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Marking the Anniversary of George Floyd’s Death

Published May 25, 2021

By Nicholas B. Dirks

Marking the Anniversary of George Floyd’s Death

This has been a year of stark reminders that our connections to each other require self-awareness, empathy, and compassion. The connections also require historical and sociological perspective and sustained collective reflection. 

George Floyd was murdered on May 25, 2020. Dozens, then hundreds, and then thousands of people in Minneapolis, in cities and communities across the U.S., and in countries around the world, took to the streets to protest police violence and racism. The names of George Floyd and other Black Americans who have also been killed by police actions were invoked to call attention to a pervasive pattern of racial violence that continues to afflict our nation.  

Violence and racism are not only directed against people who are Black and brown. The shooting spree in Atlanta last March left eight dead; six of the victims were of Asian descent. Violence against Asian Americans is on the rise, with shocking instances of attacks in cities across the nation, including New York.  

As individuals, we must all work toward equity and inclusion. As a group with expert knowledge and influence in science, the Academy has a special responsibility to examine barriers in STEM—in classrooms, the laboratory, industry and in government—and to do what we can to dismantle those barriers. 

At the Academy, we address diversity and equity through our programs supporting education for high school students around the world. We foster inclusive opportunities for underrepresented individuals, who are still too often discouraged from studying science, technology, engineering, and math. 

We work with graduate students, post docs, and other early career scientists to identify and address discrimination in academia and the workplace, and to support their success. We bring diverse voices to our programs. In the fall, we are planning a symposium on The Science of Racial Justice. And we’ve established a committee on diversity, equity, and inclusion.  

We have already seen the value of a collective focus on racism in science. Researchers, policy-makers, and leaders in academia, government and industry having spoken out, and engaged in serious efforts to understand and address structural racism. 

A good starting point is data from a National Science Foundation survey of earned doctorates in 2019. It found that among people who identify themselves as Black or African American, only 6% earned their PhDs in the life sciences, only 2.3% in the physical and earth sciences, and only 3.9% in mathematics and computer sciences. 

In a recent article in The Conversation, Ebony O. McGee, a professor at Vanderbilt, described how a Black doctoral student in engineering who was about to deliver a keynote at a conference was presumed by a white attendee to be a member of the venue’s cleaning staff. Dr. McGee says she has collected about 300 similar stories. 

Those types of incidents occasioned an apology issued in March by Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health, acknowledging “structural racism in biomedical research.” Science reported a mixed response, including by a group disappointed with NIH funding disparities between white and Black scientists. 

Nature has committed to publishing more research, commentary and journalism about racism and racial injustice. Its editors say they are working to increase the diversity of their authors, reviewers and contributors, as well as their editorial staff.  

Associations are also recognizing the harm that their members experience from ongoing racism in science. Chemical & Engineering News has just reported on Asian faculty and students who are questioning their commitment to live and work in the U.S. in the face of physical and verbal attacks, and the indiscriminate targeting by the government of scientists who collaborate with China. 

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a theoretical cosmologist and an assistant professor at the University of New Hampshire, who identifies herself as a queer, agender Black woman, wants every child to have access “to a dark night sky and the opportunity to sit and wonder underneath.” In a CNN interview, she described a dream for the future for science:

Each generation is tasked with doing the work of trying to push the boundaries further into freedom. I find myself hoping that someone from the next generation will actually get to live my dream, which is enjoying learning about the universe and telling stories, without being distracted by racism, transphobia and other forms of oppression.

As we reflect on this anniversary of George Floyd’s death, we share this dream.  As we pursue our mission to use science for the public good, we know there is still much work to do to ensure a more just, equitable, and inclusive future.