There were 16% fewer Black Americans who graduated with STEM science bachelor’s degrees in 2016 than there were in 2004, according to a report by Undark investigators who analysed data from the National Science Foundation.
It’s no wonder that five young Black scientists and researchers felt called to lead in the fight for diversity and equity in STEM. For one activist, it was the news that an amature ornithologist named Christian Cooper was harrassed in Central Park. For others, it was the death of George Floyd and the isolation they felt as the sole minority representative at school or on the job.
Science News, an independent nonprofit publication, interviewed each of the following young scientists and shared what they believe has changed this year and what they hoped to change in the scientific community and beyond.
#BlackAFinSTEM and the Start of #BlackBirdersWeek
Deja Perkins, an urban ecologist and graduate of North Carolina State University’s Fisheries and Wildlife Conservation Biology Master of Science program is one of the organizers of #BlackBirdersWeek, according to Science News.
Perkins, (also president of #BlackAFinSTEM, an independent group of STEM workers), helped organize a week of events following the viral news that bird enthusiast Cooper had been the subject racial stereotyping and harassment by a woman in New York City’s Central Park. The event sought to bring attention to the everyday intimidation that can rise to the level of murder for Black people outdoors.
“Any one of us could have been Christian Cooper,” Perkins said. “A lot of BlackAFinSTEM members have experienced racism in the field or have had negative experiences with the police.”
For Perkins, the change she would most like to see is the hiring of qualified Black professionals to positions in nonprofits and government agencies with the power to make change.
Being Heard: the Birth of #BlackInSciComm
Raven Baxter, a science education graduate student at State University of New York at Buffalo, told Science News she founded #BlackInSciComm because she felt that Black science communicators who advocated for racial justice for themselves and others shouldn’t have to sacrifice their jobs to have their voices heard.
Baxter felt that this year’s diversity initiatives were different because collectively Black people “saw the importance of owning our own narrative.”
She referred to the “Black in X” movements on Twitter, where Black scientists posted with on Twitter to celebrate their disciplines with hashtags such as: #BlackInAstro, #BlackInNeuro, or #BlackInCardio.
Do yourself a favor and follow Raven the Science Maven on YouTube and Twitter, where you can witness the future of science communication.
Strike for Black Lives
Brian Nord, a cosmologist and University of Chicago Consortium for Advanced Science and Engineering associate in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, helped organize the Strike for Black Lives. Held June 10, the strike was a call for action targeting anti-Blackness in academia and the lack of representation in hiring.
Nord told Science news that he’d tried to be the change within the system, but the institutional diversity and inclusion messages seemed to be treated as window dressing.
“For years, there’s been way too few Black faculty in physics plus too little investment by academic institutions in Black communities,” Nord said. “And there’s been little to no accountability for racist and misogynist behavior that drives Black people away from research. It’s time for these things to end. We needed to do something different.”
No Longer Solo: @BlackInNeuro
Angeline Dukes, a neuroscience graduate student at the University of California, Irvine, told Science News she founded @BlackInNeuro one day this summer with the tweet, “Sooo when are we doing #BlackInNeuro week?”
The resulting virtual event was a success, but it also highlighted the need for more events that amplify the voices and research of Black scientists in neuroscience-related fields.
“We are mostly graduate students and postdocs, so it’s a trainee-led initiative,” said Dukes. “There aren’t a lot of Black people in faculty positions. There are more of us at the graduate level. We have the energy and the drive to build a community and hopefully retain more of us in these fields so we can get those faculty positions.”
Dukes said seeing so many Black neuroscientists and neuro engineers share their stories using #BlackInNeuro hashtag amazed her and made her feel she was part of a community.
Action Items From a Black Economist
Gary Hoover is an economics professor at the University of Oklahoma and co-chair of the American Economic Association’s Committee on the Status of Minority Groups in the Economics Profession.
Hoover contributed to research for a survey published in the Summer 2020 Journal of Economic Perspectives which found young professionals had left the field for other careers and minority students didn’t feel professionally welcomed.
Following the death of George Floyd, the American Economic Association (AEA) issued a statement on diversity and inclusiveness. Hoover, along with his colleague Ebonya Washington, told the AEA it wasn’t enough. Hoover and Washington came up with an action list, which was taken up and implemented by the AEA. These initiatives include: grants, awards, an undergraduate essay prize and an annual gathering to make the field accessible and welcoming for interested minorities.
Hoover believes positive reinforcement will help institutions turn a page on diversity.
Robert F. Smith, an Advocate for Diversity in STEM and the Outdoors
According to Undark, the growing lag in Black graduates with STEM degrees correlates with rollbacks of affirmative action at colleges and universities in the U.S. But private philanthropy from leaders such as Robert F. Smith aims to correct this disparity.
Smith’s recent $50 million gift helped launch the Student Freedom Initiative which will kick off an alternative funding program for STEM students at HBCUs. Smith also funded STEM scholarships for African American and female students at Cornell University.
The scientists and science students above show that community and support are important issues.
Smith, who grew up taking family trips in the Rocky Mountains, is also an environmental advocate. Part of his activism includes contributions to causes that promote access to the natural world for diverse groups of people Including veterans with PTSD and disadvantaged children from the Denver Metropolitan area. Read more about what Smith is doing to extend the wellbeing and education that comes from experiencing the wonders of nature: