Monday, 31 May 2021

Tackling racial diversity in the geosciences.

The evolution of the modern geosciences was closely linked to the expansion of European colonial powers, at a time when it was widely believed, at least by the European ruling classes, that the land belonged to those who were willing to use its products. At this time little thought was given to the opinions or welfare of indigenous non-European peoples. This meant that, to a large extent, the geosciences developed as a means to understand the distribution of mineral resources, with a view to extracting them for the benefit of the colonial powers. This knowledge is still important; without an understanding of the distribution of mineral resources, equitable sustainable development would be close to impossible. However, in order for this knowledge to be used for the benefit of the whole community, then the geoscientists wielding it need to reflect that community, and include people from a wide range of people from different communities and walks of life.

Achieving diversity within the geosciences requires robust measures to promote inclusivity, particularly within the former colonial powers. The geoscience disciplines in the Global North are still very much a white discipline, which appears to be a result of both subject-specific issues, and the wider problems of systemic racism within academia. For example, in the US just 6% of doctorate degrees in geoscience disciplines are awarded to students from under-represented minority backgrounds (defined in the US as American Indian or Alaska Native, Black or African American, Hispanic or Latino), despite the fact that these groups make up 31% of the total population. In order to become more inclusive, the biases and hostile environments that have led to this imbalance need to be addressed, and institutions need to work harder to both recruit people from a wider range of backgrounds, and to retain such recruits throughout their careers.

The US actively records data on the backgrounds of students achieving post-graduate qualifications in the geosciences (and other disciplines), but such information is less widely collated in other nations of the Global North.

In a paper published in the journal Nature Geoscience on 29 April 2021, Natasha Dowey of the Department of the Natural and Built Environment at Sheffield Hallam University, Jenni Barclay of the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia, Ben Fernando of the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Oxford, Sam Giles of the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Birmingham, Jacqueline Houghton of the School of Earth and Environment at the University of Leeds, Christopher Jackson of the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Manchester, Anjana Khatwa of Wessex Museums, Anya Lawrence, also of the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Birmingham, Keely Mills of the British Geological Survey, Alicia Newton of the Geological Society of London, Steven Rogers of the School of Geography, Geology and the Environment at Keele University, and Rebecca Williams of the Department of Geography, Geology and Environment at the University of Hull, seek to address some of the issues surrounding inclusivity in the geosciences in the UK. Dowey et al. use data from the UK Higher Education Statistics Agency, which paints what they describe as a 'dismal picture' of inclusivity in the UK, and further note that similar data would be very hard to collect for most other European countries, as such data simply isn't collected at all.

Four of the authors of the paper come from BAME backgrounds (Black, Asian and minority ethnic, the terminology currently used by the UK Higher Education Statistics Agency, but which Dowey et al. recognise homogenises different identities and can obscures experiences felt by one race or ethnicity). The majority of the authors have never been the victims of direct racism, but several hold responsibilities for equity, diversity and inclusion with different organisations, and all are concerned about the current situation, and wish to challenge geoscience leaders in both industry and academia to listen to a wider range of voices, address existing biases and inequalities in the field, and build a more inclusive and accountable culture within the geosciences as a whole.

The UK education system seldom if ever acknowledges the connection between the growth of our modern understanding of the geosciences (or geography in general) and the colonial expansion of the European powers. Furthermore, geoscientists are generally depicted as white men involved in a rugged, outdoors activity, something generally discouraging to people from minority backgrounds. This is reflected in the promotional materials produced by UK universities and geoscience organisations with a public engagement remit, which tends to be filled with images of white students exploring dramatic landscapes.

