Geoscientists Call for Action on Tackling Racial Inequity

By Ben Fernando

A recent article published in the journal Nature Geoscience has highlighted the shocking under-representation of students from ethnic minority backgrounds in the Geosciences.

The analysis indicates that Geology, Physical Geography and Environmental Science are the three worst Physical Science subjects for representation of Black, Asian and minority ethnic students in full-time undergraduate study in UK higher education, with poor progression into postgraduate research. In our paper, we lay out steps to address this diversity crisis and make the discipline more equitable.

In the 2018/19 academic year just 5.2% of Physical Geography postgraduates identified as Black, Asian, or minority ethnic, despite these groups comprising 18.5% of the UK 18-24 year old population. Over the past five years on average just 1.4% Geology postgraduate researchers identified as Black, compared to 3.8% of UK 18-24 year olds.

These data show that Geoscience subjects, which are crucial to developing the UK’s more sustainable future, have not adequately dealt with the legacy of the past when it comes to diversity and inclusion.

We hope that our work will galvanise the UK community into action and encourage other science disciplines to take similar steps.

Dr Natasha Dowey of Sheffield Hallam University, who led the analysis, commented: ‘It’s about time these data are scrutinised. We see the lack of diversity every day in our university corridors. Our subjects are built on a legacy of imperialism and are impacted by structural barriers that discriminate against minority groups. It’s up to the entire geoscience community to make anti-racist changes and be positive allies to Black, Asian and minority ethnic students and colleagues.’

Professor Chris Jackson of the University of Manchester, a co-author on the piece and recently the first Black scientist to give a Royal Institution Christmas Lecture, said: ‘Some people will only act against discrimination if they are presented with hard data. Here are those data, starkly outlining an issue that has been known for a long, long time. Those in power, who are invariably in the white majority, must now act.’

We recommend a range of interventions, including decolonisation work, ring-fenced opportunities for ethnic minority students, and meaningful reform of discriminatory recruitment and accreditation practices. 

This analysis makes it undeniably clear that the geosciences in the UK has a serious diversity problem. Our hope is that by proposing concrete actions that institutions can take, this article will help form the basis for a solution.

Read the full paper: ‘A UK perspective on tackling the geoscience racial diversity crisis in the Global North’ in Nature Geoscience.

Ben Fernando is a PhD student at the University of Oxford and campaigner for racial equality in STEM subjects.

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