Nobel laureates need to reflect diversity of STEM fields

Beini Liu/Staff

This year, UC Berkeley welcomed Frances Arnold (chemistry), James Allison (physiology and medicine) and Paul Romer (economics) to its ranks of Nobel laureates. With the third-highest number of Nobel laureates in the world, UC Berkeley now has 107 individuals formerly or currently associated with the university who have received the honor. The majority of these were awarded the STEM-related prizes in chemistry, physics and physiology or medicine. As such, UC Berkeley is uniquely qualified and obligated to address the issues of diversity that have plagued the STEM Nobel Prizes.

From 1901 to 2018, the Nobel Prizes in STEM fields were awarded 331 times to 607 laureates. The youngest awardee was 25; the oldest, 96. Of these awardees, only 20 were women. Overwhelmingly, awardees are more than 60 years old, white and male. For example, the 2017 Nobel Prize in physics highlighted how outdated the award has become. Three key male scientists (aged 77-85) were rightly recognized for their contributions to the discovery of gravitational waves; however, at the same time, more than 1,000 scientists and engineers who also worked on the project were entirely overlooked.

These trends are not new. There are fundamental problems with the ways in which Nobel Prizes and similar honors are awarded that favor established scientists with decades of experience (i.e. old, white men). Some argue that, given enough time, women and minorities in STEM will move up the ranks and take their rightful places among these Nobel laureates, but this isn’t a solution.

Nobel laureates don’t just appear out of thin air — they are often the beneficiaries of social capital that enabled their success. The racial and gender disparities in awardees isn’t surprising, given that we know these disparities exist in educational access at a young age, when science is first introduced. In other words, rather than tweaking the way awards are given, we should be heavily investing in early scientific education. Studies have shown that the quality of science education as early as prekindergarten have a significant impact on the success of students in STEM disciplines years later.

In recent years, STEM education has received bipartisan support at a national level. In California, the 2018-19 state budget included a $6.1 billion increase in funding for K-12 schools, including nearly $400 million for programs promoting STEM education. In the diverse Bay Area, where your zip code can significantly impact the quality of education you receive, this funding is especially important. Schools that lag behind in STEM education are often in poor districts that disproportionately serve low-income communities of color. This also means that to raise future generations of diverse Nobel laureates, we must not only invest money, but show children that people who look like them can be great scientists.

A 2017 report by the National Science Foundation found that nearly 50 percent of all STEM occupations in the United States are held by white men, compared to 18 percent by white women, 4 percent by Latinx men, 3 percent by Black men, 2 percent by Latinx women and 2 percent by Black women. Not only is this troubling for the world of science, it’s also disturbing for the next generation of scientists, who will grow up picturing scientists as white men, just like the majority of our Nobel laureates.

To dispel the myth of the lone, genius scientist, we need to show children that science is both diverse and collaborative. Early science education must heavily emphasize the interdisciplinary group environment that dominates modern scientific research. Research is a collaborative, time-consuming endeavor where real, life-changing discoveries are often unveiled over the course of years and through the work of diverse groups of researchers. It is time that both our science education and awards reflect that.

At UC Berkeley, where we have thousands of scientists among our undergraduate and graduate students, we need to better train and encourage students to perform outreach in our Bay Area communities. In addition, we need to incentivize all faculty to engage in these types of programs without disproportionately placing the burden on women or minority faculty. As an institution, we also need to do a better job reflecting the demographics of our student body by a hiring more diverse faculty, which the university has admitted is notably less than diverse than other campus populations. In 2013, UC Berkeley faculty in STEM fields were only 21 percent women and 6 percent Black, Chicanx/Latinx and/or Native American/Alaska Native — even less diverse than UC Berkeley faculty as a whole (30 percent and 9 percent, respectively).

Luckily, there are groups here in the Bay Area that can help us meet these goals. One example is Bay Area Scientists in Schools, or BASIS, which brings volunteer scientists into elementary school classrooms to engage in hands-on science lessons and inspire students to envision themselves as scientists. Groups such as the Oakland-based National Center for Science Education promote and defend accurate and effective science education, particularly in places where topics such as climate change and evolution are culturally controversial. To truly diversify the student-to-scientist pipeline, however, UC Berkeley itself must make more efforts to encourage historically underrepresented groups of students to pursue paths in STEM fields at a young age.

As we celebrate the accomplishments of of our new Nobel laureates this year, we must also start working now to ensure that the next generation of laureates better reflects the diversity of science today.

Christopher Jackson is a campus doctoral student in chemistry and a vice president of the Science Policy Group at Berkeley.