Black Lives Matter Opinion

Racism in Science

Illustration by Hailee Schievelbein

Sapphire Lally writes on racism within academia, focusing on STEM.

By Sapphire Lally

There is an issue with racism in the scientific field.

The statistics regarding BAME representation in science are irrefutable. In my field, physics, only 0.1% of all academics are black – meaning black people are underrepresented by a factor of approximately 34. In fact, BAME people in almost every category are significantly underrepresented, according to the Institute of Physics (IOP).

The statistics are most extreme when considering black students. At every level, black students are less likely to continue than white students who achieve equal academic grades, a phenomenon referred to as the leaky pipeline. The IOP reports that black students are told they must work twice as hard. The University and College Union (UCU) reports that black staff are paid 14% less.

But surely, once you’ve made it into the academy, you should be fine?

Well—no. Anecdotal reports suggest that black academics, especially in physics, are viewed as less objective than white academics. Here is an opinion I have seen shared countless times: science is objective, and scientists act only on evidence—so any complaint of racism (an inherently unobjective bias) surely cannot be taken seriously. Therefore, when black scientists bring up racism they have experienced within the academy, they are met with doubt and mockery rather than empathy.

Protests have occurred against racism in STEM.
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Dr Chanda Prescod-Weinstein has coined the term “white empiricism” to refer to this concept of the construction of a white male scientist as the neutral default and the perfect objective observer. As if this were not enough, there is also a bias in hiring and peer review which affects those from non-Western universities with perceived non-Western names (and the effect is compounded for those with perceived non-female names).

This does not even come close to the conclusions promoted by those who subscribe to “race science”–a field that attempts to categorise ethnicities by IQ and find evidence that intelligence is heritable. Usually, the conclusion is that black people are inherently less intelligent that their peers from other races. Despite the many excellent books—Adam Rutherford’s How to Argue with a Racist, or Angela Saini’s Superior—which debunk the whole field of race science, the conclusions drawn and the fallacies that support them, there are many who still find it convincing.

Science’s racism problem is self-sustaining due to its own belief in the objectivity of its practitioners. How can we then challenge this?

There are several paths forward. The astronomy group (in the Department of Physics) is reforming its outreach practices in order to ensure it engages with BAME students, as well as female students and those from lower income households. Research shows that outreach is not effective if it is a one-off event—students must enjoy repeated and exciting engagement. More effective outreach practices will increase the numbers of black students taking science subjects at A-Level and university.

To challenge scientists’ belief in their own objectivity, I believe a more holistic approach to science is necessary. We should learn more about philosophy, and model-building, and the construction of knowledge—after all, philosophy tells us that all observations are theory-laden. Observations are analysed and interpreted through the lens of the theories we already ascribe to the world. We should learn about critical race theory, the racist histories of our fields, and we should all read more from authors outside our own fields and from a range of backgrounds and ethnicities. Being anti-racist should be a part of scientific practice. I don’t know how to change the racist institutions of academic science, but I know that I’m going to be doing my best to challenge myself, encouraging everyone I know to do the same, convincing them to persuade everyone they know, and slowly contributing to a scientific community that rejects white empiricism, confronts their own biases, and welcomes diversity of thought and background.

The RDP monthly Anti-Racism Reading Group will start on 24th July.

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