A recent survey by the Geological Society of London found that 60% of undergraduate geology students cited a lifelong interest in the natural environment. However, access to such environments is often governed by the environment in which one grows up, with children growing up in urban areas and in particular those from low income households, typically having far less ability to interact with the natural environment. Demographic studies of the UK suggest that over 98% of Black African, Pakistani and Bangladeshi people live in urban locations, and that Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Chinese and Black children are more likely to live in low income households that White children. A study by the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs found that 18% of children living in the most deprived areas never visited the countryside, and that those from Black and Asian families did so the least. Furthermore, a career in the geosciences is generally less likely to be seen as financially secure that a career in other professions by members of many minority communities.

Analysis of applications data has found that high-tariff, research-led, institutions were less likely to accept that students from BAME backgrounds than White students with similar qualifications. As an example, Dowey et al. cite the case of Oxford University, where it has been shown that BAME applicants are 5.8% less likely to receive a placement offer on mathematical, physical and life sciences courses than White students with similar qualifications. Overall Black students make up 3.9% of the toral number of students at high-tariff universities (universities that require high pre-university grades to gain entrance), and 12.2% of students at low-tariff universities (universities that require lower pre-university grades to gain entrance). Once enrolled, Black students are significantly less likely to gain either a first or 2.1 degree than White students. This in turn impacts the number of Black students gaining entrance to PhD placements, where there is a marked preference for students who have completed their undergraduate degrees at high-tariff universities, and application processes often reflect the candidate's access to resources as much as their actual ability, which strongly stigmatises students from less well off communities. In 2018/19 only 9% of UK Research and Innovation funded studentships, and only 6% of Environment Research Council studentships, were awarded to ethnic minority candidates, at a time when 19.4% of 18–34 year olds identified as BAME.

Representation of BAME students in the geology, environmental science and physical geography, shown alongside data for the overall physical sciences subject area and ethnicity data from the 2011 UK Government Census. UK Higher Education Statistics Agency data, based on full-time ‘all undergraduate’ and full-time ‘postgraduate research’ categories and are a five-year mean of data from 2014/15 to 2018/19. Dowey et al. (2021).

Dowey et al. also note that a lack of positive role-models within the field also probably serves as a discouragement to BAME students. Only 10.8% of UK professors identify as BAME, falling to 3.9% in Earth, marine and environmental sciences; the second lowest of any science, engineering and technology discipline. This creates an ‘institutional whiteness’ that can leave BAME students feeling isolated within institutions, and leaves the few BAME staff burdened with the additional responsibility of advancing equality without any meaningful reward.

Studying geosciences can also present additional, subject-specific, boundaries to BAME students, including cultural problems, such as co-educational residential trips and a prevalent ‘alcohol culture' in many geoscience departments and at conferences, as well as the high costs associated with fieldwork, which can impact students from economically disadvantaged communities, and more obvious problems of racial harassment, which can be a problem for students carrying out fieldwork in some areas.

These boundaries do not exist in isolation, students may also be impacted by other issues relating to gender, sexuality, disability, class, or nationality, and therefore increasing the accessibility of institutions to BAME students should be seen as part of a wider drive to make the geosciences an option for a wider range of minority groups.

In recent years there has been a drive for academic institutions to address their past links to colonialism. Within the geosciences, geologists such as Adam Sedgwick and Henry de la Beche are often cited as founding figures within the discipline, without mention of their links to the slave trade. Mapping and surveying are (inevitably) taught as a part of geosciences courses, but seldom with any mention of how these techniques were developed as part of a wider British colonial expansion, nor with reference to the ongoing destruction of sites deemed important by indigenous cultures by mining or civil engineering projects. Moving forward, Dowey et al. hope that geoscientists will work more closely with social and historical scientists to find ways to find ways to teach these subjects in a positive way with a stronger emphasis on geoethics.

Adam Sedgwick (1785-1873), proposed the Cambrian and Devonian periods of the geological timescale, and is considered one of the founders of modern geology. He was a vocal supporter of the abolition of slavery, but is also known to have owned slaves on plantations in Jamaica, and upon the abolition of slavery by the British government, received £3783 1s 8d in compensation for the loss of 174 slaves. Thomas Philips (1770-1845)/The Adam Sedgwick Collection/Wikimedia Commons.

