Earth Science Has a Whiteness Problem

“You think of a bearded guy on top of a mountain wearing flannel and hiking boots,” said Jonathan Nichols, an associate research professor at Lamont-Doherty. “We just had our big fall conference and there were 20,000-plus geologists, and you look around and it’s all old bearded guys.”

That stereotype, Dr. Nichols said, can make the field feel unwelcoming to people of color, who don’t see themselves represented at conferences and among faculty members. Dr. White concurred that the geosciences had an “image problem” that prevents young people of color from applying for research opportunities.

That lack of representation in turn affects the quality and focus of earth science research, especially on climate change.

“It’s not rich white people who will be impacted first and most by climate change,” Dr. Nichols said. “It’s the people in marginalized communities. And if you forget that this work isn’t just an academic pursuit, then why are you even doing it? You have to keep in mind the real impact.”

Lorelei Curtin, a fifth-year Ph.D. student at Columbia University, said her earth science classes could be enriched by a greater focus on nonwhite and Indigenous histories and voices, given that “Indigenous people have a unique connection to the land.”

Ms. Curtin helped start a book club at Lamont-Doherty called Race Talk, which brings together geoscientists for discussions on race and white privilege. The group has read “Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence,” by Derald Wing Sue, as well as “Home,” by Toni Morrison. Ms. Curtin said that scientists were not accustomed to conversations that center on individual stories and experiences rather than data, so sensitive discussion of racism presented a challenge.

Dr. Dutt, Lamont-Doherty’s diversity director, joined the Observatory 11 years ago as its only person of color in a leadership role. Since then she has led trainings for geoscientists on recognizing their implicit biases to foster a more racially inclusive environment.