#ShutDownSTEM Initiative Sees Scientists Work on Racism, Not Research

On Wednesday, thousands of researchers across the world put down their pipettes, stopped their centrifuges and canceled meetings to construct a detailed plan to help eradicate anti-black racism in academia and STEM.

#ShutDownAcademia and #ShutDownSTEM is the brainchild of a multi-identity, intersectional coalition of STEM professionals and academics fighting for black lives and equality.

“Black academic and Black STEM professionals are hurting because they exist in and are attacked by institutional and systemic racism,” reads the coalition’s website. “Unless you engage directly with eliminating racism, you are perpetuating it. This moment calls for profound and meaningful change. Wednesday June 10, 2020 will mark the day that we transition into a lifelong commitment of actions to eradicate anti-Black racism in academia and STEM.”

At the digital American Society for Mass Spectrometry (ASMS), the founders and members of “Black People Meet @ ASMS” held a special webinar highlighting the struggles and needs of black mass spectrometrists, as well as black academics. They called on organizations, including ASMS, and non-black individuals to utilize positions of influence to demand change.

The experience of black researchers

Have you ever been afraid to stay in the lab after-hours in the event that someone may question if you belong there, or even call security or the police on you? If you’re white, the answer is no. If you’re black, the answer is yes—and that’s exactly what this strike is about.

Brian Nord, an astrophysicist at Fermilab and co-organizer of #ShutDownSTEM, explained to Science that his group was specifically asking non-black academics to make up for what it sees as years of inaction. By giving black scientists the option to abstain from doing racial justice work for one day, he said, non-black strikers can acknowledge the disproportionate effort to improve diversity and mentor students from underrepresented groups that black scientists are often asked to perform without compensation.

The panelists at ASMS stressed the importance of mentorship for black researchers and scientists—and not just pairing a black student with a black mentor.

“Most times, the minority students are the minority faculty member(s)’s issue. Where is the tribe of support?,” one member of Black People Meet @ ASMS tweeted during the webinar.

In fact, in a list of suggested ways to eradicate systemic racism on academic campuses, the panelists included the need for science industries/companies to become more involved with mentorship programs and intern opportunities to “engage minority graduate students looking for industry-based careers, as well as give them the exposure they may not receive otherwise.”

Additional recommendations—not the full list—include:

The panelists on the ASMS webinar included: Black People Meet @ ASMS co-founders Christina Jones (NIST), Michelle Reid (ETH Zurich) and Candice Ulmer (CDC), along with members Christopher Pulliam (Proctor and Gamble), Rena Robinson (Vanderbilt University) and Devin Schweppe (Harvard Medical School).

“It’s important to recognize that our ideas are valid,” said Robinson, a professor of chemistry at Vanderbilt. “You can be yourself and bring your whole self to the space that you reside in. I would encourage black students and black scientists in the space of mass spectrometry to feel validated and know you have a lot to bring to the table.”

Responses to #ShutDownSTEM

Many universities and laboratories tweeted about shutting down for the day, replacing business as usual work with a day of self-education and long-term planning. Prominent scientific journals also spoke out loudly in support.

“We recognize that Nature is one of the white institutions that is responsible for bias in research and scholarship. The enterprise of science has been—and remains—complicit in systemic racism, and it must strive harder to correct those injustices and amplify marginalized voices,” reads an editorial published on Nature’s site late Tuesday. “At Nature, we will redouble our efforts to do so, and commit to establishing a process that will hold us to account on the many changes we need to make.”

H. Holden Thorp, Editor-in-Chief of Science journals, published an editorial questioning why so few Science authors are from historically black colleges and universities, why scientific areas studied more frequently by people of color are underfunded by the government and why the U.S. failed to update its ways of teaching science when data show that people of color learn better with more inclusive methods. He also reflected on the “shameful” history of the Tuskegee syphilis study and the nonrecognition of Henrietta Lacks’s never-ending contribution to science.

“The first step is for science and scientists to say out loud that they have benefited from, and failed to acknowledge, white supremacy,” Thorp writes. “And then science and scientists finally need to listen to, and make space for, people of color to lead laboratories that publish great science and produce influential scientists, run institutions and their scientific units, and propel Science and other journals to promote structurally underfunded scientists and areas of.”

The editors of Cell published an editorial titled “Science Has a Racism Problem,” and outlined four specific actions they are going to take to highlight and increase representation of black scientists.

 “The gatekeeping system in academia, industry, and scientific organizations was not designed to correct for centuries of compounded disadvantage and oppression. It is time for renovation,” the 13 editors, who acknowledged they are all white, wrote in the piece.

 Photo credit: #ShutDownStem.