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Systemic Racism in the Sciences Requires Structural Solutions

A man works in a lab at a microscope
Speakers at the 2020 AAAS Science and Technology Policy Forum offered guidance on the systemic approaches that institutions can take to make the scientific enterprise a welcome space for scientists of color. | Maksim Šmeljov/Adobe Stock

Now is the time for decisive, systemic, evidence-based action to combat structural racism in the sciences, urged several speakers at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Science and Technology Policy Forum.

The 45th annual Policy Forum, held virtually on Oct. 13 and 14, addressed the intertwined crises of the COVID-19 pandemic and systemic racism and how they affect science and policy.

“The pandemic has shone a bright light on intractable inequalities in our society,” said Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of The University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Hrabowski delivered the Forum’s Gilbert S. Omenn Grand Challenges Address on Oct. 14, which aims to explore challenges at the intersection of science and society.

Low-income people, the elderly and people of color are disproportionately affected by the pandemic, with the Black community hit hardest, Hrabowski noted. He stated that despite decades of effort, people of color are still underrepresented in the scientific enterprise that seeks to tackle health problems.

To meet these challenges, science needs to be accessible to all, added Sudip Parikh, chief executive officer of AAAS and executive publisher of the Science family of journals.

“The scientific community still has a long way to go to realize inclusion and to reflect the full diversity of the American people, said Hrabowski.

He offered several sobering statistics: While 13% of the U.S. population is Black, just 4% of new Ph.D.s in natural sciences and engineering are Black. While Hispanics make up 18% of the population, they are just 5% of new natural science and engineering Ph.D.s.

Yet the current circumstances present us with a “Sputnik moment,” Hrabowski said – an opportunity that allows us “to reimagine the role of science in our society and elevates the importance of inclusion within the scientific community.”

In a panel discussion titled “The Consequences of Systemic Racism in Science and Steps Towards a Better Future,” Joseph DeSimone, professor of radiology, chemical engineering and business at Stanford University, emphasized how fundamental diversity is to innovation and problem-solving.

“A successful scientific endeavor is one that attracts a diversity of experience, draws upon the depth and breadth of that experience, cultivates those differences and acknowledges the creativity they spark,” said DeSimone.

Yet, too often, the onus to transform the scientific enterprise into a truly diverse space is put onto those who are underrepresented, said panelists. Tshaka Cunningham, chief science officer of biotechnology company TruGenomix, shared his own experiences as the only Black scientist in the room at predominately white institutions. “It’s a burden,” explaining racism to colleagues who have never experienced it personally, he said.

This burden affects faculty members of color, too. Amani Allen, executive associate dean at the University of California Berkeley School of Public Health, explained how Black faculty members are affected by “the Black tax,” as they perform additional duties they do not get credit for, such as unofficially serving as support systems for Black students.

“It is not a minority problem; it’s an American challenge,” said Hrabowski of dismantling systemic racism and creating diverse institutions.

While minority-serving educational institutions such as historically Black colleges and universities and Hispanic Serving Institutions are key producers of the future U.S. science and technology workforce, other colleges and universities – including predominately white institutions – and industry must tackle systemic racism with systemic solutions, said Ann Quiroz Gates, vice provost for faculty affairs at the University of Texas at El Paso.

After all, systemic racism is not simply about the biases of individuals but about cultures and policies that perpetuate those biases, said Parikh.

Solutions for Systemic Change

Institutions that are invested in systemic change must have leadership fully committed to that change, ensure diverse representation across all levels of the organization by hiring faculty of color and cultivate a culture that not just admits underrepresented students but supports them so they can thrive in the sciences, speakers said.

Speakers offered suggestions for concrete actions to those institutions aiming to take systemic action to dismantle systemic racism in the sciences. Grant-making institutions can seek anonymous grant applications without names or university names. College and university departments can rethink the “weed-out” courses that cull students from STEM majors early on, making it difficult for less-prepared students to continue in STEM. Even rethinking hallways lined with portraits of university administrators – mostly white and male – of decades past can send a signal to students about who belongs in those halls, speakers noted.

The scientific community should also unite to speak out against recent executive actions to eliminate training programs related to diversity, equity and inclusion for federal employees, speakers said. (AAAS was among the scientific societies that signed an Oct. 7 letter to the Office of Management and Budget calling for this action to be reversed.)

“We need more training and sensitivity, not less,” said Cunningham.

Hrabowski urged institutions to pay attention not simply to activity in service of diversity but to the outcome of that activity. They should also replicate and build upon strategies and programs that have already been shown to work – programs like the Meyerhoff Scholars at Hrabowski’s own institution, which sees the majority of scholars go onto graduate and professional schools, he said.

Speakers also touted AAAS’ SEA Change initiative, which supports educational institutions as they transform themselves into diverse, equitable and inclusive spaces. Parikh shared with Forum attendees that AAAS is undergoing a version of the SEA Change self-assessment process. To ensure that the AAAS programs and processes that advance scientists’ careers benefits all scientists, AAAS will first shine a light on who is currently benefitting. The association will publish demographic data on journal authors, reviewers, award winners and fellows and share details about the selection of those individuals, Parikh said.

“We need to be bold in this moment,” said Parikh. “This is an opportunity borne of this series of tragedies, and if we don’t grab it, we’ll be missing a generational opportunity to really make progress on strengthening science within the United States.”



Andrea Korte

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