Diversity and Democracy

Beyond International Competition: Diverse Perspectives and Scientific Discovery

Adelphi University
Adelphi University

Attention to America's investments in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) has perhaps reached its highest level since the famed Sputnik movement. As reflected in his proposed budget for 2012, President Obama has made US advancement in scientific fields a national priority for global competitiveness and economic health. Likewise, the secretaries of Education, Labor, and Energy, as well as leadership within the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, have all espoused the importance of STEM as a mechanism for competing in a global scientific marketplace, supporting national security, bolstering the US economy, and maintaining the health of America's citizenry. Yet often lost in this competitive message is the inherent value of diverse perspectives in our nation's laboratories and classrooms and the importance of collaboration across international boundaries.

The Importance of Diverse Perspectives

The argument for diverse perspectives in STEM originated with the second-wave feminist movement (from the early 1960s to the late 1970s). Ruth Bleier, Sandra Harding, Donna Haraway, Sharon Traweek, and other feminist scholars painted a disturbing picture of the scientific community as an intellectual environment dominated by elite white men. They documented a scientific culture that was androcentric, ethnocentric, and absolutist. It is thus not surprising that many women were discouraged from studying STEM, and that those who persisted and entered scientific fields confronted attitudes, behaviors, and social constructs that proved incompatible with their active participation in the scientific community—an unfortunate phenomenon that still exists today.

Feminist scholars also chronicled the discriminatory practice of science. By the 1980s and 1990s, scholars such as Helen Longino (an American philosopher of science) were arguing that claims to objectivity—the hallmark of empiricism—could not be maintained without recognizing the social and cultural values that influence scientific practice. That is, the manner in which scientific questions are posed (who does the asking?), studied (who does the research?), reported (who tells the story?), received (who is the audience?), and supported (who provides the resources?) deeply affects the nature of the "objective truths" that science reveals.

Feminist scholars have often pointed to the birth control pill as a classic example of scientific application that directly affects the lives of millions of women, yet continues to escape the attention of researchers. Over fifty years have passed since the development of oral contraceptives, and yet the Food and Drug Administration remains unaware of their long-term effects. Of course, there are many reasons (financial, political, and market-driven) that certain treatments and diseases go understudied despite their impact on broad segments of the world's population.

Yet my point is this: scientists' perspectives necessarily influence scientific inquiry and the ways in which diverse national and global populations benefit from scientific innovation. It is necessary to ask, if more women had been directly involved in scientific inquiry over the past fifty-plus years, would the oral contraceptive market be different today, and would more be known about these drugs' long-term health effects? Likewise, how would scientific inquiry change if the scientific community included more perspectives from traditionally underrepresented groups? Would technology be more accessible to inner-city and rural communities? Would investments in biomedical research address a wider range of health problems facing the United States and the world?

What Is at Stake

As producers, users, and consumers of scientific products and knowledge, we must ask ourselves: what is the purpose of science? Is it to advance the health and well-being of our nation's citizenry? Is it to protect the natural resources of our planet, while also sustaining diverse lived environments, from Montana to inner-city Chicago, from rural Africa to Sao Paulo, Brazil? Is it to work across resource-rich and resource-poor countries to ensure an equitable distribution of food and energy? Is it to make our day-to-day lives easier and more enjoyable? Is it all of these things? No matter what one perceives as the benefits of scientific research, I would argue that diverse perspectives matter more today than ever before.

From a global perspective, even the most geographically distant countries are growing ever closer to one another—not literally, of course, but economically and intellectually. Technological advances have made more transparent the interdependency of global markets and have quickened the pace of intellectual capital's delivery. Our global community, despite the challenges of cross-cultural communication, is itself of great benefit to STEM fields for a number of reasons, including this one: the diversity of thought available through international collaboration. Yet there is a balance that needs striking. It lies somewhere between competitiveness and inclusivity. And it is a balance that the United States has not quite achieved.

Ironies and Tensions

The administration's emphasis on competition—communicated via competitive grant programs at the K-12 and higher education levels and for independent researchers and institutions—promotes innovation by way of necessity (that is, by rewarding innovative ideas with the monetary prizes that are necessary for research). Undergraduate STEM students, too, know competition well. They face it in first-year math and science courses, especially at top-tier research institutions where professors often practice weed-out techniques at the expense of students' confidence and potential success.

This focus on competition is ironic, since the very core of scientific discovery and engineering innovation exists in groups both small and large. While some STEM fields (for example, mathematics) continue to rely on individual discoveries, cross-disciplinary collaboration is necessary in most if not all emerging fields—including materials science, nanotechnology, biotechnology, and clean energy technologies.

Competitive atmospheres are also revealed as counterproductive in light of what we know about the way diverse populations learn. Higher education literature has shown that competition between students in the STEM classroom often contributes to a tense climate for women, who tend to value learning environments that promote relationship-building and community involvement (see Belenky et al. 1997). Such an atmosphere also makes transitioning to the science environment more difficult for first-year students from traditionally underrepresented racial and ethnic groups (see Hurtado et al. 2007).

A final tension exists in STEM departments with large international populations. STEM faculty often favor doctoral students from countries with stronger math and science programs than those in the United States (and if recent Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reports are any indication, a number of these exist). While this approach may benefit individual faculty members and their research trajectories in the short term, it can be counterproductive to investments in America's STEM talent, particularly since most foreign students return to their home countries after receiving their degrees. This is not to say that universities shouldn't admit foreign students, but that admissions committees should pay attention to the holistic well-being of the department and the overarching field. In other words, they should aim for a balance of perspectives, both international and domestic.

Final Thoughts

Without crosscultural collaboration in the United States and around the globe, we cannot expect to make progress in environmental sustainability, public health, and other pressing scientific challenges that our country and world face. Within American higher education, this means creating and sustaining a diverse pipeline of US talent at each level of STEM education, while also inviting perspectives from abroad. Without this balanced approach—where the science of education is just as important as the science of innovation—we risk stifling human advancement and well-being.


Belenky, Mary Field, Blythe McVicker Clinchy, Nancy Rule Goldberger, and Jill Mattuck Tarule. 1997. Women's Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind. New York: Basic Books.

Hurtado, Sylvia, June C. Han, Victor B. Sáenz, Lorelle Espinosa, Nolan L. Cabrera, and Oscar S. Cerna. 2007. "Predicting Transition and Adjustment to College: Biomedical and Behavioral Science Aspirants' and Minority Students' First Year of College. Research in Higher Education 48 (7): 841-87.

Lorelle L. Espinosa is the director of policy and strategic initiatives at the Institute for Higher Education Policy.


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