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The President's Environment

The President's Environment is published 3x/year. Past Issues of the President's Environment can be found in the archives of The Bulletin.

Does Cultural Diversity Matter to Scientific Societies, or Science in General?

By President Matt Whiles

January 2016

Matt Whiles

Over the past few months, I've been involved in numerous interesting discussions regarding the importance of cultural diversity in scientific societies, and science in general. The development of an official diversity statement for our society was one of the main catalysts for these conversations. Among other things, this document states that our society welcomes and encourages participation from all, regardless of ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, socioeconomic status, physical or mental difference, religion, age, or national origin. The statement has now been approved by the SFS Board of Directors, so you can expect to see it soon.

Along with working on the diversity statement with the SFS leadership, I also recently attended the Council for Scientific Society Presidents (CSSP) meetings. One of the more memorable activities at this meeting was a panel discussion, led by a group of successful scientists from underrepresented groups, on promoting cultural diversity in scientific societies. Listening to each one of them tell their stories, I realized how little I ever had to deal with the obstacles that they faced through much of their career paths, and how much I have taken for granted over the years. In particular, in my early days as an undergraduate when I began thinking seriously about a career in ecology, I was surrounded by white male role models that were doing the things I wanted to do. As such, my path to success seemed obvious (actually, some of the most influential people in my undergraduate and graduate experiences were women, but there was still an abundance of white male role models around). It was easy for me to envision myself as a scientist and professor because I could easily identify with many of my mentors. Listening to some of the panelists describe situations where they felt inadequate, or assumed they were considered less capable compared to their peers because they were different, was a real eye opener. I have dealt with professional insecurities over the years, and still do, but none are linked to my race, ethnicity, or gender, leaving me less to worry or feel insecure about.

In some ways, SFS is ahead of other societies. I have always been impressed with the number of women who are leaders in the field of freshwater ecology and in our society. We've had numerous female presidents and recipients of the Award of Excellence over the years. Looking at the current numbers of mid career women who are leaders in our field and generating some of the best science we have to offer, this will continue to increase; excellent women role models abound for the young people in our society. However, it is sobering to acknowledge that in the twenty-eight years that we have given the Award of Excellence, there has never been a single ethnic minority recipient, nor have we ever had a president from an underrepresented group.

Is cultural diversity important to science? One could argue that diversity should not matter when it comes to the basic process of science; after all, the scientific method is fairly cut and dried. However, good science also requires creativity. Many people think artists are creative and scientists are not, but you and I both know that there is a tremendous amount of creativity that goes in to all phases of scientific research. From observing patterns in nature and developing proposals, to designing successful experiments, to presenting results and writing effective publications, creative thinking is central to science. Cultural diversity most certainly enhances creativity by providing differences in perspective and fresh ideas, and this is becoming increasingly important as we face complex scientific issues that require multidisciplinary approaches. I don't know of any studies that have actually tested or addressed whether cultural diversity makes for better science, but I can think of many ways in which it can, and I can't think of any way in which it could detract from it.

Building cultural diversity can also enhance our society in a variety of ways. For one, diversity simply makes things more interesting for everyone involved. I happened to end up as a faculty member at a university with a very diverse student body, and it makes this place (Southern Illinois University) much more dynamic and interesting than most other campuses I've spent time on. As our society continues to grow programs like Instars, which further diversify our society, I'm confident that we will see the same thing in SFS. Our society is already very interesting, and our meetings are vibrant, but increasing cultural diversity among the SFS membership will further enhance this.

Actively promoting cultural diversity among the SFS membership will improve our science, will make SFS a stronger society, and will increase the number and types of role models for our younger scientists. As I learned from the CSSP panel mentioned above, the career paths for some young scientists can be bumpy and fraught with insecurities; increasing the diversity of role models can only help this situation. I hope that ultimately we can work together to foster diversity in the field of freshwater science. We will soon have a diversity statement in place, and we have a highly successful Instars program to help develop diversity among our student members, but in my opinion we still have a long way to go. If any of you have ideas about other ways that SFS can enhance cultural diversity, please bring them to the SFS leadership.

Matt Whiles

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  • Does Cultural Diversity Matter to Scientific Societies? Read the President's Environment more
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  • The deadline to submit proposals for AQUATROP Special Sessions or Symposiums is now November 17, 2017

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