Unconscious Bias Training

All people are biased by the society and culture of which they are a part. These biases can be deeply and unconsciously ingrained. They affect everyone but can have unintended consequences for (1) the careers of minority groups, (2) our ability to hire, promote, and grant access to resources to the most qualified candidates, and (3) our ability to identify the most scientifically promising proposals.

Specifically, everyone suffers from Unconscious or Implicit Bias, social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness. These biases are often at odds with our consciously held values and belief system. (For more information, please see Project Implicit at https://implicit.harvard.edu.)

Unconscious bias is the result of shortcuts that your brain uses to increase its efficiency in navigating situations. These shortcuts are based on conceptual frameworks that help your brain anticipate what to expect from experience and situations. They are built and enforced over a lifetime. They provide roadmaps for processing and categorizing information. They can become even more pronounced when there is a limited amount of time to make an important decision.

There have been controlled studies showing that unconscious bias affects employment decisions. For example, both women and men are less likely to hire a candidate with a female name than male name even if both candidates have equal qualifications. Both women and men are more likely to offer a male candidate a higher salary.

The effects of unconscious bias are not limited to hiring. They can creep in everywhere from the stories that we tell about contributions to research teams (e.g., letters of reference) to our relative evaluation of proposers’ qualifications.

STScI is working to minimize the effect of unconscious role in the selection of observing proposals. Specifically, STScI (1) uses a dual anonymous proposal review, (2) discusses implicit bias with panel members, and (3) organizes diverse selection panels.

In the dual anonymous proposal review, the names of the PI and CoIs have been removed from the proposals. Panelists are instructed to focus their discussions on the Selection Criteria and to refrain from guessing the specific identities of the PI and CoIs. Each panel has a Leveler who will refocus the discussion on the Selection Criteria whenever the conversation strays to the proposal team. To further reduce the effect of Unconscious Bias, panels should ensure sufficient discussion time is given to each proposal and be vigilant about the decision making process when time is short and when making global rankings. The dual anonymous proposal review has been successful in mitigating unconscious bias in the HST proposal review. (Please see articles in The Atlantic and Physics Today for more information)

Although the dual anonymous technique mitigates many opportunities for unconscious bias in the JWST review process, unconscious biases can creep in whenever we might think we know who is on particular proposal team. We urge reviewers to focus their attention and discussions on the science case presented in the proposals.