Confronting Racism in the Sciences: A Resource Set for Scholars

Dr Eden Smith is a Research Fellow in the History and Philosophy of Science (HPS). Alongside their focused research, Eden has been collating resources on key topics in HPS to help facilitate conversations between those who analyse science, such as historians, philosophers, and sociologists of science, and those who practice science. As part of this initiative, Eden has curated a selection of resources aimed at helping scholars of all types understand and discuss issues related to past and present racism in the sciences. Recently, Eden and fellow scholar Dr Hannah Fraser were awarded a commendation for their work by the Society for the Improvement of Psychological Sciences. Eden sat down with Samara Greenwood to talk about this important project.

Your resource set on Racism in the Sciences is a fabulous initiative, I was wondering how you came to put it together?

The initial prompt was a series of outraged Twitter responses to a post supporting STEM academics who were participating in Black Lives Matter strikes and other #shutdownSTEM initiatives in mid-2020. These enraged responders were convinced that the sciences (and scientists) should always be neutral and therefore refrain from engaging in debates on racism.

Graphic produced for #shutdownSTEM 2020. Image courtesy

From studying history and philosophy of science, I know the extensive impacts of racism in the sciences and, therefore, how problematic these outraged comments were. My surprise that this was not more widely understood reminded me that I live in a bit of a bubble.

This prompted me to reflect on the resources I’ve been helping to develop to support interdisciplinary collaborations. In that context, including a resource list on racism in science should have been obvious but I had been hesitating. I felt it would be presumptuous of me, as a white person who doesn’t experience these issues firsthand and who, in fact, benefits from systemic racism, to put this resource set together.

What changed your mind?

Three things shifted my perspective.

First, I realised how privileged I am to have been exposed to the huge body of HPS literature which demonstrates racism in the sciences. Part of that literature also shows this problematic link between racism in the sciences and the expectation that scientists should remain neutral in public debates. From knowing this, I could link this literature to the Twitter comments and understand where the tension comes from.

I have also been in several conversations over the years with friends and colleagues who share their personal experiences of racism with me. Some have highlighted how well-intentioned white people, myself included, often notice the impact of racism within academia and yet still leave the work of challenging those structures to those directly disadvantaged.

Finally, a personal situation had an impact on me. I was in a Skype meeting when a colleague said something with outlandishly racist assumptions and the only person who responded to this was a person of colour. At the time, I knew I should have responded, yet didn’t, largely because it made me uncomfortable to do so.

All of these things came together and I realised I shouldn’t let my discomfort keep me on the sidelines while those most impacted by racism do all the work of challenging it.

I believe we should leverage our privileges to help make change. One way I could do this was by amplifying the resources that helped me better understand the ongoing issues. While I haven’t got away from my discomfort, I hope this can be useful to others who similarly want to resist the effect of racism in their workplaces yet don’t know where to start.

You mention the persistent belief that science is (and should be) separate from the concerns of society. Why do you think that belief persists so strongly in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary?

Yes, that is a real puzzle. I think, at some point in my life, I probably held that assumption as well. It is only as I learned from all the examples where that is not the case, that my understanding changed.

Working with scientists directly, I think there is a tension between having trust in the scientific process and understanding that process to be messy and complicated. It seems people find the social aspect of science makes it harder to trust in science, yet there are many good arguments saying that is why we should trust science. Naomi Oreskes’s work is a classic example, as well as that of Sandra Harding and others. More generally, the idea that scientific knowledge can be both objectively reliable and nonetheless contingent on social (and other) contexts is widely supported by historical, philosophical, and social studies of the sciences as practiced.

Unfortunately, I think perpetuating the idea that science is neutral, that it provides a ‘God’s eye view’, also benefits certain portions of the population. They don’t want to give up that privileged position.

Eden Smith, 2019. Photographer: Peter Waters

What kinds of resources have you included in the set?

The first part of the resource set contains literature on the extensive structural racism in science, demonstrating first that it’s not a debatable point. That it is undoubtedly the case.

The second section highlights the problematic use of race as a scientific concept. That is a slightly different topic and shows how you can, at once, understand how racism has impacted science and still debate whether race is a valid concept. You can hold that tension and do both those things at the same time.

Then there is a section on indigenous knowledge and analysing our research practices more generally. Finally, there is a section on dismantling systemic racism in academia, which makes a distinction between institutional practices and research practices that I think is important.

Are there any resources you would recommend for a general audience?

While the resource set was not specifically developed for general audiences, there are several that are accessible for non-specialists. For example, the Wireless Philosophy series Racial Ontology: A Guide for the Perplexed provides a good introduction to the concept of race as it has been constructed and used.

There is also a great reading list on Decolonising Science that has been compiled by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein. I also think the resources for Australian school curricula are worth highlighting – in particular, the resources on amplifying indigenous knowledges that these include.

How do you hope the resources will be used?

The initial aim was to provide resource sets for reading groups. A lot of people don’t feel comfortable or knowledgeable enough to facilitate conversations on racism, yet we need to have them, even if they are messy. By providing these resources, I hope to help those kinds of conversations.

The site has generated interest, receiving lots of visits and, recently, a commendation from the Society for the Improvement of Psychological Sciences. I have also been encouraged by my Principal Investigator, Fiona Fidler, and our Head of School, Margaret Cameron, to develop these resources into teaching materials that others can use. I would love to see that happen.

Could you briefly describe your larger project on curated resource sets?

The idea for creating a variety of resource sets came out of ongoing discussions with Fiona Fidler. We were trying to figure out ways to help collaborations between practicing scientists and scholars who analyse science.

Scientists often have a particular view of scientific practice that does not align with what we know from those who have studied it from a historical, philosophical, or social perspective. This comes back to my earlier point about the problematic idea that ‘science is neutral’, which is still very embedded among scientists. Part of the reason for that is that scientists are educated to have that expectation.

We know that throwing information at people is not the way to solve this kind of problem, so we decided to curate resources that could be accessible to those who wish to know more. We then took our initial resources into workshops with scientists and asked, is this useful? If not, how can we make it useful? In this way, we have allowed for collaboration over time.

So far, we have curated resources on contemporary philosophy of science, the idea of collective objectivity and why the scientific method is a myth [forthcoming]. I am also hoping to create more in collaboration with scientists, like those I have done with Hannah Fraser on categorisation in science and Elliot Gould on the use of models in ecology [forthcoming].

I understand this project is unusual in many ways. What is different about this initiative and why do you believe it is important for academia?

This work is an example of a side project that emerges in the space between different groups of researchers. This kind of ‘connective’ work is not often acknowledged, nor are its positive impact on our research. If it isn’t teaching material or research material, it often falls through the cracks.

However, this work is important and takes a lot of time and effort. I’m fortunate to have a lot of support for this project and have been working on these resource sets for two years and still haven’t got as far as I would like.

Dr Eden Smith is a researcher in the history, philosophy, and social studies of scientific and technological practices. Eden’s primary research involves examining how concepts are used in scientific experiments and exploring the sociotechnical dynamics in communities developing innovative technologies. Eden is also a research fellow in the MetaMelb research group at the University of Melbourne, responsible for the repliCATS project. In this project, Eden focuses on investigating the reasoning involved in expert assessments of the replicability, reproducibility, and robustness of scientific claims, as well how concepts such as replicability are used within open-science communities.

Feature image: Edgar Chaparro on Unsplash