Amidst protests and conversations on racism following several instances of police violence, scientific institutions are reevaluating their approach to dealing with anti-Black racism—extant, historical or symbolic. For example, on Wednesday, June 10, a large segment of the scientific community (and the staffs of prominent journals) participated in a strike, where the goal was to reflect on how Black people—students, trainees, staff, and faculty—are treated, and how we can make the scientific paradigm more inclusive.
This includes several ongoing policy discussions surrounding diversity and inclusion, and very specific exchanges about how we remember and celebrate historical figures. For example, the Society for the Study of Evolution (SSE) is one of many influential scientific societies embroiled in a debate over renaming a prestigious award that currently commemorates Ronald A. Fisher (the R.A. Fisher Prize). Fisher was a pioneer of modern population genetics and one of the most influential scientists of the last century. His influence is as great in genetics as it is statistics, the latter providing a more widespread fingerprint: much of what any empirical scientist (from cell biology to experimental economics) has learned about experimental design and analysis is related to ideas pioneered by Ronald A. Fisher.
The controversy around Fisher involves his legacy as a founder and advocate for eugenics. The debates around the commemoration of Fisher can be summarized by whether his identifiers—statistician, geneticist, and eugenicist—can or should be separated. If Fisher saw his eugenics work as an appropriate extension of his research in statistical genetics, why should we slice and dice his legacy, and celebrate only the parts we approve of?
The debates around Fisher (which precede 2020, and are not limited to the Society for the Study of Evolution) resemble other public cancellations of notable figures, most recently the 2019 defrocking of James Watson by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. But that R.A. Fisher has been deceased for over half-a-century is a crucial difference, as stripping Fisher of an honor requires little more than keystrokes. In that way, the Fisher renaming debate resembles grander conversations about how we remember historical figures. This issue played out very visibly in debates surrounding the removal of Confederate monuments in various parts of the United States. The dispute around the relics that commemorate figures from the Confederacy is surprisingly fecund, and contains ideas that end up being useful for related discourse on science’s similarly conflicted past.
The arguments in favor of removing monuments and relics are simple: dealing with a racist past includes the difficult decision to distance oneself from honoring racist individuals and ideas, even if those figures were eminent in their time. An opposing, but also progressive, argument invokes the need to engage our racist past, but suggests that the Confederate relics should remain. The idea is that Americans are already bad at remembering and dealing with our troublesome pasts, and removing these relics makes a post-racial fantasy easier to peddle.
Most importantly, the “keep them” argument offers practical solutions: instead of tearing down the monuments of Confederate leaders, we should be building larger monuments to abolitionists and African-American freedom fighters, maybe even adjacent to those Confederate monuments. Doing so gives us a two-for-one: by leaving the old monuments, we acknowledge the centrality of Confederate generals in American history (even if for the worse), but also demonstrate how we feel about their cause today by having them dwarfed by larger statues of, for example, Harriett Tubman, the great American liberator.
The debate over whether to rename awards that honor R.A. Fisher, and more broadly, over how scientific institutions can combat racist, legacies can borrow from this approach: the discussion should be about what we name as much as it is what we rename. And less directly, it emphasizes that removal isn’t enough: we have to construct things. In this vein, reconciliation in scientific societies resembles the reparations movement in the United States—a dialogue that highlights the staggering costs of the slavery by suggesting that policy should rectify it through repayments in the form of monetary contributions and/or structural amelioration.
Reparations is a useful concept, not necessarily because there is any debt to be directly repaid to Black scientists, but because it highlights that effective reconciliation always comes at a cost. This is an important because too often, the act of repairing broken institutions is understood to require that we revolutionize little more than our etiquette. The truth is that repairing generational damage is like the First Law of Thermodynamics: change can only be transformed from one form into another. We don’t get progress for free.
That being the case, what would true change look like?
To animate this debate, I can point to a personal example: for all of R.A. Fisher’s destructive legacy, I am far less troubled by an award named after him, than I am by my treatment by some faculty and students (and I can confirm that I am not alone in this sentiment).
Relatedly, repairing racism in science will involve improving the daily professional experience of Black scientists (the ones being communicated with the #BlackintheIvory hashtag, on social media, for example). And this involves a cacophony of practices, traditions, biases and norms, some of which are more challenging to understand, let alone address with policy. Repairing institutions is about building a profession where our Black students and colleagues feel comfortable enough to flourish—and by flourish, I don’t simply mean be comfortable enough to play their favorite music in the laboratory, but to be creative, have their ideas challenged and cultivated, and most importantly, to be able to fail and try again, comfortably (as every well-trained scientist should).
The Black experience in America has been regularly analogized by scholars as the “Miner’s Canary.” That is, because of the history of racism and its associated institutions, those insults which may affect America will affect Black Americans first, and most harshly. We find an appropriate example with COVID-19 burden in the United States, where over one-fourth of deaths have been African-Americans.
When it comes to addressing racism in scientific institutions, the tragedy of this truism is an opportunity. It suggests is that a large part of fixing a race problem is in addressing the issues that affect everyone, because whatever aspects are broken about the profession are likely to be especially broken for its Black participants. That these broken practices are biased should further motivate us to act now, and aggressively. Further, mending the specific bridges burned to communities who have shouldered an undue burden has to be a feature of these amends; saying that science is broken for everyone is not to say “All Lives Matter,” but rather, that science’s widespread flaws are an obvious place where racial biases will live.
This implores a “destroy and rebuild” approach to fundamental pillars of the profession: a complete rethinking of the institution of prestige, norms of collaboration, authorship, publishing, the process of promotion, the very idea of meritorious contribution, and informal notions what an intelligent idea actually is.
This process may manifest as a doubling down on existing diversity and inclusion practices (which largely focus on the number of bodies, via admissions, research opportunities, and faculty hires), and expanding into underexplored terrains: the formal cultivation of Black academic deans, editors at competitive journals, and program officers at funding agencies.
If there is a citation bias against Black scientists in the scientific literature, then metrics like the H-index should be rendered all but meaningless. If students are discriminating against their Black teachers and advisors, then student evaluations should be all but ignored. If Black scholars are overrepresented in tasks that involve community engagement and science communication, then these should be valued as scientific contributions, rather than frivolous extracurriculars. If underrepresented graduate students are truly more innovative (as studies suggest), but are not rewarded for it, then hiring practices should be reevaluated. If Black scientists are being penalized in grant review panels because of their choice of topic, then the offending panel should be scrapped, and reconstructed.
Some of these examples are hypotheticals, and are posed as questions because inquiry is the first step in reconciliation. Asking questions should not, however, serve as a stand-in for action. Instead, it should focus our attention on where to act.
A complete reimagining of a paradigm with the long history of science will not be easy. But nationwide protests that began as a response to racialized police violence have fomented some very critical examinations about the purpose of policing and criminal justice. Other areas of society could benefit from similar reflection, because antiracism in science will be about much more than challenging the bigoted graybeards of our past.