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A U.S. representative has called for a study of academic racism in all of its forms.

Robert Neubecker

Senior U.S. lawmaker wants National Academies to scrutinize racism in science

The U.S. research community may finally be ready to confront the “R” word.

In response to a request from the chairwoman of the science committee in the U.S. House of Representatives, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) is gearing up for an in-depth study of racism in academic research.

Previous NASEM studies have documented the value of diversity to the practice of science, and recommended ways to broaden participation by groups historically underrepresented in science. But the study proposed by Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX) would break new ground, say researchers who study the topic, by asking the community to examine long-standing beliefs and practices that have marginalized many individuals and skewed decisions on what topics are worthy of support.

“There is structural racism in the halls of academia,” says Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and architect of the long-running Meyerhoff Scholars program, arguably the country’s most successful at preparing minority college students for research careers in biomedical science and engineering. “And it’s hindering our ability to deal with some of our biggest challenges, including the current COVID-19 pandemic.”

“Fooled ourselves”

Johnson’s 29 July letter to Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences, asks her to convene a “distinguished panel” that would conduct “a rigorous and thoughtful analysis of the extent to which the U.S. scientific enterprise perpetuates systemic inequities to the detriment of society as a whole, as well as how those inequities are manifested.” Indirectly referencing the current national debate over racism spawned by the death of George Floyd and the resurgent Black Lives Matter movement, Johnson wrote that “it is incumbent upon each of us to do what we can to address the systems that perpetuate inequities within our own sphere of influence.”

McNutt agrees. “I am quite excited about doing this study,” she told ScienceInsider. She believes it could set the table for addressing systemic racism in academia in the same way that a 2018 NASEM report on sexual harassment in academic science catalyzed discussion and action. Before that report, McNutt says, “We had fooled ourselves into thinking that the problem had mostly been solved. We were so wrong. It had just gone underground. I worry that it is the same story with racism.”

Digging into the roots of racism in the U.S. research community may make some people uncomfortable, say those who have studied the topic. But it’s necessary.

“People who are successful scientists think that they got there because they are smart and hardworking,” says Camara Phyllis Jones, an epidemiologist and former president of the American Public Health Association, which has lobbied public officials to declare racism a public health emergency. “They don’t realize that their ability to do science has been advantaged—by white privilege, male privilege, American privilege—and that many other smart and hardworking people have been disadvantaged by not being a part of those privileged groups.”

Jones is a member of NASEM’s Roundtable on Black Men and Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine, which was spawned by a 2018 NASEM report that fingered systemic racism as a root cause in the current paucity of Black men going into medicine. Launched late last year, the roundtable held a virtual workshop in April on the “impact of racism and bias on Black people pursuing careers in science, engineering, and medicine.”

The roundtable is well-positioned to take on the type of study that Johnson has requested, says its chair, Cato Laurencin, a chemical engineer and orthopedic surgeon at the University of Connecticut.

“We’re the only long-term group at the academy looking at issues of Black racial justice and equity,” says Laurencin, who is a member of the national academies of both medicine and engineering. “It is completely within our wheelhouse, and we are very excited about the idea.”

Doors that stay closed

Some academics may not be ready to talk about racism, Laurencin concedes. “It’s much easier to talk about things like unconscious bias and the need for diversity,” he notes. “Those words connote that we all mean well, and it’s simply a matter of everyone doing a little better.”

But racism is much more entrenched than that, says Hrabowski, who led a 2011 NASEM study on expanding minority participation in science and more recently has called for addressing the “intractable inequalities” that undermine the U.S. research enterprise. So the new study, McNutt says, will need to assemble “data and evidence” to document the negative impacts of racism before it makes any recommendations.

Hrabowski would like to see the new study focus on how academia can improve opportunities for minority faculty members. “Our biggest mistake with Meyerhoff was assuming that, once a Black person earned a Ph.D., they were set [for a successful academic career],” he says. “But that’s just not true. Our white graduates have always had more doors open to them than have our African-American students.”

As a model for improving opportunity, he points to the long-running ADVANCE program at the National Science Foundation (NSF), which supports efforts by universities to achieve gender equity.

If Johnson has her way, NSF would also fund the new initiative. A $1.3 trillion spending bill that the House approved on 31 July contains a Johnson amendment that orders NSF to spend $1.5 million on such a study in the 2021 fiscal year that begins on 1 October. The Senate has yet to weigh in on the idea, however, and the two bodies are unlikely to reconcile their differences over a final spending bill until well after the November elections.

Another option is for NASEM to self-finance the study, or find a nongovernment entity, such as a foundation or company, to put up the necessary funds. But NASEM officials say Congress is more likely to act on a report it has requested than on one NASEM gins up by itself. That’s also true, they add, for the federal agency that provides the money.

Whoever foots the bill, NASEM officials say they can start to lay the groundwork for such a study even before the funding is settled. One task would be to define the key questions the study would address, and the best ways to disseminate its findings and implement its recommendations.

Jones, for one, hopes the new study will lay to rest the pernicious idea of a racial basis for genetic differences among humans, and the use of those differences to justify discrimination. “Race is the social interpretation of how one looks in a race-conscious society,” she says. “It’s a social classification, not a biological classification.”

Jones also thinks the panel should spend no time debating whether racism exists in academic research. “Racism is fundamental in our society,” she asserts. “It affects everything and everyone. And having someone say, ‘That’s not me’ does not make it so.”