In terms of geoscience diversity, there has been little progress in the past 40 years.
Geoscience tackles some of the most complex and intriguing scientific problems. Everything from our water reserves to the materials in the device you’re using to read this relies on geoscience research; our search for alien life and our understanding of global warming also depends, in large part, on geoscience. So given that this field is at the forefront of human progress, you’d also expect a lot of progress within the field itself.
Unfortunately, that’s not really the case.
Geoscientists in the US are predominantly white. Racial diversity at the doctorate level has not improved over the last few decades. At the faculty level, people of color only hold 3.8% of tenured or tenure track positions in the country’s best geoscience departments. For women, the situation has improved somewhat in recent decades, but geoscience remains an uphill battle for women.
It’s not just academia, either.
Geosciences in general are the least diverse of all STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. You’d struggle to find people of color in any subfield, from petrology to geophysics.
Thankfully, that might soon change. Geoscience graduate programs around the US are starting to drop the graduate record examination (GRE) test. GRE has been introduced in 1949 in US graduate programs but has increasingly come under criticism as it unnecessarily weeds out women and minorities from programs. Furthermore, researchers has only shown a weak correlation between GRE results and overall success in science. GRE, researchers have argued, reflects certain demographic characteristics of test-takers (such as family socioeconomic status) that are unrelated to their ability and capacity.
However, GRE has remained a popular test in geosciences because universities are busy, understaffed, and like easy ways to sort out candidates. Faculty members often assume that a high GRE score hints at a bright future, but there’s little evidence to back that up.
Spurred by the recent social movements in the US, this dearth of diversity is finally taken a bit more seriously — and eliminating GRE as a gatekeeping test is a good first step. Already, around 70 of the country’s top 100 geoscience programs have announced dropping the test.
So what can universities replace it with? Well, researchers are increasingly calling for admissions to look not only at past results and traditional academic performance but also at the evidence of applicants’ ability to overcome challenges and solve problems. Programs opting for this are already reporting better results than the national average, and there are encouraging signs for the future.
The only downside is that these interviews take 30 minutes of active time — whereas with GRE, the admissions office would not basically spend a single second. However, this approach is fully justified as it allows universities to truly select the best candidates — which of course, will also be more diverse.
It’s a small step, but it’s a step in the right direction.