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The complex chemistry of diversity and inclusion: a 30-year synthesis

Publication: Canadian Journal of Chemistry
28 May 2021


Dr. Margaret-Ann Armour’s career as a research chemist, educator, and advocate spanned more than 40 years. Much of her work took place within a disciplinary culture ignorant of the scholarship supporting organizational change towards inclusive excellence. Her contributions are extensively covered in other articles in this special issue, and her achievements are all the more remarkable given that her colleague, Dr. Gordon Freeman, held gender-biased attitudes that he shared in a peer reviewed article in a national science journal. Three decades later, another Canadian chemist, Dr. Tomáš Hudlický, published a peer reviewed essay in an international chemistry journal that included his views on the negative impacts of diversity initiatives on organic synthesis research. Both articles were retracted, but clearly a faulty and pervasively biased peer review system enabled the distribution of prejudiced opinions that were neither informed by demonstrated expertise, nor supported by data. These two events are reflective of challenges that Dr. Armour faced in her efforts to diversify chemical sciences. We need to build on her critical work to increasing awareness about inclusive excellence in chemistry, as well as educating scientists on what constitutes an informed opinion. Here, we use Freeman and Hudlický incidents as case studies to indicate how pervasive bias can be superficially perceived as scientific scholarship. Furthermore, we use analogies of analytical processes to illustrate how talent gets systemically excluded. Finally, we provide recommendations to chemistry community members for improving outcomes in terms of synthesis of new knowledge, ideas, and solutions, toward leveraging all the available human talent and creating an environment that is both excellent and inclusive.


La carrière de Margaret-Ann Armor en tant que chercheuse en chimie, éducatrice et militante s’est échelonnée sur plus quarante ans. Ses travaux se sont déroulés en grande partie dans un contexte culturel où les connaissances scientifiques appuyant un changement organisationnel vers une excellence en matière d’inclusion n’existaient pas dans sa discipline. Son apport a largement été salué dans d’autres articles de ce numéro spécial, et ses réalisations sont d’autant plus remarquables que son confrère, le Dr Gordon Freeman, a tenu des propos sexistes qu’il a publiés dans un article revu par des pairs et paru dans une revue scientifique nationale. Trois décennies plus tard, un autre chimiste canadien, le Dr Tomáš Hudlický, a publié un essai évalué par des pairs dans une revue internationale de chimie, qui a inclus son point de vue concernant les effets négatifs des initiatives favorisant la diversité sur la recherche en synthèse organique. Ces articles ont tous deux étés rétractés, mais il est clair qu’un système d’examen par les pairs défectueux et fondamentalement partial a permis la publication d’opinions empreintes de préjugés qui n’étaient pas éclairées par une expertise reconnue ni étayées par des données. Ces deux événements témoignent des enjeux auxquels la Dre Armor a été confrontée dans ses efforts d’intégration de la diversité en chimie. Ses travaux, sur lesquels il faut s’appuyer pour sensibiliser davantage les scientifiques à l’excellence en matière d’inclusion en chimie et les éduquer sur ce qui constitue une opinion éclairée, sont déterminants. Dans cet article, nous utilisons les incidents impliquant Freeman et Hudlický comme cas d’étude pour illustrer la façon dont des biais généralisés peuvent être perçus à première vue comme des connaissances scientifiques. En outre, nous employons des analogies à des processus analytiques pour illustrer comment des personnes talentueuses sont systématiquement exclues. Enfin, nous formulons des recommandations aux membres de la communauté en chimie pour améliorer les retombées issues de la synthèse des nouvelles connaissances, idées et solutions, afin de tirer parti de tous les talents humains à disposition et de créer un environnement à la fois excellent et inclusif. [Traduit par la Rédaction]


