White Coats, Black Scientists

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HBR Staff/RobertoDavid/Getty Images/National Archives/Tuskegee Syphilis Study

Scientists often consider their work and their institutions unbiased. After all, scientists rely on a rigorous set of experiments to test hypotheses and arrive at conclusions that inform what the rest of us know to be facts in the world.

And yet history demonstrates how scientific practices have been used to justify systemic racism. Further, the exclusion of Black scientists from institutions, the failure to recognize contributions of Black scientists, and the lack of culturally relevant scientific curricula perpetuates the underrepresentation of Black people and their perspectives in science.

The racial/ethnic disparities in rates of infections and deaths from Covid-19 exposes these long-standing systemic injustices in scientific research, health care, and medicine. Biases are prevalent across all industries and institutions, including scientific ones. Unless scientists and scientific institutions change course — unless science recognizes how past racist scholarship continues to inform present research, and unless it directly addresses racism within its institutions — scientists will fail to ensure the health and well-being of large populations of people.

Connecting Past and Present Forms of Racism in Science 

Although it is clear that past scientific research was rooted in overt racist beliefs, many scientists continue to overlook how they continue to build on these practices in our latest innovations in scientific industries.

For example, eugenics, now broadly condemned as form of pseudoscience, strived to improve the human race by the reproduction of individuals with desirable traits and sterilization of those with undesirable qualities. This philosophy, in part, gave rise to the idea of an Aryan race and the subsequent genocide of more than 6 million Jewish people. Yet despite its declining popularity, highly ranked scientific publications continue to publish works that reinforce notions of race-based differences in intelligence and aggression (later retracted). Further, the legacy of racist science is evident in the fact that individuals continue to hold beliefs that there are racial differences in a range of aspects including pain tolerance and sexual objectification.

The egregious violence used against Black people by police in the U.S. is paralleled in science, too. The Tuskegee Syphilis Study observed untreated syphilis in nearly 600 Black men for 40 years to develop a vaccine for the virus. The majority of the Black men were left untreated, creating hardships for multiple generations.

The idea that Black people’s bodies are expendable is what led to the implementation of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study in the first place and has not escaped the minds of scientists today. For example, two French scientists casually suggested that experimentation to determine the effectiveness of a tuberculosis vaccine against Covid-19 should take place in Africa. According to one of the researchers:

“If I can be provocative, shouldn’t we be doing this study in Africa, where there are no masks, no treatments, no resuscitation? A bit like as it is done elsewhere for some studies on AIDS. In prostitutes, we try things because we know that they are highly exposed and that they do not protect themselves.”

Their casual suggestion to experiment with populations on the African continent demonstrates how Black people have and continue to be violated by scientific studies.

Although some Black people’s biological tissues have created health care breakthroughs (i.e., Henrietta Lacks’ HeLa cells), these discoveries have done little to advance the well-being and livelihood of Black people on a day-to-day basis. And while current teaching of the Tuskegee Syphylis Study and Henrietta Lacks focuses on the need for scientists to engage in ethical research practices regarding participants’ consent, barriers to safe, consenting, and beneficial scientific practices within Black communities remain intact. Racism, therefore, has the potential to also exclude Black people from beneficial scientific work.

In particular, longstanding racist ideologies and practices undermine the significance of diversity for safe clinical trials. In addition to individuals’ sex and gender, the efficacy and safety of drugs frequently depend on a patient’s ethnic and racial background. ACE-inhibitors used to treat hypertension, for example, are less effective in Black patients compared to white patients, emphasizing the importance of ethnicity for developing therapeutics. Unfortunately, Black people continue to be underrepresented in clinical trials, despite their higher death rate from diseases such as cancer.

There are many barriers to minority participation in clinical trials, including a lack of information about and awareness of clinical trials, discomfort with the process, time and resource constraints, and mistrust of medical professionals in the Black community. There has been some progress: To counteract these barriers, Bristol Myers Squibb (where Dr. Ileka works) and other pharmaceutical companies have committed hundreds of millions of dollars to increasing participation in clinical trials from historically underserved communities. These efforts are extraordinarily important today: It is critical to include Black people in the Covid-19 vaccine clinical trials given that Black Americans are twice as likely to die and five times as likely to be hospitalized from the virus compared to white people. Restoring trust and humanizing Black people’s inclusion in clinical trials are necessary to ensure the large-scale effectiveness of any vaccine.

