Opinion: Elitism in STEM is detrimental to both diversity and science itself

Less diversity within the scientific community is not only damaging to research, but to us too.

Writer: Doheon Kim
Editor: Bethany Maia Evans
Artist: Lucie Gourmet

Elitism in STEM

Elitism is described as a tendency to draw a line between intellectual superiors and the general public. In that case, STEM has certainly been plagued by elitism for a long time.

Elitism being deeply driven into us on a daily basis, we fail to recognise that theories and concepts have never been the product of one intellectual’s innovative work; Neglecting the contribution of many people from various fields and diverse backgrounds behind the scenes. Boyle’s Law, the introductory theory of thermodynamics, named after the scientist Robert Boyle himself is a famous example. The creation of the theory heavily relied upon his assistants to which Robert Hooke, his assistant, practically had full authority on the experimental gas law, even inventing the instruments used for the experiment that confirmed the discovery.

Elitism leads to loss of diversity

The destructive effect of elitism is that the scientific process loses its integrity and new, innovative thoughts are often disregarded. This barrier has presented itself in various forms throughout human history, from elite language to sex discrimination. Knowledge becomes less accessible to the general public, increasingly isolating the subject.

During the Renaissance, Latin was the traditional scholarly language: the symbol of nobility and education that separated the elite from the commoners. Latin was essential for anyone who wanted access to high society. No matter how great their ideas, if an individual did not speak Latin, it would be very difficult for said ideas to be accepted. Even for Leonardo Da Vinci, a man historically regarded as one of the greatest minds of his time, his innovative work as an anatomist was often overlooked due to his inability to speak Latin.

Dismissing the contributions of the minorities discourages their engagement in the field. Computer science, for example, it is a not well-known fact that the entrepreneurs of the field were women. Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer-ENIAC-, the very first gigantic calculating machine had no built-in software, requiring humans to move the myriads of wires with their own hands. The work being too tedious for males, young women with mathematical backgrounds were trained to become the very first ‘computer’ themselves. With women’s contribution at its very foundation, ironically, computer science is infamous for its high gender gap ratio of only 17% being women in computer science courses and a pay gap of £4,400 after five years after graduation.

Why is elitism dangerous?

Science is not apolitical; less diversity within the scientific community has detrimental effects that threaten not only science but ourselves also. After all, politics affects physics and vice versa. Historically, racism started to be embedded in the structures of nations during the 1450s, with the use of the term ‘blackness’ by Portuguese writer, Gomes Eanes de Zurara. His work was commissioned by Prince Henry, the Navigator of Portugal, as a means to justify slavery. The rest, as they say, is history.

Failure of including diversity in STEM harms the recipients of its research. Our very well-being is at stake. One example is genome-wide association studies, GWAS; method of identifying one’s likelihood of developing specific diseases by pools of genetic data. Most of the genes in the GWAS database are from people of White European white ancestry. However, the metabolism of drugs, such as the blood thinner warfarin, differ between ethnic groups. Thus, it would not be imprudent to say that lack of diversity in GWAS has likely resulted in crucial mistreatment during medical care. 

What should we do?

So far, we have explored how elitism is dangerous for us and science. But what should we do about it? Well first, we must dismantle the barrier we have built with the general public.

Exposing science in books and films is a popular and effective method. According to ‘Science Popularization: its history, triumphs and pitfalls’, popular science influences many more people than have actually watched or read the work. Take “Beam me up, Scotty”, a famous phrase from the TV show Star Trek, broadcasted from 1966 to 1969. Even for those born after the end of the series, the image of teleportation is formed clearly in our mind. 

Moreover, with the advent of technology comes a powerful tool to reach out to the general public. Social media is a prominent method of communication of citizen science and experts. YouTube is a means taken by many to grasp scientific concepts visually and share them with others. Apps allow people to interact while learning science. Furthermore, social media lets the general public participate and expand research. Wildbooks for Whale Sharks, which allows people to upload pictures of wild animals they encounter, has led to a new understanding of whale shark’s migration patterns. To ensure that misleading science is eradicated, it is essential for scientists to actively reach out and participate in public engagement.

200 years ago, Latin was a significant barrier. Breaking its boundary with printing technology has fired up the cooperation between the scholars and craftsmen, which was essential to the establishment of modern-day science. With our recognition of the barrier and dismantling it with active public engagement, we will encounter a new flourishing world of science.

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