The Least Diverse Field in Science

The Significant Opportunities in Atmospheric Research and Science (SOARS) program offers comprehensive mentoring to underrepresented undergraduates as they complete original research in the earth sciences.

Climate change impacts underserved communities the most, yet geoscience remains homogenous

Within the span of a few months, 2021 saw some of the worst weather disasters in recent history. People in different areas across the globe have experienced blizzards, flooding, heatwaves, and wildfires. U.S. colleges and universities have borne damages from many of these crises, and underserved communities have often suffered the most detrimental effects.

“We’re at a point where everyone on the planet now has felt the impacts of climate change itself, or at least someone they love or know has,” Merritt Turetsky, director of the University of Colorado Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, told CNN in July 2021.

With this reality bearing down, younger demographics are feeling heightened anxiety about the future. A June 2021 poll by the Pew Research Center found that out of all generations, Gen Z respondents are the most likely to say climate change is their number one concern, followed by Millennials.

Despite these concerns, the number of students entering the geosciences — which includes atmospheric science and climatology — is declining. In the 2019–2020 academic year, undergraduate enrollment in these disciplines dropped 10 percent while graduate enrollment declined 27 percent, according to a report by the American Geosciences Institute. The number of students graduating with four-year degrees in geosciences fell
5 percent while those graduating with a master’s degree decreased by 31 percent. The COVID-19 pandemic and recent downward employment rates in the energy sector are likely the main reasons for this decline, the report states.

These dwindling numbers are even more concerning when considering the lack of diversity in this field. Nearly 86 percent of students graduating with a PhD in atmospheric sciences are White, according to a 2018 analysis published in Nature Geosciences. The study determined that these numbers have not shifted for the last 40 years.

Programs such as Significant Opportunities in Atmospheric Research and Sciences (SOARS) aim to change that. Each summer, SOARS welcomes underrepresented students from across the U.S. to conduct original research on atmospheric-related topics under the guidance of top scientists. The free 11-week program is hosted by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, a nonprofit consortium of more than 115 colleges and universities located in Boulder, Colorado.

A primary goal of SOARS is to help undergraduate participants envision themselves as scientists, explains program director Kadidia Thiero.

“If you aren’t seeing any diversity during your academic trajectory, it’s very hard to convince people that [a career in the field] is something that is attainable,” she says.

Kadidia Thiero

Many participants are inspired to pursue climate science because of a desire to help their communities, as diverse and underserved areas are proven to disproportionately suffer the effects of pollution and natural disasters. The scientific community tends to overlook these areas when it comes to such tasks as monitoring storm patterns, according to a recent article. “In this way, racism also generates an incomplete picture of the world that can limit policymaking, leaving many millions of people facing disproportionate harm from growing threats,” it states.

In recent years, SOARS research projects have ranged from studying how the 2020 California wildfires affected air quality to analyzing the relationship between adverse weather and traffic conditions. Each student is paired with a success coach, peer mentor, and individual mentors for research, writing, and computing.

“Unfortunately, many students and alumni say they never received the amount of support that they get in [the SOARS] program — not in school, not in their postsecondary education, and not in their jobs,” Thiero says.

SOARS participants conduct research into topics such as climate change, severe weather events, and more.

The dedicated professionals at SOARS are not the only ones working to address this problem. In June 2020, a team of diverse geoscientists issued a national statement titled “A Call to Action for an Anti-Racist Science Community from Geoscientists of Color: Listen, Act, Lead.” The authors called on their community to join in the larger anti-racism movement and improve diversity in the field. The letter describes the exclusionary nature of the geosciences and urges “decisive actions that call on leaders in the academy, industry, state and federal government, professional societies, and the nonprofit sector to develop substantive and multi-pronged strategies to remove systemic racism in our community.” The authors urge individual organizations and agencies to take specific steps, such as asking that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration deepen its engagement with and support of Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs).

Some of these groups have made concrete efforts toward meeting the letter’s goals, according to Vernon Morris, its lead author and the director of the Arizona State University School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences. He recently told Science magazine that academic programs, however, have been the slowest to take measurable actions.

As a former director of Howard University’s (HU) atmospheric science graduate program, Morris has advocated for federal agencies and universities to increase their investment in climate science programs at MSIs and historically Black colleges and universities. Such efforts are necessary to improve the severe underrepresentation of Black and Brown PhD holders who go on to become faculty and leaders in this field, he told Science.

Despite these persistent issues, progress is slowly being made. Between 2006 and 2018, HU graduated 17 Black PhDs in atmospheric science. At SOARS, 51 participants have gone on to earn doctorates, and 29 are currently enrolled in PhD programs. Encouraging students to see themselves as making a difference in climatology and letting them know they have the support of professionals in the field are some of the most effective ways to ensure they go forward with their studies, Thiero says.

“One of the things that SOARS and other programs do is to instill confidence and help [students] build their mentorship teams,” she explains, “because that type of support is not really seen elsewhere.”

Lisa O’Malley is the assistant editor and Mariah Bohanon is the senior editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity.

This article was published in our September 2021 issue.