Meester stressed. It may also be useful to support self-organized initiatives such as IGB’s Inclusion and Diversity Group, which works to ensure awareness of diversity and equal opportunity issues at all levels, including the institute’s management.
One consequence of insufficient attention is that when it comes to filling positions, candidates who are very similar to the current team members are often given preference, as Ivona Kafedjiska explained. Such in-group favoritism is one of the unconscious biases that lead to the systematic discrimination of certain groups, such as people of color.
Encouraging greater diversity
Tools for achieving greater diversity are already available. Ivona Kafedjiska reported on the diversity audit that was implemented at her institution, HZB. Every staff member was invited to participate. It was about sharing ideas on the subject of diversity and asking what employees need, what has to be changed. Noa Ha added that conducting such a diversity audit could also be a criterion for receiving funding.
Franziska Emmerling recommended inviting external experts to take a look at institutional routines, such as the language and work culture. Leaders’ participation in relevant seminars also helps to improve the atmosphere, making others feel more confident and better understood, and enabling them to be more open and share their ideas, added Ivona Kafedjiska. And the whole process could become sustainable: “I always call it ‘overcoming the energy barrier,’” she remarked. “Once the topic of diversity has gained a certain amount of attention, everything becomes much easier.””
Yes or no to women’s quotas?
“In spite of all the good arguments in favor of greater diversity and more women in leadership positions in research, they are still usually held by men,” emphasized Noa Ha. A quota would compel institutions to pay more attention to diversity in the long run. Luc De Meester also suggested that in the end it might become a necessity, but that it also has disadvantages. Ivona Kafedjiska would like to see “a world without quotas, where women simply have the same opportunities as men.” A quota could lead to more discrimination in Germany, with people saying “she only got this job because of the quota”. The problem lies elsewhere, namely in society: Women continue to be responsible for the household and family in most cases, and there are insufficient childcare places. Quotas are of little use in this situation; such shortcomings must first be addressed. Franziska Emmerling agreed with her: “It is primarily a cultural issue. In Sweden, men are frowned upon at work if they do not take time off to care for their children,” she reported.
At the end, another person spoke out in favor of quotas: Professor Ulrich Panne, President of the Bundesanstalt für Materialforschung und -prüfung, and one of the four BR50 coordinators. Without women’s quotas, he said, more diversity and less inequality in science will not happen fast enough. Professor Thomas Sommer, interim Scientific Director of the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine and BR50 coordinator, concluded by highlighting the point made by Noa Ha: diversity is a matter of democracy. This statement sums up the entire discussion very well.
The panel discussion was moderated by Julika Schmitz.
Video of the event on the BR50 Youtube-Channel: