Multiculturalism in the lab

23 02 2017

8294047fabf352ce46f4fd9a89d4a93dWith all the nasty nationalism and xenophobia gurgling nauseatingly to the surface of our political discoursethese days, it is probably worth some reflection regarding the role of multiculturalism in science. I’m therefore going to take a stab, despite being in most respects a ‘golden child’ in terms of privilege and opportunity (I am, after all, a middle-aged Caucasian male living in a wealthy country). My cards are on the table.

I know few overtly racist scientists, although I suspect that they do exist. In fact, most scientists are of a more liberal persuasion generally and tend to pride themselves on their objectivity in all aspects of being human, including the sociological ones. In other words, we tend to think of ourselves as dispassionate pluralists who only judge the empirical capabilities of our colleagues, with their races, genders, sexual persuasions and other physical attributes irrelevant to our assessment. We generally love to travel and interact with our peers from all nations and walks of life, and we regularly decorate our offices and with cultural paraphernalia different to our own.

But are we as unbiased and dispassionate as we think we are? Do we take that professed pluralism and cultural promiscuity with us to the lab each day? Perhaps we could, and should, do better.

I know from personal experience and from casual discussions with colleagues that it’s not always the path of least resistance to take on a student or fellow from overseas. For one, the educational and funding system, for all its professed emphasis on internationalism, is stacked against you. Finding a scholarship that will pay both the living expenses and foreign-student fees is a decidedly more challenging task than obtaining one for a citizen. They exist, and if the student is good enough, there is nearly always a solution, but the entire process represents a good deal more work to make it happen.

Then there is the issue of language capability. Many scientists complain that it isn’t their role to tutor a student or charge in the subtleties of the English language, and that poor writing skills in English hinder their capacity to produce good scientific publications. I agree that it can be an additional challenge, but I disagree entirely that having English as a first language these days provides much in the way of an advantage for learning scientists. It is no secret that the writing capacity of even native English speakers is on the wane, so in my experience there has been no more effort to get a non-native speaker’s English prose up to scratch relative to the native English speaker’s. In fact, some of my best writers have hailed from countries where English is not the native tongue. In addition, our analysis from 2013 showed clearly that neither first language nor gender explained much variation at all in the publication output of biologists.

So the perceived and even possibly real disadvantages of taking on foreign charges are weak at best, which begs the question of whether the desire to increase the cultural portfolio is a good thing to do for your science. One of the most popular blog posts on this site is about how students can improve their chances of engaging positively with a prospective supervisor, and as it turns out it is generally easy to filter out the mere requests for assistance in contrast to the real requests for supervision. So when a good and serious request comes along, I argue that the chance to increase the cultural diversity of your lab should become a priority.

A lab with a varied mix of experiences, knowledge bases, perspectives, genders, insights and values is necessarily going to catalyse the ideas bubbling away in your lab’s crucible of innovation. Uniformity breeds staleness, inhibits transdisciplinarity, and quells novelty. If you want to be at the cutting edge of your scientific endeavour, then a diverse, multicultural and linguistically variable lab will help you get there. Let the right-wing populist xenophobes2 vomit their racist bile all they want while you quietly get on with the job of making the world a smarter, more innovative, multicultural, understanding and collaborative place.

CJA Bradshaw

2Agent Orange, Marine le Pue, Pauline Han-cock, Nigel Fukstick, …



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