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Checking Our Blind Spots: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Research

diversity, equity, and inclusion illustrated as marginalized researcher in a rearview mirror

Finding equitable approaches to support impactful research, a Q&A with:

Ezemenari Obasi, Ph. D.
Director of the Health Research Institute; Associate Vice President for Research Administration,
University of Houston

Alexis Stokes
Assistant Dean for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging
Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

Lindsay Lewis
Executive Director of Strategic Research Communications
University of Houston

To say the year 2020 was when we all “came online” would be an understatement. It was a year of social isolation but also one of social awakening.

A largescale shift in the cultural conversation sparked by the murder of George Floyd, and the protests in response, prompted universities to prioritize funding for research projects focused on racial equity and social impact. While those projects take due time to come to fruition, universities are dealing with questions about equitable representation and visibility for underrepresented faculty in real time.

Here we gather perspectives on how we can address our blind spots to better support all of the research happening across the enterprise.

Q: Especially in response to the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement, universities have started to focus on connecting better with underrepresented faculty. Are there helpful insights you can give about increasing trust and authentic communication between faculty and administration?

Stokes: The institution is older than all of us. It’s not an overnight process to change that culture. It’s important for us all to acknowledge that if we don’t commit to the investment of time, energy and money it takes to achieve this kind of change, then what we know will happen is that it will continue to cost those with marginalized identities. It’ll cost them emotional labor. It’ll cost them also in their research because that emotional labor takes a toll. We know on the faculty side of things that means that you are disproportionately providing informal services to the university, and that work is not being taken into consideration when you go for promotion. It will cost you one way or the other, but sometimes just posing the question — “How does this align with our diversity, equity and inclusion goals? “— can push the discussion forward and start to unearth where the inequities are.

Obasi: To some degree, you have to just walk into places. When we do community work in the health equity space, we don’t go and say “let’s just talk to the leader” because we don’t know if that person’s the true voice of that particular community. University administrators could join department meetings, meet faculty where they are, and not rely on stories or achievements to filter down to them. There’s going to be bias brought into that, and you might miss some very important stories. Or, communicators could put out requests to the effect of, “we want to cover story x, is there anyone at the university that’s doing work in this area?” This allows the faculty to reach out to you. Faculty may not even know that the university is interested in covering a topic or moving forward in a certain focus area.

Q: We tend to think of faculty visibility in terms of high-dollar funding from major federal sources or publication within a handful of the most prestigious journals. What kind of blind spots does this create and what other criteria might we consider when identifying and supporting impactful faculty work to make better strides toward inclusivity?

Obasi: Grants and publications show an impact in the scientific community. If you care about your engagement in local communities, then those indicators may not be the best benchmarks. Faculty might volunteer their time and make impacts through community activities that truly change lives, and there could be no grant dollars attached to that. On the other hand, projects with large federal grants may not necessarily translate so that the community could benefit from them. An approach where we balance scientific impact with community engagement impact keeps us away from blind thresholds. That way we can demonstrate that we’re moving the needle in domains that are meaningful to the people that we serve.

Lewis: In communications, we are trained to think in terms of news and press releases, but our team has taken a different approach. One of the drivers behind our Research Reaching Houston project is the fact that we have all these great stories that may be told once, but then they are forgotten about. People forget. We forget as a university. So we built a website where we present stories in a reader-friendly format, focusing on the impact regardless of the funding or what department it comes from. Of course, this project has its own blind spots. We’re not covering all research projects, just those with direct impact on our city. But by changing our focus, we’ve covered a lot of stories that were never going to be told otherwise. We know this because faculty are telling us, “nobody’s ever called me to talk about my research.”

Q: As you each navigate between the worlds of faculty, administration and the public, are there ways you see that universities can be more active and effective in supporting faculty and enhancing representation within the research enterprise? Are there critical gaps we need to fill?

Stokes: Sitting within the school of engineering in a stem context, it’s common now for our students to do a postdoc before going on to faculty positions. Taking that into consideration, we are having discussions about these issues with our postdocs. They are the next generation of faculty members. When they sit on a journal editing board or when they are writing grants, we want them to be mindful of their own biases and not end up contributing to the lack of representation within academia. We have a responsibility as the institution that hired those postdocs to set expectations around what it means to be a faculty member.

Obasi: As a faculty member, you’re not trained to think about how to publicize your work, you’re trained to just write research papers, present at professional meetings and try to get grants. And there’s a translational gap in science in general. Faculty may not know about media training and other opportunities, or that they even have the capacity to move the needle on some of these things on their own. But it takes an investment of time and resources to train faculty to write op-eds and prepare for media interviews so that they’re invited again. I think that if we put that work in on the front end, we would actually get more national coverage. Training faculty to be their own individual machine of publicizing their work beyond the traditional academic platforms would go a long way.

Lewis: there is a lot of scholarly activity at the university that is very significant to our peer institutions but may not make a big splash with the public. It’s still important for us to promote it within our academic community to really make our university stand out to other universities as a growing enterprise. It positions us as strong collaborators, which is important for fostering convergence research. Another blind spot within universities is innovation. It’s not well understood by everybody, but it’s a very productive and profitable piece of the current and future research enterprise. Those stories are trailing, and there’s a lot more we can do to promote technologies that have transferred to society or companies that have spun out of academia into industry. We need to continue to open avenues to tell these stories.

Further Reading: Alexis Stokes’ Presentation “DEI Work Is Not Free.”

Cartoon image of Tim Holt

About Tim Holt

As digital media manager for the UH Division of Research, I’m here to make sure you enjoy your experience on the Big Idea blog. When you watch our video stories, I’ll be the one behind the camera.

About Tim Holt

As digital media manager for the UH Division of Research, I’m here to make sure you enjoy your experience on the Big Idea blog. When you watch our video stories, I’ll be the one behind the camera.