Retweet! Emphasizing the importance of diversity in cognitive neuroscience research

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For our first set of readings in my Neuroscience Applications to Education (a course taught by Dr. Kimberly Noble), we read Drs. Vonett Dotson’s and Audrey Duarte’s paper published just a few months ago titled “The importance of diversity in cognitive neuroscience.”. Starting this academic year by reading this article was extremely motivating primarily because I encountered it at a critical moment in my career.

First, my thesis topic is currently inspired by the arguments these scientists laid out: the need to recruit more inclusively in order to understand neural substrates for all people (and not just W.E.I.R.D. populations). Second, it is affirming to my aforementioned research inquiries. Having been in a cognitive neuroscience of learning and memory lab for a year now, it is hard for me to separate my analysis from my lived experiences; we’re recruiting leaves to the lab but ignoring the forest. However, my experience drawing attention to this point is not always met with enthusiasm or support, and I’m still navigating how to appropriately introduce these points to my neuroscience colleagues. Nevertheless, spearheading a thesis attempting to address a gap based on recruitment can be isolating when no one seems to support your idea—but I feel affirmed knowing at least 2 people out there endorse my work!

That being said, this article makes me optimistic that, in time, more scientists will begin to think more intentionally about who is—and more importantly—who is not engaging in our studies. In anticipation of those conversations, I want to lay out a few ideas I have to motivate more participation from historically excluded communities.

Addressing the harm science has caused marginalized communities

If we want to have more diversity in (neuro)science research, we need to interrogate the historical context that reinforces a lack of trust in science within those communities. Sade Abiodun wrote a fantastic piece that details that historical and subsequent impact to racial in/exclusion in science (and I encourage you to read and support her work). However, we as scientists need to think deeply about how to earn that trust back.

Personally, I am still thinking through this myself, and I wish the answer was simple. As a result, I am very compassionate with myself in recognizing that failing to engage minoritized communities is not a reflection of myself. Additionally, while it may be outside my locus of control to convince every single person to join science, I can certainly ensure that my work is as ethical as possible—and to continue to learn and grow on how to guarantee my work does not generate, replicate, perpetuate any harm. Lastly, while this will probably be a work-in-progress for the rest of my life, acknowledgment goes a long way towards reconciliation.

Reporting more demographic variables in published studies

One of the main arguments I receive (that is also highlighted in Dotson & Duarte’s paper) is the difficulty in recruiting more diversely. In some ways, I agree; it is not easy to get people to volunteer for studies, and guaranteeing that every experiment has sufficient representation is unrealistic. However, a compromise is simply reporting more demographic data to contextualize the significance and generalizability of the research.

If all of the individuals who took your task are from rich, affluent, predominately White suburbs, that should be reported, because it calls into question whether or not your insights are relevant to poor, impoverished, non-White neighborhoods. If your participants happened to be very diverse—but you were not looking at differences in say, socioeconomic status (SES)—this could be influential to researchers who are asking questions related to SES.

Reporting more information on engagement beyond race, gender, and age is not to discredit the results of one’s study nor to make it more challenging and difficult for people to showcase their work. However, I do strongly believe that such transparency makes for more accurate applications of the work, especially when much of what we do as cognitive neuroscientist influences policy, education, and clinical research.

Extending beyond college campuses

Perhaps one of the most over-sampled population no scientist would deny arguably would be psychology undergraduates. In fact, many also would not push against they are not ideal given that they only represent a small percentage of the general population and therefore make generalizing exceedingly difficult.

But they sure are convenient when you need data fast to publish soon.

Again, I do not want to trivialize what scientists go through for professional stability (as I experience that myself), but thankfully there are alternative ways to recruit more intensely than ever before that we are not taking full advantage of. Here is a list of potential ideas we can do:

  • Have more studies done online: Using platforms like Amazon Mechanical Turk or (my personal favorite) Proflic enables us to expand our horizons beyond psych undergrads. Of course, the tradeoffs would be the reliability of the data given
  • Having a mobile lab (e.g., a van!): Many families—especially those that have not been in college—do not feel like they are allowed on campus, so the idea of engaging in university research may not have crossed their minds. And if so, they may not have the means to reliably get there. So instead of having them go to the lab, have the lab go to them! This can also address the caveats with remote studies (if you have those concerns) to ensure that the lab conditions remain consistent among all your participants. This can also be a great way to also put families at ease who may feel uncomfortable in lab settings, and perhaps acquire even more accurate data than in the lab.
  • Establish partnerships with community organizations and centers: We often have conferences and workshops within our academic niches (which is very important!), but our research affects more than our colleagues. Many organizations are engaging with our work but may not have adequate guidance to interpret the implications and thus lead to faulty implementations. One way we can mitigate this and perhaps inspire more people to engage in our work is to show them our work and include them in our conversations. For example, I would love to see more scientists attend conferences that focus on policy or on education reform to hear how people outside our microcosms speak (as someone who worked closely in the education space, I can attest that there are very different understandings of all the work we do). By encouraging more engagement beyond the academic scene, this may galvanize individuals to feel empowered to attend our spaces as well.

It should go without saying, but this is by no means an exhaustive list; I anticipate this will grow as I mature and advance in my field. However, I think it is important to have these conversations and continue to have them until we reach a point where we no longer need them.


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