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The Black scientists changing the future with research and social justice

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AFW Article Cover (Black researchers)

The Black scientists changing the future with research and social justice

With issues around the climate crisis and AI technologies having an outsized impact on Black people, a new generation of researchers are fighting the pale, male STEM narrative

Welcome to A Future World – Dazed's network, community, and platform focusing on the intersection of science, technology and pop culture. Throughout April, we're featuring conversations and mission statements from the people paving new pathways for our planet: activists, inventors, fashion pioneers, technologists, AI scientists, and global youth movements, alongside in-depth editorial exploring the new realities for our future world.

Last year, the video of George Floyd’s murder, and the subsequent protests in memory of the unarmed Minneapolis father of three, added further fuel to the Black Lives Matter movement. It challenged people to question systemic racism in all areas of our lives: and, on 10th June, it was clear that the scientific community were not immune to the aftershocks of the tumultuous summer. 

Organising via the Twitter hashtags #Strike4BlackLives, #ShutDownSTEM and #ShutDownAcademia, STEM professionals embarked on a day of industrial action that called upon researchers to reflect, learn, be accountable and boldly lay out new plans to address inequality within the field. What followed was an acknowledgment that there were many potential barriers that Black scientists had to overcome. Just a few years prior in 2018, Pew Research Centre in Washington DC found that 62% of Black STEM employees in America had dealt with workplace discrimination, and over half of them felt like there was not enough attention paid to diversity. 

That’s understandable. Science does typically have a very pale, stale, male reputation, and the word alone conjures up an image of a spectacled, caucasian man in a lab coat. This kind of typecasting has been a subject of research since the 1960s, when David Wade Chambers investigated children’s perceptions and sensitivity to stereotypes of the role by asking them to draw their version of a scientist. Originally only 1% drew a woman (thankfully, that has shifted to 28% in recent years). True to life, women are still more absent than men in science academia and employment. And when you take race into account the picture is even more woeful, with Black scientists underrepresented at every level, from undergraduate degree to lab or field research. Shockingly, only 6% of faculty positions in STEM currently go to Black researchers

Like with many industries, those gatekeepers on the inside slowly wrack their brains for solutions on how to make science more accessible, while young people use social media to do so at a much quicker speed. Using #BlackinX movements across Twitter, Instagram and TikTok, young Black scientists are increasing their visibility online and letting down the pop-cultural veil around STEM subjects.

Co-founder of the organisation BlackinCMDBio, Hailey Levi is a first year PhD student and prolific TikTok creative. Their mission is to support scientists looking at cellular, molecular and developmental issues (these are the people behind miracles like mRNA vaccines like those being used to fight COVID), while Levi’s own studies are focussed on how the retina in the back of our eyes functions. Her page, Chaotically Science, has amassed upwards of 246,000 likes for her accessible and relatable content. As Levi explains, she started it up in honour of those people like her younger brother who think scientists are “boring robots”. “He was struggling with the science at the time, so it was mainly to help him,” she explains. “It just ended up becoming a way for me to not only demystify STEM but have fun. Sometimes I don’t want to just be practical.” 

Levi’s videos riff on popular trends on the social media platform, blending memes, music, dancing and humour with niche topics like DNA mutations: like when she used her cultural specific viewpoint to debunk the idea of natural hair products being chemical free (“technically everything is made of chemicals”), or celebrated female scientists on International Women’s Day. In the aftermath of #ShutDownSTEM her TikTok has prompted many fans to consider science as a viable path, and she says she frequently gets asked questions by her increasing and curious fanbase. “I’m Black and up until a couple years ago most people couldn’t name a Black scientist, but I’m working on changing that narrative”, she explains. Inspired by groups like BlackInNature, and BlackInNeuro, she hopes that her BlackinCMDBio group can provide emotional support to others navigating her high pressure field, and also amplify Black ideas by having a network of peers to share each other’s research papers. 

Elsewhere, as science and social justice intersect, there are important conversations to be had about how science treats Black people outside of the field. Representation isn’t just a cosmetic issue in the scientific community, it’s vital for experts to do robust and thorough research. During the bombshell Oprah Winfrey interview with Harry and Meghan, the ginger prince spoke about going through unconscious bias training to understand the racial prejudices he, and many of us, hold growing up in a white-centric society. In technology there is an increased movement sounding the alarm on the dire need for increased Black presence to prevent machines from replicating these unconscious biases, with 2020's Netflix film Coded Bias warning audiences about the automation of inequality. After all, it’s these cultural blindspots that could lead us into a bleak future. 

MIT researcher Joy Buolamwini was originally playing around with facial recognition tech when she realised programs had difficulty picking up her face unless she wore a white mask. This simple discovery led her down a rabbit hole. In a Congressional hearing concerning the rise of facial recognition technology, Buolamwini told Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that the faces used to develop facial recognition technology were “pale males” meaning it is ineffective in correctly identifying every other demographic. This has major implications, as companies like Amazon sell these faulty programs to be used by police forces globally. 

