Major grant aims at breaking the habit of implicit bias
A UW-Madison doctor who has long worked to increase the entry of women into the scientific workforce has won a grant to develop video games to uncover and neutralize implicit, unintentional biases against women, minorities and people with disabilities.
After years of effort, many fields in science, math, engineering and medicine still have trouble attracting and retaining women and minorities, and all find women underrepresented in leadership, says Molly Carnes, director of the UW-Madison Center for Women's Health Research and a professor of medicine and industrial and systems engineering. She says even people who favor diversity and resist bias may unintentionally act upon implicit bias.
Although women have made major strides in medicine and the social sciences, they lag in engineering and physical sciences, Carnes says, and the fallout affects not just fairness but also economics. "For 25 years, the research agencies have said, if the U.S. is going to maintain its competitive edge in a global economy that is increasingly knowledge-based, we must invest in the domestic workforce in science, math, engineering and medicine. There has been some improvement, but we not taking full advantage of our domestic workforce."
The new grant, called the National Institutes of Health Director's Pathfinder Award to Promote Diversity in the Scientific Workforce, is funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and administered by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences.
"The Pathfinder Award reflects NIH's long-standing commitment to promoting a scientific workforce that is representative of the diversity of the U.S. population," says NIH director Francis S. Collins. "Such diversity generates new perspectives, approaches and answers to challenging problems. We're optimistic that these awards will help identify new methods for addressing the compelling need to increase the number of people from underrepresented groups who pursue careers in the biomedical, behavioral, clinical and social sciences."
The grant is intended to fund what Carnes, who co-directs the UW-Madison Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute, calls "transformational approaches" that can change attitudes, beliefs and behaviors in academic institutions.
In her studies of implicit bias, Carnes says she focuses on faculty, who "are the driver of change in an academic institution." She says she "approaches implicit bias in decision-making as a bad habit that can be changed with practice."
The three-year, $2 million grant will fund several researchers and students to work with Carnes and collaborators to develop an interactive video game that will place faculty in situations where they can recognize the self-defeating nature of implicit bias. For example, a faculty member might be asked to compete to hire a top scientist with another university and to schedule an accessible campus visit to Madison for the candidate, who needs a wheelchair.
An effective video game "has to involve challenge and invoke curiosity, has to give enough information but not too much," Carnes says. UW-Madison, she says, "has faculty who are preeminent in game-based learning and in the study of implicit bias. And because the campus is so big, with almost 1,500 faculty in science, math, medicine and technology, and more than 500 students obtaining graduate degrees in these disciplines every year, it makes a wonderful living laboratory for this work."
Working with the Games and Simulation for Learning group on campus, Carnes and colleagues are examining existing games for elements that would engage faculty in a game that involves authentic situations with meaningful outcomes. After the game is distributed across campus, Carnes and her colleagues will look for results in an all-faculty survey planned for 2013, which will enable a comparison of attitudes between people have played the game and those who have not.
The ultimate test, Carnes says, "is a change in hiring practices and faculty retention on campus. Based on our previous work, we are optimistic that this work can increase the diversity of the faculty at UW-Madison."