Why we need more “#ShutDownSTEM”

5 minute read

June 10th was a historic day for science: thousands around the world participated in the #ShutDownSTEM or #ShutDownAcademia protest. According to the official website, the purpose was to disrupt typical operations—”no research, no meetings no classes, no business as usual”—and instead spend the day learning about racism and provide resources in support of Black lives.

For a field that often prides itself in its “objectivity,” this is a revolutionary moment because, in my experience, discussions of diversity, equity, and inclusion in science are often met with staunch resistance: “data sees no color.” While, sure, neither my regression models nor my code has any comprehension of race, class, and gender, scientists sure do, and our statistics and analysis reflect these biases whether we’re cognizant of them or not. Nevertheless, perhaps today, scientists will critically engage and teach one another to collectively forge a more inclusive science.

At least… that’s what I hope.

While the sight of so many partaking in such an important movement makes me optimistic, I fear that it will vanish before any meaningful progress or change can be realized. I worry that science will resume its default culture: a lack of honest, brave discussions about inequity.

During my undergraduate years, I was fortunate to attend an institution where conversations on oppression and white supremacy were pervasive. These talks organically manifested in my courses and casual conversation with faculty, staff, and students. Being in an environment that embraced social justice instilled within me a sense of bravery to center topics of discrimination anywhere with anyone at any time—even when I was up against powerful individuals or institutions.

For example, during my senior year, I spent a week helping a friend after their father got deported, which meant I took a week off from working on my honors thesis. When I mentioned this to a faculty member at my college, they interrogated my desire to get a Ph.D.; “Are you sure you want to be a scientist? It sounds like you should go to law school.”

“Why can’t I be both a scientist and an activist?” I remember replying without hesitation. “Advocating for immigrants is advocating for human rights—which includes scientists—so why aren’t you helping?”

Back then, it did not matter how famous the scholar was, or how integral they could be to my admission to a doctoral program; any witness of injustice, I would call out. I felt brave and empowered to speak out despite the cost of my future in science because, in doing so, I did my part to ensure others didn’t encounter such experiences.

However, this courage did not last. As I progressed on the academic ladder, I began to learn how my overt activism was halting access to opportunities. During the first year of my graduate program, I remember having coffee with a prominent scientist in my field who inquired about the status of my thesis. Hoping to engage in a (necessary) exchange about race and equity in empirical studies, I mentioned that many of the papers I read had a bias towards recruiting White, rich, and very educated populations. I added that I wanted to extend that research through my thesis by hopefully recruiting more holistically. When I called into question the generalizability of such work as a result of the homogeneity, they defended this decision by remarking that diversity complicates the statistics; that it was “better” science to actively exclude them.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right”, I said, hoping I didn’t just jeopardize my relationship to a lab I intended to apply for graduate school—but then they questioned if I was in the right field. They encouraged me to look at other labs that might be a better fit and aligned with my interest, suggesting labs that focus only on race. When I attempted to reiterate my primary interest was in learning and memory, they advised that maybe I should just keep my thoughts on race and class to myself.

Such encounters are not isolated to this particular event. Each time I confide in other friends of color, I’m told of similar incidents that happened to them and their caution to speak out. We affirm that we made the right (albeit frustrating) choice to remain silent in order to trade honesty for career security: the hope that if we can survive long enough until we become professors, perhaps we can enact change when we direct our own labs. However, such hope is folly if you read some of the anecdotes posted on Twitter from the #BlackInTheIvory posts.

Black academics flooded social media with a myriad of negative experiences from other colleagues who attempted to or successfully pushed them out of the academy. I’ve scrolled through an avalanche of tweets of scholars bravely sharing their stories of racist encounters despite their position as high-ranking academics. These angered me, but what upsets me even more is the occasional response to those posts, where someone alludes to their ignorance of these issues: “I am so surprised that this happens to you.” Of course, these are surprising when minorities can’t have these conversations openly, which is why we need them. Over and over again. Until these talks evolve into action which then transforms environments that push out intellectually gifted scholars of color.

Engaging regularly in protests such as #ShutDownSTEM is integral if we want to cultivate a safer environment in science. However, to do so requires more than a one-day event; we must continue to have these encourage these conversations—even if it means our work must be put on hold momentarily. Doing so means Black scholars who interview at colleges won’t be arrested or asked if they’re the help. Doing so means Black graduate students won’t drop out of their Ph.D. programs. It means we are closer to when days like today do not need to _exist. _Indeed, what saddens me is that to get the attention of the STEM community, it required suffering: the murder of Breonna Taylor, of Ahmaud Arbery, of George Floyd; the incident where Amy Cooper threatened to call the cops on a Black man; every Black scholar who shared their experience on #BlackInTheIvory. And we should not have to wait until another Black person dies to have these discussions again.

So don’t stop on June 10th. Have these discussions regularly. Incorporate them into your lab meetings and devote time to discussing justice as much as the latest scientific paper in your field. If you can teach yourself a new programming language, then you can teach yourself how to be a better advocate. Check in with Black scholars. Ask for advice on how to recruit more inclusively. If an opportunity emerges, actively send those to people who are least advocated for. Keep enhancing your comprehension of these issues; we’re all still learning (myself included).

Most importantly, when an injustice does occur—no matter who or what it may be from—find the bravery to speak up against it. It may just save a life.


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