“I’m Black and up until a couple years ago most people couldn’t name a Black scientist, but I’m working on changing that narrative” – Hailey Levi, @chaoticallyscience

Machine learning is becoming part of our daily lives. Where there is increased digital decision-making around who gets a mortgage, Black people are likely to be left with less access to housing; when it comes to police databases predicting who will commit a crime, Black people are more likely to be misidentified as targets; and now that companies process job applications via algorithms they filter out the CVs of women and people of colour. All of this is because technology is making decisions based on how the world already functions and, as the Black Lives Matter movement proved, the odds are stacked against Black people. As Joy puts it in Coded Bias: “AI is based on data and data is a reflection of our history. The past dwells within our algorithms.” 

In response to such issues, former Google computer scientist Timnit Gebru set up BlackinAI to create a space where ideas and concerns could be shared. The organisation recently announced a grant program providing support for AI Research projects led by Black women in partnership with Stanford university. Meanwhile, Ethiopian-born Rediet Abebe uses her passion for social justice and AI expertise to call for researchers to build empathy and ethics into new technologies. All this work combined seems to be being noticed: Amazon has banned police from using their AI technology for a year, and Minneapolis now bans police from using the software as other cities reject the unregulated rollout of the new technology.

One of the loudest conversations around how science has interacted with minority communities sprung up this year when the distrust between Black communities and pharmaceutical giants became apparent in regard to the COVID-19 vaccine uptake. London-based Kayisha Payne, who now works as a consultant at MedImmune, is a former AstraZeneca bioscientist who worked for the company last year during 2020. Her specific research area was drugs that are administered in liquid form, something that would act as a precursor to the vials of liquid that are currently being rolled out nationwide in the jabs. For Payne, the exclusive idea of scientists as white men in lab coats is intrinsically linked to Black people’s anxieties.

“Historically, Black people have been used as guinea pigs, we’ve been asked to sign up for clinical trials and given the disease but not given any treatment, or our cells taken but our family haven’t been compensated,” says Payne, referring to the Henrietta Lacks case. Lacks’ remarkable immortal cells were stolen and have since been replicated to make way for scientific discoveries around how to tackle infectious diseases (including coronavirus) and cancer. “If there were more spokespeople or community groups who could communicate the successes in the industry, the renewed focus on ethics, the improvement of clinical trials – then I think that would build a lot of trust.”

Now, Payne runs BBStem to provide opportunities and access to scientific research careers for Black students. She had the idea after her mum connected her with an older Jamaican man who was a family friend and a chemical engineer. “I had so many questions for him that I felt I couldn’t ask others without judgment that after that conversation I had a lightbulb moment.” As well as connecting other scientists, in recent talks she’s spoken to a parliamentary group about the connection between the higher rate of exclusion among Black children in school and lower attainment in Science, or retention of Black students to higher levels of scientific studies. “They’ve got a learning deficit and are more likely to fall behind,” she adds. 

“The lack of Black faces almost makes (climate change) look like a Westernised issue. (But) once we start to change the face of it, we (can) start to find solutions that are tailor made for Black communities” – Ndoni Mcunu

2020 proved that none of these conversations happen in a vacuum, nor are they new. Racial advocacy is happening outside of the Western sphere and has been well before Black Lives Matter became a popular hashtag. Despite Black Africans being the majority in South Africa, they are the minority in the scientific field, something that has been an issue since apartheid. But in a field like Climate Science – where it is acknowledged that the forecasted devastating impact will most likely fall on the global south – it’s vitally important that the voices connected with these communities can bridge the gap between theory and human impact. 

“The lack of Black faces almost makes [climate change] look like a Westernised issue. It’s so important because once we start to change the face of it, we start to relate, we start to find solutions that are tailor made for Africans and tailor made for Black communities,” says. Ndoni Mcunu, a Johannesburg-based scientist specialising in how food systems are impacted by climate change. Among many of her accolades she’s heading up a project for the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to co-develop an international Adaptation Research Alliance (ARA) to be launched at the 26th UN Climate Change Conference. She also runs an advocacy group named Black Women in Science. When asked what the typical experience of a Black scientist is, she says: “In the STEM industry there are definitely these little wars that you face every single day within yourself, and because you’re coming into a system that you already feel excluded from that becomes normal. You survive.”

Working with small farmers and teaching them how to adapt with little resources or access to tech is a huge part of her role. “It can be as simple as knowing what the word for climate change is in Zulu, helping them share their knowledge to inform policymakers or us advising them on how to diversify their crops to survive natural disasters like floods.”

Looking to the future of the scientific sphere, it feels like there’s an increased focus on diversifying the talent pool, but also, importantly, a push to approach research with an ethical outlook in the first place. Through closer links to minority communities, the science community is taking strides to steer towards a brighter and more inclusive future for everyone. Speaking to changemakers in the industry, it’s clear that when marrying social justice and science we can move beyond the point of just highlighting issues. Black scientists aren’t just raising awareness of crucial issues, they’re mobilising a community with the impressive ability to solve them.