Them That's Got

A colleague recently told me about a symposium for early career researchers taking place in Hawaii later this month. Its mission statement says, "We are interested in fostering a cohort of data science researchers that will hopefully persist well beyond the bounds of the meeting." I expect it will be fun and fruitful for those taking part, but take a look at where attendees are coming from:

University of California, Berkeley 10
New York University 8
University of Washington 7
University of Florida 3
University of Chicago 3
University of Pennsylvania 2
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign 2
University of California, Davis 2
Stanford University 2
Princeton University 2
North Carolina State University 2
Carnegie Mellon University 2
University of Washington 1
University of Texas, Austin 1

This is a pretty swanky list of schools: only one of them has "State" in its name. Are there no equally deserving early career researchers at Howard, Florida International, Texas Tech, or hundreds of other schools? And yes, I realize that the meeting is for researchers who are "...at the three Moore-Sloan Data Science Environments, members of DDD Investigators' labs, and affiliated with...our 'Practices' grants", but that just pushes the question back one level.

I wasn't fully conscious of this in 2010, but one of my reasons for rebooting Software Carpentry was to democratize scientific computing. Knowing how to use a few key tools can save researchers hundreds of hours a year; they can then use some of that time to acquire more skills, which in turn will save them more time. If you never get on this spiral in the first place, though, you will be left further and further behind. That isn't just morally offensive: it also wastes people's time and talent, and science can't afford to be wasteful these days.

Similarly, if you aren't in the right school at the right moment in your career, you won't get invited to meetings like this, which in turn means you won't be part of conversations that can increase your chances of winding up at one of those "right" schools a few years down the road. It's a situation that women and minorities in science are all too familiar with: lack of access engenders lack of opportunity, which in turn leads to existing inequalities perpetuating themselves. As Billie Holiday said, "Them that's got shall have // Them that's not shall lose..."

I'm sure the organizers of this meeting have made an effort to be inclusive on race and gender, but looking at this list, I think the playing field can and should be leveled in other ways as well. I would therefore like to suggest that meetings like this adopt a buddy system: each time they give a place to someone from a top-tier institution, they should offer a place to someone from a school not on their list of usual suspects as well. This will hasten the spread of practices like open science by bringing the good word to more institutions, and will also give event sponsors insight into the issues that academia's "other 90%" face.

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