This Nature Q&A series celebrates people who fight racism in science and who champion inclusion. It also highlights initiatives that could be applied to other scientific workplaces.

It’s rare for a scientist to be revered by beer brewers and human-rights campaigners alike. But this is just one of the distinctions enjoyed by Geoff Palmer, the chancellor of Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, UK. Palmer, who in 1989 became Scotland’s first Black professor, has also been knighted and awarded the Order of the Thistle, Scotland’s highest honour, for his contributions to food science, human-rights advocacy and public service.

Palmer’s work on cereal science includes the development of the barley abrasion process — a way to speed up the malting of grains that saves brewers time and money. His antiracism writing includes Mr White and the Ravens, a 2005 children’s book on prejudice, and The Enlightenment Abolished: Citizens of Britishness (2007), which covers slavery from the perspective of a Jamaican British immigrant whose ancestors were enslaved. Palmer also advised the Edinburgh & Lothians Regional Equality Council on its inclusion policy and campaigns to improve understanding and recognition in museums and other areas of public discourse of Scotland’s role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Who has been your biggest influence or mentor and why?

I might have to choose two people: Garth Chapman and Anna MacLeod. They did not see my colour or my race when they helped me to develop my potential while I was at university.

I left secondary school in North London with very poor marks. I went to work at London’s Queen Elizabeth College as a laboratory technician. Chapman, who hired me, was a professor of biology, botany and zoology. One day in 1959, he said, “I think you’re more intelligent than people make out. I’m going to give you a day off now and again and I want you to go to night school. And I want you into university by 1961.”

When 1961 came, I told him I had applied to various universities, and not one would take me. After half an hour, he came out of his office and he said, “You’re going to the University of Leicester.” I ended up getting an honours degree in botany there, and in 1964, MacLeod took me on as her PhD student at Heriot-Watt. (At the time, the university didn’t award PhD degrees, so I was also registered at the University of Edinburgh.)

That’s how I managed to start a PhD, and I often say it’s a result of what the Scottish poet Robert Burns called “the goodness that mitigates woe”. It’s the goodness of people that got me where I am, and that’s why I do the historical work I do: to show that there are good, as well as bad, people. So don’t be too disappointed when you run into the bad ones — there are good people out there, too.

I did not get where I am on my own, and without these people I would not have developed the concept of barley abrasion.

What is the great passion that has driven you as a scientist?

To try to find out the truth of how things work.

For my PhD, I was asked to do some research on barley. The truth was that I didn’t know anything about it. So instead of going straight to work in the laboratory, I spent my first two months in the library. MacLeod, my supervisor, was wondering where I’d gone.

My approach to research is to first find out what has been done already, so that I can work out what still needs to be done. After my time in the library, I realized that there was very little information on how germination, enzyme development and hormonal action affect the barley embryo. I said to my supervisor, “I’m now ready to start.” Eventually, we found that the germ layer, or embryo, of the barley produces a hormone that triggers enzyme production in the outer layer of the surrounding endosperm1, known as bran, which helped to settle a debate in the field.

Why is antiracism work important to you?

I feel that this wee boy from Kingston, Jamaica — who joined his mum in London at age 14 — has been more than lucky for the opportunities I have received and for the teachers and professors who took a chance on me. And that’s why I do my work on slavery and history, to try to show that philosophers such as David Hume and Immanuel Kant were wrong: Black people are not inferior to whites.

For example, in 2017 I joined a committee for the City of Edinburgh Council, the city’s governing authority, which was looking at the narrative on the statue of Henry Dundas, who was born in Edinburgh in 1742 and held important positions in UK politics, including home secretary. His is one of the largest statues in central Edinburgh. I noticed that the plaque on the column that bears his statue didn’t mention that he was the reason the slave trade was gradually — instead of immediately — abolished. I looked up what people at the time said about the use of ‘gradual’ in political discussions. It meant slow and refusing to act until there were favourable circumstances. That might be never.

The council set up a committee to examine this, but the members of the committee did not agree with me. The council disbanded the committee.

After George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in May 2020, I gave a talk at a Black Lives Matter protest, near the Scottish Parliament about our failure to revise Dundas’s plaque and the importance of educating children about the history of the slave trade to avoid similar inhumanities.

The leader of the council contacted me the next day. That chat led to the council rewriting Dundas’s plaque in 2021, to say “he was instrumental in deferring the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade. Slave trading by British ships was not abolished until 1807. As a result of this delay, more than half a million enslaved Africans crossed the Atlantic.”

A plaque on the Melville monument detailing the role of Henry Dundas in the abolition of the Atlantic salve trade

The plaque detailing the role of Henry Dundas.Credit: Monika Deupala for Nature

But the decision was criticized. In September 2023, a monument group led by a descendant of Dundas removed the plaque. In March 2024, the council replaced it. I and other people are so pleased about that, because it tells the truth. I know that from the research I’ve done.

How do you deal with criticism and blowback?

My critics have said that I’m not a historian, I’m a brewer, and that’s supposed to negate what I’m saying. It’s not fun when people try to demean your work.

In doing my historical work to try to enlighten the public, I’ve used the same scientific principle that I’ve used for my barley and cereal science research — basing conclusions on the evidence. It’s not been popular. But it got Dundas’s plaque changed.

What is your best piece of advice to a 20-something researcher in your field?

Make sure you’re aware of previous work, and make sure you check that the methodology of any scientific paper you read is sound. If it’s unsound, be very wary of the conclusion. Methodology is crucial.

What single thing would you change about the way science is done?

We need to spend more time looking at subjects for which there might not be as much funding. We must do research on topics that might not seem immediate. For instance, I feel that COVID-19 has told us that we should be doing more research on the possibility that we could have more viruses like the one that causes COVID-19. We should be doing a lot more innovative research.

There’s this concept now of skills as a crucial aspect of our science and technology. Yes, people have to be skilled, but we must still have an education system that produces innovative thinkers.

What do you do to get away from science?

When I was a boy, I was very good at cricket. I don’t play cricket any more, but I will watch it on TV.

I have enough side issues to occupy my time. I do a lot of speaking in the community. I try to do as much community work as possible by Zoom, telephone calls and speaking to people in shops, many of whom are now very much aware of this history. I get beautiful responses from people in my local supermarket.

I’ve also spoken to banks, large organizations and finance companies about how they can improve equality. I tell them that a diverse society needs diverse management to be fair and efficient and that training must include education. The history of racism must be taught, so that racism is removed from society, rather than simply managed.