Examining Systemic Racism in Scientific Institutions

Establishing a deep knowledge of science’s racist history — and how it informs present-day scientific practices — is the first step to making effective and sustainable changes. The next is to question how this history and these practices have informed the institutions, like schools and scientific journals, that perpetuate harm and marginalization of Black people. The aforementioned examples are not isolated instances of “unethical” scientific practices, but symptoms of a larger issue within the scientific community that fails to recognize Black people as human and as contributors to scientific advancement.

Just recently, for example, a well-known chemist published an essay on factors that influence how the field of organic synthesis continues to develop. In it, he argued that efforts to promote diversity have prioritized inclusion of certain groups of people at the expense of meritocracy, leading to a detriment of innovation in the field. More troubling is the fact that this essay was published in Angewandte Chemie, International Edition, a high-profile chemistry journal. To many, the essay undermined the years of effort geared towards diversifying the chemistry community. To others, particularly those who have been historically marginalized in chemistry, the essay was yet another reminder of the never-ending fight to be included into the scientific community.

The journal quickly removed the essay and began an investigation of how it passed the peer review process, as have others in psychology, economics, and other fields. In a strong statement of solidarity, 16 members of Angewandte Chemie’s editorial board (including Nobel Laureates and other top researchers in the field) stepped down. Since its publication, several scholars have responded to reinforce the value of diversity and inclusion in the sciences.

Even so, biases like these held by scientists make it difficult to recruit and retain Black scientists. These biases begin in K-12 education, and these experiences, coupled with ineffective mentorship and a lack of visible Black scientists as role models, pose additional challenges to inspire future Black scientists to join the field.

Higher education, too, is brimming with exclusionary practices that further discourage Black students from pursuing STEM degrees. Intro level “weed out” courses only promote a select few “talented” students at the expense of cultivating a safe environment for students to learn and grow. Once Black students enter graduate-level programs, they are often the only one, compounding experiences of tokenism and isolation in a demanding field.

Dismantling Systemic Racism in Scientific Institutions

Although there are many challenges that must be addressed, there are some basic strategies that those in powerful positions can do to increase the equity and inclusion of Black scientists. And like any organization, scientific institutions must take intentional, strategic action to advance racial equity in their communities and practice. We identify several ways that individuals in different roles throughout scientific organizations can dismantle racism.

Lab Directors, Editors, and Principal Investigators. Similar to leaders of any organization, lab directors, journal editors, and principal investigators (PIs) have the power to shape the culture, conversations, and research practices. They can begin with their own research tools (e.g., the scientific method) to arrive at their solution for dismantling systemic racism.

First, acknowledge the problems. To start, there are too few Black scientists in the STEM field relative to their population in the world, and they are having qualitatively different experiences than members of other racial groups. There is also an overrepresentation of white scientists publishing research on race in top journals and teaching in general science classrooms. This teaching, beginning in science classes from K-12 and continuing through higher education, are generally taught from the lens of a white instructor with curriculum based on mostly white/European scientific contributions. Limiting the production of and the dissemination of knowledge from a white majority narrows our scope of scientific discovery and may not engage all students.

Second, interrogate why these problems exist. Beyond the “pipeline” argument, other reasons include deeply held biases of incompetence that may prohibit leaders from selecting Black scientists to join their labs and publish papers, or perceiving that Black researchers are only interested in diversity issues as opposed to scientific work. These presumptions can lead to discounting the work of Black scientists and stall their career progression.

Third, develop robust experiments to test and design solutions to these problems. We offer a few ideas below:

  • Encourage and initiate specific conversations about race as it pertains to your organization beyond unconscious bias training. This requires that leaders first learn and know how race and racism is present in their everyday work.
  • Once leaders are aware of their biases, they can create guidelines aimed at the inclusion of Black scientists. For editors, this may include diversifying their reviewers, having clear standards for publication, and editors addressing racism in scientific research.
  • PIs can confront their own racial biases by placing Black scientists on challenging assignments. To ensure that the assignments are challenging and not designed to weed them out, lab directors can provide ample resources, create and normalize failure as part of the process, and provide feedback that facilitates growth and development.
  • Incorporate diversity into science curricula including culturally relevant pedagogy and highlighting the contributions of Black scientists.
  • Partner with Black scientists on research and diversity work. Rather than assuming that Black scientists are less interested in the scientific work, you can shoulder the responsibility of calling attention to everyday racism, systemic inequities, and ongoing racial violence that affects Black people. Vocally advocating for Black workers in their absence and creating opportunities to develop resources are clear forms of partnerships that PIs can take.
  • Support the various motivations that draw Black students into science fields, such as the desire to be role models for the next generation, by encouraging participation in outreach programs while pursuing advanced degrees.

