Open Letter
An Open Letter: Scientists and Racial Justice
Open Letter
An Open Letter: Scientists and Racial Justice

An Open Letter: Scientists and Racial Justice

What we can and must do to make science more equitable.

Joseph Graves and Erich D. Jarvis
Jun 19, 2020

ABOVE: © ISTOCK.COM, LJUBAPHOTO

The unjust killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, amplified by the health disparities of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ethnic disparities of the political climate, have shined a spotlight on historical and ongoing institutional racism in America. Many professional scientific organizations, such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, March For Science, the Society for the Study of Evolution, Society for Neuroscience, and Sigma Xi have published statements opposing it. But statements have little impact unless actions result from them. Determining the most effective actions requires understanding the concept of institutional racism. 

Institutional racism means that established structures within a society are infused with racial/racist ideology and practices. This includes the “enterprise” of science, which can be separated from the “method” of science. The scientific method is an objective means to better understand nature, whereas the scientific enterprise is a reflection of society's values and decides whose interests are represented in the formulation of research questions and directions. American history shows that science, like other enterprises, has been mainly directed towards fulfilling the interests of persons of European descent: “whites.” This has resulted in the historical and ongoing underrepresentation of blacks in the sciences. Other racially subordinated minorities (RSMs) face these issues (e.g., brown and red people*). Here we describe the timeline of racial subordination in America in the context of the growth of modern science and the research university.

If you would like to sign on to this open letter, please email Editor in Chief Bob Grant (rgrant@the-scientist.com) to add your name and affiliation to a list of signatories that will appear on this page.

De jure segregation was still in place when African American scientists began to enter historically white research universities in noticeable numbers in the mid-20th century. Ironically, many of these institutions owed their start directly to profits generated by the slave trade. The majority of those in the first wave of black scientists, however, received their undergraduate degrees at historically black universities—institutions that were not founded from black perspectives or agendas, but rather more as social palliatives to help maintain America’s system for separation of the races and white supremacy.

In the early 1970s, acknowledging that there was a great disparity between the percentage of RSMs in the US workforce (13 percent) and their representation in science careers (2 percent), the scientific community began to intervene. Federal science funding agencies spent ~$1.5 billion on RSM-focused STEM programs from 1972 to 1992, in what were then called affirmative action programs, including the National Institutes of Health’s Minority Biomedical Research Support and Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) programs, from which one of us (E.D.J.) directly benefited.

Although well-intentioned and producing some individual success stories, these programs did not achieve broader success in diversifying the scientific work force. Problems included insufficient oversight and assessment, poor commitment from leading faculty, inconsistent funding, lack of comprehension of behavioral/psychological impacts on student learning, recruitment of many unprepared students, and insufficient attention to the entire K–12-through-university pipeline. The oversight/assessment issue has been largely solved, and progress has been made in other arenas. But more work is needed.

Helping to stymie this progress, in the 1990s the US Supreme Court made it harder to demonstrate that discrimination against racial minorities was taking place, and more difficult to demonstrate that affirmative action policies were not harming white Americans. Ideological justifications for “race-blindness” in admissions and lawsuits claiming supposed “reverse discrimination” followed. While most of these complaints came against professional law and medical school programs, they affected other government programs in STEM. It is notable that MARC now stands for Maximizing Access to Research Careers.

We would be naive to think that racial/racist ideology is not playing a role in maintaining this injustice. This raises the question: What can people of good will do about this?

Colorblind racism and implicit bias continue to influence science careers. Colorblind racism argues that non-racial factors such as economics, naturally occurring phenomena, and the cultural attitudes of RSMs are the main cause of their social subordination. Closely aligned to colorblind racism is implicit bias. This occurs when an individual has a preference for (or aversion to) specific groups of people. This often results from ascribing stereotypes to a group without conscious knowledge of doing so. It has been argued that implicit bias plays a significant role in hindering RSMs’ success in science. In 2015, data indicated that from 1985 to 2013, RSMs were 10 to 22 percent less likely to receive a Research Award 01 (R01) grant from the NIH. This report ignited a firestorm of controversy, especially since there is still little data available to address whether this resulted from the implicit bias of reviewers or other factors. If one asks RSM researchers, most will agree from their experience that implicit bias against them has either harmed their career or made it more difficult.

