Local Scientists Confront Racism in Their Ranks
Instead of conducting experiments or analyzing data on Wednesday, scientists staged national protests.
In Woods Hole, more than 300 people—including engineers, chemists, and microbiologists—marched to support the Black Lives Matter movement and condemn institutional racism in academia and science.
“A couple of us decided to seize on the moment of ‘Shut Down STEM,’ which was actually started by a group of physicists nationwide, for non-black scientists to take the day to really look at themselves in their groups and what they can do to help the anti-racist agenda in science,” said Julie Huber, an oceanographer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) who helped organize the protest.
Information about the day of protests was spread online with hashtags like “#ShutDownSTEM” and “#ShutDownAcademia.”
“Science is strengthened by diverse everything: diverse backgrounds, diverse training, diverse approaches,” Huber said. “So science needs diversity and that’s why we’re involved in this.”
But the protest wasn’t made up only of scientists; community groups, families, and other activists from across the region also made their voices heard.
Some attendees said they wanted to show that racial justice is equally important in places with relatively few non-white residents.
“The Cape Cod community is very homogeneous,” said Sheron Luk, a graduate student in the MIT/WHOI joint program. “So it’s especially important today to show that this community and the science community stands with Black Lives Matter.”
The protests follow a 2018 Harvard report that slammed Woods Hole’s six major science institutions for workplace cultures rife with “overt racism and aggression/micro-aggressions.”
“We hopefully mostly unconsciously promote racism as scientists without maybe even knowing it,” said Suzanne Thomas, a lab technician at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL). “But we need to look into what we’re doing in science and make sure we’re promoting diversity.”
Though local institutions like MBL and WHOI have diversity initiatives and committees to promote diversity in academia, protesters said the problem starts at the very beginning.
“It really helps if you have the right kinds of economic and social support, so that you go to the right schools, so that you go to the right pre-schools that get you into the right schools, to get to the right networks, to get you into the universities, the right universities and the right laboratories that will write you the right letters of recommendation,” said André Fenton, a professor of neuroscience at New York University.
“And this manages to exclude a huge number of people right from the beginning of their education.”
Even for those who make it into graduate programs and labs, Fenton said, black students and professionals often aren’t offered—or able to take on—the same opportunities as their non-black peers.
He said local institutions have a responsibility to consider what role they play in removing those barriers.
“Woods Hole is a very special, fantastic place,” he said. “The problem is not that it’s 98 percent white. The problem is it’s not doing enough to change that. “
After a half-hour march, more than 300 protestors wearing masks and carrying signs silently took a knee for George Floyd, whose death in Minneapolis police custody last month sparked global protests against racism and police brutality.
“This is the world I live in, so I feel very comfortable here, but that’s because I’ve trained myself to understand and recognize myself as equal,” Fenton said. “Half of the challenge is to get everyone to have the same attitude.”