Women in chemistry

According to recent data (WISE, NSERC 2017) the number of male and female students enrolled in upper level high school chemistry across Canada is approximately equal or slightly higher for female students.1 However, the proportion of women drops significantly at the post-secondary level, resulting in their significant under-representation in physical and chemical sciences (∼32%).2 Although disaggregated data are hard to find specifically for chemistry-based occupations, the proportion of women in scientific professions requiring a university education is 23% versus 21% for scientific occupations requiring a college education (data from 2011).3 We could not find data on the number of women currently (2020/2021) enrolled in graduate programs in chemistry and who are professors of chemistry in Canada. Nonetheless, data from the Almanac of the Canadian Association of University teachers 2013–2014 report that the proportion of chemistry female professors ranged from 27.6% (assistant professor) to 9.8% (full professor).4 A 2018 study by the Royal Society of Chemistry (UK) reports that 44% of undergraduates, 39% of Ph.D. students, and 9% of professors in chemistry in the UK identify as women.5 Moreover, demographic data collected by the Open Chemistry Collaborative in Diversity Equity (OXIDE) 2016–2017 report that over the total faculty in surveyed Ph.D.-granting chemistry departments, only 20% are women (27.1% at the assistant professor level, 26.7% at the associate professor level, and 15.5% at the full professor level).6,7 These reports further highlight that talented women interested in an academic career are leaving the sector before their full contributions can be appreciated and call our attention to the numerous extrinsic barriers that limit women’s progression in the chemical sciences including, but not limited to, exclusionary culture, narrow understanding and application of the concept of merit (which feeds into inequitable funding structures), and persistent and pervasive gender-stereotypes in home and work life that disadvantage women. When these data are viewed through an intersectional lens (taking into account race, economic status, disability, etc.), barriers and exclusionary behaviours are almost certainly amplified.

Canadian chemistry culture, context, and case studies

Dr. Margaret-Ann Armour was well aware of the exclusionary culture of chemistry. In 2018, she described to Dr. Imogen Coe her experience of debating with her departmental colleague Dr. Gordon Freeman the importance of encouraging young women to enter educational pathways and pursue careers in chemistry and that “he would have none of it”. She was tireless in her efforts to challenge these attitudes. The reasons for, and solutions to, an exclusionary culture in Canadian chemistry over the last 30 years have only occasionally been explicitly addressed (also with the help of Dr. Armour) within the scientific literature or beyond.8 The myth of meritocracy within academia is very strongly held in Canada despite ample evidence that systemic biases are still present9 (e.g., gender-bias in grant review)10 and despite the commitment by all universities to integrate equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) principles into their structures.11 However, there is abundant proof, derived from extensive scholarship across a range of disciplines, that inclusive climates in science and medicine create more innovative and effective working cultures where there is increased productivity, retention, and outputs as defined by the traditional metrics of productivity, innovation, etc.12,13 Therefore, it behooves Canadian chemistry to pay closer attention to creating more inclusive environments. Indeed, this requires methodical and precise referencing to expertise and scholarship, as well as a systems approach to organizational cultural change. It also requires additional intellectual work and acquisition of core competencies by all members of the community14,15 and accountability and consequences for those who fail to meet the expectations.16
A powerful educational tool used widely in a number of disciplines (e.g., medicine, law, business) that can help people understanding “real-life” situations and developing analytical and critical thinking skills is the use of case studies.17 In chemistry, case studies are sometimes used to support inductive rather than deductive learning (for example, “what would you do in this situation” or “what does the analysis of this case tell you” about a particular situation). Following this paradigm, we present here two case studies of chemists in Canada. They both published work in scientific journals relating to diversity issues in chemistry. Furthermore, we ask what these cases can tell us about attitudes, context, process, rigour, expertise, and excellence. Analysis of these case studies can help to identify possible solutions for community members and organizations towards increased understanding and integration of inclusive excellence.