One 2019 study presented data that seemingly countered that perception. Researchers reviewed a sample of R01 grant applications using a well-established implicit bias testing experimental protocol and found no evidence of racial bias, but did find gender bias. However, the “ethnic name” methods of this experiment can be questioned. For example, the use of supposed “black-sounding” names—“Darnell,” “LaToya”—may not be fully capturing the means by which RSM researchers are discriminated against. Clearly more studies are required before we can accurately assess whether this force is currently working against RSM success in the science community. Another recent study demonstrated ongoing disparities in NIH R01 awards and linked this to the practice of combining criterion scores into impact scores that disadvantaged black applicants.

Some fields are making progress towards improving diversity and inclusion in the scientific community over the last two decades. This progress has been slow, but noticeable. As noted, E.D.J. received important help from such diversity programs, but this assistance was necessary to counter the obstacles he faced in science as an African American. As reported by one of us (J.G.), the outstanding results of the BEACON (Bio/computational Evolution in Action CONsortium) Center for the Study of Evolution in Action, a National Science Foundation Science and Technology Center, are directly tied to the executive committee’s intentional mission to address diversity and inclusion. BEACON’s leadership team included three RSMs and four women in a group of 13 individuals. Progress has also come in the form of organizations such as National Research Mentoring Network, the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students, The Black Women in Computational Biology Network, and the coalescence of groups united by social media, such as #BlackInSTEM.

Changing the demography of the scientific community may also allow us to transform the enterprise of science. Specifically, there is a crucial need to address how racial/racist ideology persists within our research programs. Examples of how racist ideology influences the biomedical and behavioral sciences are well studied but probably less known. Other cases of racial bias are beginning to emerge in other disciplines, such as computer science, where one would have hardly thought this was possible. There is now a growing literature revealing how racial bias inherent in data training sets used in artificial intelligence (AI) can introduce racial bias in AI’s outcomes.

The killing of George Floyd has revealed a deep and recalcitrant racism within American society. It permeates all of our institutions. The demography of science still lags behind the representation of RSMs in society. We would be naive to think that racial/racist ideology is not playing a role in maintaining this injustice. This raises the question: What can people of good will do about this?

Some of the answers are obvious, such as taking a stand against societal assaults on the wellbeing of RSM communities. However, others may not be so obvious, such as examining the practices within your own institution that may still harbor implicit bias against RSMs; rethinking the notion that a colorblind approach is the best way to train students and treat colleagues; deeply listening to and learning from your colleagues from RSM communities; and examining your own work and practice for any implicit racial bias. Certainly, scientists alone cannot transform societies mired in racism, but we can and must do our part to help.

Joseph Graves is a professor of biological sciences at North Carolina A&T State University and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Erich D. Jarvis is a professor in the Laboratory of Neurogenetics of Language at the Rockefeller University and is an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. They are both members of The Scientist’s editorial advisory board. You can find them on twitter @gravesjl55 and @erichjarvis.

If you would like to sign on to this open letter, please email Editor in Chief Bob Grant (rgrant@the-scientist.com) to add your name and affiliation to a list of signatories that will appear on this page.

* This commentary uses color-scheme language throughout to describe racial/ethnic groups. This is because most readers are not used to thinking about the social definitions of race and the various anthropological titles and arbitrary euphemisms associated with them. Thus, we use the principle of parallelism for racial/ethnic terms, privileging no group over the others, as described in the preface of J.L. Graves, 2005.

Resources

1.       K. Ture (formerly known as Stokely Carmichael), C.V. Hamilton, Black Power: Politics of Liberation, Vintage Press, 1992 (originally published in 1967).

2.       J.L. Graves, The Emperor’s New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium, Rutgers University Press, 2005.

3.       J.L. Graves, “African Americans in evolutionary science: Where we have been and what’s next,” Evol Ed Outreach 12:18, 2019.

