If you ask a female doctor why she didn't go into physics, she is not going to tell you it's because there are more men in physics and that is intimidating. Instead, she will say it's because she wanted to help people or she liked medicine.

Yet a number of sociological claims insist she doesn't really know why she chose not to go into physics, and it may instead be because of subtle self-bias or stereotype threat. 

Can you just ask people and get an honest answer? It depends. The federal government has spent billions of dollars trying to get women and certain minorities into Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields and it's unclear if it has been a success. Sure, there are more of both, but those curves were going up anyway. Indians and Chinese people are much smaller minorities in the US but they don't need special government advertising campaigns to be convinced to go into STEM. 

Why don't the government's preferred minorities want to enter STEM fields? A new article in CBE-Life Sciences Education suggests just asking. The sample was small, 50 students at a retreat in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, but the co-authors believe it is accurate just the same. 

"We didn't just sit down and design a survey and say, 'This is a good question to ask'," said lead author Andrew G.Campbell, a Brown University biology professor. Surveys run the risk of bearing the biases of those who design them. Open-ended peer dialogue, the authors reasoned, would be more authentic. "I don't necessarily want to say that we've been doing it wrong all along, it's just that there are other ideas we can bring in." 

Given that wide latitude, the students identified 8 major themes that they said would improve their STEM training and career pursuits.

The problem is that some of the solutions involve the reasons why students don't go into academic science. They are: 

  • Including a social justice component in STEM education. For example considering biomedical research in the context of health disparities.

  • Training to help them better explain science to non-scientists, including family members who may be generally supportive but aren't always familiar with research.

  • Connecting STEM with other disciplines, including the humanities and the arts.

  • Learning sooner than well into graduate school about the career paths that become available with an advanced STEM degree.

  • Gaining guidance for achieving work-life balance. Older students may need this for child care, but even undergraduates may need it because they could be helping to raise siblings or supporting other family members.

  • Reconsidering evaluation metrics that fail to account for the diversity or that reflect a misunderstanding of cultural differences.

  • Ensuring access to "invested mentors," who show a genuine interest in their careers.

  • Creating more opportunities for ancillary training, including parallel graduate degree programs, that allow for studies to evolve with changing or broadening interests.

Instead of clarifying anything, those answers just muddy the issue. How many scientists say they spent their years in school to promote social justice? Which quality science students should be penalized to make way for more diversity? How will classes in music help anyone understand evolution? And being tasked with not only being a good scientist but being a public relations person and journalist is not a welcome idea to most researchers.

Work-life balance is perhaps achievable, that is one way corporations beat academia. Academic science is like a small company of 4 people, the reverberation of one person not carrying their weight is the same as at any small company - they may not get the next grant and will be out of business. A large corporation will have room for people who don't want to have important roles or work as hard but a small group does not. So the only way to solve that problem is to be more corporate and how many scientists went into academia to be corporate?

Some of the responses are baffling. STEM students don't know what job options they will have with a STEM degree? And an invested mentor for every student is like mandating a 3-star chef for every restaurant: You can can call them that if you want, someone is still getting a McDonald's fry cook.