The Imperative for Scientific Societies to Change the Face of Academia: Recommendations for Immediate Action

Written by: Melissa A. Carroll, Shawn Boynes, Loydie A. Jerome-Majewska, Kimberly S. Topp
Published on: Jan 2, 2023

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As organizations that facilitate collaboration and communication, scientific societies have an opportunity, and a responsibility, to drive inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility in science in academia. The American Association for Anatomy (AAA), with its expressed and practiced culture of engagement, can serve as a model of best practice for other professional associations working to become more inclusive of individuals from historically underrepresented groups. In this publication, we acknowledge anatomy's exclusionary past, describe the present face of science in academia, and provide recommendations for societies, including the AAA, to accelerate change in academia. We are advocating for scientific societies to investigate inequities and revise practices for inclusivity; develop and empower underrepresented minority leadership; and commit resources in a sustained manner as an investment in underrepresented scientists who bring diverse perspectives and lived experiences to science in academia.

Few would disagree with the urgency of action to improve representation and equity in academia, most recently concerning accountability and systemic change in race and ethnicity, gender parity, and accessibility. Unfortunately, efforts over the last decade have produced negligible increases in the numbers of scientists from historically underrepresented groups, and for the few in academia, inequities are experienced daily in support, opportunity, advancement, and recognition. The lack of diversity in academia directly impacts the collective progress of science (Bazner, Jyotsna, & Stanley, 2021; Campbell-Montalvo et al., 2020). Scientific or professional societies, as organizations, bring like-minded people together around a common goal or purpose. They also impact members' careers, shaping the directions of scientific advances. Thus, scientific societies can and should take immediate, member-informed, and member-driven actions to address inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility in science in academia. Deriving data from the 2013 IRS Data Book, the American Society of Association Executives indicates that there are at least 66,985 trade and professional associations; thus, the impact on influencing change can be significant (ASAE, 2019).

For professional societies to drive meaningful change, they first need to assess current processes and structures that comprise their culture. Although there are many descriptions of culture, Tierney (1988) provides a helpful definition of culture in academia. “An organization's culture is reflected in what is done, how it is done, and who is involved in doing it. It concerns decisions, actions, and communication both on an instrumental and a symbolic level.” As societies grow in membership and complexity, an organizational structure is often imposed to manage communication, activities, decision-making, and accountability, and it can become increasingly difficult to engage members in the decisions of the whole. However, it is the members the professional society serves, and the onus is on the society to keep pace with the needs of their members. As others have (Hulede, 2018; Khan et al. 2019), we argue that professional societies have a unique opportunity and responsibility to intentionally engage and effectively serve members who bring diverse life experiences and perspectives to benefit all members and science.

Tierney's definition of culture allows for thoughtful inquiry, and if considered with a growth mindset and a willingness to adapt and evolve, it will generate actionable steps to increase diversity in science in academia. A scientific society has the critical and influential role of shaping the profession by assuming responsibility for defining and promoting excellence in professional and ethical conduct. Knowledge is shared through society journals, and collective statements of opinion or action are generated to advocate for the profession and larger societal goals. Of equal importance to individual members, scientific societies support members in their roles, both within and external to the organization. Society-supported professional development, mentorship, peer relationships, and recognition systems directly impact members' careers within their academic institutions. In keeping with members' developing needs, professional societies may identify and acknowledge practices that are outdated, ineffective, or biased, or perpetuate discriminatory ideas such as ableism. Society members should be engaged in designing and implementing systemic changes to improve the culture for inclusion. In this publication, we describe examples of inclusivity from the American Association for Anatomy (AAA) and provide specific recommendations for all scientific societies, including the AAA, to achieve meaningful, measurable improvements in inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility in science in academia.

To change the face of science in academia to include perspectives and influence of individuals from historically underrepresented groups, we must (1) acknowledge our past; (2) understand our present; and (3) pledge to improve. The AAA's broad definition of underrepresented minorities (URMs) includes individuals of differing race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, mental or physical ability, age, gender identity or expression, or sexual orientation. Over time, there have been varying degrees of misconduct, malfeasance and even atrocities against each URM group in anatomical and medical research, systemic delays and hindrances of equitable progress, and impossible hurdles to achieve the same success as those with greater representation. To provide context for necessary actions, we highlight below a few examples of discrimination within anatomy and medical science disciplines.

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