Every February since 1976 has been designated as Black History Month by the U.S. president. This year, President Joe Biden discussed the occasion by acknowledging that America has never lived up to its promise of equality.
While Biden directly spoke of issues related to the lack of equal opportunities in education, housing, work and the right to vote, there was one area of inequity often overlooked: science.
Racism has a longstanding hold in scientific fields. Along with other forms of discrimination, such as those based on gender, ethnicity and national origin, systemic impacts of racism continue to plague science today. This includes both workforce practices and research findings.
Unfortunately, due to a widespread lack of education on the history of discrimination in science, many scientists today remain completely unaware of past failures, and how those actions of the past continue to affect the present and future.
The ongoing need to address systemic racism was once again highlighted when The American Society of Human Genetics recently issued an apology for its past involvement in the discriminatory eugenics movement. The apology included the release of a 27-page report that included findings from a yearlong, self-commissioned investigation into the organization’s 75-year history. Both the apology and the report were issued in the days leading up to Black History Month.
“As part of its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, ASHG has looked back on its history to document, reckon with, and apologize for harms and ways that human genetics research has contributed to racism and other systemic forms of discrimination,” the announcement by ASHG leaders stated.
Among the findings were acknowledgments that multiple former ASHG presidents and leaders had wrongly supported the discriminatory eugenics movement. This included strong evidence of past leaders endorsing forced sterilizations and promoting genetic justification for racial discrimination.
The National Human Genome Research Institute has long denounced the practice of eugenics, describing it as “the scientifically erroneous and immoral theory of “racial improvement” and “planned breeding” that gained popularity during the early 20th century.
In the long-overdue apology, ASHG leaders expressed remorse for the actions of the organization’s past leaders, as well as ASHG’s overall silence on confronting those painful actions and racial discrimination until now. Immediate actions to improve the group’s diversity and inclusion will feature efforts to teach the discriminatory history of genetics in programs across the U.S., as well as the immediate suspension of awards featuring the names of scientists who participated in discriminatory practices.
The ASHG is not the first scientific organization to begin the work of better addressing systemic discrimination in the sciences. In recent years, groups such as the American Psychological Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Science Magazine have all issued similar acknowledgements and apologies. Each has stated in some form that such actions and ownership are necessary for scientific practices to advance and change.
But changing systemic discrimination takes time, and while the small actions being taken by current leaders are necessary, they hardly begin to right the wrongs of the past. Surveys show the field of genetics remains 67% white, with only 7.4% self-identifying as Black. Other scientific disciplines such as chemistry show as little as 4% who self-identify as Black in hiring positions.
Overall, these figures represent only about half to one-quarter of the Black population as a percentage of the population in the U.S. All marginalized groups have been repeatedly found to make less money and hold fewer top positions than their non-marginalized counterparts.
As is often the case with discrimination, the people most readily able to create change are often those with the least stake in the game. Regarding discrimination in the sciences, white male researchers are most frequently those in power and yet are simultaneously often reluctant to seriously tackle the issue of discrimination as a systemic issue. This slows the pace of change and preserves decades of additional inequity.
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Based on personal experience in the sciences, part of the issue seems to be that those in charge are often the ones who still hold active discriminatory beliefs; they aren’t even trying to change. More than once I’ve heard prominent white male scientists outright state that they don’t care about diversity, equity and inclusion efforts as it’s not a valuable use of their time compared to spending more time on their research.
This is the underlying problem of the scientific culture. Without an increased appreciation of how more diversity and perspective can expand, not limit, scientific understanding, research and innovation will remain stifled. In other words, for strides to be made against discrimination, we must first change how we view the concept of improving research.
While systemic racism and other discriminatory beliefs are still at the heart of the issue, any scientist worth their salt should easily recognize that more brains solving more problems will yield better outcomes. In this light, spending more time on successful DEI efforts can only enhance future scientific findings.
Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado.
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