Opinion: The Politics of Science and Racism

Race has been used to segment humanity and, by extension, establish and enforce a hierarchy in science. Individual and institutional commitments to racial justice in the sciences must involve political activity.

Sadye Paez, and Erich D. Jarvis
Aug 18, 2020


The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Riah Milton, and many other Black people have once again created an awareness of the systemic racism that is endemic in the United States of America and in many other parts of the world. In the US, this virus has been receiving long-term treatment via the emancipation of slaves in the 1800s and the ongoing civil rights movement since the 1900s. But it has not been cured. For example, over the course of a lifetime, 1 in every 1,000 Black men are at risk of fatal police violence compared with 1 in every 2,500 white men. Most recently, George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis has increased support for the Black Lives Matter movement across political party affiliations, age, education, and race. This has spurred people around the world to march in protest, to display messages of racial solidarity on social media, and to send government leaders’ emails and voicemails with calls for change. This civil unrest has extended to nearly every facet of American life, including to university campuses in the form of #ShutDownSTEM, #ShutDownAcademia, #Strike4BlackLives, and other awareness and action campaigns.

But stark shifts in public opinion often dissipate, curtailing momentum on well-intentioned policies to address the centuries of racism in our societies. In short, civil unrest in the US tends to be episodic. In his last opinion piece, the late Representative John Lewis, among the original 13 Freedom Riders and the youngest speaker in the first March on Washington in 1963, urged us to continue to get in “good trouble, necessary trouble,” through voting and participation in the democratic process, studying and learning the lessons of history, and answering the highest calling of our hearts by standing up for what we believe.

In 2017, we participated in the first March for Science, defending our belief in science, the need for science funding, and for the research enterprise as a trusted and essential institution. Civil unrest and protests were urgent, given a legislative climate seemingly bent on undermining science. But should scientists and science advocates also voice political views in matters of race and racism? Should our institutes of higher learning take responsibility to right the history of white supremacy in academia? The answer for many is an obvious yes. Then, how do we translate the evidence of these racial issues to effect tangible actions towards a future of antiracism in the Western scientific enterprise?

A history of racism in science

Science and racism have been bedfellows since the inception of the Western scientific enterprise, where many in Western culture made the assumption that whites were superior, a position supported by spurious, pseudoscientific evidence or simply considered a self-evident truth. Membership to the UK’s Royal Academy—founded in 1660, making it one of the first scientific academies in Europe—was restricted to economically independent, upper-class white men, citing other races’ lack of mental or moral capacity, which compromised their ability to conduct research without bias. In 1775, the first edition of a race-based classification of humans established a framework using the shape of the skull, skin color, and other physical attributes that was used for the next 100 years to establish and maintain social and economic inequality. Some scientists claimed so-called evidence of fitness—narrowly defined as an individual’s wealth, intelligence, or criminality—based on one’s genes. Others even crafted hypotheses that positioned humans of different races as different species. 

In neuroscience, our area of research, the term neocortex is in part based on some of this false evidence of racial differences. Beginning more than 120 years ago with comparative neurobiology’s patriarchs such as Ludwig Edinger, some of the evidence used to justify calling it “new cortex” was that it was present only in mammals, and among mammals, it was largest in Europeans, followed by Asians, then Africans, and lastly in nonhuman primates. These scientists reinterpreted Darwin’s view of evolution as linear instead of tree-like and wrongly imbued the process of evolution with a purpose—namely, the generation of European men—instead of being stochastic. We now know that different vertebrate lineages (e.g., birds and mammals) have independently evolved different, relatively recent organizations of the cortex, whose size is more in line with differences in body size, and that there is no systematic difference in cortex size or intelligence among different populations of humans.

False measures of acumen and competence were based on an arbitrary social, political, and economic construct, namely, race, the definition of which has changed throughout the centuries in response to bureaucratic priorities (e.g., economics, war, education, jobs, immigration, etc.). But, there is no race chromosome, race gene, or other biological basis of race. Genetic variation between different populations is more continuous, where the average genetic differences between individuals from disparate human populations is only approximately 3–5 percent between unrelated individuals from a single population. Genes for specific phenotypic traits, such as skin color, muscle mass, and predisposition to heart disease, do not necessarily cluster with each other or by racial groups. Additionally, so-called ethnic groups have been continuously changing through admixture, such that a European of today does not contain the same genetic make-up, thus ethnicity, of a European 5,000 years ago. 

Test differences in intelligence quotient (IQ) between Black and white people were first attributed to as yet unquantified genetic differences. Some contemporary scholars have made the same mistake, arguing that Black people are inherently intellectually inferior to white people. Yet, IQ tests were initially standardized in white, middle-class samples and were never intended to measure native, practical, or emotional intelligence, or creativity. This was bad science. Nonetheless, this thinking sanctioned eugenics as a method to improve the human race, attempting to legitimize educational discrimination on the basis of not only race, color, and national origin, but also sex, disability, and age. By condoning racism in the Western scientific enterprise, any history of scientific excellence is marred, and without an intentional pivot towards antiracism, we will continue to deepen this erroneous hierarchy. As is the case with any entrenched dogma, established ideas within science can be onerous to overturn, even in the presence of overwhelming evidence. 

