Racism in academia

Last week we had several discussions within our research group in Amsterdam about #BlackLivesMatter, #ShutDownSTEM & racism in academia. I’m really grateful for the open exchange we had about this sensitive subject, which I think is very important. We feel we should share the outcomes of these discussions, so that others might be inspired to do the same. This is by no means a finished process; we have work to do to make academia a more diverse and inclusive place where also black people and other ethnic minorities can feel they belong and can thrive. 

These are the resources we read:

These are the aspects we discussed:

  • Our department within IVM-VU (WCR) is not ethnically diverse (staff nor PhDs)
  • The global protests give momentum to this discussion, help us realise the situation and think of actions
  • Feeling able to share is important
  • It takes time to evaluate people who are different from you (f.e. PhD applications, how do we evaluate an older PhD applicant with a lot of working experience)
  • As colleagues we need to be aware it is an extra challenge working in a Dutch culture for non-Dutch people
  • Also Dutch ethnic minorities face challenges in society and academia. Often the differences arise earlier (before / during / after high school), so that there are already less Dutch minorities in BSc and MSc programmes. University rankings take into account international staff & students, but not national minorities.
  • There are parallels with the climate change discussion and gender and other minorities (f.e. those with disabilities) in academia
  • Diversity has a value in itself that should be recognised
  • International projects should work with local scientists, employ local students, see value in being from the region (speaking local language, understanding local culture)
  • Why do international PhD students often get paid less (f.e. in Sandwich programmes), esp. when they often have more family responsibilities?
  • Role models and creating a sense of belonging are important: sometimes creating a critical mass is needed, shaping imagination, research culture and action
  • Those in power have the responsibility to change things

This is what we think should be done: 

  • Suggest reviewers from the area of your paper topic
  • Actively approach colleagues from ethnic minority backgrounds for suggestions for vacancies (as racisms affects minorities into thinking they don’t deserve that PHD spot) – do not distribute the vacancies only in our existing networks, but specifically ask other to send it around in their network (i.e. more that the “feel free to share with your network”-sentence at the end of an email)
  • Think of papers by people from underrepresented groups to reference in papers
    (this has to do with access to (publishing in) journals – an issue harder to solve but you can also work on it yourself: do not cite that paper that is cited 100times about the climate in african country X but the paper written by a scholar from african country x about african country x. Read papers originating from your study area
  • DO NOT WORK ON A TOPIC IN A FOREIGN COUNTRY WITHOUT GOING THERE AND CONTACTING LOCAL ACADEMIA AND OTHER STAKEHOLDERS (forcing funds to provide money to ‘go on the field’ will enhance our networks get more diverse)
  • Invite partner universities from diverse backgrounds in proposals (so not just Deltares and the Dutch Red Cross)
  • Sister-universities are still a thing, right? Why don’t we collaborate more with other water-climate-risk research groups
  • General rule: Try to have the PHD group AT LEAST AS diverse as the hydrology / environmental sciences / GECP master students
  • Diversify the application-committee that decide on which candidate will be employed + make a list of criteria that go beyond the criteria listed in the application (i.e. did you learn a skill on your own before rather than: do you know python) — define competence / quality of phds (not only publication quality)
  • Write proposals with topic speaking to people from diverse background in mind / with institutes locally embedded
  • Do science outreach in schools, especially in schools with many minority children or as role model for girls

And based on these discussions, this is my personal list of actions (recognising that I’m one of those people in power). I will:

  • Be aware of my own implicit bias and privileges
  • Discuss diversity issues regularly with research group and department staff, listen to everyone’s experience & ideas
  • Keep up with VU initiatives (f.e. the VU international office supporting international PhDs)
  • Think of underrepresented groups for references in my papers
  • Update lecture materials and reading assignments with papers from underrepresented groups 
  • Nominate someone from an underrepresented background for an award
  • Make seminars, committees, and conferences more ethnically diverse without placing an unjust burden on underrepresented groups, at meetings: make sure everyone gets a chance to speak, at conferences: make an effort to talk to those outside my network
  • Create a research culture within my research group / department / international working group where everyone can feel that they belong
  • Advocate for diversity in hiring procedures, actively approach people from academic minority groups to encourage them to apply
  • As journal editor: be supportive of scientists from underrepresented groups, for example by explaining the procedure
  • Try more to call out or report racism, micro-aggressions when I see them or hear about them
  • Amplify black and other ethnic minority voices on Twitter


Figure credits: https://thelatch.com.au/black-square-instagram-movement/