Science Needs to Face Up to Its Racist History
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Elevating science’s role in policy making is important; so is reckoning with how science has been used to harm marginalized communities

Henrietta Lacks. Credit: Getty Images
announcement that the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy would be a Cabinet level position. It set a pattern that the administration would give science a prominent role in a wide range of policy matters. While this strengthens the role of science and offers hope that the U.S. will resume global leadership on climate, it’s not enough.

I’ve spent over a decade creating transparent, accessible and usable ways for science to be a tool not only for organizations in government, academia and industry, but for the broader public. Right now, we have an incredible opportunity to think about science differently. Not only can we reengage in the global conversation about climate change, but we can also start to repair the fractures with science on the home front. Although science skepticism in our country has largely been a consequence of dangerous lies, we need to acknowledge that mistrust also comes from the role science has played in racial injustice in America. Building back better during this administration must contain a reckoning with problematic scientific histories.

Beyond prioritizing an integrity-based scientific agenda, we must also address the root harm that science has historically symbolized for some communities. To build trust in science, the administration will be required to look deeply into the fractures between the American public and science that have been orchestrated over the last four years, but stem well into the trenches of the racially unjust history of this country.

In the hands of government and research, science has been a tool that in infamous nonconsensual cases, such as the Tuskegee study and the mistreatment of Henrietta Lacks, caused victims to suffer while the field of medicine benefited. In my own work with communities impacted by industrial pollution, we see generation after generation living in the unchanging shadow of industrial facilities because government allows industry to self-regulate while economic benefits are given more weight than health.

Over the past four years, the Trump administration made every attempt to wipe out, decrease access to and discredit science. The administration cast a pallor over science at every level of government. Going forward, it will be difficult for the American public to (re)gain trust in democratic institutions and the policies they put forward if they don’t see clear and direct attempts to turn around the actions of the Trump administration. But Biden’s administration must go even further and truly engage people in a way that hasn’t happened before so as to actively and at every step counter mistrust.

Moreover, throughout the past year, people who have suffered environmental injustice and pollution have also experienced the heightened effects of COVID-19. A Harvard Chan study found that there is an 11 percent higher chance of someone dying from COVID-19 if they have been exposed to air pollution over time. Trust has yet again been eroded in communities that have grown accustomed to being dumping grounds for the world’s contaminants. In my own city of New Orleans, while the initial rollout of vaccines has seemed hopeful, a necessary public outreach campaign, which calls on cultural icons to ask the population to roll up their sleeves and receive the vaccine, points to the troubled history of health and medicine. When the manipulation of science in favor of extractive and harmful agendas hasn’t been dealt with, there’s no doubt people will be wary.

The history of racially unjust scientific research practices, the drastic measures of the Trump administration to undermine science, and the far-reaching effects of COVID-19 across the globe all will be felt far into the future. As the Biden administration rolls out its agenda, it must remember that science doesn’t automatically equal trust and that, when misused, science has in fact caused substantial harm. I’ve spent years working with open-source communities using science as a tool for activating around environmental pollution issues. What I’ve learned is that pairing transparency with science, making science a public good from the beginning, and creating direct and clear places for public input, use and understanding of science, should be part of the reckoning we need to have.

We’re headed in the right direction to change course with new scientific leadership in the Biden administration whose agenda directly attempts to counter disinformation. But it needs to also address the history of science in this country, while forging new ways forward. As we reenter the global stage, we must do the critical work necessary to address our own fractures with science and society. If the government can balance the demanding issues of our time in which science is the tool to use, while also making space for listening and building anew with the American public, we can slowly start to turn things around.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

Shannon Dosemagen

    Shannon Dosemagen is currently a Shuttleworth Foundation Fellow and Civic Science Fellow directing the Open Environmental Data Project, which is focused on examining better ways to ensure communities have routes to input on science and environment policy decisions. Previously she was the executive director of Public Lab for a decade, an organization that applies science and technology to support communities dealing with the impacts of industrial pollution, and the chair of the National Advisory Council on Environmental Policy and Technology (NACEPT).

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    akimupro@gmail.com

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