Berry College Assistant Professor of Data Analytics Thema Monroe-White recently received a $405,000 National Science Foundation grant to investigate how structural racism harms science. 

Monroe-White, who has a Ph.D. in science, technology and innovation policy from Georgia Institute of Technology, is principal investigator of the project. She is joined in this research by Cassidy R. Sugimoto, Tom and Marie Patton School Chair in the Georgia Tech School of Public Policy. Monroe-White and Berry received two-thirds of the grant, while the remaining third came to Sugimoto and Georgia Tech. 

“It’s important that we take the time to study how structural racism can impact science, which oftentimes presents itself as being objective and free of bias,” Monroe-White said. “We can’t maximize the good of scientific innovation and discovery until we know that they won’t end up harming marginalized groups.” 

Monroe-White and Sugimoto will also seek to measure how including people of color and members of historically marginalized groups in the scientific workforce benefits the field as a whole. The grant will allow them to recruit a cohort of 12 fellows, consisting of doctoral students from a variety of disciplines and countries. Together, the fellows will discuss how their lived experiences have influenced their research design. 

“Our research aims to empirically examine the degree to which diversity in the scientific workforce creates a more innovative and robust scientific system,” Monroe-White and Sugimoto wrote in their project’s abstract. 

Monroe-White and Sugimoto recently contributed to two papers related to this research. The most recent one, titled “Avoiding Bias When Inferring Race Using Name-based Approaches,” was published in PLOS ONE (a peer-reviewed open access scientific journal published by the Public Library of Science) in March. Before that, they contributed to “Intersectional Inequalities in Science,” which published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) in January. 

In the article, Monroe-White, Sugimoto and their co-authors note that the scientific workforce is not representative of the general population. Analyzing millions of scientific papers, they seek to understand the relationship between scientists and the topics they study. Their work is novel in its emphasis on the intersectional nature of scientists’ identities, particularly race and gender. 

“Our results show that minoritized authors tend to publish in scientific disciplines and on research topics that reflect their gendered and racialized social identities,” the authors write. They argue that this “suggests a relationship between diversity in the scientific workforce and expansion of the knowledge base.” 

With their NSF grant, Monroe-White and Sugimoto plan to develop algorithms that will take into account more context behind published academic articles. This will, they hope, monitor such factors as intersecting race, ethnicity, and gender inequities in research spaces. The researchers also plan to expand their work to South Africa and Brazil, which both have high levels of racial inequity and scientific productivity. 

“Academic institutions are incredible spaces for innovation, but, like many types of organizations, they can also serve to reproduce inequities in science,” Sugimoto said. “I’m grateful to be able to work with such a wonderful team to generate evidenced-based solutions to reimagine a more just and innovative scientific system.” 

The research project is estimated to run through March 2025.