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Researchers around the world prepare to #ShutDownSTEM and ‘Strike For Black Lives’

Thousands of researchers around the world have pledged to pause their work on Wednesday to support the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement and efforts against racism in the scientific community and society at large.

Responding to calls from an array of organizers operating under banners including the Strike For Black Lives, #ShutDownSTEM, and #ShutDownAcademia, numerous university laboratories, scientific societies, technical journals, and others have pledged to spend 10 June focused on issues of racial equality and inclusiveness.

“In the wake of the most recent murders of Black people in the U.S., it is clear that white and other non-Black people have to step up and do the work to eradicate anti-Black racism. As members of the global academic and STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] communities, we have an enormous ethical obligation to stop doing ‘business as usual,’” the organizers of #ShutDownSTEM state on its website.

Those who participate should “stop all usual academic work for the day, including teaching, research, and service responsibilities,” the organizers of Strike For Black Lives write on their website. Black strikers should spend the day doing “whatever nourishes their hearts,” it states, whereas non-Black strikers should “take actions that center Black lives and agitate for change in our communities.”

Organizers are urging scientists to participate in local protests and learn about the history of anti-Black violence and racism; various groups have amassed online resources for participants to use.

Astrophysicist Brian Nord of Fermilab, an organizer of both the Strike For Black Lives and #ShutDownStem, who is black, is urging all strikers to emerge from tomorrow’s activities with plans for making real change at institutions involved in science. “I don’t want more diversity and inclusion seminars,” Nord says. “Those activities are used to provide a shield to institutions so that they can do the bare minimum.”

The movement began with two different groups: a network of mostly particle physicists organizing under the hashtag #Strike4BlackLives; and a multidisciplinary group of largely astronomers and biologists operating under #ShutDownSTEM. (One #ShutDownSTEM organizer, Casey Newlin, works in the music industry. Newlin, who is white, contributed what she learned from participating in that industry’s Blackout Tuesday on 2 June.) The groups coordinated with a third entity, #VanguardSTEM, an online platform that promotes women of color working in STEM, to announce their plans in unison on 5 June.

Brittany Kamai, a physicist at the University of California (UC), Santa Cruz, who started #ShutDownSTEM, says the idea originated, in part, from thinking about how scientists who are stuck at home because of the COVID-19 pandemic could make an attention-getting statement like those made by protesters who block a busy road. “This was my way of answering the question: ‘How do we shut down our digital streets of academia?’” says Kamai, who is Native Hawaiian.

The strike has gotten extensive support. Senior scientists have taken to social media to announce they are backing the effort, as have science facilities, organizations, and journals (including AAAS, which publishes Science). At many academic laboratories, “people have committed to stop group meetings,” Kamai says. Her own research group, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, is participating in the strike by canceling a planned leadership meeting and postponing a test of its public alert system.

Elsewhere, researchers are planning an array of actions—or inactions.

At the online preprint repository arXiv—the backbone of physicists’ information highway—staff say they will participate in the strike by not announcing new submissions on Tuesday night. Many journals, such as the American Physical Society’s Physical Review Letters, have also pledged not to release papers tomorrow.

At UC Irvine, physics department chair Timothy Tait, who helped organize #Strike4BlackLives, says his department will hold a virtual educational event with an invited speaker and a town hall–style meeting with hired moderators. One goal of the events is “to inform ourselves what the black experience in academia is like,” says Tait, who is white.

At the University of New Hampshire (UNH), Durham, Karsten Pohl, a white physicist who signed the strike pledge and chairs the physics department, plans to hold a free-form discussion for his department on Zoom. Pohl especially wants feedback from undergraduate students and staff “who we usually don’t hear from,” he says.

At the University of Chicago and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, scientists plan to march on their campuses.

Nord emphasizes that his group is specifically asking nonblack academics to step up tomorrow, 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, the group says, nonblack 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.

For example, UNH physicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, an organizer of the Strike For Black Lives who is black, says that because she frequently speaks out about racism in science, many students from underrepresented backgrounds—and sometimes even their parents—contact her for advice about race-related conflicts in their education. Black students have told her of assailants throwing objects at them on campus, or people threatening to call the police on them when they are leaving the lab. Providing such advice “is a lot of work,” she says. “I also believe it has to be done, and I also believe it is unfair that it has to be done.” (Prescod-Weinstein has spent so much time supporting students of color, she says, that she asked for that work to be explicitly put in her job description when she was hired as a tenure-track professor at her university.)

Nord hopes tomorrow will help catalyze change. “I imagine a future where there is representation, retention, and recruitment of black physicists in academia,” he says. “Representation means there are lots of us around. I’m not just talking about black men. I’m talking about genderqueer, trans, women—all of us, we’re there. I imagine a future where we stay there, and we also work in leadership levels.”