The landscape of science is changing: People from increasingly varied backgrounds, identities, cultures, and genders are pursuing careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. Support for this more diverse population of scientists needs to extend beyond “one size fits all” to better meet the needs of today’s scientists. Expanding support and strengthening the sense of community for individuals and groups who have not been historically welcomed in a discipline can foster a deeper sense of belonging and meaningfully broaden representation within that field. Researchers from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and Virginia Tech have teamed up on a new project recently funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in an effort to create widespread cultural change and increased inclusivity within the field of ornithology.
Professional scientific associations and societies can guide and shape the culture within their respective fields, cultivating supportive communities and providing relevant resources to ensure that all scientists have the professional and personal support they need to succeed on their chosen career path. The universities are partnering with three ornithological societies: the American Ornithological Society (AOS), the Wilson Ornithological Society (WOS), and the Association of Field Ornithologists (AFO). The project, Co-creation of affinity groups to facilitate diverse and inclusive ornithological societies, was awarded a combined half-million dollar grant through the NSF grant program Leading Cultural Change Through Professional Societies of Biology (BIO-LEAPS) to address the need for cultural change within ornithology. This initiative will use an internal culture assessment conducted by the AOS in 2022 as its starting point and seeks to build a scientific field that fosters a greater sense of belonging among society members from historically excluded communities. “The AOS’s initial culture survey shows that historically excluded groups within ornithology would like more support and a stronger sense of community,” AOS executive director Judith Scarl explains. “The first step is listening; the second step will be taking meaningful action,” she says. The BIO-LEAPS program “aims to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion in the biological sciences broadly by leveraging the leadership, broad reach, and unique ability of professional societies to create culture change in the life sciences.”
The goal of the joint project is twofold: First, the project seeks to understand the climate of the other two societies with respect to diversity and culture in order to recommend what changes and resources are needed. Second, the project aims to design a process for co-creating affinity groups, or “Flocks”—identity-based groups created by and for members of these communities—that will facilitate “transformative resilience” for these historically marginalized groups. “We are committed to celebrating diversity and encouraging people from all communities to learn, research, and appreciate the beauty of birds,” says Julie Jedlicka, president of the AFO. “This NSF grant provides a wonderful opportunity for our three societies to work together to increase diversity within the ornithological community as a whole and systematically address barriers that hinder participation,” she adds.
Ultimately, the societies desire to transform ornithology into an inclusive discipline that leverages the talents of diverse communities of learners, scientists, and practitioners to solve urgent problems in ecology, conservation, and environmental justice. Principal Investigators (PIs) are Daizaburo Shizuka from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and Ashley Dayer from Virginia Tech. “This grant is an important step in establishing a process for creating these communities and developing a plan for sustaining it,” Shizuka, also an AOS Council member, explains. “The goal of this program is to engage professional societies to catalyze cultural change in the field of ornithology,” he adds.
“As a social scientist focused on bird conservation, inclusive research, and diversifying the field of science, I’m excited about this opportunity to work with the societies to co-produce evidence-based affinity groups,” says co-PI Ashley Dayer, who served as the first social scientist on the Ornithological Applications editorial board and recently wrote an article on disciplinary inclusion in AOS. “I look forward to working with recently hired postdoc Nathan Thayer to conduct surveys, focus groups, and workshops with members of the societies and build these affinity groups from the bottom up to meet ornithologists’ needs.”
The project will foster broader impacts by offering collaborative engagement opportunities among the three societies and bird-focused nonprofit organizations (e.g., birding, conservation), governmental agencies, and minority-serving institutions and societies, resulting in a wider network of organizations that are committed to changing the culture of ornithology. “We are thrilled to be an integral partner in this tangible, creative project to build a more diverse ornithological community that is welcoming and supportive of everyone,” AOS president Colleen Handel says.
This project will also provide educational and professional development opportunities at Virginia Tech in diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, and justice (DEIBJ) for a postdoctoral scholar and undergraduate researchers in the Multicultural Academic Opportunities Program. “Fascination with birds is a catalyst to the development of careers in STEM and related fields,” president Tim O’Connell of the WOS says, adding, “Too often that universal appeal is not matched by universal opportunity to pursue careers in ornithology. We are delighted to partner with our friends in the American Ornithological Society and Association of Field Ornithologists to explore the role our societies can play in identifying and dismantling barriers to participation in ornithology.”
The project’s findings will be shared beyond academia through large networks of bird conservation professionals such as the North American Bird Conservation Initiative. Finally, the project’s PIs anticipate broadening the diversity of scholars engaged in DEIBJ research, including undergraduates, Flock leaders, advisory teams, and senior personnel. “Scientific associations have such a huge and important opportunity to change the culture of science, so that we are more welcoming and supportive of people who have historically been excluded,” Scarl says. “Co-creating these ‘Flocks’ is a big step towards creating a better culture of support and belonging.”
This grant will run from May 1, 2023, through an estimated end date of April 30, 2025. The partners are already considering applying for a follow-up implementation grant for stage two of this work. Shizuka says, “Our hope is that this is the tip of the iceberg, and that this work will lay the groundwork for a sustained, long-term commitment and funding to support the work of our Flocks.”
About the National Science Foundation (NSF) Leading Culture Change Through Professional Societies of Biology (BIO-LEAPS) program
BIO LEAPS supports the design, implementation and evaluation of projects that leverage the work of professional societies to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion in the biological sciences.
About the American Ornithological Society
The American Ornithological Society (AOS) is an international society devoted to advancing the scientific understanding of birds, enriching ornithology as a profession, and promoting a rigorous scientific basis for the conservation of birds. The AOS publishes two international journals, Ornithology and Ornithological Applications, which have a history of the highest scientific impact rankings among ornithological journals worldwide. The Society’s checklists serve as the accepted authority for scientific nomenclature and English common names of birds in the Americas. The AOS is also a partner with The Cornell Lab of Ornithology in the online Birds of the World, a rich database of species accounts of the world’s birds. The AOS is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization serving close to 3,000 members globally.
About the Wilson Ornithological Society
The Wilson Ornithological Society (WOS) is an international scientific society comprising community members who share a curiosity about birds. The WOS produces the quarterly Wilson Journal of Ornithology as the latest iteration of scientific journal publication supported by the Society since 1888. The WOS is committed to providing mentorship to both professional and amateur ornithologists through the sponsorship of research, teaching, and conservation. The WOS is further committed to identifying and dismantling barriers to participation in ornithology in all their forms, and to better fulfill our mission to support, mentor, and build community for all who seek to incorporate ornithology in their professional lives.
About the Association of Field Ornithologists
Founded in 1922 as the New England Bird Banding Association, The Association of Field Ornithologists (AFO) is one of the world’s major societies of professional and amateur ornithologists dedicated to the scientific study and dissemination of information about birds in their natural habitats. AFO encourages the participation of amateurs in research, and emphasizes the conservation biology of birds. The flagship publication of AFO is the Journal of Field Ornithology, which publishes original articles that emphasize the descriptive or experimental study of birds in their natural habitats.