(A Lack of) Diversity in the Geosciences / / by Romesh Palamakumbura

Romesh Palamakumbura is BGS geologist, and specialises in Quaternary sediments, ranging from carbonate and fluvial systems in the Mediterranean to glacial sediments in Scotland. Recent work has involved looking at fracture networks and their impact on a broad range of processes including groundwater flow and glacial erosion. Here he tells us about diversity in geoscience, summarising recent work that has looked at reasons for a lack of diversity and some potential solutions.

Geology spans a large range of subjects, from hydrogeology to earth observation, mathematics to inter-planetary sciences, and from volcanoes to sea-floor mapping and all the spaces in-between. As such, geoscientists work on a huge range of global problems, including monitoring and understanding our global environmental hazards, developing new ways to provide energy for a growing global society, and ensuring sustainable and secure food and water resources. Despite the global relevance of geoscience and the diversity of subjects that it covers, when it comes to people it remains one of the least diverse scientific communities.1,2,3.

Whilst there are diversity and inclusivity issues across the board, there have been a number of recent publications that have highlighted particular issues that surround race and ethnicity, and the under-representation of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) staff and students within geosciences:

The underrepresentation of BAME students studying at undergraduate and postgraduate level3 

This blog post3 highlights the disparity between the BAME UK population and the number of BAME students that engage with geoscience at undergraduate level study; a gap that increases into postgraduate study. There are several proposed reasons for this including, rural environments being more challenging to access for children growing up in urban settings – disproportionately affecting potential students from BAME communities4 , a lack of diverse and visible role models in academia and industry, the link between geosciences and imperialist or colonialist attitudes and history, and a perception that a career in geosciences is not financially viable3.


Graph showing representation of BAME in Physical Sciences and Geosciences
Representation of BAME (Black, Asian, Mixed and Other ethnic minorities) in physical sciences and geosciences from High Educations Statistics Agency data, alongside ethnicity data from the 2011 UK Government census


A hostile climate that limits diversity in geoscience2 

The authors of this study2 looked at geosciences in the United States and demonstrated that bias, discrimination and harassment are ongoing issues and major hurdles to diversifying geosciences. Bias and discrimination affect people at all levels in geoscience, from early-career scientists, with regards to gender and racial bias when evaluating postdocs in physics and biology5 to senior academics, where fewer geoscientists from racial and ethnic minority backgrounds are invited to give talks at conferences6,7.

Limited representation of minority groups across all levels of geoscience8

A recent study8 looked at diversity within a major geoscience society, the Society for Sedimentary Geology (SEPM), and particularly at diversity in positions of leadership. This work showed a significant under-representation of people of colour in senior positions such as editors of journals and special publications.



Box chart showing the small number of women and BAME editors in two society SEPM journals
Recent demographies of editors on the two society (SEPM) journals, the Journal of Sedimentary Research and PALAOIS in 2020, and SEPM Special Publication between 2009 and 20198

Communication of diversity issues and activities9

The Volcanic and Magmatic Study Group (VMSG) 2020 survey of its members looked at whether sub-groups (i.e. students, early career researchers and senior academics) thought that VMSG was doing enough to address equality, diversity and inclusivity (EDI) issues. Broadly the survey showed that early career researchers thought the organisation wasn’t doing enough on diversity issues. In contrast the senior membership thought that VMSG was doing enough. The survey sheds light on the major gap in the perspectives of people at different career-stages in terms of how well an organisation is perceived to be promoting EDI values.
Graph showing sub groups'  responses to the question 'how much do you think VMSG is doing in terms of promoting equality & diversity in the community. Responses: don't know / too little or about right / about right / too much / too little
Percentages of response per 'career-stage' to the question, 'how much do you think VMSG is doing in terms of promoting equality and diversity in the community?9

The diversity-innovation paradox10

Whereby diversity leads to innovation but people from diverse groups tend to have less successful careers. This research showed that under-represented groups produce a high rate of scientific novelty however these contributions are taken up at a much lower rate than those from majority racial and gender groups. It is suggested that this is because novel work by racial and gender minority groups have a unique vantage point and therefore tend to produce innovations that are less mainstream and hence are less likely to be taken up.

These studies highlight some of the systemic issues that impact minority groups and limit their potential in STEM careers. From limited exposure to career opportunities in geoscience, the experience of being a minority in the geoscience community, to bias and discrimination of the work and contributions of minorities in science. Major changes are needed at every level of geoscience from exposure to experiences that will ignite passion and excitement in studying the Earth and applying for a degree, to improving the experience of early career minority geoscientists, and finally to established minority scientists being fairly acknowledged for their contributions to the field.

