This year, thousands of particle physicists thrashed out the future of their field in the United States, in a roughly once-in-a-decade planning exercise called Snowmass. For the first time, the process — which influences US federal funding — elevated diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) issues to sit among the ten major topics, or frontiers, that were discussed.
DEI was part of the Snowmass ‘community engagement’ frontier, alongside issues such as career development, education and outreach. Physics in the United States is heavily dominated by white men; in 2018, women received just 22% of physics doctorates and only 7% of physics doctorates went to people from under-represented groups1.
Nature spoke to Kétévi Assamagan, a particle physicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, and co-convenor of the community-engagement frontier, about the DEI recommendations that emerged from the Snowmass process — and why meritocracy in particle physics is an illusion.
DEI issues had more prominence in the Snowmass process than ever before. Why now?
George Floyd’s death in 2020, and other times that police have killed Black people, have made people more aware that something needs to be done. Many institutions and organizations have started paying attention to DEI issues and to the climate in the workplace.
But it doesn’t necessarily translate into action. In an anonymous survey we did at Snowmass, we saw that men, in general, believe less that there is an issue with diversity. They are the biggest group in physics and the people who need to be convinced if we are to translate all the things we talk about into change.
Does particle physics have a particular problem with diversity?
Particle physics wasn’t meant to exclude people, but that’s how it’s evolved. It requires a threshold of finances and access to education, and that’s where exclusion and marginalization, in particular of people in developing countries, come in.
How do you convince people that particle physics is not a meritocracy?
People in the dominant culture think: “I am not a racist, I don’t see racism in my group, so if these people work hard, it will be fine.” But research has shown that there is much more under-representation in our field than meritocracy would suggest.
The culture is not welcoming and the climate is not conducive for some people to be there. Unconscious bias feeds into how people progress and go into senior positions, and how the senior people then maintain that culture. We are not asking for favoritism for any group. We are talking about making the environment and culture work for everybody in the way that it does for the majority.
Can you give me some examples of how an unwelcoming climate can affect particle physicists?
Someone might ask a female physicist, “Can you bring me some coffee?” Or I could go to my lab and a newly hired white person might ask: “When are you going to clean my room?” It is assumed that people who look like me can only be there to do that kind of work. Police have been called on colleagues because they were in the building where people don’t expect them to be.
These incidents make people really uncomfortable and mean you have to work to demonstrate that you occupy that space because you have the training and ability to be there. People might also say you are a ‘diversity hire’. We as minorities are expected to take all of these things, shrug them off and excel like everyone else.
What are some of your recommendations for improving the workplace climate and encouraging diversity?
It starts with the application of a code of conduct for everyone — including anti-harassment policies and policies to protect victims when they report issues. Conducting surveys about workplace climate will tell you what your community needs. For example, for people with disabilities, you need to ensure that meetings are arranged with consideration of their needs.
You also need to start engaging with science in schools and building the pipeline — there are minority-serving institutions that have a lot of capacity that particle physics can tap into.
Leadership is also important. One of the papers submitted to Snowmass says there needs to be a cultural change where people are chosen for leadership positions through excellence, and then promote an environment of equity and excellence, for example by getting away from just automatically rewarding privileges such as being from a top university.
How will the Snowmass recommendations be taken forward?
The American Physical Society’s Division of Particles and Fields is forming a committee to see whether it can come up with a way of coordinating efforts in different bodies and of reminding people that we have a set of recommendations for institutions to implement. That means that at the next Snowmass, we won’t have to discuss all the same things again.
How much did physicists get involved with the community-engagement frontier during Snowmass?
Not enough. Very few people participated in community-engagement activities, compared with the big physics areas. All of this research-based work was done by just a few people. People feel they understand the issues and want solutions, but they don’t have a lot of time to devote to it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.