Dismantling systemic racism in science

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Science  14 Aug 2020:
Vol. 369, Issue 6505, pp. 780-781
DOI: 10.1126/science.abd7531

In his Editorial “Time to look in the mirror” (12 June, p. 1161), H. H. Thorp calls on scientists to recognize systemic racism within the science community. As part of this self-reflection, scientists should consider the many ways that inequality manifests in science, including science's historical contributions to discrimination, the lack of representation in science, and the extra burden placed on minority scientists to fix issues relating to diversity and inclusion. Understanding the scope of systemic inequality in science will enable genuine and sustainable efforts to make scientific institutions fair for all.

Racial categories historically developed and endorsed by scientists led to a hierarchy of groups seen as superior or inferior. Although unsupported by biological evidence, these categories have had devastating effects on non-white communities throughout history. The myth that racial groups were fundamentally different was used to justify colonialism, slavery, genocide, and eugenics (1), and it still governs policies today. The intersectionality of racism and modern society has left a legacy of racial disparities in socioeconomic status (2), education (3), and health (4, 5).

The lack of diversity in scientific institutions reveals ongoing systemic racism in the field. As of 2019, less than 1% of UK professors were Black (6). Black female professors in the United Kingdom experience bullying, racial discrimination, and institutional neglect (7). Systemic racism has also contributed to the lack of diverse representation. Even textbooks currently lack representation of Black female scientists (8). According to a recent report, leadership positions such as CEO or executive in the biotech industry are largely occupied by white professionals (9). A majority of these leaders claimed to be committed to diversity and inclusion, but diversity and inclusion training or programs existed in only half of the organizations surveyed, and 41% of organizations did not monitor diversity (such as employee demographics) or discrepancies in performance rankings, pay, and promotion (9).

Unfortunately, scientists from underrepresented groups are often the ones who take on the responsibility (often coupled with additional labor and minimal recognition) of trying to change a racist system (10). To lighten their burden, white colleagues should also take responsibility for dismantling systemic racism in the science community. Although there is no single “one size fits all” approach to addressing inequality, there are common themes and actions that can be implemented in scientific institutions.

Scientists involved in hiring should implement advertising strategies, especially at leadership levels, that attract diverse applicant pools, and they should facilitate fair decisions by forming diverse recruitment panels. To retain diverse individuals, leaders should promote an inclusive environment. To do so, they must develop training material on understanding and tackling bias and create safe spaces for professionals to speak freely and honestly. All departments should develop zero-tolerance, anti-racism policies and put procedures in place that effectively handle complaints about racism and race-related aggression. Mentoring schemes should be embedded into departments to address the neglect that Black, Indigenous, and people of color often experience when navigating their career. Underrepresented individuals (many of whom are already used as unpaid consultants) should be given the power to make important decisions.

All scientists should recognize the achievements of diverse individuals. Recognition includes citing their work, referring them for opportunities, nominating them for awards, and teaching their work in classes. Appropriately recognizing the work of underrepresented individuals will enable them (rightly) to be as competitive as their white counterparts when looking to progress professionally. By taking these steps, scientists of all backgrounds can help create a more inclusive, diverse, and fair community.

References and Notes

  1. Higher Education Statistics Agency, “Who's working in HE?: Personal characteristics” (2019); www.hesa.ac.uk/data-and-analysis/staff/working-in-he/characteristics. To view the number of Black professors compared with the total number of professors, in the “Personal characteristics by occupational classification” table, select “Show: Ethnicity” and “Contract levels: Professor.”

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