Case study #1

Gordon Freeman

Dr. Gordon Freeman was appointed at the University of Alberta from 1958 to 1995 and continues to hold the title of Professor Emeritus to this date. He received a Ph.D. at McGill University and a DPhil at the University of Oxford. As of July 2020, Freeman’s h-index was 25, with 228 cited articles and an average annual citation rate of ∼60 citations/year between 1970 and 1995, with a peak of ∼100 citations/year in 1985. Between 1991 (the earliest records available) and 2000, he received a total of $250 300 in funding from the federal Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Discovery Grants program plus $1 500, also from NSERC, in support of conference programming.18 The title of his grant from 1991–1992 was “Kinetics of nonhomogenous processes (knp) electrons in fluids”, from 1993–1995 “Electrons in fluids; dynamics and spectroscopy. Kinetics of nonhomogenous process”, and from 1995–1998 “Electron transport and reactivity in polar liquids electrons in nonhomogenous fields”. When corrected for inflation, his annual grant award in 1993–1994 ($35 000) would be worth more than $54 000; according to recent data, this is approximately equal to the average grant for the Chemistry evaluation group at NSERC.19 In 1990, Freeman published a paper entitled “Kinetics of non homogeneous processes in human society: Unethical behaviour and society chaos” in the Canadian Journal of Physics, in a special issue dedicated to reporting the proceedings of a conference on chaos theory that Freeman had organized (but not presented at with this work).20 The paper was printed in the journal under a section header entitled “Sociology” and appears to be the only submission within this subsection. All submissions to this journal were peer reviewed under the standard criteria for NRC journals at the time and at the direction of the editor (in 1990, Dr. Ralph Nicholls). The published article is not about chemistry or physics. It describes Freeman’s assessment on the state of student ethics in the university sector, based on his personal observations and ad hoc interviews conducted with students, during which he asked personal questions about their family lives and values. No ethics approval for the interviews was reported. The experimental design was vague and non-standard. The questions being addressed were not placed within the context of scholarship in the field. No supporting data or references to other work that endorsed or challenged the central thesis were provided. On the contrary, there are only two references within the paper: one is a dictionary, and one is a book chapter by Freeman himself on an unrelated topic. The submission was handled by the editor (Nicholls) who confirmed that it was sent out for peer review but refused to identify the reviewers or provide further information on the review process. Following publication, there was considerable outrage and debate within the academic community about the content of the paper, as well as the editorial process. However, since this episode occurred in a pre-social media age, the debate was limited primarily to academic circles and took place over a number of years. An extensive summary of the incident was written by Morris Wolfe.21 In response to extensive criticism of the content and processing of the paper, commentaries on the article were solicited by the Editor-in-Chief of Research Journals of the National Research Council of Canada, Dr. Bruce Dancik, following a symposium on the ethics of scholarly publishing held in Toronto in 1993. These commentaries by prominent scholars in the social sciences (Drs. Armstrong, Eichler, Stark-Adamec, and Mackie) were subsequently published in the Canadian Journal of Physics in 1993, three years after the Freeman paper was published.22
Freeman continued to work at the University of Alberta until retirement and receive external funding for his chemistry research program. On 3 September 2020, 30 years after publication, an announcement that the article was retracted was posted in an issue of the Canadian Journal of Physics.23

Case study #2

Tomáš Hudlický

Dr. Tomáš Hudlický was appointed as a Canada Research Chair, Tier 1 in Biocatalysis in 2003 (later in Organic Synthesis and Biocatalysis) at Brock University. His record is very impressive by conventional assessments, with an h-index of 57 and over 300 publications since 1972, averaging between 400 and 500 citations a year over the last 20 years. He has a total citation count of almost 12 000. Since arriving in Canada in 2003, Hudlický has secured $1 153 500 in NSERC Discovery Grant funding (with annual awards that are above the average for the chemistry evaluation group), $268 919 in NSERC Research Tools and Instruments (RTI) funding, and $244 870 in NSERC Idea to Innovation grants.18 In total, Hudlický’s research has attracted $4.6 million from NSERC and possibly more from other sources. He has 23 patents (based on data from his website) and has a long list of current and former trainees, including some who are current professors of chemistry in Canada. His record is certainly reflective of the expectations for a Tier 1 CRC, defined as “outstanding and innovative world-class researchers whose accomplishments have made a major impact in their fields, are recognized internationally, and have superior records of attracting and supervising graduate students and postdoctoral fellows”. As part of the nomination process, CRCs should propose an original, innovative research program of the highest quality. Hudlický’ s CRC appointment has provided almost $3 million in funding to Brock University as of 2020. Local institutional arrangements for distribution of CRC funding are typically confidential but may include a salary stipend (on top of a regular faculty salary) plus additional research funding to the researcher’s program.
In June 2020, Hudlický published an article in the prestigious international journal Angewandte Chemie entitled “Organic synthesis–Where now?’ is thirty years old. A reflection on the current state of affairs”.24 This contribution is a self-described “essay”, which was commemorative in nature, celebrating Prof. Dieter Seebach on the 30th anniversary of the publication of a review of similar name.25 According to editorial staff at Angewandte Chemie, Hudlický’s essay was peer reviewed. Shortly after publication on 4 June, when the article became accessible online, there was a significant negative response, particularly on Twitter, to certain parts of the article that were deemed offensive. The essay deals with various factors that have, over the last 30 years, come to influence either negatively or positively the state of the field of research relating to organic synthesis. Examples of these factors include impact of new technology (positive and negative influence), integrity of the literature (negative influence), universities as corporations (negative influence), diversity of research options (positive and negative influence), and diversity of workforce (negative influence). It was primarily the latter that caused much of the discussion in social media, particularly as Hudlický claimed the negative influence of diversity of the workforce on the field of organic synthesis to be attributable to advantageous treatment to many groups and (or) individuals with “preferential status” (his quotations marks) and the consequential disadvantages to other groups. No references or evidence was provided in support of these statements. The essay included 10 footnotes and 22 references, mostly related to fraud and integrity in the scientific literature and various references to synthetic chemistry papers. After many complaints to the journal, the submission was retracted, and an apology issued.26,27 A number of members of the editorial board resigned, and several society commentaries28,29, opinions,30,31 and responses from peers32–34 were published. Hudlický’s institution released an official statement that called Hudlický’s opinions hurtful and alienating.35 Hudlický then posted his essay to his personal blog site with additional material.36 He has demanded the university retract their letter and issue a public apology, and his faculty union has filed a grievance in support; he claims the institutional letter has “greatly damaged my standing not only within but also outside Brock community”.37 As of July 2020, Hudlický continues to hold his faculty position and research chair, his funding is intact, and his research program continues.


