Culture wars in the lab – Gad Yair

MIT Sloan Visiting Researcher Gad Yair

From Scientific American

Culture matters when it comes to science. An uncomfortable and regrettable incident at Duke University in Janurary sent shock waves through the scientific community when a professor and program administrator suggested that her Chinese students “commit” to speaking English in professional settings. Although the administrator later apologized, the incident continues to reverberate.

Cultural misunderstandings like this are growing as campuses internationalize. In recent interviews with scientists at Harvard, M.I.T., Boston University and other institutions, I found that respondents embrace diversity in their workplaces but also raise concerns about puzzling behaviors of their international students. They say that cultural diversity in research settings is crucial but point out that some international students are “too obedient” or “hard working yet lacking in originality.” Without training in cultural sensitivity, they are often surprised and occasionally make errors of communication.

We scientists must learn to work together with our differences and appreciate that we are as culturally unique as any other cultural group. Indeed, most scientists are unaware of the intricate ways by which cultural elements enter their lab, for they do so in subliminal ways. Culture affects the way scientists perform and document their work in laboratories, respond to reviews, and talk with their students. Scientists, after all, are bearers of culture—just as their international students are. For an effective meeting of minds, we need to understand how cultures actually form them.

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