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Geoscientists call for action on tackling racial inequality

An article published in the journal Nature Geoscience has highlighted the under-representation of students from ethnic minority backgrounds in the geosciences.

Geology, Physical Geography and Environmental Science are the three Physical Science subjects with the lowest representation of Black, Asian and minority ethnic students in UK higher education.

New nationwide research, led by Sheffield Hallam University and supported by a team including Dr Rebecca Williams (pictured) at the University of Hull, found in the 2018/19 academic year just 5.2 per cent of Physical Geography postgraduates identified as Black, Asian or minority ethnic, despite these groups comprising 18.5% of the UK 18-24-year-old population.

Over the past five years, on average just 1.4% Geology postgraduate researchers identified as Black, compared to 3.8% of UK 18-24-year-olds.

The new research paper, which examined students in full-time undergraduate study in the UK, and their progression into postgraduate research, was released today in the Nature Geoscience journal.

Dr Rebecca Williams, Senior Lecturer in Geology at the University of Hull, is a co-author on the project.

She said: “While the lack of diversity in the geosciences has been documented before in the US, very little has been done to understand the barriers facing students from Black, Asian and other ethnic minority backgrounds looking to undertake postgraduate studies in the UK.

“What this report has done is expose the extent of those barriers. Some of the statistics we discovered were shocking, and highlighted the scale of the changes which must be made to balance our curriculum and subjects, and provide better opportunities to people from all backgrounds.

“Moving forwards, we must remove the bias and hostile environments that have led to inequality in our discipline, attract researchers from a variety of backgrounds and retain them throughout their careers.”

Dr Rebecca Williams
Dr Rebecca Williams

As well as aligning with the University of Hull’s vision for a fairer and brighter future for all and its recent commitments to advancing racial inclusion and a culture of anti-racism faster through its new Social Justice and Inclusion Board, chaired by the Vice-Chancellor, the authors of the research hope that the study will galvanise the UK geosciences community to take the positive actions needed and encourage other science disciplines to take similar steps.

The paper proposed a number of actions which must be taken, in an effort to make the geosciences more inclusive. They included:

  • Decolonising the curriculum – In geoscience, the likes of Adam Sedgwick and Henry de la Beche are often referenced in teaching but rarely are their links to slavery – which are now being recognised – mentioned. Moving forwards, geoscientists must reflect and engage with social scientists and historical scientists to explore these links, teaching them through the positive lens of geoethic.

  • Inclusive teaching – By teaching a geoscience curriculum with more focus on diverse global perspectives of sustainability, as well as on traditional geoscience perspectives, a more relevant and inclusive curriculum to students of all races and ethnicities could be created.

  • Representation – A greater investment in resources of racially diverse promotional materials and in ambassador schemes. Support for grass-roots initiatives to amplify voices from all backgrounds in geoscience, and increase the diversity of staff working in the subjects.

  • Subject awareness – Increased opportunities for young people from all ethnic minority backgrounds to engage with nature and green spaces. Universities can play a significant role in this through providing outreach opportunities.

  • Removing barriers – Ring-fenced opportunities, such as funded research experiences, summer schools, internships, and studentships, are clear and evidenced pathways to increased chances of progression for underrepresented groups. Working collaboratively with schools, colleges and other universities can make such initiatives more viable and increase their reach.

Dr. Natasha Dowey of Sheffield Hallam University, led the new study. She said: “It’s about time these data are scrutinised.

“We see the lack of diversity every day in our university corridors. Our subjects are built on a legacy of imperialism and are impacted by structural barriers that discriminate against minority groups.

“It’s up to the entire geoscience community to make anti-racist changes and be positive allies to Black, Asian and minority ethnic students and colleagues.”

The full paper is now available to read in the Nature Geoscience journal.

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