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Silence Is Never Neutral; Neither Is Science

Disclaimer: We are publishing this piece as 500 Women Scientists Leadership to protect the authors, members of 500 Women Scientists, from the career repercussions of authoring an anti-racism piece. That in itself speaks to the very issues we highlight in this article.

Amidst #BlackLivesMatter protests and resounding calls for justice, many scientists, academic institutions and science organizations remain eerily silent. While the coronavirus pandemic highlighted the importance of science and evidence, the #ScienceNotSilence sentiments seem to stop short of extending to another major threat to people in the U.S. and across the world – systemic racism and race-based violence.

Racism has permeated this country since its inception, leading to a health crisis in Black and brown communities. Look no further than the impacts of COVID-19: in the United States, Black populations experience disproportionately more coronavirus diagnoses and deaths. Amid loud (and justifiable!) calls to protect and elevate the role of science, too many scientists and scientific organizations are eerily silent on the issues of racism and social justice—issues that are embedded into the history and practice of science.

Why does this matter? Because as every scientist knows, ignoring facts doesn’t make them go away. Scientists live in societies and both internalize and reflect broader societal norms, just like everyone else. Every one of us brings different lived experiences, worldviews and implicit and explicit biases to our work. Because science is still dominated by largely white and male perspectives, many scientists have the privilege to look away from discrimination and racism or avoid having to engage in conflict around these topics. Too many scientists today continue to downplay or outright erase the role science has played in perpetuating anti-Black racism and violence. 


Scientific “progress” is built on racism in many cases. Ronald Fisher, a pioneer of statistics, is also a pioneer of eugenics. The HeLa cells that are so widely used in laboratories across the United States were stolen from Henrietta Lacks without her consent. The field of gynecology was born of experiments done on enslaved women and children. Scientists and public health officials withheld treatment from hundreds of Black men in Alabama who had syphilis, in the now infamous “Tuskeegee Experiment, just to watch what would happen as this devastating disease progressed. The fact that the NIH does not even acknowledge the problematic history of the HeLa cells on its Web pages dedicated to Henrietta Lacks’ legacy perfectly illustrates the refusal of science to grapple with its racist history.

Ignoring science’s legacy of racism or a wider culture shaped by white supremacy doesn’t make scientists “objective.” It makes them complicit.

If one of the objectives of science is to serve society, then scientists must ask themselves: Which parts of society are we serving? And who is the “we” to begin with?

Scientists love evidence. And the data show a clear problem: in 2016 only 9 percent and 13.5 percent of science bachelor’s degrees were awarded to African Americans and Latinos respectively. In that same year, only 5 percent of recipients of doctoral degrees in science and engineering were women from underrepresented minorities (Black or African American, Hispanic or Latino, and American Indian or Alaska Native), and men from those populations accounted for a mere 3.8 percent. Today in the U.S., almost 70 percent of scientists and engineers employed full time are white. For this majority, racial harassment, discrimination and state sanctioned violence are abstract concepts, not everyday worries. And this perpetuates a cycle: scientists of color are unrepresented, unsupported, harassed, discredited, ignored, or pushed out. This is not only morally wrong and profoundly unfair; it’s also devastating to science itself.

Let’s be clear: scientific institutions must immediately get to work on rooting out anti-Black racism and all forms of racism and discrimination. The pervasive silence on racism across science institutions is self-reinforcing; it creates a culture where talking about racism is actively discouraged and where Black, Latino/a and Indigenous scientists cannot bring their whole selves to their work. It also means science may not even be asking the right questions in the first place.

For example, the evidence is clear that climate change will disproportionately affect marginalized populations, a pattern that we have seen brutally demonstrated by the COVID-19 pandemic. And yet, the communities of epidemiologists, virologists and climate scientists tasked with studying these issues or shaping and implementing policies around them are profoundly unrepresentative of those populations. The people most affected and most familiar with the underlying issues are not driving the research agenda.

If we want science to help tackle our biggest challenges—from global pandemics to climate change— science institutions must train, hire and retain Black, Latino/a and Indigenous scholars. As it stands, not only are non-white scientists leaving science, but those who remain face hostile working environments and productivity sapped by the constant trauma of the news cycle. While the uptick in DEI efforts across academic institutions and science organizations is commendable, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts that do not actively address the root causes of the trauma will always fall short.

If scientists don’t explicitly say #BlackLivesMatter, if they don’t speak up on justice and social issues, they risk overlooking solutions, discarding talent, and perpetuating toxic power dynamics. We must all hold ourselves and each other accountable to dismantle the systems of oppression that persist in our society, the very systems that claimed the lives of George Floyd and countless other Black people. That work should start by denouncing racial injustice and violence in no uncertain terms, but it cannot end there.

What can scientists, academic institutions, and scientific organizations do?

    •       Create robust strategies to dismantle systemic racism within your institutions.

    •       Train, hire and support scientists of color.

    •       Hire external antiracism educators to help staff and trainees implement new practices.

    •       Require all employees and trainees to take bystander intervention training, which has been shown to be most effective in effecting true cultural change.

    •       Hire independent DEI consultants to assess organizational culture.

    •       Design and implement a reward system for mentorship and outreach, as these responsibilities often fall disproportionately on underrepresented members of the faculty.

    •       Require security staff to obtain regular antiracist de-escalation training.

    •       Break contracts with local police, and pledge not to call the police for nonviolent offenses.

The work of dismantling institutional racism must start at home, in our scientific institutions. Addressing racism in science has to include fundamentally changing the scientific institutions themselves, anything short of that is just lip service.

Silence is never neutral. Neither is science.

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