4.       R. Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, Beacon Press, 2014.

5.       P. Dray, At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America, Random House, 2002.

6.       C.S. Wilder, Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, Bloomsbury Press, 2013.

7.       L.M. Harris et al., (eds.), Slavery and the University: Histories and Legacies, University of Georgia Press, 2019. 

8.       W.E.B. Du Bois, “The Field and Function of the Negro College” (1933), in The Education of Black People: Ten Critiques, 1906—1960, ed. H. Aptheker, Monthly Review Press, 1973.

9.       C. Sims, “What went wrong: Why programs failed,” Science, 258:1185–87, 1992.

10.     J.J. Snyder et al. “Peer-led team learning helps minority students succeed,” PLOS Biol, 14:e1002398, 2016.

11.     Y. Irizarry, “Selling students short: Racial differences in teachers’ evaluations of high, average, and low performing students,” Soc Sci Res, 52:522–38, 2015.

12.     M. Strasser, “The invidiousness of invidiousness: On the Supreme Court’s affirmative action jurisprudence,” Hastings Const LQ, 21:323, 1994.

13.     D. O’neil Green, “Fighting the battle for racial diversity: A case study of Michigan’s institutional response to Gratz and Grutter,” Educ Policy,18:733–51, 2004. 

14.     J.L. Graves, “Why the nonexistence of biological races does not mean the nonexistence of racism,” Am Behav Sci, 59:1474–95,  2015.

15.     J.L. Eberhardt et al., “Looking deathworthy: Perceived stereotypicality of black defendants predicts capital-sentencing outcomes,” Psychol Sci, 17:383–86, 2006.

16.     E. Check Hayden, “Racial bias continues to haunt NIH grants,” Nature, 527:286–87, 2015. 

17.     P.S. Forscher et al., “Little race or gender bias in an experiment of initial review of NIH R01 grant proposals,” Nat Hum Behav, 3:257–64, 2019.

18.     C. Kolehmainen, M. Carnes, “Who resembles a scientific leader-Jack or Jill? How implicit bias could influence research grant funding,” Circulation, 137:769–70, 2018.

19.     W. Banzhaf et al., (eds.), Evolution in Action—Past, Present, and Future, Springer International Publishing, 2020, pp. 3–18. 

20.     L.E. Gómez, N. López (eds.), Mapping “Race”: Critical Approaches to Health Disparities Research, Rutgers University Press, 2013.

21.     J. Zou, L. Schiebinger, “AI can be sexist and racist—it’s time to make it fair,” Nature, 559:324–26, 2018.

22.     E.A. Erosheva et al., “NIH peer review: Criterion scores completely account for racial disparities in overall impact scores,” Sci Adv, 6:eaaz4868, 2020.

23.     E.D. Jarvis, “Surviving as an underrepresented minority scientist in a majority environment,” Mol Biol of the Cell, 26:3692–96, 2017.

Signatories of this open letter:

Paul Turner, Yale University

Eduardo Rosa-Molinar, The University of Kansas

Michael J. Proulx, University of Bath

Steve W.C. Chang, Yale University

Keith Gary, Bionexus KC

Misha Angrist, Duke University

Sakina E. Eltom, Meharry Medical College

James Shorter, University of Pennsylvania

Catherine A. Vandevoort, University of California, Davis

John Lee, University of Georgia (emeritus)

