Equity Leads to More Impactful Science

Image credit: Andy Brunning/Compound Interest

Written by: Alison Mao and Mikaela Palandra (Biochemistry WIDE Committee)

Considering the benefits of diversity in science, it is essential for institutions to take steps to promote the inclusion of underrepresented groups. Our first article in the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion series introduced the topic of diversity in science and challenges faced by underrepresented groups. As individuals, we all have different perspectives that are shaped by our experiences and social identities. In a collaborative workspace, each person can address a different facet of the same topic, thus allowing the group to obtain a more complete understanding of the topic while mitigating individual biases (University of California Museum of Paleontology, 2021). I had the opportunity to experience the power of diversity in research at the Global Water Futures (GWF) Second Annual Science Meeting in Saskatoon, which emphasized collaborations with the Indigenous community to address the emerging global water crisis. We spent half of a day immersed in Indigenous culture, then attended lectures from members of the Indigenous community to obtain firsthand accounts of water issues and exchange ideas to develop solutions. The GWF’s partnerships with the Indigenous community actively promote diversity in water research, which is an approach that can greatly benefit all disciplines. With our second article, we further explore the effects of diversity on research and potential ways to promote inclusion for more impactful science.

Previous studies have shown that diversity enhances research quality and productivity. A 2014 study using last names as an indication of ethnicity showed that when articles were written by 4-5 authors from different ethnicities, they had 5-10% more citations than papers from collaborators with the same ethnicity (Freeman and Huang, 2014). In addition to producing more widely-cited material, introducing more diversity to research teams can also boost research productivity. In Japan, the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST) implemented a policy stating that 50% of all researchers would be international while expanding their recruitment efforts to seek diversity in gender, academic background, and ethnicity. This initiative was correlated with their increase in research output ranking among academic institutions in Japan from 2012 to 2018 (Swartz et al., 2019). Overall, encouraging international collaborations and recruiting diverse individuals leads to more impactful research.  

Due to the heterogeneity in the experiences of the general population, diversity among researchers can address specific healthcare issues that might have been overlooked otherwise. An individual’s response to drug treatments or risk for developing health problems is influenced by factors such as their race, ethnicity, and gender. For example, angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors are less effective for treating hypertension in the Black population while other medications for high blood pressure only show effects in this group (Ramamoorthy et al., 2014). While the involvement of underrepresented groups is essential for bridging the gap, unethical practices in the past have adversely impacted their perception of medical research (Ileka et al., 2020). In 1951, doctors sent pieces of a tumor from Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman, to researchers without her knowledge or consent. Due to their robust reproductive ability and survivability, the “HeLa” cells became widely used in historically significant scientific work that ranged from in vitro fertilization to the development of the polio vaccine (Nature, 2020). However, her family was not compensated or asked for consent as her cells were used for research and her personal information was released to the media. Although the scientific community has implemented regulations to ensure more ethical practices in research, diversity among researchers would further promote trust with patients from diverse backgrounds due to their shared life experiences (Sierra-Mercado and Lázaro-Muñoz, 2018). It could also encourage them to participate in clinical trials and data collection, thus the resulting research would be more representative of the general population by accounting for the specific needs of underrepresented groups. The inclusion of historically marginalized groups in science also raises awareness for problems that predominantly affect them relative to the general population. The rise in women pursuing medical research from the 1980s and onward has brought increased awareness to health issues that predominantly affect women, such as heart disease, breast cancer, and autoimmune diseases (Rosser, 2010). Similar advancements have been made in revising training for physicians in the context of LGBTQ+ patients (Eckstrand et al., 2016). Overall, diversity in science reflects the heterogeneity of the population and promotes awareness for issues that affect historically marginalized groups, thereby yielding better health outcomes for the entire population. 

Given the far-reaching benefits of diversity in science, enhancing the diversity of applicants in academic institutions is a crucial initial step. During the recruitment process, additional measures such as posting advertisements in multiple languages and across a variety of platforms can enhance diversity among applicants. Edmond Sanganyado, a professor at Shantou University in China, translated an advertisement from Chinese into English before sharing it on LinkedIn and WhatsApp. His efforts enabled him to recruit students internationally, thereby increasing the diversity of skill sets in his group (Forrester, 2020). In addition, reducing the emphasis of standardized testing in processes for hiring and admissions could promote diversity. A study on standardized tests for college students showed that they were biased against people from underrepresented groups and low-socioeconomic status, thereby impeding their ability to pursue higher education in the sciences (Long and Mejia, 2016). Schools are beginning to explore alternatives to standardized testing, including stealth assessments, game-based assessments, and using portfolios to collect assessments over time (Briggs, 2015). Although each method has drawbacks and more research would be required in order to implement them effectively, they could provide a more holistic evaluation of applicants. Reworking standard practices for recruitment and admissions will take time, but they will help facilitate the entry of people from underrepresented groups.

In addition to developing practices that provide equal opportunities to people from underrepresented groups to enter academic institutions and the industry, promoting inclusivity with diversity can lead to a workspace that is more conducive to innovative science. Workplaces can offer unconscious bias training and develop resources to create an inclusive environment for everyone, regardless of their background. Unconscious bias training would better equip employers to lead productive discussions on diversity while enabling employees to recognize and avoid microaggressions (Swartz et al., 2019). Institutions can also develop an inclusive environment through mentorship programs, such as the Entry Point! internship program by the American Association for the Advancement of Science for students with disabilities (Tachibana, 2012). At the University of Toronto, the Research Application Support Initiative (RASI) connects prospective medical school applicants to current students in the MD program while offering valuable research opportunities and workshops to polish their applications. Outreach programs provide applicants with access to important insights that can help them during the application process. Furthermore, they enable students to meet scientists with established careers and diverse backgrounds that they can relate to, which can promote retention of students in science. Another consideration toward recruiting diverse researchers involves addressing life circumstances that may impede their scientific output. Providing resources such as family support, housing, mental health services, and language classes can enable all scientists to fully leverage their skills (Swartz et al., 2019). In order to harness the full benefits of diversity and promote inclusivity, further measures to facilitate the participation of underrepresented groups would be beneficial at an institutional and individual level.

For more information on the Wellness, Inclusion, Diversity and Equity (WIDE) committee, visit us at our website. The Temerty Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto also has a wide range of outreach programs for students from underrepresented groups with diversity initiatives such as equity workshops and Diversity Dialogue events.


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