If you've ever been to a large meeting of ecologists or environmental scientists, you probably noticed that racial diversity was pretty low among the attendees. Most of the professional societies are now trying to increase the percentages of underrepresented minorities and make the field a more inclusive one. But this is a tricky situation that cannot be rectified overnight. At the root of the problem is a simple reality that, in my own anecdotal experience, can make established professionals uncomfortable: a promising young minority student is probably unlikely to pursue a field of study that is overwhelmingly white.
Evidence-based details on the scope of this problem have traditionally been scarce - it has been one of those "elephant in the room" issues. But the situation is starting to change. For example, in 2014 the Green 2.0 Working Group published a report (The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations) on the numbers of minorities working for government agencies and NGO's with an environmental or ecological focus. Across all organizations, minorities never accounted for more than 16% of the total staff. . .despite the fact that they account for 38% of the U.S. population. The numbers are even worse within the realm of fish ecology - my personal field. According to Arismendi and Penaluna (2016; Examining Diversity Inequities in Fisheries Science: A Call to Action), minorities comprise ~9% of the fisheries science and fish ecology workforce.
I myself am Korean. I was adopted and raised by a (terrific) white family, and spent my formative high school years among a very diverse group of peers. There were a lot of difficult moments growing up when I struggled to understand my place. But that turned out to be a blessing because I can now say with pride that I have a deeper understanding and appreciation of diversity than many of my colleagues.
So where am I going with all of this? It seems clear to me that ecology and environmental science must become more inclusive. The racial demographics of this country are changing too quickly to continue to ignore the problem, and it would be foolish to presume that ecological research will continue to enjoy broad public support if it does not diversify its professional membership and its image.
I spent the first few years of my role as an Assistant Professor chipping away at this problem in small bits, within my own immediate environment. But recently, I was given the opportunity to go bigger. I was awarded a CAREER grant by the National Science Foundation and I will be using the considerable financial resources that come with this to begin a multi-year training and mentoring program for underrepresented minorities.