Christophe Thébaud, University of Toulouse

Siobhan A. Baybrook, University of California, Los Angeles

Sarah M. Tashjian, California Institute of Technology

Charmaine D.M. Royal, Duke University

Shahzad S. Khan, Stanford University

Liliana M. Dávalos, Stony Brook University

Gregory P. Copenhaver, University of North Carolina

Shanker P. Reddy, United States Department of Agriculture

Joel D. Levine, University of Toronto Mississauga

Pamela A. Raymond, University of Michigan

Kaela Singleton, Emory University

Martin Stervander, University of Oregon

T. Lee Gilman, Kent State University

Damien Fair, University of Minnesota

Daniel Vogt, Michigan State University

Mush Khan,  Medical University of South Carolina

Peter Lipke, Brooklyn College of City University of New York

Susan Perlman, University in St. Louis

Tara Smith, Kent State University

Jason E. Stajich, University of California, Riverside

Robert Brodman, Buena Vista University

Dana Dudle, DePauw University

Michael Hendricks, McGill University

Annie Ly, University of Colorado Boulder

Jibran Y. Khokhar, University of Guelph

Julian P. Meeks, University of Rochester

Aimee Shen, Tufts University

Randall Hayes, Agnosia Media

Patricia Graham, University of Maryland, College Park

Adriana Briscoe, University of California, Irvine

Kamilla Venner, University of New Mexico

Katie Witkiewitz, University of New Mexico

R. Haven Wiley, University of North Carolina

Matthew Lovett-Barron, University of California, San Diego

Austin A. Coley, The Salk Institute for Biological Sciences

Louise S. Mead, Michigan State University

Nicholas W. Gale, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals

Jan Zimmermann, University of Minnesota

Carlos Botero, Washington University in St. Louis

Kaliris Y. Salas-Ramirez, The City College of New York

Nora Mitchell, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire

Christopher C. Witt, University of New Mexico

Alvin Holder, Old Dominion University

Eve Rosenfeld, University of Buffalo

Emily Weigel, Georgia Institute of Technology

Olivier George, University of California, San Diego

Sevinc Ercan, New York University

Penny Shockett, Southeastern Louisiana University

Nathaniel K. Jue, California State University, Monterey Bay

Carmen S. Maldonado-Vlaar, University of Puerto Rico

John Alsobrook, Adaptive Biotechnologies

Susana M. Wadgymar, Davidson University

Miles Berger, Duke University

Christopher S. Willett, University of North Carolina

Andrew Iwaniuk, University of Lethbridge

Carly D. Kenkel, University of Southern California

Andrea E. Martin, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics

Jim Heys, University of Utah

Katie Schroeder, University of Massachusetts

Kelsey Martin, University of California, Los Angeles

Christopher Lowry, University of Colorado Boulder

Deanna Church, Inscripta

Carlos de Cabo de la Vega, Universitario de Albacete

Kara Fitzgerald, Institute for Functional Medicine

Geoffrey T. Swanson, Northwestern University

Christopher M. Bartley, University of California, San Francisco

Yuval Silberman, Penn State University

Michelle R. Caunca, University of Miami

Alexander G. Ophir, Cornell University

Debra Bangasser, Temple University

Troy A. Roepke, Rutgers University

Stephen Matheson, Cell Reports

Cindy Arrigo, New Jersey City University

Stephen N. Floor, University of California, San Francisco

Bruce A. Carlson, Washington University in St. Louis

Zoe McElligott, University of North Carolina

Michelle Ciucci, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Bill Griesar, Portland State University

Caroline Hu, Harvard University

Patrick E. Rothwell, University of Minnesota

Amanda E. Hargrove, Duke University

Tessa Montague, Columbia University

Nancy López, University of New Mexico

Carrie Partch, University of California, Santa Cruz

Brendan J. Pinto, Milwaukee Public Museum

Scott Dougan, University of Georgia

Sarah C. Woolley, McGill University

Michael A. Taffe, University of California, San Diego

Caitlilyn Allen, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Christopher Sturdy, University of Alberta