Excellence of the researcher and scholarly merit of contributions

Traditional metrics (numbers and journal impact factor, awards, citations, value of externally funded research grants, educational pathways, etc.) would suggest that both Drs. Freeman and Hudlický are talented chemists with excellent training, who have been recognized and rewarded by their peers. Although less explicit, the scientific community can infer from these metrics that the two researchers would be expected to possess the highest levels and standards of analytical skills, experimental rigour, and ethical behaviour. In both cases, however, the analysis of their contributions, reviewed and published outside their areas of expertise, rather shows a lack of rigour, analysis and, in the case of Freeman, ethics. Both of them are chemistry experts who made claims on a subject matter that is different than their own without adequate preparation or collaboration, as exemplified by lack of appropriate references, absence of data in support of arguments, failure to compare and contrast with the state of the literature and research in the relevant fields, and lack of human participants research ethics approval (Freeman).
In principle, both articles refer to interesting issues, such as the participation rate of women in chemistry, the impact of diversity initiatives on outputs and innovation, student conduct, and fraud in science. These are all substantial and important questions that are, indeed, worthy of academic research. Surely, it is possible for a physical scientist to acquire training and expertise (and even pursue research interests) in these areas, which are typical of the social sciences and humanities, through a thorough study of the field’s state-of-the-art. Alternatively, a viable option is to collaborate with established experts in the field whose expertise is demonstrated through previous work. The cases of Freeman or Hudlický, however, do not fulfill these requirements: in fact, there is no evidence for either of them having training or research experience in social sciences and behaviours or having ever conducted scholarly or pedagogical studies outside of chemical processes, nor do they appear to have sought out the assistance and insights of academic experts in social sciences, despite both being located at large institutions with excellent researchers in relevant areas. Indeed, over the last few decades, social sciences based scholarship into the social context and dynamics of the human endeavour of scientific research has grown extensively, and there is a vast body of literature on the relevant social and ethical topics. Anyone (including scientists) addressing these topics in their contributions would thus be expected to refer to such body of knowledge. Indeed, we expect ourselves and our students to reference correctly and thoroughly when writing a manuscript or preparing a presentation. Why should these cases be different? Clearly, neither Freeman’s nor Hudlický’s aforementioned pieces meet basic standards of scholarship. Despite Hudlický’s statement that “New ideas, and open mind and attention to detail will see us through to greater inventions and a return to high integrity”, his essay demonstrates an absence of scholarly evidence, references, or data in support of statements relating to the “preferential status” of certain groups and (or) individuals, preferential hiring (that overrides qualifications), changes in participation rates for “women and minorities” (without apparent awareness or recognition that many people belong to both groups), mandatory diversity seminars, and training. His comments about the Gordon Conference Power Hour reflect a complete misunderstanding of this component of the Gordon Conferences.38 Undoubtedly, an established researcher as Hudlický knows well how to effectively present arguments, especially since other statements in his essay are adequately supported by references. Nevertheless, his lack of attention to a well-supported argument on EDI is exceptionally puzzling given his major thesis of a plea for a return to “high integrity” and experimental rigour in chemistry. Why, we might ask, has such un-rigorous work been allowed to slip through peer review? Could it be, as he warns us – with an apparent lack of self-awareness – because of the “preferential status” of certain groups? Interestingly, Seebach’s paper from 1990 is extraordinarily thorough in terms of supporting evidence for arguments with 14 figures, 33 schemes, and 568 references, many of which contain subreferences.25

