When members of the scientific community gathered at the AAAS Annual Meeting in February, they did so in front of laptops and tablets from their home offices and dining tables. They presented over Zoom, submitted questions via chat, and caught up with colleagues over social media. The 2021 AAAS Annual Meeting was unlike any other in the meeting’s 187-year history, but the fully virtual setting did not dampen enthusiasm for sharing science in keeping with the “Understanding Diverse Ecosystems” meeting theme.
Dozens of scientific sessions shared new research in areas ranging from microbiomes to space travel. More than 40 workshops offered attendees the opportunity to discuss strategies for working in the ecosystems of academia and science policy. Plenary and topical lecturers covered timely topics, including Ruha Benjamin on how technology can deepen inequities, Anthony Fauci on the next steps for COVID-19 response, Mary Gray on research ethics, and Yalidy Matos on immigration policies.
“The quality of the speakers was absolutely undeniable, and the diversity of the speakers—across gender, race, region—was just extraordinary,” said Sudip Parikh, chief executive officer of AAAS and executive publisher of the Science family of journals. “That is what our vision of the world looks like in a place where science is done with creativity and innovation and excellence.”
Selecting a diverse meeting program is grounded in AAAS’s values, but it is not without concerted effort, according to Claire Fraser. Fraser, who served as AAAS president through February and now serves as chair of the AAAS Board of Directors, selected the meeting theme and led the AAAS Meeting Scientific Program Committee, which oversees selection of the meeting’s speakers.
“The diversity doesn’t happen by accident. I think it reflects the very strong commitment on the part of the Scientific Program Committee to make sure that not only is the science presented timely and excellent, but the diversity of speakers and participants is as broad as it possibly can be,” said Fraser, director of the Institute for Genome Sciences at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
Diversity isn’t an afterthought—it’s a deliberate part of the very first review of potential scientific sessions, according to Andrew Black, chief of staff and chief public affairs officer. When hundreds of volunteer reviewers evaluate the quality of the submissions before sending the best for consideration by the Scientific Program Committee, they are also looking for diversity across many dimensions, Black said. Among those dimensions are diversity of scientific discipline—befitting AAAS’s multidisciplinary membership—but also gender, race and ethnicity, geographic diversity, career stage, and type of institution, including all types and sizes of universities, industry, and government.
“Who do you see, who do you hear, and what kind of voices are in dialogue with each other? That’s part of our assessment process,” said Agustín Fuentes, professor of anthropology at Princeton University and a member of the Scientific Program Committee.
The review process offers opportunities for applicants to diversify their sessions. Applicants are often encouraged to look beyond their own networks to add a range of voices to their presentation to best communicate their ideas to the broader scientific community, Fuentes said.
“We need to think very carefully in this moment in time about how do we not only redress past biases and discriminatory practices but how do we create a space, a voice, and a suite of presenters that is very inviting to a diverse audience,” Fuentes said.
Added Fraser, “What you end up with is even better because you have such broad perspectives represented.”
The committee also emphasized the importance of ensuring that a diverse group of decision-makers have a seat at the table. Members of the Scientific Program Committee, who are nominated from across AAAS and its 26 disciplinary sections and approved by the AAAS Board, represent a broad range of groups and perspectives, Fraser said.
“What I firmly believe is that you can’t come up with a diverse program like we had this year and like we’ve had in previous years without that diversity in the program committee,” Fraser said.
Commitment to diversity across many axes is part of AAAS Annual Meeting history. In the 1950s, AAAS refused to hold meetings in the segregated South. In 1976, under one of AAAS’s first female presidents, Margaret Mead, the Annual Meeting was fully accessible to people with disabilities for the first time. According to the AAAS Project on Science, Technology, and Disability, wheelchair ramps were added to the conference hall, programs were made accessible for hearing-impaired and visually impaired attendees, and Mead’s presidential address was simultaneously interpreted in sign language. In 1978, AAAS’s Board of Directors voted to move the following year’s Annual Meeting out of Chicago because Illinois had not ratified the Equal Rights Amendment. In 1993, AAAS moved its 1999 meeting from Denver after Colorado voters adopted a constitutional amendment to deny residents protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Leaders at AAAS note that there is always more work to be done in the present and future—both at the Annual Meeting and year-round. AAAS continues to focus on its own systemic transformation in areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion and on the breadth of initiatives in its new Inclusive STEM Ecosystems for Equity & Diversity program, all to ensure that the scientific enterprise reflects the full range of talent.
That goal resonated with many 2021 AAAS Annual Meeting speakers, too.
A more diverse group of scientists creating artificial intelligence systems can improve those systems, said Ayanna Howard, a roboticist who leads The Ohio State University’s College of Engineering, during her topical lecture, “Demystifying AI Through the Lens of Fairness and Bias.”
Said Howard, “We as people are diverse and we’re different and it makes us unique and beautiful, and our AI systems should be designed in such a way.”
Nalini Nadkarni, a University of Utah biologist who delivered a topical lecture on “Forests, the Earth, and Ourselves: Understanding Dynamic Systems Through an Interdisciplinary Lens,” shared how she reaches young girls to let them know that science—and her own scientific specialty—is a space where they can thrive. She and her students created and distributed “Treetop Barbie,” dressing a doll in fieldwork clothes and creating a doll-sized booklet about canopy plants.
The Annual Meeting offers a chance to show that science is best when it is for everyone, regardless of background or perspective, whether they’re a kid or just a kid at heart.
Said Parikh, “The AAAS Annual Meeting is where the pages of Science literally come alive. It’s a place where scientists, no matter what discipline or industry they decided to pursue, can pull back and just fall in love with the idea of science again—like we did when we were kids.”
Becky Ham contributed to this article.