Giorgia Quadrato, University of Southern California

Howard Neilly, STEM tutor

Sadye Paez, The Rockefeller University

Dar Meshi, Michigan State University

Stanley Andrisse, Howard University

Cliff Lingwood, University of Toronto

JoAnn Trejo, University of California, San Diego

Navin Pokala , New York Institute of Technology

Alisa S. Wolberg, University of North Carolina

Michael N. Nitaback, Yale University

Georgia E. Hodes, Virginia Tech

Shannon Farris, Virginia Tech

John Fontenele Araujo, Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Norte

Agustín Fuentes, Princeton University

Julie Siegenthaler, University of Colorado, Anschutz Medical Campus

Lucas Pozzo-Miller, University of Alabama at Birmingham

Mark Peifer, University of North Carolina

Ulises Ricoy, University of Arizona

Stephen D. Shea, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

Sue Ferrara, Independent writer/researcher

Joshua Corbin, Children’s National Hospital

Michael F. Dunn, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México

Erica R. Glasper, University of Maryland

Steven A. Porcelli, Albert Einstein College of Medicine

Nathan Anthony Smith, Children’s National Hospital

Alan Goodman, Hampshire College

Kate Hertweck, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center

Benjamin Kerr, University of Washington

Jennifer A. Hamilton, Amherst College

Vaughn Cooper, University of Pittsburgh

Tony Gamble, Marquette University

Gillian P. Durham, The Rockefeller University

John Green, University of Vermont

Samuel L. Diaz Muñoz, University of California, Davis

Deborah L. Galson, University of Pittsburgh

Tom Langen, Clarkson University

Martin I. Garcia-Castro, University of California, Riverside

Lisa Komoroske, University of Massachusetts Amherst 

Diana Williams, Florida State University

Mileidy Betancourth-Cundar, Universidad de los Andes

Henry L. Bart Jr., Tulane University

Mirjam Knörnschild, Museum of Natural History Berlin

Marjorie C. Gondré-Lewis, Howard University

Stephen Machado, Oregon State University

Rae Nishi, Independent scholar 

Michelle Blyth, Tulane University

Michal Kowalewski, University of Florida

Anne M. Etgen, Albert Einstein College of Medicine (Emeritus)

Sharita R. Thomas, University of North Carolina

Andrés Hincapié, University of North Carolina

Gary M. King, Louisiana State University

Melissa L. Villodas, University of North Carolina

Kevin S. Jones, University of Michigan

Nicolas Tritsch, New York University

George M. Cherian, University of Western Ontario

Harold Gainer, Marine Biological Laboratory (Emeritus)

Michael J. Zigmond, University of Pittsburgh (Emeritus)

William F. Flack, Jr., Bucknell University

Tessa M. Andrews, University of Georgia

Lee Phillips, University of Carolina at Greensboro

Keith A. Crandall, George Washington University

Jamaine S. Davis, Meharry Medical College

Dawn Noggle, Community Medical Services

Derek Daniels, University at Buffalo

Susan Mykalcio, Cisco Systems

Peeyush K. Lala, University of Western Ontario (Emeritus)

James Liljestrand, Retired physician

Angela Fang, Massachusetts General Hospital

Eric Feczko, University of Minnesota

Mark S. Springer, University of California, Riverside

Agnès Lacreuse, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Nagamani Balagurusamy, Universidad Autónoma de Coahuila

Stuart Magoon, City of Tacoma, WA

Aylin Rodan, University of Utah

Daniel L. Gonzales, Purdue University

Remi Geohegan, University of Maine Orono

Constantina Theofanopoulou, Rockefeller University

Hector Rasgado-Flores, Rosalind Franklin University

Eric A. Webb, University of Southern California

Jon T. Sakata, McGill University

Michael S. Gaffrey, Duke University

Desmond Schatz, University of Florida

Keith A. Trujillo, California State University San Marcos

Maurine Neiman, University of Iowa

Jeannine M. Lessmann, Eckerd College

Erick Guerrero, I-LEAD Institute

Andrea L. Sweigart, University of Georgia

Rachel Luu, Immunomind

Pamela J. Lein, University of California, Davis

Warren (Lauren) Foster, McMaster University

Luke Remage-Healey, University of Massachusetts

Gail E. Christie, Virginia Commonwealth University

Mats W. Johansson, University of Wisconsin

Paul Shapiro, University of Maryland

Magdia De Jesus, Pfizer

Jessica Cantlon, Carnegie Mellon University

Janet M. Dubinsky, University of Minnesota

Hilmar Lapp, Duke University

Tristram Wyatt, University of Oxford

Jay Labov, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (retired)

Tamarind N. Stewart, North Carolina A&T State University

Steven Wiley, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Mark Sheldon, Northwestern University