The present and future of antiracism in science

So, what should modern scientists and institutions of science do about racism? 

Broadly, scientists often consider themselves to be neutral and separate from direct action in bureaucratic affairs. In its ideal state, science should minimize bias and maximize objectivity, regardless of political or personal agenda. However, science and the evidence it generates can be political, partisan, and polarizing. Empiricism, our sense-experiences and observations, dates back to the 17th and 18th centuries. Even earlier, Aristotle saw politics as a scientific inquiry itself. The Association for American Scientific Workers, founded in the 1930s, invited scientists to become directly involved in civic and social issues, such as opposing the Vietnam War.

In voicing views in matters of race and racism, we propose that scientists must consider and advocate for the intersectionality of evidence and politics. The content of our character as individuals and as institutions will be judged by what we do at this historical juncture. Generations to come will remember whether we, as a scientific collective, are willing to testify to and confront our biases, our troubling history, and our complacency in how systemic racism is deeply embedded in the ivory towers. We regard continued silence and apathetic posturing as complicity, regardless of intention. In one of his very first public speeches, Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “We have no alternative but to protest.” Those words still ring true today.

What we believe is needed is a complete, transparent, and radical transformation in all branches of science, including academia, industry, funding agencies, and among administration and operations staff. We believe this antiracism revolution should not only create more inclusive and equitable campuses and companies for Black members and other minority groups but also serve as a model for our nonscience communities and other institutions.

This transformation should be grounded in the very ethics of science, which argues that hypotheses must be supported by empirical evidence. Thus, as modern scientists, we must align our morals and behaviors with the evidence. Current policies, even well-intentioned ones, are unfortunately maintaining the long-standing status quo of disparities in recruitment, retention, and promotion of Black students and faculty, particularly in STEM fields. Professors and students of color have had to find ways to survive as underrepresented minorities in science, developing adaptive responses to micro- and macro-aggressions in everyday experiences as scientists.

We argue that these survival skills for a particular group should not be necessary for success. To eliminate the need for these tactics, first we need to be made aware of them, and second we need to take urgent action to abolish the barriers that gave birth to them. We believe that these actions should include: leadership and accountability within academic institutions, departments, and laboratories enacting specific antiracism policies; diversity and inclusion forums to discuss evidence to increase awareness and explore solutions; and ongoing evaluation in all aspects of training, scholarship, service to the community, and promotion to eradicate implicit biases involving race.

For example, Boards of Trustees and administrators could use their platforms to lead by example in educating themselves (TEDx Talks, podcasts, books, etc.), diversifying their demographics, and enforcing zero tolerance policies on discrimination, xenophobia, and racism. By addressing racialized structures and practices in our conversations and campuses, leadership can actively create welcoming conditions and supportive environments to address equity gaps in opportunities, outcomes, and funding.

Further, we should reconstruct an evidence-based pedagogy of the history of science, attributing accolades accurately. Many contributions of Black people, other people of color, and women have been attributed to others, usually a lone, white male, or essentially erased altogether. At the other end of the spectrum, it would also be a mistake to dampen or disparage fair credit for the discoveries and contributions of white men. By consistently challenging and redefining the definition of white as the norm for humanity and for science, with people of color as deviations, our intentions will translate as tangible actions toward a complete, transparent, and radical transformation for racial justice.

When Frederick Douglass argued, “Tried by all the usual, and all the unusual tests, whether mental, moral, physical, or psychological, the Negro is a MAN,” this idea threatened the foundation of white supremacy and, by association, science. To make important advancements, scientists routinely challenge conventional thinking and defy long-held concepts of the physical and moral laws believed to govern our planet, its inhabitants, and the universe. It is this defiance that allowed humans to land on the moon, create a surrogate for northern white rhinos, eradicate smallpox, and construct a mobile phone with more computing power than a PC. Why should we stop at curing ourselves and our institutions of racism? It is the one sickness that unequivocally impacts our present and future ability to live in a perfect union where all humans—all scientists—are created and treated as equal without fearing for their life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Sadye Paez is a biomechanist and physiotherapist who leads science communication, outreach, and fundraising efforts as a senior research associate in Erich Jarvis’s Neurogenetics of Language Laboratory at the Rockefeller University and as the program director for the Vertebrate Genomes Project (VGP). Follow her on Twitter @sadyepaez and @genomeark. In addition to heading the Neurogenetics of Language Laboratory, Erich Jarvis is a professor, chair of the VGP, and investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Jarvis also serves on The Scientist’s editorial advisory board. Follow him on Twitter @erichjarvis.

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