Overcoming science’s toxic legacy

Illustration by Diana Ejaita

Illustration by Diana Ejaita

Science is “a shared experience, subject both to the best of what creativity and imagination have to offer and to humankind’s worst excesses”. So wrote the guest editors of this special issue of Nature, Melissa Nobles, Chad Womack, Ambroise Wonkam and Elizabeth Wathuti, in a June 2022 editorial announcing their involvement.

Among those worst excesses is racism. For centuries, science has built a legacy of excluding people of colour and those from other historically marginalized groups from the scientific enterprise. Institutions and scientists have used research to underpin discriminatory thinking, and have prioritized research outputs that ignore and further disadvantage marginalized people.  

Nature has played a part in creating this racist legacy. After the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 2020, Nature committed to becoming an agent of change, and helping to end discriminatory practices and systemic racism.

This special issue is part of that commitment, and the first in this journal’s history to be guest-edited. It can only scratch the surface of such a vast topic, and will be followed by others that examine different facets of racism in science — to help build a future in which all people can participate in and benefit from the shared experience that is science.

Editorial: Ending racism is key to better science: a message from Nature’s guest editors

Witnessing racism

In the minds of many who do not experience it day to day, racism consists of egregious acts of violence or abuse. But that is only part of what many people experience in science.

It is also, in the words of Black geoscientist Martha Gilmore, a “persistent current in everyday interactions” — of belittlement, of denial of opportunity, of feeling that you do not belong. Those are persistent themes in this series of profiles, in which Gilmore and four other Black and Indigenous researchers tell of their personal experiences of discrimination. 

Systemic racism

“I didn’t see another Black person in computer science until more than a decade after high school,” says Juan Gilbert, now at the University of Florida in Gainesville. This is not just a problem in computer science: Black people make up 13% of the US workforce, yet received barely more than 2% of the country’s PhDs in the natural sciences and engineering in 2021. Other communities of colour are also under-represented.

This lack of diversity matters. It denies opportunities to individuals and robs society of the contributions they can make. And it makes discrimination self-perpetuating. From biased algorithms to discriminatory medical protocols, the outputs of science themselves become instruments of marginalization — with very real effects on the health and well-being of those affected. 

Feature: Computer science has a racism problem: these researchers want to fix it

News & Views forum: Skin colour affects the accuracy of medical oxygen sensors

Building a fairer future

Proposals to rename buildings, remove statues and rewrite curricula have become a central theme in discussions about combating racism in academia. They are mischaracterized by some as a distraction, or an attempt to skew history. 

But efforts to decolonize science and scientific spaces are as much about ensuring an accurate scientific record as righting historical wrongs. Whether it is trying to counter extremists co-opting genetics research or taking concrete steps to counter technology’s discriminatory biases, tackling the reality of racism today is essential in building a more inclusive future for science and the society it serves.

Careers feature: Imperialism’s long shadow: the UK universities grappling with a colonial past

Comment: Counter the weaponization of genetics research by extremists

News & Views in retrospect: The unseen Black faces of AI algorithms

Where I work: A Jamaican medicinal-plant scientist explores his African roots

Our Guest Editors

This special Nature issue on racism in science was overseen by four guest editors.

  • Melissa Nobles is a political scientist, chancellor of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, USA, and author of Shades of Citizenship: Race and the Census in Modern Politics. Watch a video of Melissa describing her involvement in the special here.
  • Chad Womack is a scientist, vice-president of National STEM Programs and Tech Initiatives at the education philanthropic charity UNCF, in Washington DC, USA; and founder of the Ernest E. Just Life Science Initiative and Society.
  • Ambroise Wonkam is a geneticist, professor and director of the McKusick–Nathans Institute and the Department of Genetic Medicine at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, USA.
  • Elizabeth Wathuti is an environmentalist, climate activist and founder of the Green Generation Initiative in Nairobi, Kenya.
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