750 participants, 55 proposals, 8 months, 1 workshop, 15 speakers. A new and thriving research community.
By ICLR 2022 Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Co-Chairs, Rosanne Liu and Krystal Maughan
ICLR 2022 has successfully come to an end. Having served as the DEI Chairs in the organizing committee, for the first time for both of us, we’d like to take this chance to reflect on this year’s effort—ups and downs, advances and setbacks, and most importantly, lessons and memories.
Last summer, how it all started
When we were invited to serve as the DEI chairs last summer, we were excited to make some real changes: we both have seen enough lip service, enough short-term, one-off engagements that while net positive, still didn’t amount to lasting changes. One of the central questions we asked ourselves was how we could really support underrepresented, underprivileged, and first-time submitters in a long-term capacity.
We started by first asking each other: how were you supported? How would you have liked to be supported?
More generally: how do people discover a love for research? How does someone decide to pursue research and what shapes that decision? Why do people stay in research? Is it the result of their first taste or experience in research, who they do research with, that ordains the course? What kind of support network do they have, or lack?
These were our answers.
“I did not know that someone could have a career in research. I am a non-traditional student; a professor encouraged me to apply for grad school after I volunteered for the ACM Principles of Programming Languages (POPL) conference as the only non-PhD student. Someone took a chance on me. Pivotal moments can have a lasting impact on someone’s decision to consider graduate school. These moments are a result of a field’s environment (whether positive or negative), access to opportunity, and some degree of luck. I want to minimize the need for that degree of luck and make the opportunity to pursue research accessible.
Why do people stay in research? The support of peers, and multi-layered or structural levels of support (including financial support) help us to persevere. Being able to look ahead and see persons like yourself who have succeeded makes a difference. We wanted to build this regardless of each person’s history or opportunity to find this in their own community. We wanted to build a network of mentors and early career researchers who advocate for themselves, have the freedom to take risks, and celebrate their accomplishments. We wanted them to have a space where they can see that we all experience ups and downs in research, but we can bounce back, find support, and keep going.“
“I never really loved research until I met a great mentor and worked with a supportive team, and that was way past my “supposed to love research” years—I had already graduated my PhD and started an industry job. I consider myself non-traditional for that reason: I followed a “traditional” path but did not hear the calling until I’m out of the path. But that’s when I realized not all of us have to go through the same growth trajectory to become good at something. I am actually really good at this research thing even as a late bloomer. What precipitates the flip from thinking that I suck to knowing that I excel is just one positive experience.
I can’t stand thinking how many people are held back by the lack of that one crucial positive, self-perception-altering experience, not knowing what they could be good at, had they had a little bit of initial luck.“
It is from there that we started converging to the idea of a concrete program that integrates DEI efforts with the core of scientific research, the main track of the conference, and moves from short-term, one-off engagements (for example, giving out free registrations) to long-term nurturing and support of the whole community.
The 1st CSS Program
We announced the CoSubmitting Summer program with a blog post, last summer, the beginning of a 8-month coworking program for underrepresented researchers (definition here) to submit to ICLR or other sister venues.
The program was a success! At the ICLR 2022 Opening Session, we summarized the 1st CSS program: it attracted 750+ participants to the Slack, and an additional 20+ experienced researchers willing to serve as mentors. Together, we wrote research proposals, formed teams, sought actively mentorship actively, and had recurring meetings to shape our own research paths. The program sponsored 55 projects in total, all of them led by at least one underrepresented minority (URM), with a total amount of $17,650 spent; amount funded per project ranges from $200 to $500. After 8 months, this resulted in 15+ submitted papers, not just to ICLR, but to other sister conferences and workshops.
Most importantly, we hope this initiative helps plant seeds for many more future scientific advancements contributed to the entire academic society. Since launched, we are aware that a number of similar initiatives followed suit, including new submission mentoring and mentor-matching programs at AISTATS and other conferences. We are really happy to see the influence of this program going further than we initially expected.
This was our first time launching such a large-scale experiment of open collaboration, which means the first iteration of this program is not without challenges. Some of our challenges involved keeping the momentum, resolving team conflicts, and finding solutions to reimbursing participants in locations not traditionally represented at ICLR. We also learned that our initial timeline goal of initially submitting to ICLR wasn’t as feasible; although, we had wanted this effort to make contributions to the whole research community, not just limited to ICLR, and judging by the result, a lot of CSS-initiated projects do end up getting submitted to, and accepted by other sister venues.
Where do we go from here? The most important thing to ensure is not to have this program be a one-off engagement. In asking our initial questions, we found that the community we had built was not only thriving, but could be sustained long-term. Many expressed a need for long-term mentorship and support in pursuing research, which they had grown to love. When we look at who we choose to work with in our research careers, how do we pick our collaborators? Who do we give chances to? We often choose those we like working with, those we know, and those with a shared methodology. Freedom to fail then becomes a privilege for those who do not fit our shared methodology. How might an individual who comes with a different perspective complement one’s research methodology and what might collaborators learn from this process? How might an individual be given the space and opportunity to learn and fail in order to become an excellent researcher? We want to challenge researchers to collaborate with less homophily, and instead embrace difference of perspectives and intellectual curiosity to solve problems.
A final word
We would like to extend gratitude to our co-organizers for the Broadening Participation initiative and the 1st CoSubmitting Summer workshop: Tom Burns, Ching Lam Choi, Arun Raja and Aya Salama, presenters of the workshop: En-Shiun Annie Lee, Sarubi Thillainathan, Edward Elson Kosasih, Mats L. Richter, Emily McMilin, Andrija Djurisic, Raza Hashmi, Qiang Li, Fatemeh Siar, Laura Fee Nern, Edwin Arkel Rios, Nuredin Ali, Krupal Shah, Connor McCurley, Peiyuan Zhou and Tian H Teh, as well as all the participants of the initiative, and the organizing committee of ICLR 2022, especially Katja Hofmann, Feryal Behbahani and Andrea Brown who graciously and tirelessly supported us.