The world's largest multidisciplinary scientific society has decided to fight systemic racism. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), publisher of the prestigious science journals, took the step after black scientists came forward to protest against racism in science and science and organized a strike on June 10 that AAAS had joined. In a letter to its 120,000 members this month, AAAS CEO Sudip Parikh announced that the 172-year-old institution has worked out a plan to hold itself and the diversity of sciences accountable. Starting in September, it will begin sharing data on the diversity of its staff, scholarship holders, and authors, which have been published in its journals.
On Wednesday June 10th, AAAS and Science will watch #ShutdownStem, listen to members of our community sharing resources, and discuss ways to eliminate racism and get STEM more involved in black people. https://t.co/d1yes5plae. We recommend that you join us.
– AAAS (@aaas), June 8, 2020
The Verge spoke to Parikh, who said some of the initial numbers were "encouraging" while others were "embarrassing". Ultimately, demographic data will be a starting point to ensure that the composition of the organization better reflects the public that it serves. Parikh also believes that the measures AAAS takes through its journals, scholarships, and awards will create ways to boost the careers of scientists from underrepresented communities.
This interview was edited for the sake of length and clarity.
Why did AAAS decide to take part in the # ShutDownSTEM strike to fight racism against blacks in June?
Much of the energy for this came from young scientists, scientists who are not yet in the firmament of permanent and senior academics. The moment George Floyd's murder really had a lot of consequences, it just felt right to take a day to think as an organization. People spent the day thinking about and planning what the organization should do to combat systemic racism in science.
We have darkened all of our communication channels. In our social media feeds, we stopped publishing new content. And we just retweeted people who tweeted about the #shutdownSTEM tag and heard their thoughts. We switched off our website and basically put up a suggestion box and said: Look, we want to hear from our community. We know our church is hurt. Tell us Tell us what you think at the moment. Give us your suggestions. I opened my time for meetings with internal teammates to find out what they were feeling at the moment and what they had seen over the years. It really felt like a moment to listen.
"We held out a mirror to ourselves"
The first step in your plan is to share demographic data with AAAS and its programs. What do you expect from this data?
When we looked at a mirror, we realized that we are not as diverse as we should be. If demographic data is collected and published in the future, the community can hold us accountable. It enables our members to hold us accountable. It enables underrepresented communities to hold us accountable. So it seemed right to do this first.
After looking at some of the preliminary data, some of them are encouraging. Our board, some of our senior executives, is indeed very diverse and has excellent representation, which I think shows great mentorship. Some of it is embarrassing in terms of our diversity in our editorial teams and in terms of the academic editors we have. It is not very diverse. This has resulted in the field of view of important science being restricted.
How is this data used to combat systemic racism?
When Science Magazine chooses a field and says it matters, it drives success. If you are a scientist and publish an article in Science, you are on your way to an academic career because it is a well-respected journal. It also promotes funding because if you publish in science or publish under other renowned journals, funding will be on your way. It is a virtuous cycle when it works well. This virtuous cycle can also be a wall for those who are not part of it.
Our professional editors are the first to look at a paper, and this group of professional editors says: Yes, that's important enough to appear in our journal Science. Or they could say it's good science, but you know what, it's not exciting. It is not so important that it is in the most prestigious magazine, it should go elsewhere. This group should be diverse, it should be representative. If you have a representative group, you may have a larger field of vision about what's important.
"I used to see science as a refuge"
For example, people are very excited to see a black hole, and that's great. It is exciting. It is impressive. However, if there was a paper that talked about how to reduce health differences in the Mississippi Delta, that paper might have been a challenge earlier. This area is now bigger, people realize that this is important.
However, we want to have people who have enough field of vision to recognize that this is an important piece of science and can achieve incredible results. If we narrow the range of health differences in the delta, the average increases for everyone across the country.
Sudip Parikh became the 19th managing director of AAAS this year in its more than 170-year history.
Picture: AAAS / DIA Global
In a letter to your members, you wrote: "Some have told us we should stick to science – that issues of systemic racism are not within our remit and are not worth our time and attention." How did you react to that?
I grew up in North Carolina and am a second generation Indian American. I used to see science as a refuge. Science was a refuge from school bullying. It is a place where rationality is at stake. It's math. It's a merit. And that's true to a certain extent. But science interacts with the world.
The people who said that "we should stick to science" miss the opportunity for the greatest minds to get into science, the greatest number of those entering science. And it holds science back because we will need people who are descendants of Native Americans, pilgrims, enslaved peoples, and immigrants from all over the place if we want to do the great things we think we can cure COVID -19 or go to Mars.