The Earth Sciences Are White AF

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We already knew this, but let me repeat it for those in the back: The academic world of Earth science is white AF.


A new commentary published in Nature Geoscience Monday reminded the world of this simple and disappointing truth. About 86 percent of geoscience Ph.D.s awarded in the U.S. from 1973 to 2015 went to white people. The geosciences include atmospheric science and meteorology, geological and Earth sciences, and ocean/marine sciences.

The authors, one current and the other a formal doctoral candidate at the University of Texas at Austin, looked at an annual census of earned doctorates the National Science Foundation puts out to crunch these numbers. Rachel Bernard, one of the study authors, got curious about diverse representation in the geosciences because she identifies as black (she’s biracial), and she rarely saw anyone who looked like her during graduate school.

“It’s not only isolating,” Bernard told Earther. “It kinda just makes you sad for the people who aren’t there, especially when it doesn’t seem to be a priority for everyone. Some people don’t even notice that our department isn’t diverse.”

After all, white has always been the norm.

Bernard and co-author Emily Cooperdock, now a postdoctoral scholar at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, found that the portion of Ph.D.s awarded to people of color has stayed the same since the ’70s. The only group that has seen some movement is Latinos, and the authors believe that’s due to their dramatic population growth in the U.S. While populations of other minority groups have also grown (albeit not at the rate of Latinos) in the U.S., the geosciences have seen little change to represent this national trend.

“The fact we haven’t seen any improvement in 40 years is pretty shocking,” Bernard said.

The result? Fewer people of color in leadership positions, where they can act as mentors and role models for young scientists.


“Ultimately, I think we need more diversity at the top positions, whether in academia or industry,” said Cooperdock, in an email to Earther. “And in order to fill those positions, we need people with diverse backgrounds getting Ph.D.s.”

In 2016, just six percent of geosciences doctorates went to people of color even though they make up 31 percent of the U.S. population. That makes the geosciences the whitest STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) field of them all, the paper notes.


To increase the number of Ph.D.s going to people of color, the authors suggest universities offer fellowships to particular groups. They also note that other physical sciences have established transition programs to help master’s degree students go onto obtain Ph.D.s. Maybe the field could even go as far as rewarding students who want to “devote time to community outreach and engagement,” the paper notes. This is a common motivation among underrepresented groups, and could help them commit to the field long-term.

Improving these numbers isn’t just about equity and justice. Having a diverse range of viewpoints in the lab is beneficial to the science. When the people doing the research are one monolithic group, a multitude of experiences and world-views are left out. Clues are missed, and theories go unchallenged.


On a brighter note, the geosciences have been more welcoming to women. My fellow ladies are finally getting the recognition they deserve but (of course) not my fellow ladies of color: 1.46 percent of all doctorates awarded in those 40 years went to women of color.

That’s unacceptable. Get it together, geo-nerd overlords.




The article implies (at least to me) that there is some sort of “conspiracy” to keep people of color out of the Earth sciences, but no reasons for their underrepresentation is ever given. I can’t access the study (paywall), so what are those reasons according to the study? Discrimination? Glass ceiling? Disinterest among people of color? PR problems with regards to Earth science?