Anna Fisher, Carnegie Mellon University

Marsha Bates, Rutgers University

Willie L. Davis, Loma Linda University

Connie J. Mulligan, University of Florida

Rodylyn Ferry, University of Toronto

Melanie M. Cooper, Michigan State University

Athula H. Wikramanayake, University of Miami

Mark S. Parcells, University of Delaware

Elsbeth Walker, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Arianna Maffei, Stony Brook University

Edward Levine, Vanderbilt University

Gordon Edwards, National Physical Laboratory, UK (Emeritus)

Cynthia Norton, St. Catherine University

Barbara Fingleton, Vanderbilt University

Laura Buttitta, University of Michigan

Harold Geller, George Mason University (retired)

Amy Paller, Northwestern University

Katharine A. Muirhead, SciGro

Christopher Nicchitta, Duke University

Robert Howell, West Virginia University

Susan V. Westmoreland, AbbVie

Neena Grover, Colorado College

Juliana Lott de Carvalho, University of Brasilia

Julio J. Ramirez, Davidson College

Jeff Conner, Michigan State University

Melissa Petreaca, The Ohio State University

Marlene Behrmann, Carnegie Mellon University

David L. Remington, University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Mariana Emerenciano, Instituto Nacional de Cancer (Brazil)

Mary Beth Decker, Yale University

Suzanne Scarlata, Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Steven J. Fliesler, University at Buffalo

Glenn A. Herrick, University of Utah (Emeritus)

David Andow, University of Minnesota

Abdelrahman Ibrahim Abushouk, Harvard University

Anura Rambukkana, University of Edinburgh

Walter K. Schmidt, University of Georgia

Allison E, Radwick, West Pharmaceutical Services

Valarie A. Barr

Agustin Rojas-Muñoz, Stanford University

Jenna Schardt, Allen Institute for Brain Science

Kody Manke, Carnegie Mellon University

Srinivasan Ramachandran, University of California, San Diego

Grace Williams, Allen Institute for Brain Science

Sergio Adamo, University of Rome

Lori M. Kelman, Montgomery College

Zachary A. Wood, University of Georgia

Simon H. Waters, Simon W Design

Bosiljka Tasic, Allen Institute for Brain Science

Lance Wells, University of Georgia

Bruce A. O’Gara, Humboldt State University

Rita Shiang, Virginia Commonwealth University

Denise Carbonaro Sarracino, University of California, Los Angeles

Liliane Cambraia Windsor, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Martha C. Zúñiga, University of California, Santa Cruz

Chante Cox-Boyd, Carnegie Mellon University

Abd Khasawinah, US Environmental Protection Agency (retired)

Lion Uhl, University of Oxford

Stephen Richards, University of California, Davis

Frances Skinner, Krembil Research Institute/University Health Network

David Ribble, Trinity University

Alyce DeMarais, University of Puget Sound

Lisa K. Elfring, University of Arizona

Kathleen Marrs, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis

Melissa S. Brady, College of American Pathologists

Gina M. Semprebon, Bay Path University

Kathryn G. Miller, Washington University in St. Louis

Pamela Pape-Lindstrom, Harford Community College

Erik Maronde, Goethe University

David Marcey, California Lutheran University

Christopher Parker, Texas Wesleyan University

Monica Linden, Brown University

Davida S. Smyth, The New School

Katayoun Chamany, The New School

John G. Foley, Indiana University

Christina Hirota, University of Calgary

David Weiss, University of Iowa

Donita Lynn Robinson, University of North Carolina

Alan H. McGowan, The New School

Shanker P. Reddy, US Department of Agriculture

Marit Nilsen-Hamilton, Iowa State University

Elizabeth Vallen, Swarthmore College

Jon L. Norenburg, Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History

André Fenton, New York University

Nicolette Caperello, University of California, Davis

Trygve Bakken, Allen Institute for Brain Science

Stephen A. Braimah, Pest Control Consultant

Alexandra de Sousa, Bath Spa University

Zsuzsa Kaldy, University of Massachusetts Boston