Categories: Tree of Life28 September 20215.5 min read

Genomics for all

Scientific excellence in sequencing all life on Earth depends on justice, equity, diversity and inclusion.

In 2020, the first Biodiversity Genomics meeting, led by the Tree of Life programme at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, Genomes 10k, Vertebrate Genomes Project, Global Invertebrate Genomics Alliance, and the Earth BioGenome Project, united over 5000 unique attendees representing 79 countries from all continents except Antarctica. The success of this meeting spoke to the desire and willingness of scientists not only to explore current challenges and discuss solutions in scaling our collective efforts towards sequencing all of Earth’s eukaryotic biodiversity but also to connect with each other in creating a global community.

The grand challenge of sequencing all life on Earth requires all people

The grand challenge of the Earth Biogeneome Project (EBP) is to catalog, characterize and sequence the genomes of all life on earth. However, meeting this challenge, particularly within the timeframe of ten years, will require global collaboration. To date, there is broad underrepresentation within our biodiversity genomics community across numerous factors: gender, racial/ethnic, career level, geographical middle- to low-income countries, accessibility for education and technology, and many others. In addition, the implementation of the FAIR (findability, accessibility, interoperability, and reusability) principles, Nagoya protocol, and other guidelines for scientific data management, fair and equitable benefit sharing, and stewardship in collaborations with indigenous and other populations are recognized as important but are still lagging in consistent and thorough application for true partnerships.

First steps in understanding the global culture of the biodiversity genomics community

The 2020 Biodiversity Genomics meeting was an important first step in understanding the culture and unique needs of the biodiversity genomics community. The meeting explicitly aimed for justice, equity, diversity and inclusion (JEDI) in different ways. First, the meeting was open, and attendance was free. Second, the organizers intentionally invited a variety of speakers representing a breadth of diversity factors. Third, discussions on equity, diversity and inclusion were at the heart of the conference, and we organised a forum focused specifically on the topic. The forum included five panellists, three women and two men, representing career levels from PhD student to Chief Scientist, taxa foci from microbes to plants to large vertebrates, genomics application from forensics to bioinformatics to public health, and geographical diversity from Nigeria, New Zealand, Brazil, Dominican Republic, Tanzania, Australia, and the United States. Each panellist presented their viewpoints and experiences with topics such as (i) gender, racial, and ethnic inequalities in science, (ii) lack of access to technologies in developing countries, and (iii) conflict resolution and dialogue for the mutual benefit of indigenous communities and genome consortia. The panellists also participated in a Q&A challenging our community’s current behaviours and reflecting on future actions to progress diversity and inclusion forward.

The first meeting of the justice, equity, diversity and inclusion committee, June 2021.

A justice, equity, diversity and inclusion committee is formed

As a next step resulting from the momentum of the 2020 meeting, the EBP issued the formation of a formal committee charged with defining recommendations for JEDI in our biodiversity genomics community. We were asked to chair this committee, and decided to form it via an open process where individuals could nominate themselves or others. After a two-week period for nominations, invitations were extended, and the committee began meeting in June 2021. As one of our first tasks, this committee has focused on further increasing inclusion, highlighting diversity, and expanding equity at the forthcoming second edition of the Biodiversity Genomics meeting, to happen from 27 September to 1 October. The meeting continues to be open to all and free to attend.

Further expanding equity and inclusion at the second Biodiversity Genomics meeting

There will now be two fora in JEDI at the meeting. The first, which will be held Tuesday, 28 September, is ‘Promoting diversity of people in the diversity of genomics’ and will focus on lived experiences on JEDI-related challenges faced by researchers of all levels in their everyday work life. The second, which will be held Friday, 1 October, is ‘Promoting actions towards JEDI in biodiversity genomics,’ and will focus on lessons learned by individuals and institutions applying actions towards ensuring JEDI in genomics research environments. All presentations at the meeting will now include closed captioning, an addition from last year’s meeting, as a means to further increase scientific understanding and decrease language comprehension as a barrier. We will also have two open social sessions to invite attendees to gather and further discuss JEDI. Another addition to this year’s meeting is a Code of Conduct and Recommendations for Accessibility that are posted on the meeting website and shared with all attendees. Lastly, attendees will be able to share their thoughts on JEDI in the post-meeting survey.

By discussing JEDI from the individual to organizational levels, the goal is to identify and dismantle barriers to participation as well as to broaden our understanding of stakeholders and perspectives currently involved or that need to be included to create an inclusive culture. Addressing JEDI barriers is challenging, but simultaneously, there are also opportunities at every level to invite and celebrate the diversity of people.

Genomics for all as a foundation for meeting the grand challenge

These efforts taken so far are continued steps, not finished or ultimate ones. Our work is just beginning, and we are encouraged by the support of the planning committee and by the engagement of our biodiversity genomics community. However, purposefully creating processes and practices for an inclusive and equitable culture must continue beyond this meeting. With the unprecedented loss in biodiversity at the time of the Anthropocene, sequencing the genomes of everything on Earth, and quickly, is imperative. But urgency must not be trumped by haste, and JEDI must be at the heart of our science. As life on Earth comes in different shapes and colours, so too must be the human workforce working on this grand challenge to sequence all life. This diversity - the varied perspectives, insights, cultural backgrounds and local knowledge of biodiversity across the world - is critical to meet this challenge, and to do so with scientific excellence. Equity and inclusion are the foundation towards preserving not only this diversity of species on Earth but also the way we think, the way we act, and the way we are.

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