Is it opinion or is it science?

Although we discussed, so far, that neither Freeman’s nor Hudlický’s contributions can be considered of scholarly nature, it might be argued that such contributions are opinion pieces, which are, perhaps, not subject to the same standards as academic submissions (although editorials and opinion pieces are often peer reviewed in several science journals). Nonetheless, opinion pieces can be either informed or uninformed. We suggest that it is a reasonable expectation that even opinion pieces from established academics, with a track record of publications in peer reviewed scientific journals, be as thoroughly informed as possible and held to the high standards of academic rigour as for scientific submissions. Beyond this, if scholars chose to make their opinions publicly available (e.g., on blogs or in newspapers), it should come as no surprise that those pieces will be subject to rigorous analysis and critique by the broader community, even more so if the opinion is uninformed. Presumably, that is indeed the point of scholars presenting informed opinions and debating different points of view that are supported by evidence. Although Freeman is reported as rather enjoying his notoriety following the publication of his article,21 it appeared to come as a surprise to Hudlický that his essay was criticized and held to a high standard of scholarship. Moreover, he claims that this incident represents a “slide back to Calvinism and burnings at stake”.39 However, perhaps there is another interpretation: many of us in academic science are aware that there are members of our community who possess opinions that differ from, or are even offensive to, those of the broader society, particularly with respect to complex issues such as diversity and inclusion. Publicly expressing opinions that “challenge orthodoxy” means that, especially if an academic, one should expect to have those opinions contested and counterargued. Undeniably, the scientific training and expectations of scientists at any level (from principal investigators to postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, and honours students), the interactions at conferences, and the evidence-based discussion of the scientific literature are all based on challenging each other with the ultimate goal to maintain the highest of standards. That is why we require our trainees to “defend” their honours or masters theses and doctoral dissertations. We expect their experimental work to be rigorous and ethical and their conclusions to be supported, extensively, with evidence and reliable, reproducible data. As academics, we have exacting and demanding intellectual expectations and standards. Hudlický was surprised that his contribution was found wanting in these regards. He claims to have suffered some professional impact, although he continues to enjoy the rare and considerable privilege of the protection of academic freedom and tenure, which allows him “to express opinions that challenge orthodoxy”.37 This is not to say the privilege of expressing opinions that challenge orthodoxy is without consequences, either in academia or in the arena of public debate. Hudlický will not suffer economic consequences as an academic scientist. He will not lose his academic position or his research funding. He may not be asked to serve on hiring committees and he may be watched with concern in terms of his supervisory responsibilities, but he will never be subject to the bias and prejudice that have excluded others from pursuing a successful career in chemistry or other sciences. Ironically, relieving a faculty member of these types of duties without a concomitant rebalancing of their service work, may give them more time for research and, ultimately, accelerate their career even further. This will be accomplished mostly at the expense of those who do practice inclusive behaviours (and are often from historically excluded groups). It is therefore of crucial importance that accountability and consequences are carefully considered and equitable to those harmed.

The objective scientist?

