Standing up for More than Science: Why Scientists Need to Talk about Identity Politics

by Lorraine Chuen

Since Donald Trump was elected, the response from scientists has been mixed. Some have attempted to pander to the new administration: we all remember when the American Physical Society issued a press release encouraging the incoming administration to “Make America Great Again” through “reclaiming” the country’s scientific leadership–much to the outrage of many APS members.

Many others have decided to speak up, and vocalize that scientists have an integral role in resisting the Trump administration and all the dangers it poses: both to science, and to society more broadly. For instance, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Sarah Tuttle, and Joseph Osmundson are a group of American scientists who penned We are the Scientists Against a Fascist Government. Mike Eisen, a geneticist at UC Berkeley, announced in January that he would be running for Senate in 2018. Across the country, groups have been gathering to conduct ‘data rescues’: collective efforts to preserve and archive climate data that could be lost or altered under the Trump administration. And even more scientists will be banding together with educators, and concerned members of the public in preparation for the March for Science, which will take place tomorrow: April 22nd in Washington, DC — and in over 500 satellite locations.

But despite all this pro-science political activity from scientists, I have heard a number of troubling sentiments. In the midst of an administration that perpetuates misogyny, racism, and xenophobia; one comment that I keep hearing, all too often, is that scientists need to stay out of identity politics.

These people–some of whom are high profile scientists themselves–claim that scientists that should not be dabbling in conversations around oppression on the basis of race, gender, sexuality, ability and other aspects of identity. Such dismissals neglect the fact that women–and women of colour in particular–remain seriously underrepresented in STEM fields because of institutional and structural barriers that exist more broadly in society. As Douglas Haynes writes so succinctly in “Always the Exception: Women and Women of Color Scientists in Historical Perspective”:

“The image of the scientist as white and male was neither an accident nor the random distribution of interest, talent or merit, but, rather reflected structures and choices that differentially burdened, oppressed and devalued women in general and women of color in particular.”

Women of colour are not underrepresented in STEM due to arbitrary forces: throughout history, and to this day, there are institutional barriers that prevent them from moving upward in the academy. Science–and who is allowed to participate in science–does not operate in a silo. There is no question that the power structures that exist outside the academy also exist within it.

Those dismissing identity politics as irrelevant also neglect the fact that contributions from women and people of colour are often forgotten, conveniently erased from mainstream historical retellings of scientific advancement. But perhaps most hauntingly, dismissals of identity politics fail to acknowledge that science has a history of being used as a violent tool against members of marginalized communities in America.

Throughout history, science has played an important role in upholding white supremacy; most obviously through the eugenics movement. Eugenics, conceived of by scientist Francis Galton, was the idea of ‘improving’ the human race with the principles of genetics. These ideas were soon put into practice through compulsory sterilization laws, which in America, disproportionately targeted marginalized groups: those with mental illness and Latino, Black, and Native American women until as late as the mid 1970s in some states.

The label of ‘science’ has also been used as a tool to justify racist policies, due to its so-called objective stance and purported political neutrality. For instance: within a few years of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, which ruled racial segregation in public schools as unconstitutional in 1954, the International Society for the Advancement of Ethnology and Eugenics (IAAEE) was formed. This was a group of scientists with the aim of overturning the ruling with the support of ‘scientific evidence’ of racial intelligence differences. Although they ultimately failed, their efforts demonstrate the insidious potential for science to be used as a dangerous tool to shape discriminatory policies.

Scientists should also be reminded that historically, innovation has also occurred at the expense of racialized communities; particularly in medicine. Medical advancements such as birth control were first tested on women of colour, psychiatric patients, and low income women–many who ended up being sterilized–before birth control was labelled as ‘safe’ and sold to more affluent, white women. Dr. James Marion Sims, the ‘father of modern gynecology’ was the first to develop a procedure for treating a complication of childbirth called vesicovaginal fistula–by experimenting surgeries on enslaved, Black women (one woman, Anarcha, was operated on 30 times). And let’s not forget the nightmarish Tuskegee Syphilis Study: the forty-year long clinical study conducted by the US Public Health Service that let hundreds of Black men with syphilis go untreated so that scientists could study the evolution of the disease. Infected patients were not told they had the disease, and participated in the study in exchange for free health care.

So while an abundance of scientific research has contributed to the public good, scientists must not conveniently forget the times when the label of ‘science’ has been used to justify harm against marginalized groups. This means recognizing that conversations around race, gender, and other aspects of identity have a place in discussions about science and society.

All too often, I find that people opt not to care about racism and xenophobia, because they are white; or misogyny, because they are men; or transphobia, because they are cis; or ableism, because they are able-bodied. Deeming these topics irrelevant to a conversation–in any context, including science–is a privilege. It’s easy to remove thinking about these systems of oppression from your day to day consciousness if you’re someone who has never had to deal with them; or perhaps because you’ve actually benefited from them (often without even knowing it — such is the seemingly invisible nature of privilege).

To me, choosing to stay apolitical is like publicly declaring your lack of concern for others who are not like you. It means being A-OK with upholding the status quo; a status quo that now — more than ever endangers marginalized groups in our society. In that same vein, choosing to advocate specifically for science and only science, while being able to ignore the effects of the Trump administration on marginalized groups; this is also a privilege. In response to those claiming that “conversations about diversity are a distraction from the goals of the March for Science”, I say: Scientists need to stand up for more than just the principles of science. Yes, science is in danger. But it’s bigger than just science, and just scientists.