Why so few Asians in ecology? Not all groups have similar preferences

By Razib Khan | January 6, 2013 2:33 pm

A week ago Keith Kloor had a post up, What Science, Environmentalism and the GOP Have in Common, where he bemoaned the lack of representation of non-whites in these categories. As a matter of fact I think Keith is wrong about science. Even constraining the data set to American citizens and permanent residents people of Asian ancestry are well represented in many areas of science. But not all sciences are created equal. In 2011 there were 158 doctorates which were awarded within the category of ‘evolutionary biology’ for American citizens or permanent residents. Of these 135 were non-Hispanic white, and 5 were Asian. In ‘neuroscience’ the respective figures were 742, 535, and 96. In ‘zoology’ 55, 49, and 0. In ‘bioinformatics’ they were 80, 51, and 17. Finally, in ‘ecology’ the breakdown was 330, 300, and 11. If you are involved in academic biology I’m rather sure that these numbers won’t surprise you too much, even if you’d never thought about it. You can even infer these by walking through the posters at ASHG 2012, and seeing how the demographics of the crowds shift.

We can look at this issue another way. In 2010 US News & World Report listed the top 10 ecology & evolution graduate programs. I went to the faculty websites after typing the university and ‘ecology,’ and then ‘neuroscience.’ Looking at names, and sometimes head shots, I classified everyone as ‘Asian’ (as defined by the US Census) and ‘Not Asian.’ You can find the data here. Please note that the left columns are ecology faculty, and the right are neuroscience.

The raw results are:

University & Department Asian Not Asian % Asian
Berkeley – Ecology 0 46 0.0%
Berkeley – Neuroscience 4 40 10.0%
Harvard – Ecology 3 48 6.3%
Harvard – Neuroscience 21 127 16.5%
Davis – Ecology 8 117 6.8%
Davis – Neuroscience 12 73 16.4%
Chicago – Ecology 3 22 13.6%
Chicago – Neuroscience 11 65 16.9%
Stanford – Ecology 2 17 11.8%
Stanford – Neuroscience 19 74 25.7%
Cornell – Ecology 1 31 3.2%
Cornell – Neuroscience 3 39 7.7%
UTexas – Ecology 3 43 7.0%
UTexas – Neuroscience 7 63 11.1%
Yale – Ecology 0 23 0.0%
Yale – Neuroscience 13 83 15.7%
Princeton – Ecology 0 15 0.0%
Princeton – Neuroscience 2 17 11.8%
Arizona – Ecology 0 54 0.0%
Arizona – Neuroscience 0 20 0.0%


And here are charts of % and counts:

Does this matter? In American society, especially from the center to the left of the social-cultural spectrum, there is a premium on diversity. Usually this means specifically cases of racial and gender diversity (again, as I have contended before the nod to class diversity is almost always perfunctory, and there is only marginal concern about ideological diversity). As a rule within these parameters the question about diversity is usually ‘why not,’ in as proportions out of sync with the population immediately prompt questions as to why this might be. My own personal position is at variance with this. Rather, my attitude is more ‘so what?’ I generally don’t care about these things personally. Unlike most my default assumption isn’t that all groups will have the same aptitudes and preferences, and so it is difficult to assess the scope and nature of the idealized demographic mix sans discrimination. In the sciences what is of importance to me is not ‘who,’ but ‘what’? That is, what is being discovered.

The question in regards to Asian Americans with American biological science is of personal interest to me. My own passions lean strongly to evolutionary biology. Any curiosity about genomics and bioninformatics is prompted by population and evolutionary genetic questions. Frankly, this means that I spend a great deal of time around white people, because for whatever reason evolutionary biology is far more white than many other areas of life science. In contrast, if I stumble into a molecular biology or neuroscience seminar the audiences are by nature far more diverse, with diversity being due to the large contingent of people of Asian ancestral background.

I don’t know if this matters in any deep way. I suspect if Asian Americans were as well represented in human evolutionary genomics as they are in cancer research there might be some stronger and earlier focus on questions of ascertainment bias due to early Eurocentric data sets. But this would be only a shift on the margins; it isn’t as if evolutionary biologists aren’t aware of the issue at all. More importantly I wanted to highlight this difference across fields because I think it illustrates the proximate power of preferences and expectations, rather than discrimination or lack of outreach. To give an example of what I mean, my father, who has a doctorate in physical chemistry, once quipped me that ‘it would be nice if you studied neuroscience, then I could just tell people you study the brain.’ Though conveniently for him since my major area of concern is genetics that is something that he can tell his friends which is intelligible, though questions always get back to me about ‘genetic engineering’ and ‘gene therapy,’ suggesting that people assume my topics must be biomedical. For whatever reason most of the young Asian Americans who enter university and study biology of some sort do not tend to gravitate into areas like ecology or evolution. An Asian American acquaintance who is an ecologist has even joked to me that sometimes his friends refer to him as a ‘twinkie‘ on account of his disciplinary focus. I do not believe that the lack of representation of Asian Americans within ecology or evolution has to do with discrimination, nor do I think that biomedical science has less implicit bias against people of Asian heritage. To be succinct, many Asian American youth who pursue graduate school in science may already elicit raised eyebrows because they did not pursue medical school. Going off to study the phylogeny of starfish, or some such thing, would frankly result in even more bewilderment and disappointment.

In this case it seems clear that the problem is not discrimination or bias (though that exists, I don’t think it varies that much across fields), but a cultural preconception as to what science merits one’s professional energies. Evolutionary biologists could go into Korean American churches to argue for the value of their discipline, but even assuming individuals their audience did not hold Creationist beliefs (many would), it would be a hard sell to convince them that abstract and theoretical evolutionary questions are more worthy of attention than projects with a more practical biomedical focus. This isn’t going to convince people who start out with the null hypothesis that variation in discriminatory atmosphere explains variation in representation in fields by race and ethnicity, but, I hope it makes people reconsider different hypotheses.

Addendum: Also, bemoaning the lack of ‘minorities’ in science often seems a case of the ‘How Asians became white‘ phenomenon.


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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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