President’s Column: Diversity at ASCB

ASCB is committed to support and foster diversity among its members, to equitably recognize the exceptional contributions of its members, and to be inclusive in our programs and governance. But we have to acknowledge that the diversity of the global and U.S. populations has not been proportionally present in the science community, and therefore that we have failed to engage the full range of our diverse and creative talent pool and have missed opportunities for discovery and education. Indeed, most people in the United States can trace their family origins to another nation, and diversity of talent has been the motor of U.S. innovation and entrepreneurship, giving the United States a powerful incentive to create an ever more innovative workforce.

Who knows from where discoveries will come? If we leave out participation of parts of our population we will miss out on their unique contributions. Progress comes often from the juxtaposition of opinions;
nothing is more likely to create such opportunities to challenge our thinking than bringing together people with diverse backgrounds. Thus, we need to embrace our diversity. I do believe that in the contest for innovation the most diverse workplace and the most diverse community will prevail.

Societies may sometimes be viewed as exclusive clubs and selective spaces where people with similar interests gather. However, this should not be the case for scientific societies and surely has never been part of ASCB’s fabric. Being inclusive is imperative for the viability of any society, but that does not mean all members need to be of one political allegiance, similar upbringing, culture, or gender orientation. ASCB has an important opportunity to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion and to hold its community accountable to generate a more equitable and inclusive culture for all.

ASCB recently conducted a review of all branches of its activities to make changes that will address our historic failing and thereby more actively recognize and welcome talent. Everyone should be able to avail
themselves of all the opportunities provided by ASCB. With these initiatives, ASCB wishes to take on a leadership role akin to the roles it has played in promoting educational training programs in the life sciences and access to the scientific literature.

A recently developed Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Strategic Plan (see www.ascb.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/ASCB_DEI-Strategy-FINAL_PUBLIC.pdf) takes a critical look at existing programs and proposes new initiatives that aim directly at setting new standards of inclusion and equity to promote scientific excellence, advocate sound life science policy, expand educational programs, and govern the Society. The Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Strategic Plan focuses on areas of the Society’s activities for which data on diversity are available, so that specific objectives can be set and their success measured.

An aspirational goal is to increase the number of underrepresented people participating in all ASCB activities to be proportionally higher than their percentage in the U.S. population. The more specific goals detailed below are to increase the representation of underrepresented people among the ASCB membership, in ASCB governance and committees, as speakers and participants at ASCB meetings, as participants in ASCB’s publishing efforts, and as candidates and recipients for the Society’s awards and fellowships. Inclusion, participation, and recognition are intimately linked, and they need to be considered at every level of the Society’s operation. There is a striking reciprocity between increasing numbers of underrepresented people and the change in attitude toward them and their contributions. With this broad-stroke program, ASCB is committed to this change.

Education and Mentoring for Members

Specific programs for active career management to support people from underrepresented minority groups that already exist at ASCB include ACT (Accomplishing Career Transitions) and MOSAIC (Maximizing Opportunities for Scientific and Academic Independent Careers) (see p. 13).

The ACT program focuses on trainees who belong to an underrepresented minority or are at a minority-serving institution. The two-year program is geared toward postdocs and assistant professors transitioning into faculty and research roles. Participants are expected to learn new skills in teaching and funding strategies and expand their networks through cohort peer learning and professional mentors.

ASCB received a National Institutes of Health award to support MOSAIC trainees. The goal of the program is to help individuals from underrepresented groups transition from postdoc to independent, tenure-track faculty or equivalent positions at research-intensive institutions. ASCB’s first cohort of seven ASCB MOSAIC Program Scholars will receive extended mentoring and skill and career development training to enhance their success as independent scientists.

Transparency in Governance

Diversity should permeate every aspect of the Society and several ASCB committees—Minorities Affairs, Women in Cell Biology, LGBTQ+, and the Committee for Postdocs and Students (COMPASS)—are leading the way. Membership in all committees is open for self-nomination. With respect to committee membership, all participants in committees, elected leadership, and volunteers should be committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion goals.

Increase Inclusion at the ASCB|EMBO Meeting and Other ASCB Events

Like our membership, the speaker pool at the ASCB|EMBO Meeting should reflect the global and U.S. populations. This will require us to identify speakers from diverse backgrounds by engaging the community and expanding databases that highlight the accomplishments of members of underrepresented minorities for speaker referral (www.ascb.org/career-development/speaker-referral-lists).

Programs relevant to diversity, equity, and inclusion should be promoted and receive the same visibility as other programs. ASCB’s partnership with vendors and other businesses should be evaluated on the basis of stated social commitment or minority ownership. Resources such as travel grants and other support should be provided equitably to minority participants.

Diversify Authors, Reviewers, and Editors

Molecular Biology of the Cell (MBoC), the ASCB’s basic research journal, has already taken steps toward expanding the author and editor pools. For example, the Voices series publishes stories of scientific journeys from diverse perspectives. MBoC recently started a new initiative for Early Career Editors (www.ascb.org/society-news/early-career-editors-mboc-announcement), who are postdocs or early career researchers who serve on the MBoC board. One of their contributions will be to provide journal readers with reviews and updates of some of the latest research results found among BioRxiv preprints prior to peer-review.

The Editors-in-Chief of CBE—Life Sciences Education, ASCB’s education journal, have recently launched a program to build an understanding of the personal and professional characteristics of authors, editors, and reviewers.

Awards, Prizes, and Fellowships

Recognition from peers in science is a wonderful and cherished tradition. A review of ASCB award history revealed striking disparities and inequities in the distribution of awards. The ASCB Awards Task Force (see p. 9) assessed the award portfolio and made a number of recommendations, which were largely adopted at the last Council meeting. In addition to scientific discovery and research accomplishments, all aspects of ASCB’s mission should be considered when recognizing advancement, including achievements in education, professional development, research advocacy, and promotion of diversity in the Society. Recognition is important at all career levels. Awards should be clearly defined and the application and selection process should be made more transparent, including in many instances calling for self-nominations. Diversity considerations are important both with regard to the award or fellowship recipients as well as the selection committees.

Some of the changes and initiatives described above have already been put into place, while others will be implemented in the near future. Overcoming personal and societal bias will take time and can only be achieved through the efforts of our entire community of cell biologists. ASCB wants to lead the way and work with other societies to foster research excellence in biology in an inclusive environment that values exceptional ideas and contributions, irrespective of a person’s background. I hope you will explore some of our plans, and I invite you to participate in this substantial and important endeavor. Everyone is welcome to participate, learn, and collaborate in this new vision.

About the Author:


Ruth Lehmann is a developmental and cell biologist at the New York University School of Medicine, where she is the Director of the Skirball Institute of Biomolecular Medicine, the Laura and Isaac Perlmutter Professor of Cell Biology, and the Chair of the Department of Cell Biology.