Both the cases discussed above are classic examples of scientists self-identifying as “objective” and utterly failing to recognize they are human and, thus, fallible.40 Both Freeman and Hudlický wandered into areas of scholarship where they had no acquired or demonstrated expertise and presented uninformed opinion with no apparent self-awareness. These case studies highlight the importance, especially for the dominant demographic2,3,5,7 of scientists, to consciously and intentionally apply the same rigour to observation of themselves and the chemistry culture as they do to the practice of chemistry. Expertise, by definition, reflects knowledge of a specific domain: being an expert in organic synthesis, physical chemistry, polymer chemistry, etc., does not inherently make one an expert in anything else, particularly the social sciences. However, we can use scientific approaches to understanding ourselves (hence the value of reference to and engagement with social science research and scholars). We can, and should, analyze our own behaviours to identify and correct for bias, just as we would identify a machine in the lab or a step in a process that is inefficient or mis-calibrated, and correct for it to ensure that our outputs are correct. We illustrate this process by using an analogy in Fig. 1. If we consider the series of actions that need to be undertaken to identify a specific molecule of interest from a mixture of proteins, the usage of mis-calibrated equipment will inevitably result in inaccurate data. If we replace “molecule of interest” with “excellence” in Fig. 1, we can see that many of the processes currently used to determine “excellence” are demonstrably flawed (e.g., evaluation of the CV, committee evaluations, assessments of quality of contributions) due to mis-calibrations, which, when repeated at various stages in a process, are inevitably amplified. Ultimately, the faulty process will lead to significant errors in outputs (e.g., selection towards homogeneity, subjective success rates of grants or awards). Computer simulations of repeated rounds of bias show that over-representation of one demographic relative to another of up to 20% can occur.41,42 Scientists pride themselves on their objectivity but, being human, are really one more component in a system that requires attentive calibration, similarly to what is applied to our laboratory equipment. We must continually calibrate ourselves in terms of our biases to ensure that we are assessing our science and our scientific community as rigorously and accurately as possible. This can be done through education and awareness raising, implicit bias training, and many other approaches that have been well described. We should also be intentional about ensuring the inclusion of talent from across the spectrum of humanity (Fig. 2). Humility and the ability to acknowledge error are hallmarks of great scientists, as described by Seebach himself whom, in his concluding remarks (which expressed the hope that his piece had not overpromised) quoted Teresa of Avila (1515–1582) “Teach me the glorious lesson that occasionally it is possible that I may be mistaken”.25
Fig. 1.
Fig. 1. A series of actions that are purported to lead to the identification of a specific molecule of interest in a population (1) from a mixture of proteins (2) but that are determined by mis-calibrated equipment (3–5) will inevitably result in inaccurate data. If we replace “molecule of interest” with “excellence”, we know that many of the processes currently used to determine “excellence” are demonstrably flawed (e.g., CV evaluation, committee evaluations, assessments of quality of contributions) due to mis-calibrations, which when repeated at various stages in a process are amplified leading to significant errors in outputs (e.g., selection towards homogeneity, subjective success rates of grants or awards). We must continually calibrate ourselves in terms of our biases to make certain that we are assessing our science and our scientific community as rigorously and accurately as possible. Image created with
Fig. 2.
Fig. 2. Embedding inclusive excellence to avoid entrenching mediocrity in recruitment from the full spectrum of human talent. Data clearly demonstrate that talent in science is distributed across the full spectrum of humanity (represented here by the electromagnetic spectrum from infrared to ultraviolet)43,44 Academic science seeks to recruit those whose excellence exceeds some context-defined bar (i.e., the asterisks distributed across the spectrum at the highest peaks in the trace). Structural and systemic biases limit the selection pool to a much narrower window (red box). Failure to recognize and remove barriers that limit the pool to only part of the spectrum may miss excellent candidates, as well as potentially lower the bar and recruit less able individuals (indicated by ampersands (&), present at peaks on the trace that fall below the bar). Thus, failure to entrench inclusive excellence approaches to recruitment and retention runs the risk of embedding mediocrity.45 Image created with

Responsibilities of peer review

It is clear that peer review failed in both cases. The overall scholarship for both submissions is not of a standard that warrants publication. Both pieces could have been rejected outright or, at a minimum, sent back for major revision by an editor. Both incidents reflect poorly on the peer review system and do not engender trust in the editorial process, particularly from traditionally marginalized scholars. Indeed, failure to promptly address such egregious abuse of the system hardly instills confidence in a structure that is routinely held up to be the gold standard in ensuring rigour in science. Responses from the reviewers would have been expected to comment on issues including, but not limited to: the clear lack of evidence of thoughtful analysis of the relevant published literature (either in 1990 or 2020); the failure to place issues of culture, diversity, and equity in the broader context or with reference to the established large body of scholarship on the subject by experts in these fields; the lack of adequate references, as well as evidence and data in support of statements; the poor (unethical) research design. The failure of scholarship in both cases is compounded by failure of peer review. Together, they represent the cumulative failure of the system. It is deeply problematic for the broader community when poorly supported scholarship is published in the scientific literature because it provides legitimacy to what is presented. Nonetheless, providing legitimacy to such intellectually inadequate contributions does undoubtedly a disservice to the broader community. This viewpoint was well presented in 1992 by Catherine Warren who stated, in a contribution to New Scientist following the publication of the Freeman article:
in publishing a paper, a journal automatically legitimises its authors and endorses their work. When these ideas are then popularised, often deviating wildly from their source, they somehow retain this hallmark of ‘truth”’.46
It is therefore a priority to ensure that appropriate training for reviewers is designed to promote an understanding of unconscious bias and how it can affect the peer review.

