Science and Engineering Values

Biodiversity and Sustainability · Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion · Open Science

Science and engineering are, at their heart, value-laden enterprises. When I decided to leave my position as an elementary school teacher, I had two major criteria for the next phase of my professional development: (i) it had to engage my love of science and mathematics, and (ii) there had to be a significant social impact. Tackling problems related to clean energy and clean water as a mechanical engineer addressed both.

As scientists and engineers, our work touches lives and impacts our environment on a very broad scope. Our work has implications for environmental sustainability, social justice, and public policy, among other spheres, and can be used to improve the lives of those around us. At the same time, poorly considered or perfunctory work which fails to fully consider its own impact can have significant negative consequences for those around us.

Below are some of the values and themes that inspire my work. They influence both why and how I do what I do. As you will see, they are all highly interrelated.

They are also all largely aspirational — they indicate ways in which I would like to grow, as a researcher and teacher, not milestones that I have already achieved. If you have suggestions, corrections, or would like to collaborate with me in any of these endeavors, please do not hesitate to reach out!

Click here to read about all three areas.

Conservation Biology and Environmental Sustainability

A major driver for leaving elementary education for academia was a passion for preserving biodiversity on Earth, both for moral/ethical reasons and also because of the vital role that this biodiversity plays in supporting and enriching human life on Earth. However, even though these concerns are shared by many in clean energy research, they are typically not given much direct attention in our research, which instead typically focuses on improving device efficiency, durability, or cost. More thought is required on how device design impacts behavior in diverse populations, and in turn how this new behavior impacts local ecosystem health.

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Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

While it is tempting to think of science and engineering as purely objective pursuits, the truth is that they are human endeavors. The work is conceptualized and carried out by people, and a scientist's or engineer's background can influence the questions asked (and those not asked), what methods are used to collect data, how that data is interpreted and applied, and how the work is executed. For many reasons, then, it is essential that diversity, equity, and inclusion be a cornerstone of our science and engineering practice (note: for brevity's sake I will henceforth just use the terms 'science,' 'scientist,' etc. to refer to both 'science and engineering,' et al.). Among many other factors, this includes who practices science, how science is communicated to the public, and which stakeholders are given a voice in deciding how scientific findings are applied.

At first glance, the case for diversity, equity, and inclusion can be made along moral lines. Science is a way of understanding, making decisions about, and changing the world around us, and giving only part of the population access, training, and opportunities to advance in the field is at its heart unfair. It restricts access to the levers of power, increasing inequality and bias in society at large, and also prevents entire segments of society from being able to realize the full range of their talents, interests, and passions.

Beyond that, there is a strategic case for improving access to science, as diversity is a key driver of progress; more diverse science = stronger science. Diversity brings new ideas, understanding, and perspectives, and diverse teams are less likely to fall prey to 'blind spots' arising from blind adherence to conventional wisdom. A more diverse body of scientists will also be more effective at considering impacts of their work on society and in communicating scientific results and ideas to the public.

This problem has been centuries in the making, and the solution will likewise require persistent, sustained committment and action. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has compiled a list of best practices (website here, and a pdf 'action grid' can be found here.). The National Academies' Framework for K-12 Science Education has a chapter on 'Equity and Diversity in Engineering Education' (link here; the lessons apply equally well at the university level), and the universities and federal labs can be engines for new ideas and best practices (The Colorado School of Mines's page is here; Lawrence Berkeley Lab also has a particularly helpful web page on the topic).

In my own work, I will admit that this is still an aspirational goal. There is a lot that I have yet to learn on the topic, and many steps yet to take in improving the culture in my research group, department, school, and broader scientific community of which I am a part. My focus thus far has been on mentoring and encouraging students from underrepresented groups and on improving the diversity of seminar speakers for our department's seminar series (which I run). As my career develops and I assume greater leadership roles in the various organizations I am a part of, my goals are to:

  • Improve the diversity of the students recruited, accepted, and attending Mines, both graduate and undergraduate.
  • Ensure that the demographic makeup of my research group better reflects that of society at large.
  • Push for greater diversity in faculty hires in my Department
  • Help institute broader cultural changes in my Department and University to increase inclusion, so that all who study and/or work here feel welcome.
  • Help improve the diversity, equity, and inclusion in the professional societies of which I am a part: greater diversity in society leadership positions, conference invited speakers and session chairs, and inclusive language in all society communications.
  • Greater outreach and SciComm to underrepresented groups (I will be particpating in Skype a Scientist, beginning in Spring, 2018).

Lastly, I encourage all who are reading this to help me in these pursuits, either through your own independent actions, by collaborating with me, or by helping me improve my own practices with constructive feedback. Thanks!

Open Science

Science plays many roles in our society, but perhaps the most important role is to unravel the mysteries of the world around us. To understand the physical, chemical, biological, and social forces which influence a whole range of phenomena around us, and to share our findings with others. Unfortunately, many practices in the current research climate are uantithetical to this goal. Open Science is a movement whose aim is to increase the openness of the entire scientific process, from the planning of a research project, through the execution, and up through the publication of scientific findings. When done well, these principles have been shown to increase impact, increase access to your findings to reduce inequality, while also improving the quality of the underlying science.

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