SciPolBites is a series of reflections from NSPN members about current issues in science and policy. In this SciPolBite, two members share their perspectives on barriers in academia.
Breaking Academic Barriers: A Collective Policy Perspective
This post represents the writer's personal views and not the views of their employer, University of California.
Academic institutions aim to train the best and brightest of our generation, and develop a workforce that is able to utilize their knowledge to positively influence society. Indeed, many early career scientists seek to apply skills gained from their training on the job market. However, higher education as a whole needs to adapt to workforce demands.
In its current state, many barriers exist towards achieving a truly diverse system of higher education where every student has the opportunity to succeed. Academia does not typically prioritize diversity, equity and inclusion. Women in STEM are still among the most disadvantaged at all levels, with a relatively low number achieving tenure-track faculty positions in top universities. In order for women to succeed in positions of power, radical changes need to occur. Statements such as “the first woman of color as a department chair at an Ivy League” should be celebrated, but need not be the exception, with women holding these roles across institutions for years to come.
No longer should we have to use metaphors such as “breaking the glass ceiling” for women in academia. This phrase stems from an antiquated system where the contributions of the most disadvantaged populations are not typically recognized to an equal level. Holistically, this issue arises from the overall internal mechanics of higher education itself, which is set up to reward scientific achievement over skills necessary for a scientifically literate workforce.
Academia also needs to adapt to current workforce demands, by training the next generation for many different careers. The development of a “research pipeline” as a concept in itself presupposes that all who pursue scientific degrees are destined to become tenure-track faculty. As a result, we are molding the next generation towards a very narrow career path, which realistically only very people can achieve. And even if they achieve it, it is likely a hustle towards a neverending goal to publish more and write more grants, pointing again to the need for systemic change to allow for true knowledge gain and societal applications to be the norm.
Without downplaying the importance of scientific training and research discoveries resulting from universities (the current COVID-19 vaccine being a good example), we must recognize that incremental academic changes will not move the needle to the scale that it needs to occur.
These kinds of metaphors may always pervade the system due to its antiquated nature, but we may also be able to use them as an impetus for change. In my view, real academic systemic change requires actions at different levels, with many stakeholders working together. Actions taken by individual institutions towards increasing diversity, equity and inclusion, as well as teaching trainees about non-academic career options they can pursue, are highly commendable. And certainly, some change can occur at the individual institutional level by engaging the young generation in leadership roles where they can gain knowledge about and be empowered to design or modify institutional policies to serve the interests of the next generation. However, this type of change will not occur without both bottom up and top down action, leading to policy change within a given institution.
And while some institutions have achieved success in combating some of these larger systemic issues, collective measures towards policy change may be more successful. Advocating for higher education issues as a community may be an ideal way to influence the system as a whole on these issues.
We are beginning to see some change occur at the federal level, through bills that support general diversity efforts and career transitions for women in STEM. Funding agencies have also extended grant deadlines in the light of the pandemic, which may enable women in STEM to obtain necessary funding and to continue publishing on their research. But overall many stakeholders - individual advisors and department chairs, as well as policymakers at the federal and state level, and funding agencies - must play a role in taking collective action towards common advocacy goals.
Ultimately, the shift desired to eliminate some of underlying problems that lead to the existence of these metaphors being used in academia will therefore require the entire ecosystem of higher education to pivot towards prioritizing diversity, equity and inclusion, as well as training the next generation for a number of career options.
Breaking Academic Barriers: A Career Path Perspective
The use of the leaky pipeline metaphor downplays the idea that there are other career paths that individuals with expertise in science can follow and in which their previous experiences in other science fields are invaluable.
An example of a possible alternative path is STEM education research and policy. In this type of career, individuals can combine their expertise in a science field with education, and collaborate with experts in other areas (such as teachers, statisticians, and curriculum developers) with the purpose of improving education in the sciences. In the policy field, there are several associations like the National Academies that focus on the improvement of STEM education standards and have influenced the way research and policy are done in education. An example includes the policy recommendations written by AAAS (Project 2061) and the National Academies (A Framework for K-12 Science Education) to improve curriculum design with the purpose of encouraging scientific literacy and improving scientific curricula in undergraduate education in the biological sciences. In this work, individuals with experiences from several fields (biology, education, mathematics, statistics, etc.) interact and collaborate with the joint purpose of improving American education standards and curriculum design and providing research findings that support their recommendations.
There are multiple career paths that can be developed by individuals that decide to pursue a STEM education degree (teaching certificate, PhD, EdD, or postdoc), including being an academic researcher, a teacher, or working for a company or a policymaker. Individuals with a background in science can contribute greatly to society and their field by providing a unique perspective given by their training. Therefore, the use of the leaky pipeline metaphor is inadequate at describing the experiences of these individuals. Women and minorities should be allowed to feel like they can contribute to any of these fields without being considered as abandoning the scientific career path. They are still contributing with their experiences and with their research expertise in other areas.