Finally, evaluate the “successes” of these experiments to determine next steps as an organization. Unlike traditional experiments, the results of building a racially inclusive environment may appear more ambiguous than a numeric result. Some starter questions include: Am I creating room for Black scientists in each phase of the research process? Are Black scientists being heard and taken seriously in this institution? How can we make sustainable changes that leads to equitable treatment and inclusion of Black scientists?

Devoting more attention and support to Black people who are doing the science will generate a more inclusive environment and likely facilitate more discoveries.

Recruiters and Hiring Managers. Black people are severely underrepresented in STEM. The lack of Black scientists is often attributed to the “leaky pipeline,” but relying on inequitable and unjust systems to generate a diverse workforce will continuously reproduce underrepresentation of Black scientists. Merely focusing on recruiting talented Black scientists at the end of their undergraduate programs will perpetuate their underrepresentation in STEM. Black students are less likely to have access to rigorous STEM education, creating a chasm between them and their white peers at the collegiate level.

Instead, scientific institutions could collaborate with organizations designed to build a larger pipeline into STEM and to offer community for its workers, such as The National Organization for the Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE, where both Dr. Ileka and Dr. Robinson serve in leadership capacities) or The National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE).

Companies can also change the requirements necessary to work in their industries that bar individuals from securing jobs. Several tech companies no longer require college degrees for entry-level roles. These systemic changes have the potential to drastically change the demographic composition of scientists in STEM fields.

Importantly, the specific funneling of resources to hire and recruit Black scientists is vital for the effectiveness of recruiters. Vague goals to “diversify” STEM have not moved the needle on Black, Latinx, and indigenous representation. Why? One explanation may be that members of dominant groups perceive an organization to be diverse at lower levels than members of marginalized groups; that is, the diversity threshold is much lower from the perspective of White men in any given field. The subjectivity of diversity requires scientific institutions to set measurable goals for diversity. Developing active recruitment strategies — such as developing partnerships with historically Black colleges and universities, and attending and sponsoring Black and other minority-focused professional development organizations — are crucial to achieving change.

Non-Black Scientists. Scientists at every level of an organization have a role to play in advancing Black scientists. First, they must listen to and learn from Black scientists. This is starting to happen; for example, a multi-identity, intersectional coalition recently spearheaded the viral #ShutDownSTEM to stop business as usual and engage non-Black scientists in eradicating anti-Black racism. Dr. Shardé Davis and Dr. Joy Melody Woods also launched #BlackInTheIvory to spotlight the discrimination Black people experience in academia. Reading and listening to the experiences of Black scientists will help to recognize and remedy their disparate experiences in scientific institutions.

Second, non-Black scientists can become vocal allies for Black scientists’ representation and treatment in organizations. Similar to calls for white feminists to have intersectional movements, white and non-Black scientists can bring attention to the dismal numbers of Black scientists in their organizations instead of solely focusing on their own groups’ representation in senior leadership roles. Turning their attention to processes and structures that perpetuate the underrepresentation of Black employees may also inform why white women and Asian-identified persons encounter a glass/bamboo ceiling in STEM professions (e.g., presumed incompetence). Collective action is a powerful tool to enact change, as evidenced by the actions of editorial board members for the Angewandte Chemie journal. Employee resource groups and affinity groups are a great place to build alliances to dismantle structures that marginalize Black scientists.

Third, scientists must continually evaluate the dehumanizing components of their work. Although it is important to have diverse samples for clinical trials, it is equally important to not consider Black people as disposable test subjects in the development of vaccines and scientific advancement. Building trust with Black communities by partnering with community-based organizations can increase accountability and responsibility of scientific research. Taking a balanced, racially equitable view of research can help scientists shape a research agenda that includes Black people as well-informed participants as well as investigators.

In addition to the rigors of scientific experimentation, scientist at all levels must do additional work to ensure that their science does not perpetuate racism of any kind. As scientific innovations continue to grow at an exponential rate, following these recommendations will help foster a world where everyone can benefit from groundbreaking scientific advancement.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that some control patients were purposefully infected as part of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. The article has been updated and we regret the error.

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