13 June 2020

Black lives, also in science

A man was murdered in cold blood. The world erupted in protest. And rightly so! Calmly protesting or taking the knee or any of that had clearly not helped much. But the world notices mass protests and arson and all of that. Does that mean I condone arson? Well no, but it did its job! People started paying attention.

Then in Bristol, people threw a statue into the harbour. Good stuff! The mayor was on the radio; he agreed it shouldn't have been there, but he also said the council had bigger problems than a slave-trader-shaped lump of metal on a plinth. I am sure it does. But the rioters solved that problem. I don't think they presented the council with a bill! And what about the slippery slope issue? Could you now get people tearing all street furniture down they don't like? There can't be a statue in the country that nobody at all objects to. But I think that's unreasonable; people did this after events that really screamed for a response. I don't think there is a risk to, say, Gandhi, Morecambe, or the Marquess of Anglesey, just to name some statues. People need to be really worked up to do this sort of thing!

It's not good enough to say 'this is our history and you can't touch it'. Representation matters! It does on plinths. And it does everywhere else. And it does in science. And the situation is not good. Natural Science is such a lily-white business. A lily-white male straight cis-gender able-bodied business. Take the School of Ocean Sciences. If you look at the staff you notice the vast number of pale faces. All our eight professors are straight white males. We can't even get lily-white women in these ranks! And these form roughly 45% of the population, and have white privilege. Try to get in there if you are, for instance, black.

If you address issues of representation you often get told (guess by who) that this is a pipeline issue. Look at that much more diverse student population; surely, you give them 20 years, and le voila they have percolated up and our entire staff will represent society as it was 20 years ago! But that is something only people with a healthy disregard for evidence say. I was told in 1993 that it was a pipeline issue. Surely things would be better in 20 years! And I'm writing this 27 years later and look where it got us.

So what about that student population? It is much more diverse than we staff are! But the thing is that if you see some non-white faces in your lecture room, there is a big chance they are exchange students. They come to Bangor for a year and then leave again. So they are not likely to end up in our staff!

So what do we need to do? Well, if only I knew! Our marketing efforts are mainly directed at the secondary schools from which we have traditionally got the most students. Makes sense! But should we make a concerted effort to go to schools from which we don't tend to recruit? Schools with a different demographic? It might be a start! And I know that a more diverse student population doesn't automatically lead to more diverse senior staff; far from it, but without a more diverse student population it certainly won't happen.

Physically going to schools is not a thing of these times, of course. We need to find different ways now. One of my colleagues, the only non-white member of staff, made an effort to address this. And of course it was a really small step! But any step is progress. She addressed the issue directly in a little YouTube video, also placed on the School of Ocean Sciences Facebook page. I hope this will snowball! Representation matters. And the ocean matters. And bringing them together matters too.

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