Geoscientists Call for Action on Tackling Racial Inequity

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

The analysis, which includes contributions from the University of Birmingham, 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. The authors lay out steps to address this diversity crisis and make the discipline more equitable.

Dr Sam Giles, senior research fellow in the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Birmingham, says: “It’s well past time to stop talking about whether racial inequity exists within the geosciences and time to start taking action and committing resources to tackle these problems.” 

Anya Lawrence, a PhD student and co-author of the paper said: “As well as the text itself, the authorship of this piece speaks a thousand words. The fact that four out of twelve authors belong to ethnic minorities is a significant start in amplifying diverse voices and addressing the problems that geoscience has with attracting, retaining and promoting people from marginalised backgrounds.”

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.

The authors hope that the work will galvanise the UK community into action and encourage other science disciplines to take similar steps. “It’s about time these data are scrutinised”, says Dr Natasha Dowey of Sheffield Hallam University, who led the analysis: “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, commented “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.” 

The authors recommend a range of interventions, including decolonisation work, ring-fenced opportunities for ethnic minority students, and meaningful reform of discriminatory recruitment and accreditation practices. Ben Fernando, a PhD student at the University of Oxford and campaigner for racial equality in STEM subjects, said “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”.

Notes for editors:

  • For media enquiries please contact Beck Lockwood, Press Office, University of Birmingham, tel: +44 (0)781 3343348.
  • The University of Birmingham is ranked amongst the world’s top 100 institutions. Its work brings people from across the world to Birmingham, including researchers, teachers and more than 6,500 international students from over 150 countries.
  • Dowey, N.J*., Barclay, J., Fernando, B., Giles, S., Houghton, J., Jackson, C.A.L., Khatwa, A., Lawrence, A., Mills, K., Newton, A., Rogers, S.L. and Williams, R., 2021. A UK perspective on tackling the geoscience racial diversity crisis in the Global North, Nature Geoscience.