A traditional approach to the geosciences is often one in which a Western field scientist visits a location, removes samples (often with local help), takes them back to a Western institution for study, then publishes their results in an (often paywalled) Western publication, without input from, or acknowledgement of, local authors. Such work seldom takes into account the views of local populations.

The tenth of the seventeen United Nations Sustainable Development Goals is the reduction of inequality within and between countries. Achieving this is generally accepted as being impossible without developing a more sustainable society, something which has major implications for the geosciences. Teaching a more inclusive geoscience curriculum, which takes into account a wider range of cultural perspectives, should enable students of all races and ethnicities to participate in shaping the future of the discipline.

Universities and other institutions have the ability to invest resources in racially diverse promotional materials and ambassador schemes that reward outreach work, rather than simply relying on BAME students to fit in with existing structures. There are existing organisations, such as Black In Geoscience and Black Geographers, which promote the role of BAME people within the geosciences, and by working with these educational institutions can promote more diversity within the field. Inviting a more diverse range of people to deliver seminars and presentations within universities can make BAME workers (and other minorities) more visible within the field, and more work can be done to increase the diversity of faculty members, by implementing development opportunities aimed at such staff, to counterbalance existing pathways which tend to favour a narrower range of workers.

Such work also needs to take place at earlier stages in the education system, in order to better access to the natural environment for younger members of BAME communities. Natural heritage organisations should work more closely with such communities, possibly by working with organisations such as Black2Nature, run by youth campaigner and environmentalist Mya-Rose Craig, which has opened pathways enabling young people from deprived areas in Bristol to learn about birding, conservation and wildlife. Universities can also promote such access through targeted outreach activities.

Youth campaigner and environmentalist Mya-Rose Craig (aka Birdgirl). Black2Nature/Facebook.

There are a number of steps that can be taken to make fieldwork more accessible to ethnic minority students. Notably, fully subsidising the cost of field-trips and equipment costs would remove boundaries to fieldwork for students from low-income backgrounds, and carrying out racial risk assessments ahead of planned fieldwork. Staff can also benefit from anti-discrimination and allyship training, and all race-related incidents should be fully documented. Courses should also be carefully planned so that fieldwork requirements do actually relate to the intended learning outcomes; many professional bodies require a mandatory number of days of fieldwork for the accreditation of courses, which promotes the traditional image of White, male, students involved in macho outdoor fieldwork, but often does not greatly enhance learning outcomes.

Students from minority backgrounds can also be helped by creating ring-fenced opportunities which address their needs, such as funded research experiences, summer schools, internships and studentships. More can be done to work with schools, colleges and other universities, to make students aware of such schemes where they exist.

Funding organisations and institutions need to be held accountable for transparency in their recruitment processes, and members of interview panels need to understand the barriers to BAME students, in order to to ensure improved diversity in successful applicants. Demographic data on candidates at the application, interview, offer and acceptance stages, should be published, in order to provide a clearer picture of postgraduate recruitment diversity.

Efforts to improve diversity should not be seen as ending at recruitment; more resources should be allocated to training in equity and inclusion. Diversity 'champions' can support the interests of minority candidates and groups, and encourage institutions to reflect on practices which produce hostile environments.

Dowey et al. argue that universities and other higher institutions need to acknowledge the hostile environments that can exist within them, which can discourage BAME students from both applying to, and continuing within geoscience disciplines. In order to make sure efforts to resolve these problems are long-lived, evidence-driven research needs to be undertaken to make sure the causes of problems are well understood, and efforts should be made to collaborate with other subjects and bodies facing similar challenges, thereby sharing transferable solutions across the sector. Workers in higher education must address personal and structural biases, and strive to be actively anti-racist. Finally, Dowey et al. note that the less diverse a field is, the more prevalent implicit biases become, and that difficult conversations need to happen sooner rather than later in order to create a more diverse and inclusive geoscience research culture.

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