Earth scientists #ShutDownSTEM — and reckon with racism in their departments
By noon on June 10, the day of the Strike for Black Lives across higher education, nearly 6,000 scientists had signed a pledge to #ShutDownSTEM: to cancel their lab meetings, halt their research projects, and actively confront entrenched racism in academia.
It was a powerful show of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, galvanized by the recent killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and others. Physicists Brian Nord and Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, members of the physics collective Particles for Justice, helped developed the idea for the strike along with multidisciplinary scientists using the hashtag #ShutDownSTEM. For one day, they called on university science departments, national laboratories, and anyone else involved in science, technology, engineering, and math to stop business as usual. “No research, no meetings, no classes,” said the #ShutDownSTEM website.
Black academics, strike organizers wrote online, could use the day to “nourish their hearts, whether that’s protesting, organizing, or watching ‘Astronomy Club.’” White and other non-black academics could do their part by educating themselves and their colleagues about their institutions’ role in perpetuating white supremacy and — more importantly —coming up with concrete actions they could take to reduce anti-black bias in academia in the weeks, months, and years after the strike.
Astrophysicist and #ShutDownSTEM contributor Brittany Kamai, who is Native Hawaiian,* said the strike was an opportunity to uplift black voices in the ivory tower —something she says is all too rare. “So much of our experience in academia and STEM is that it’s not a priority to evaluate our role in systemic racism,” she told Grist.
Rather than addressing the problem, Nord wrote in a letter posted online, scientists tend to absolve themselves of responsibility. They “act like the smartest people on Earth … and then throw their hands up in ignorance when asked to figure out how to make a minor contribution to justice and equality,” he wrote.
Only 24 percent of college faculty members were nonwhite as of 2017, and the data is even worse for STEM fields. A study published this March in the journal BioScience found that black, Latino, Native American, and other underrepresented scholars account for only 9 percent of faculty appointments in STEM, and even less — 4 percent — at the most selective universities.
And in earth and environmental science departments, the disparity is even greater. Nationwide, only 3 percent of earth and environmental scientists are black, according to census data, and in atmospheric science — one of the foundational fields for climate science — that number drops to virtually 0 percent. According to a 2019 article published in Nature, all people of color account for only 3.8 percent of tenured or tenure-track faculty positions in the country’s top 100 earth science departments.
“Earth science is one of the least well-represented divisions when it comes to racial diversity and underrepresented minorities,” Jessica Smith, a climate researcher at Harvard, told Grist.
To explain this extreme disparity, some climate scientists have pointed to a “dual burden” of stereotypes both about STEM in general and environmentalists more specifically. On top of the barriers already faced by black scholars in STEM, a 2014 report published in Nature Climate Change showed that respondents were quicker to associate concepts like “conservation” and “environmentalist” with white people than with black, Hispanic, or Asian groups.
“There’s a sense in people’s minds that you need a mountaineering background or to have grown up birdwatching or mountain climbing” in order to go into earth science, Smith told Grist, “and that may favor some demographics over others.”
Smith, a white woman, is part of a multi-departmental committee to increase diversity, inclusion, and belonging across Harvard’s earth and engineering science departments. (Disclosure: The author is an undergraduate in Harvard’s earth science department.) Last Wednesday, in response to the call to #ShutDownSTEM, the committee helped host a reflective town hall for the departments’ community members. Undergrads, postdocs, and faculty shared experiences and suggested ways to act against racism. The rest of the day, Smith said, the committee encouraged students and faculty to cancel meetings and research, using the time to read up on systemic racism. It suggested some starting points — books like Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning and the film Blindspotting — in an email sent to department affiliates.
Other schools took a similar approach, shutting down normal lab operations to create space for contemplation and self-education. Earth science departments in at least eight of the country’s top 10 universities — according to U.S. News’ ranking of environmental programs — released statements of solidarity with the Strike for Black Lives or #ShutDownSTEM, announcing they would host panels, discussions, or reading groups.
However, the movement’s organizers have made it clear that words of affirmation — while they are often well-intentioned — are not enough. “We are not calling for more diversity and inclusion talks and seminars,” Particles for Justice wrote on its website. “We are calling for every member of the community to commit to taking actions that will change the material circumstances of how Black lives are lived.”
“Hundreds of years of anti-Black racism will not be erased from our Ivory Tower in one night,” University of California, Irvine physicist and strike organizer Seyda Ipek told Grist in an email.*
So far, among earth and environmental science departments, most public-facing commitments have been relatively vague, invoking “discussions” or “making space” or calls to “reflect.” But there are some promising signs of meaningful change. Smith says Harvard grad students are pushing to replace photos and busts of racist figures in their departments. Others are asking how they might change course curricula to be actively anti-racist. Elsewhere, Dartmouth’s Department of Earth Science announced a seven-part course of action to make the department more accessible and diverse that will be assessed annually.
Kamai told Grist that meaningful change will demand the cumulative effort of millions of students, professors, and institutions actively taking on white supremacist culture in “every email you send, every experiment you put together, what papers you’re writing, who you’re citing.”
It’s clear that the need to confront racial disparities in the environmental movement — including the earth sciences — is urgent. As the black climate scientist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson wrote in the Washington Post last week, racism “derails our efforts to save the planet.” Black people are significantly more concerned about, and impacted by, the climate crisis. Yet, Johnson asks, “how can we expect black Americans to focus on climate when we are so at risk on our streets, in our communities, and in our own homes?” Even those who have already committed to climate science or climate activism must do so while juggling fears of racially-motivated violence and oppression. Racism stalls climate action, she says; the only way to create a habitable planet is through proactive anti-racism.
The earth and environmental sciences —the study of vast, transformative planetary systems — may be particularly well-suited to thinking about the systemic change required to dismantle white supremacy. In a statement posted online, University of California Santa Barbara earth science department chair Andy Wyss drew poignant parallels between earth processes and social change. “Change may be slow and incremental, but is it inexorable,” he wrote. “The cumulative effect of many small jolts of evolutionary pressure can result in entirely new realities.” At the same time, “unpredictable catastrophic events upend the status quo, creating unanticipated opportunities for fundamental change.” STEM, and earth science in particular, is facing one of those opportunities right now.
*Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly described Brittany Kamai. She is Native Hawaiian. A quote was also incorrectly attributed and has now been corrected for attribution to Seyda Ipek. Grist regrets the errors.