Yet another one?!

Dr Dan Otelea
ESCMID Parity Commission Advocate for Geographic Balance
1990: shortly after the fall of the Berlin wall I had my first trip out of (still) grim post-communist Romania to breathtaking Paris where I would spend several months in Pasteur Institute. “At last, here I am!” was my incredulous thought. “At last, here you are!” was what I might have liked to hear. What I was getting sounded more like: “Yet another one?!”

This sounds like the beginning of a story about prejudice – but, in hindsight, I know that this is not where prejudice begins; it begins (or not) after “Yet another one?!”.

“Yet another one?!” merely signals competition (welcome or more than often not) in the lab. The strategies that are employed to address competition may allow bias – racial, gender, geographical – to creep in insidiously. To fight it needs recognizing it – and it’s not always easy.

I’ll start with an example: one of the PhD students in the Pasteur lab wasn’t very fond of us three junior fellows and did not try very hard to hide it: we most probably amounted to little more than some useless waste of reagents. In all honesty I cannot tell if being foreigners made it worse or it was our convenient perception. What I can tell is that the first time I needed to (reluctantly) ask for technical assistance he did not spare time or energy to be as useful as possible (if need say, we did not become friends after that). Verdict: the prejudice – if any – was in my head; whether he liked us or not proved to be irrelevant. Professionalism prevailed.

This is where a first difficulty lies: geographical prejudice is quite often real but it can also prove to be an easy way out for failure. In all fairness we should rule out the second possibility in order to achieve solid recognition of our problem. Could it be that the paper is not that good rather than my being East European? (US Southerners put it in a humorous, if harsh phrase: “It’s not the heat, it’s the stupidity”)

Once we cleared that out, we still know that there is a lot of unfairness in scientific representation; what are the handles we have to get a grip of the matter?

When addressing gender issues there is an advantage: we know that the further the statistics stray from the 50% gender split, the more there should be evidence of a systematic bias. Not so clear with geography. Maybe it is time to quit the euphemism “geography” and spell out that it is about how rich and poor countries are represented in the scientific world.

What would be a suitable term of reference when evaluating the ratio of accepted abstracts at ECCMID for instance or, more broadly, the publication output or a country? The population number comes in very handy but it is obviously too raw a denominator. The GDP per capita? The proportion of GDP allocated to research and/or education? The number of universities? The number of students?

Each of them could be meaningful to a certain extent but can also generate very beaurocratic tables of expectations with little if any practical value. Should we then stick to being a watchdog chasing blatant injustice? That is certainly not enough.

Since fair representation turns out to be a rather elusive goal to define, we at ESCMID are trying to ensure that there is no geographical underrepresentation while keeping the professional standards as high as possible. Is it too little, is it too much? We’d really like to read your opinions.

Dan Otelea is a researcher in the Molecular Diagnostics Department of the National Institute for Infectious Diseases in Bucharest, Romania.

Categories: Geographic Balance

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