The newspaper Nature published a special issue this week on racism in science. In it, Black and Indigenous scientists, doctors, and researchers share how they have experienced racism in their work. Many of them have faced discrimination when they entered their chosen fields and then faced backlash when they spoke out about wrongdoing in those same places. It takes courage to publicly share this kind of pain. Their stories are raw and revealing.
This special issue of Nature arose as part of the newspaper’s own efforts to combat racism. After the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police in 2020, there was an outpouring of voices denouncing systemic racism in all areas of society, including in academia and science. Ahead of a “strike for black lives” focused on STEM industries in June 2020, Nature writes in an editorial that he “acknowledges[s] that Nature is one of the white institutions that is responsible for bias in research and scholarship,” the newspaper said at the time. He has pledged to create a special issue of the journal “Exploring systemic racism in research, research policy and publishing”.
NatureThis week’s special issue features five stories from Black and Indigenous people in science who have pushed for more inclusion and accountability in their fields of work – and faced appalling racism in the process. Nadine Caron, Canada’s first female Indigenous surgeon general, describes her horrifying experience while applying for funding to advance genetic treatments for Indigenous children, when told on a conference call, “I don’t don’t understand why you spend so much money and so much time applying for this grant while your people are killing each other.
It’s shocking to hear people’s lives so casually and cruelly dismissed.
It’s shocking to hear people’s lives dismissed with such flippancy and cruelty, even if it’s quick to call to mind other discriminatory remarks that have come to light recently – like the leaked audio that revealed racist statements that members of the Los Angeles City Council have made about Indigenous and Black people.
All of this shows that the pollution of racism is everywhere, even in supposedly sterile environments – it festers in the research lab and in the data used to create new technologies. Another article in the issue looks at the impact of groundbreaking research that uncovered racial and gender bias in facial recognition software. The 2018 study by Joy Buolamwini and Timnit Gebru found that facial recognition systems built by IBM, Microsoft and Face++ had error rates of up to 34.7% for darker-skinned women. This compares to an error rate of less than 1% for lighter-skinned men.
The edge reported on this study when it was published and has been following the waves it has made since then. The researchers’ work has pushed companies to develop more accurate systems, which can be done by training AI with data that includes a more diverse range of faces. A year after the article was published, a follow-up audit found that Microsoft, IBM, and Face++ had reduced their error rates. But beyond that, the researchers also raised deeper questions about how this facial recognition software would be used. “What’s the point of developing facial analysis technology that is then weaponized?” Buolamwini said The edge in 2018 as the field grappled with the potential for technology to exacerbate police surveillance and racial profiling. By 2020, IBM has announced that it will no longer develop facial recognition products.
It’s the power of telling stories like these – whether through research or storytelling. Change comes with the ebb and flow of actions large and small. There are mass protests. And there are individuals who navigate ivory towers and write down what they find. go read Natureis a special issue here.