Foundation system

Berry College professor receives National Science Foundation grant to study inequalities in science

Thema Monroe-White, assistant professor of data analysis at Berry College, recently received a $405,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study how structural racism harms science.

Monroe-White, Ph.D. in Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy from the Georgia Institute of Technology, is the principal investigator of the project. She is joined in this research by Cassidy R. Sugimoto, Tom and Marie Patton School Chair at the Georgia Tech School of Public Policy. Monroe-White and Berry received two-thirds of the grant, while the remaining third went to Sugimoto and Georgia Tech.

“It’s important that we take the time to study how structural racism can impact science, which often presents itself as being objective and unbiased,” Monroe-White said. “We cannot maximize the good of scientific innovation and discovery until we know that they will not end up harming marginalized groups.”

Monroe-White and Sugimoto will also seek to measure how the inclusion of people of color and members of historically marginalized groups into the scientific workforce benefits the field as a whole. The grant will allow them to recruit a cohort of 12 fellows, made up of PhD students from a variety of disciplines and countries. Together, fellows will discuss how their lived experiences influenced their research design.

“Our research aims to empirically examine the extent to which diversity in the scientific workforce creates a more innovative and robust scientific system,” Monroe-White and Sugimoto wrote in their project summary.

Monroe-White and Sugimoto recently contributed two articles related to this research. The most recent, titled “Avoiding Bias When Inferring Race Using Name-based Approaches,” was published in March in PLOS ONE (a peer-reviewed open access scientific journal published by the Public Library of Science). Prior to that, they contributed to “Intersectional Inequalities in Science,” published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) in January.

In the article, Monroe-White, Sugimoto and their co-authors note that the scientific workforce is not representative of the general population. Analyzing millions of scientific papers, they seek to understand the relationship between scientists and the subjects they study. Their work is novel in its emphasis on the intersectional nature of scientists’ identities, particularly race and gender.

“Our results show that minority authors tend to publish in scientific disciplines and on research topics that reflect their gendered and racialized social identities,” write the authors. They argue that this “suggests a relationship between the diversity of the scientific workforce and the expansion of the knowledge base”.

With their NSF grant, Monroe-White and Sugimoto plan to develop algorithms that will take into account more of the context behind published academic papers. This will, they hope, monitor factors such as the intersection of race, ethnicity and gender inequalities in research spaces. The researchers also plan to expand their work to South Africa and Brazil, both of which have high levels of racial inequality and scientific productivity.

“Academic institutions are incredible spaces for innovation, but, like many types of organizations, they can also serve to replicate inequalities in science,” Sugimoto said. “I am grateful to be able to work with such a great team to generate evidence-based solutions to reinvent a more just and innovative scientific system.”

The research project is expected to last until March 2025.