Responsibilities of the community

Much of the discussion, flamed by the fans of a whirring social media machine, focused outrage on the nature of the opinion expressed in the piece, which ran counter to current foci in universities on the power and potential of increased diversity and inclusion to drive innovation and leverage talent. Between 1990 and 2020, social media has significantly changed the nature of debate about science47 and, especially, about science and social justice issues.48 We propose that this is generally a good thing, as the voices of the marginalized and the work of a broader community can now be shared. The negative consequences, however, are a rush to response, which ultimately can weaken the argument in support of, for instance, a more diverse chemistry community. In fact, although moral outrage can certainly have positive social consequences, social media outrage may reduce the effectiveness of collective action and limit participation in the public square.49 The reasons for and the solutions to an over-representation of one demographic in chemistry are complex.5 Moreover, the solutions require a systems approach, which is not easily presented in a barrage of short, sometimes anonymous, comments on the internet (e.g., a “Twitterstorm”) within 24 hours of a poorly researched article being published (although using social media to rapidly share deeply felt opinions about newly published science has become standard and should be expected). A thorough and substantive response might not be so well suited to the social media machine and should not be considered a mechanism for systems change. We need to embrace all forms of interaction (social media response, rapid editorial and institutional responses, disciplinary society commentaries, etc.) to ensure vigorous debate in appropriate settings and the highest standards of integrity and ethical behaviour, just as we expect from those whose opinions we might find uninformed and offensive.


These case studies, which are 30 years apart, describe some of the challenges that Dr. Margaret-Ann Armour had to face in terms of entrenched uninformed attitudes, as well as a lack of expertise in equity, diversity, inclusion, and accessibility issues. Both case studies can be used as educational opportunities for the next generation of research scientists, policy makers, academic leaders, and general public to help understand some aspects of the myth of meritocracy, the fallacy that scientists are inherently objective, and that they can expound with expertise on areas outside their technical fields. Moreover, we can use these case studies to highlight the value of identifying and removing biases and calibrating accordingly towards inclusive excellence. In particular, the use of scientific or discipline-specific metaphors for complex concepts related to diversity and inclusion can be very useful in explaining EDI principles to broad audiences. As an example of this communication strategy, we provide two figures that help illustrate the cumulative and damaging nature of systemic bias that leads to the over-representation of a single demographic that we see in the discipline today. In addition, we include here some other recommendations, which we also summarized graphically (Fig. 3) using an analogy to top–down and bottom–up approaches. Our recommendations include, but are not limited to, the following:
Fig. 3.
Fig. 3. The top–down (from the organization to the individual) and bottom–up (from the individual to the community) approaches that may contribute towards a culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion in chemistry.

Inclusive leadership

This should be a requirement for every leader in academic science (principal investigator, chair, dean, VP, President), as well as editors of journals. Evidence of core competencies (i.e., actions that have contributed to inclusive excellence and training) should be provided by anyone serving in hiring, selection, tenure, promotion, or awards committee. Opportunities for professional development towards acquiring these core competencies are the responsibilities of leaders and organizations. Consequences for failing to demonstrate inclusive leadership should be clear and enforced (e.g., removal from the committee, removal from supervisory roles) and behaviors that are offensive and harmful need to be disciplined without hesitation and with hard measures (e.g., the case of Dr. Gianluigi Veglia at University of Minnesota Twin Cities who, despite being sanctioned for sexually harassing lab members, still holds three R01 awards from the NIH).50

Inclusive supervision and mentorship

Those responsible for the supervision of trainees (undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, research assistants) should be educated in cultural competencies that enable and facilitate the professional development of trainees across cultures.51 This is a skill set that can be learned (based on evidence, relevant scholarship, and recommendations from experts in the field),52 repeated at regular intervals, and formally required of managers before they are allowed to supervise trainees.

