Science is a meritocracy.
Science benefits the world.
Science leads to progress—progress for all.
In some sectors of our society, certainly the ones I move in, these messages are so common that they almost blend into the background as “truth.” And on a warming planet and in a country with fresh wounds from the pandemic, these perceptions of science begin to feel foundational and undeniably true. Many place our trust in science as a sense-making and knowledge-generating process. Many more see science as an expression of our innate human curiosity and wonder. I hold onto science as a source of hope and innovation.
And yet, science is all that—and a human enterprise, a system built by and maintained by beautifully imperfect people. Science is multidimensional, and in all its complexity it is woven into our dreams and identity as a nation. It is at the heart of the “American Dream,” the myth that here all people, through hard work and by virtue of their talents, can achieve upward mobility. Like the American Dream, there are elements of science that have become part of the myths about our society others tell and we tell ourselves. As bureaucrats approving H-1B visas and the Rio Grande itself bear witness to each day, the power of the dreams that these myths engender cannot be understated.
As a Latinx, woman of color, immigrant scientist trained in the United States, science was at the heart of my American Dream.
As a Latinx, woman of color, immigrant scientist trained in the United States, science was at the heart of my American Dream. But having journeyed, propelled by dreams built on these myths, I have come to appreciate the many cracks in the façades of both the American Dream and the scientific enterprise. I’ve come to identify three foundational myths that are essential to the story of STEM: scientific benevolence, meritocratic advancement, and objectivity.
Scientific benevolence is the notion that all science is done for the benefit of society, whether immediate or long-term. Meritocratic advancement is the notion that built into science is a competitive system where all who work hard enough will get a fair and just reward. And scientific objectivity, as described by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, is the “idea that scientific claims, methods, results—and scientists themselves—are not, or should not be, influenced by particular perspectives, value judgments, community bias or personal interests.” Like most myths, they might seem innocuous or even beneficial. And for some they are. But they are stories—stories that center the realities of some over others.
In my experience and analysis, these three myths, among others, are used to rationalize and maintain gatekeeping, systemic racism, and exclusion in STEM. They have been shaped and reshaped to the benefit of the few. As Science and Technology Studies (STS) scholar Donna Haraway wrote, “They tell parables about objectivity and scientific method to students in the first years of their initiation, but no practitioner of the high scientific arts would be caught dead acting on the textbook versions.” These three myths have seeped into our mental models of science, making it very difficult to disentangle what science is from what it could be. When thought leaders discuss historical disparities in funding, for example, they often do not go deep enough to look behind the veil of the assumptions that perpetuate those disparities.
The gatekeeping culture I encountered brought me in through narrow pipelines that rewarded my difference but then demanded I leave it at the door.
I entered a doctoral program at UC Berkeley with the somewhat secret goal of becoming a scientist-activist. But the experiences I went through while being molded into the archetypal “American scientist” challenged my mental health and pushed me to question the ethics and power dynamics of scientific knowledge production. As a Chancellor’s Fellow I was told I was “an outstanding applicant” who also advanced “the Regents’ goals for diversification of the academy.” But the gatekeeping culture I encountered brought me in through narrow pipelines that rewarded my difference but then demanded I leave it at the door. And it’s not that UC Berkeley did not try; I fondly remember the lunches with other diversity pipeline graduate students, and I did eventually find beautiful rebellious faculty who nurtured me.
But even years after graduating, I still remember the surprising sadness of being told by a member of my dissertation committee that I would be “wasting my career” if I decided to pursue any interest that did not align with those of my advisor. (It was true that once I resolved to pursue the interests that fueled me, I was slowly ignored and sidelined by her.) I was taught to think of a scientific paper as a story that only a few could tell and that most Science-worthy stories were not about people. I remember the burst of anger I was met with when I suggested that scientific funding should go to community-led research. I can still feel traces of the blinding, memory-erasing anxiety of my qualifying exam that triggered a shingles rash that made my skin burn. And the depression that set in afterwards when I realized that if I was to stay and complete my PhD I would have to swim directly against the current to become the scholar I wanted to be.
The racist and sexist legacies of academic research culture manifested in ways big and small, from the constant invisible paper cuts of everyday microaggressions, to the big secretive jabs of seeing brilliant Black women get their tenure denied. I had to learn how to work with people who assumed I was incompetent, who asserted their color-blindness while calmy and earnestly devaluing my ideas and connections.
In all of this, I became particularly interested in who gets to ask research questions. After all, whole research programs—millions of dollars and hundreds of people—are mobilized to answer the questions of a few professors, so few of whom look like the community I come from. This path led me to try out other models for how the scientific enterprise can relate to the communities that surround and sustain it.
Given the power and promise that science holds in our society, we cannot look away.
Systemic racism is codified into rules, practices, and culture. These myths provide cover; they are complicit in maintaining racism, sexism, and many other ills in the structures of science. Given the power and promise that science holds in our society, we cannot look away. Change will require questioning the assumed all-encompassing benevolence of the scientific enterprise, to see who it benefits and who it harms. We must act intentionally and dig into structures and culture to weed out the practices and storylines that maintain the status quo. We must open up the archives and take a deep look at the data (like Lauer and Roychowdhury are doing with NIH funding disparities), examine tenure processes, and challenge the notion that science is already a meritocracy. And as countless STS scholars have noted, we must face the toxic aspects built into how we conceptualize scientific objectivity and how it is utilized to perpetuate disconnection between science and society.
Now more than ever, it is evident that science is woven into our identity and hope as a nation. Science can be more: it can grapple with politics, center justice, and stop perpetuating problematic power structures. But only by shaking these myths can we see and build a scientific enterprise that truly reflects us all.
This series on gatekeeping in STEM was funded by a grant from the National Association of Science Writers. Reference to any specific commercial product, process, or service does not necessarily constitute or imply its endorsement of or recommendation by the National Association of Science Writers, and any views and opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of the National Association of Science Writers.
Editing contributed by Rebecca Dzombak. Illustration by Jenna Jablonski.