On June 10th, I observed #ShutDownStem, a movement encouraging scientists to take a day away from science to educate themselves about racism. Prominent journals and institutions such as Nature, AAAS, and The Broad Institute tweeted out in support of #ShutDownStem and received angry tweets from troll bots and dissenters alike. The most common argument against the #ShutDownStem movement claimed that science is an objective enterprise and should not be politicized.
Scientists are humans. We are not intellectual superheroes. Please erase the vision of Sheldon Cooper and Dr. Fox from your head. We are not armed with eidetic memories and apathy that grant us immunity to societal influences. We are capable of ignorance, bias, arrogance, excessive-competitiveness, bullying, and you guessed it — racism.
Introspection is difficult. No one wants to admit they have tolerated or contributed to racism. For some, it is easier to ignore the ugliness and buy into the idea that science institutions are objective and based solely on meritocracy. In my reflection during #ShutDownStem, I decided to delve into the ugliness of racism in science and share what I learned.
Human Research Subjects
Due to disenfranchisement and undereducation, it has been easy to exploit African Americans in the name of science. An example of this is the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male conducted by the Public Health Service and funded by the government. The motive of the study was to determine treatment strategies for syphilis. 600 black men enrolled in the study, 399 with syphilis, and the remainder without. The men were told they were being treated for an ailment, "bad blood." Instead, they received no treatment or diagnosis for their syphilis and the scientists observed their disease progression over many years. The study was terminated in 1972, and in 1974 a $10 million settlement was paid out to members of the study. But the damage was done. Men who participated in the study died, went blind, and succumbed to insanity. To this day, medical mistrust is propagated within the Black community due to the Tuskegee Study.
The Tuskegee Study does not stand alone in the narrative of Black people as research subjects. Dr. James Marion Sims, the "Father of Modern Gynecology," performed heinous experimental surgeries on black women slaves without anesthetic. Sims wasn't the best doctor, after killing his first two patients, he moved to Alabama and began tending to slaves. One of Sim's "patients" underwent 30 surgeries before he was able to repair her vaginal fistula. Sim's questionable experimentation is not only criticized by contemporary scientists but by many doctors of his time.
The scientific and medical communities owe a great deal of gratitude to Black Americans who enabled experimentation without their consent. Henrietta Lacks's story is well known due to a book and an HBO documentary detailing how her cells have contributed to billions of dollars' worth of biomedical science discoveries. Henrietta Lacks was a Black cervical cancer patient at John Hopkins University in the 1950s. A biopsy of her tumor was sent to a tissue culture lab, and scientists discovered Henrietta's cells were unique. They proliferated quickly and did not die like other cervical cancer samples. Henrietta's cells were named HeLa cells. They have been used to develop Polio and HPV vaccines and are widely utilized in biomedical research to this day. Knowledge about Henrietta's cells angered her sons. How could their mother's cells be bought and sold without their permission? Henrietta's family lived in poverty. Why had they seen no financial gain?
Think that racism in science is a thing of the past? Sadly, no. Today, clinical trials are often racially charged. A 2018 study found that health professionals were more likely to perform clinical trials that don't require consent, such as testing new CPR techniques and heart attack treatments, on Black patients. Also, minorities are frequently overlooked from potential life-saving cancer clinical trials.
Racial bias in research
The reference human genome blatantly favors Caucasian DNA sequences over other races. In 2001, George W. Bush halted the creation of new stem cell lines, limiting the ethnic diversity of stem cell research for eight years. In tech, face recognition software and self-driving cars perceive light skin with better accuracy. Science can absolutely be racially biased, and so can its funding. A major bias blunder that comes to mind in research funding is the inaction of the U.S. government during the AIDs epidemic. The disease, which mostly affected the gay and black communities, went largely ignored by the Regan administration. The federal government was slow to mount a response to the new virus, but when white children began contracting HIV through blood transfusions, financial support and prevention initiatives increased.
Racism in Academic Research
Racism in biomedical science is not exclusive to history. Black people and other minority groups are underrepresented in the sciences. Six percent of science Ph.D. holders are Black, a third of which hail from HBCUs. Academia, we can do better. We need to ask ourselves why this is. If we identify the routes of racism in science, we can fight it.
Firstly, we need more minority professors in higher education. I have earned a B.S., M.S., and am currently in my fourth year of my PhD, and I have yet to be taught by a Black science professor. Minority professors face a pay gap and are less likely to earn tenure. Secondly, higher education should cultivate a culture of inclusivity rather than striving to hit diversity quotas. It is not enough to get women and minorities into science; the academic environment must adapt to support their success. Lastly, if we want more scientists of color in America, we should provide the same quality of education to all children and erase the enormous disparities within our public-school system.
This post is by no means a comprehensive review of racism in STEM. As a multiracial woman who passes as white, I have not experienced discrimination due to my skin color. I cannot speak to the experiences of my Black friends and collogues, but I do stand with them. I believe racism is a beast that takes many forms. Regardless of your profession and field, you can stand against racism. I implore you to educate yourself and others about the reality of race in America, even if it is uncomfortable.
The barrier for science in higher education is high. The height of that barrier shrinks when you are privileged enough to have connections, early exposure to scientific opportunities, the ability to intern for free, and nepotism. As members of an esoteric practice, we can help shrink the barrier for the next generation. STEM education outreach programs, mentoring, and participating in science communication initiatives are all ways that you can help improve underrepresentation in science. Interested in STEM education outreach? There are many organizations devoted to increasing diversity in STEM:
Skype a Scientist
500 Women Scientists
National Society of Black Engineers (NBSE)