Inclusivity training

Graduate programs in scientific disciplines should include, as core mandatory elements, the development of professional skills and core competencies in the application of the principles of equity, diversity, inclusion, and accessibility. Graduate programs can also provide education about the systemic barriers faced by individuals from historically excluded groups, as is now often the case in medical school where student learn about social determinants of health.53 Practical actions include, for example, speaker seminars and workshops focusing on discrimination, gender and racial bias in the scientific landscape, and implicit bias and microaggression training modules to be completed within the first three months of joining the program.

Inclusive science publishing

Editors and editorial boards should actively and intentionally be working towards increased diversity in their reviewing and editorial boards. For scientific journals, this increased diversity may include broadening editorial boards and potential peer reviewers to include those with scholarship and background in areas such as science and society, science and gender studies, science and policy, organizational cultural change, etc.

Inclusive excellence

Award structures need to recognize and reward inclusive excellence. Although the evaluation of “excellence of a researcher” and “merit of research” can still be informed by traditional metrics, there is now a much broader understanding of excellence and impact that should be factored in evaluations for external awards (including funding).54 Traditional metrics should be viewed through an EDI lens to remove bias.55 Contributions to, for instance, science policy and science communication can be highly significant and long-lasting at local and national levels. Indeed, NSERC Discovery Grants Peer review manual highlights that involvement in public outreach activities (e.g., organizing promotional events, taking on leadership positions in science outreach, and contributions to the promotion of equity, diversity and inclusion in the research enterprise) are to be included as evidence of stature in the field.56 These types of assessment are not at odds with fundamental research and can be held to the same levels of rigour and ethical standards as other aspects of a scientist's work.


Many individuals within chemistry may hold opinions on all sorts of topics that others will find objectionable. These opinions may be informed or uninformed. The academy is a place for opinions to be constructively challenged and where only rigorous, intellectually sound scholarship must be promoted. It is possible to disagree and debate with respect and grace (as demonstrated by Dr. Margaret-Ann Armour). Scientists must support their arguments with evidence and data, and we must hold ourselves and all of those around us to the highest levels of intellectual rigour, whether we are debating aspects of organic synthesis or inclusive excellence in our disciplines. Moreover, contributions from those in the academy that fail spectacularly in terms of rigour must be subject to vigorous examination. All involved are to be held accountable. An uninformed opinion, especially if portrayed as scholarship in a peer reviewed journal, will always be open to challenge: in this age of rapid response by social media, that challenge will be fast and impassioned.
The discipline of chemistry in Canada is better for knowing who does and who does not understand the concept or practice of inclusive excellence. Working towards a culture in chemistry that is truly diverse and represents inclusive excellence is complex and multi-factorial requires a systems approach based on evidence and informed by best practises and needs intentional, sustained collaborative efforts by the entire community, in order for all chemists to achieve the goals that Dr. Margaret-Ann Armour has set for us all.

Competing interests

There are no conflicts to declare.

Data availability

All datasets are available in the Reference section.


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Published In

cover image Canadian Journal of Chemistry
Canadian Journal of Chemistry
Volume 99Number 8August 2021
Pages: 653 - 660


Received: 19 February 2021
Accepted: 21 May 2021
Accepted manuscript online: 28 May 2021
Version of record online: 28 May 2021


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Key Words

  1. diversity
  2. equity
  3. chemistry
  4. inclusive excellence


  1. diversité
  2. équité
  3. chimie
  4. excellence inclusive



Stefania Impellizzeri
Department of Chemistry and Biology, Ryerson University, 350 Victoria St., Toronto, ON M5B 2K3, Canada.
Imogen R. Coe [email protected]
Department of Chemistry and Biology, Ryerson University, 350 Victoria St., Toronto, ON M5B 2K3, Canada.


This paper is part of a special issue to honour Dr. Margaret-Ann Armour.
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1. The role of language in students’ justifications of chemical phenomena
2. Toward Sustained Cultural Change through Chemistry Graduate Student Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Communities
3. Introduction to the special issue dedicated to Dr. Margaret-Ann Armour

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