June 9, 2020
White supremacy is baked into science and academia, from racist language in textbooks to a culture that excludes Black scientists from innovating and advancing at the same pace as their colleagues. But rather than more milquetoast statements and diversity initiatives, researchers want action. Organizers are asking the scientific community to participate in a work stoppage on Wednesday, June 10 to bring attention to racism in the world of research.
Two groups of scientists, technologists, and diversity and inclusion specialists have come together to organize a shutdown and strike on June 10, with the hashtags #ShutDownAcademia, #ShutDownSTEM, and #Strike4BlackLives. They’re asking science professionals and academics to stop doing business as usual and to instead focus on long-term action: protesting, educating themselves on the issues that Black academics face, and drafting plans based on existing work done by Black leaders on how they’ll dismantle the racism entrenched in their respective fields. Hundreds of scientists, including Nobel Prize winners and high-profile groups, have signed a pledge to take part.
“We need to hold our communities in STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] and academia accountable to ending anti-Black racism. This is critically important because of our role in society,” Brittany Kamai, an experimental physicist with a joint appointment at the University of California, Santa Cruz and Caltech, told Gizmodo. “It’s going to be hard, and it will be growth for the community. We’re asking the entire community of both STEM and academia to commit to growing together to eradicate this,” said Kamai, who is an organizer behind #ShutDownAcademia/#ShutDownSTEM and a Native Hawaiian.
The ongoing protests against police violence targeting Black people in the U.S. served as the catalyst for #ShutDownAcademia/#ShutDownSTEM to collaborate with the physics-specific effort Particles for Justice. But these issues have long been bubbling up in the science community. A report earlier this year found that the already-dismal percentage of Black students receiving bachelors degrees in physics hasn’t changed in 10 years, in part due to a lack of support and mentorship as well as a decline in funding of historically Black colleges and universities.
Discrimination against Black scientists rears its head in more insidious ways, too. Labs will still refer to various pairs of equipment as “master” and “slave,” while the most commonly discussed milestone in quantum computing is “quantum supremacy;” few, if any publishing outlets are actively working to evaluate this kind of language. Buildings on college campuses are named after racists and slave owners, and pseudoscience is often used to try to rationalize and justify racism.
“When [the academic community] does try to show the value of diversity and inclusion, they do it by having those who are already marginalized do the work of their own liberation,” Brian Nord, research scientist at Fermilab, told Gizmodo. “They have us who are already embedded in that system and facing the problems that the system created do these activities and join these committees and all of these things that have ultimately been shown just to be window dressing… There has not been real investment and commitment in us.”
This extra work, in turn, does not offer the same career advancement as, say, using that time to publish papers, and puts them at a disadvantage. When issues of police violence against Black people crop up, Kamai said, her peers have looked to places other than the academic community for support, such as Black-led scholar collectives.
“We don’t want more diversity, inclusion, and equity seminars,” Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, assistant professor of physics and core faculty in women’s studies at University of New Hampshire, told Gizmodo. “We want people to take action, including participating in protests, for justice, now. We need people to be active in reforming the institutions they work within, rather than waiting for a top-down solution.” Prescod-Weinstein is one of the organizers of Particles for Justice.
The groups are encouraging all scientists to use the day to educate themselves and their students, organize protests, contact their local representatives, and make action plans for how they’ll work to change science and academia beyond just a single day’s strike. Just as important, they encourage their Black colleagues to use the day to prioritize their needs and find community support.
Kamai said that #ShutDownSTEM is not aimed at scientists who are directly participating in mitigating the global covid-19 pandemic. The Particles for Justice group encourages covid-19 researchers take a moment on Wednesday to reflect on how their work can contribute to these calls for justice.
Nord told Gizmodo that he hopes physicists will apply the passion they bring to figuring out fundamental truths of the universe to the movement, as if his and all Black scientists’ lives depended on it. “That energy and creativity is what we need. We need them to bring their compassion and their willingness to learn new methods and new things from other people who already know how to do this.”
These movements require non-Black allies to precipitate change, especially in fields like physics. “Particle physics is one of the academic disciplines with the lowest representations of Black scientists,” Tien-Tien Yu, assistant professor of physics at the University of Oregon, told Gizmodo. “The strike will bring this fact to the forefront, and it is important for us as a community to understand why this is so, but more crucially, to propose concrete solutions. But first, we hope that given that this is a Black-scientist led movement, we non-Black physicists finally learn to listen to what they have been saying all these years.”
More than 3,100 academics have pledged to strike with Particles for Justice, including Nobel Prize in Physics winners Adam Riess and Art McDonald.
Major scientific groups have already signed on to take part. The arXiv physics preprint server, where scientists often post their research papers ahead of publication, will not mail its daily announcement on Tuesday. Groups such as the LSST Dark Energy Science Collaboration, the Dark Energy Survey, and others have already agreed to postpone regular meetings or are planning discussions for their group members. The Canadian Association of Physicists has also announced its participation.
Both Particles for Justice and #ShutDownAcademia/#ShutDownSTEM have listed actions that academics and science professionals can take in order to dismantle racism in their respective fields, if you’re hoping to get involved.
Ryan F. Mandelbaum, Science Writer, Founder of Birdmodo