Professional bodies have a major role to play in improving diversity and experience of minorities in geoscience. These bodies can gather essential diversity data within our community11, and to bring the geoscience community together to collectively push for change, such as making grant applications processes and outcomes transparent12 and to work towards the modernisation of geoscience – changing perceptions and pro-actively addressing issues surrounding colonialism and the history of geoscience2.

But we all have our role to play, and people in positions of responsibility and professional bodies need to consider and embed:

·        Transparency in the application process to remove bias and to show accountability12

·        Adaption around fieldwork requirements to allow flexibility for different cultural backgrounds3

·        Summer school opportunities3

·        Ring-fenced internships and fellowships3

·        Develop a more open approach to assessing academic ability11

·        Diverse interview panels11

Annual surveys of organisation membership and feedback on experiences of all individuals8

To monitor the success or failures of these actions we need to collect data. The studies discussed here are excellent examples of how to use data to understand EDI issues in depth and to develop more focussed and successful policies. Open and anonymous data needs to be collected from across the geosciences and the wider scientific community, to understand changes in diversity and experiences of all communities in geoscience8.

BGS has acknowledged its responsibility to not only its staff but to the wider scientific community and its stakeholders. As part of this BGS has set targets for improving its diversity, introduced policies to improve the working experience for its minority staff through support and training and being open and taking responsibility for this change13Some examples of this work include:

1. Increased BAME representation from 2.6 % of staff in 2011 to nearly 5% in 2020

2. Annual surveys that provide staff the opportunity to give anonymous feedback

3. Training and seminars for all staff to bring awareness of EDI issues

4. Open publishing of staff statistics to improve accountability

5. Established a Working Group to reflect on our long colonial history and to understand how this history impacts and influences the way we undertake research

6. Established an EDI committee comprising BGS staff, union colleagues and UKRI-NERC representatives that aims to help oversee and monitor the implementation of EDI related policies

At BGS we have started, but we still have a long way to go. Likewise, this review only scratches the surface of the ideas presented in the current publications on diversity in geoscience. The list below provides links to several excellent publications that discuss these ideas further.

Reference list

1. Dutt, K., Pfaff, D.L., Bernstein, A.F., Dillard, J.S. and Block, C.J., 2016. Gender differences in recommendation letters for postdoctoral fellowships in geoscience. Nature Geoscience, 9(11), pp.805-808.

2. MarĂ­n-Spiotta, E., Barnes, R.T., Berhe, A.A., Hastings, M.G., Mattheis, A., Schneider, B. and Williams, B.M., 2020. Hostile climates are barriers to diversifying the geosciences. Advances in Geosciences, 53, pp.117-127.

3. Dowey, N.J., Barclay, J., Fernando, B., Giles, S., Houghton, J., Jackson, C.A.L., Mills, K., Newton, A., Rogers, S.L. and Williams, R., 2020. Diversity Crisis in UK Geoscience Research Training.

4. GOV.UK. Rural Population and Migration. (2018)

5. Eaton, A.A., Saunders, J.F., Jacobson, R.K. and West, K., 2020. How gender and race stereotypes impact the advancement of scholars in STEM: Professors’ biased evaluations of physics and biology post-doctoral candidates. Sex Roles, 82(3-4), pp.127-141.

6. King, L., MacKenzie, L., Tadaki, M., Cannon, S., McFarlane, K., Reid, D. and Koppes, M., 2018. Diversity in geoscience: Participation, behaviour, and the division of scientific labour at a Canadian geoscience conference. Facets, 3(1), pp.415-440.

7. Ford, H.L., Brick, C., Azmitia, M., Blaufuss, K. and Dekens, P., 2019. Women from some under-represented minorities are given too few talks at world’s largest Earth-science conference.

8. Fernandes, A.M., Abeyta, A., Mahon, R.C., Martindale, R., Bergmann, K.D., Jackson, C.A.L., Present, T.M., Reano, D., Swanson, T. and Butler, K., 2020. “Enriching Lives within Sedimentary Geology”: Actionable Recommendations for Making SEPM a Diverse, Equitable and Inclusive Society for All Sedimentary Geologists.

9. https://vmsg.org.uk/2020/07/vmsg-website-newsletter-46/

10. Hofstra, B., Kulkarni, V.V., Galvez, S.M.N., He, B., Jurafsky, D. and McFarland, D.A., 2020. The Diversity–Innovation Paradox in Science. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(17), pp.9284-9291.

11. Williams, P., Bath, S., Arday, J. and Lewis, C., 2019. The Broken Pipeline–Barriers to Black PhD Students Accessing Research Council Funding. Leading Routes.

12. https://www.researchprofessionalnews.com/rr-news-uk-views-of-the-uk-2020-8-knowledge-is-power-an-open-letter-to-ukri/

13. https://www.bgs.ac.uk/about-bgs/working-with-us/equality-diversity-and-inclusion-edi/

14. https://www.bgs.ac.uk/download/bgs-demographics-2019-2020/