Quirks & Quarks

Black in Science: Have recent years of activism made a difference?

For Black people in science, 2020 was a transformative year. In the context of the Black Lives Matter protests, the year brought a lot of attention to the way systemic racism in science created obstacles for talented researchers. We get an update on what’s different a couple of years later from evolutionary ecologist Dr. Maydianne Andrade.

Maydianne Andrade reflects on what's changed since the Black Lives Matter protests

Ecologist Maydianne Andrade, known for her work on the mating habits of spiders, is shown in a lab at the University of Toronto in Scarborough, Ont. Andrade is president of the Canadian Black Scientists Network. (Nick Iwanyshyn/University of Toronto)

2020 was a transformative year for science — and not just because of the COVID pandemic.

In the context of the Black Lives Matter protests, it was also a year that brought a lot of attention to a neglected injustice in science: How the way science is practiced can be a minefield of micro-aggressions and mistreatment for racialized scientists, and in particular Black scientists. 

This has created obstacles for talented researchers, preventing them from fully participating in the scientific process. And this not only causes suffering for the people living through it, it also means science suffers from their sometimes unfulfilled potential, and from diversity of thought and opinion they might have contributed as well.

In 2021 we broadcast a special program looking at what it was like to be black in science, and spoke with several academics to ask them how to start fixing the problem. Now, almost two years and a pandemic later, we felt it was time to check in and see what's changed — and where progress has stalled. 

One of our contributors in 2021 was evolutionary ecologist, Dr. Maydianne Andrade. She's a professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough, and president of the Canadian Black Scientists Network.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity

Thinking back a few years, when we initially spoke with you about the treatment of Black scientists, how do you feel about how science may have changed since then?

There's been a lot of positive change, and some of that change is really just around awareness, and around a shift in the culture from denying that racism existed in science, or that scientists could be influenced by racism, to accepting that the experience of the statistical majority isn't necessarily the experience of everyone. And so that's been really positive because people have been open to trying to understand what they need to do to make change. 

Has the enthusiasm for change been sustained?

On the one hand, I feel as if it is true that people have shifted their gaze or their lens they use in looking at academic institutions. But on the other hand, much of the progress that has been made has sort of been ring fenced within so-called "EDI initiatives." And I'm not against EDI — equity diversity and inclusion — as a standalone entity with people who champion that work, but really, if it isn't integrated into the fundamental work of our institutions, it is the first thing to go when there's a budget cut. It is always at risk of being considered extraneous. And in my experience, people are thinking about some of these initiatives as EDI initiatives rather than quality of science and innovation initiatives, and the latter is where I think these things should sit.

A man and three women posing for a photo on a rainy street.
Members of the Canadian black scientist network steering committee, meeting in person in Toronto in 2022. Left to right, Jude Kong of York University, Kimberley Gauthier of Sick Kids Hospital, Maydianne Andrade of the University of Toronto and Jennifer Adams of the University of Calgary (Submitted by Maydianne Andrade)

What are some of the challenges that still persist?

Just to give you an example, our Canadian Black Scientist Network is hosting a conference, called the Black Excellence in STEMM conference. And when we write to institutions or organizations to ask if they want to participate in that conference, including sponsorship or a career fair, often that request gets sent to an EDI office, and the challenge with that is, we're not a charity. We're bringing to the table hundreds of qualified, skilled Black scholars who otherwise escape your gaze. And so just like you would sponsor the Society for Neuroscience and you would show up ready to find new recruits, that's what we want as well. But that isn't typically what happens unless we really fight for it.

So is it more talk than action? 

I think it is people who recognize they should be doing something. Some people call it "performative" when you say what needs to be said but don't necessarily act in line with those ideals. I don't know if that's true for everyone. In some cases, people don't know what to do. In some cases, Canadians are still afraid to say Black. Some of that has changed, but not entirely. In other cases, it really is that this has been put into people's job descriptions and either they don't have the resources or the power to change things, or they feel that it is a loss of power for the statistically dominant group. And the latter is the most problematic of those scenarios that I'm describing.

WATCH: A tour of Maydianne Andrade's lab

Well do you find the priorities are shifting as time marches on after the initial outcry?

I do think that's true. Priorities do shift and you do expect that to happen overtime. But again that's the problem with this being a separate area, as opposed to integrated into a change in how we do things. And the thing that I keep reminding people is that a lot of what we're talking about, what is unique to Black Canadians, is the history of negative stereotypes that can essentially trace their roots back to enslavement. But the equitable measures that we're talking about putting in place are beneficial to everyone, right? We're all hearing about anti-Asian racism and the challenges that that imposes on entire populations of people in Canada. We've just in Ontario seen a devastating report on anti-Semitism, we know about Islamophobia, etc. 

What we're talking about in terms of changes, while it does include things like cluster hires for Black academics, it also includes changing our processes to make sure that there is oversight, to make sure that stereotypes are not making their way into our decision making.

Recently there was some backlash about diversity requirements for Canada Research Chair positions. What do you say to people who say, why not just ask for excellence? Why ask for identity factors at all?

The interesting thing about the challenge people have with thinking about targets, which is essentially what's happening in the Canada Research Chair program, is that even people who say that they agree that we need to do something to fix things, begin to pick and choose where those things should happen. And typically what they'll do is say, well, the problem is really the pool. We need to do something to make Black people interested in science. And the truth is that that's not the problem. The problem is that the system is not interested in having Black people in science. 

All you're saying with targets are, we're going to make sure that once we get those excellent candidates, we consider something else, which is: do we have a diversity of people among our [Canada Research Chairs], knowing that diversity leads to more innovation.

Three Black women in masks pose in front of a forest background.
Canadian researchers Swanne Gordon of Cornell University, Maydianne Andrade of the University of Toronto and Jessica Ware of the American Museum of Natural History at a joint meeting of the Entomological Societies of America and Canada in 2022. Ware is the first Black president of the ESA. (Submitted by M. Andrade)

Science isn't monolithic. So are some areas of science faring better than most?

That's an interesting question. It is the case that we are seeing certain fields are slower than others to affect change. And that's not necessarily because the leaders aren't trying to affect change. We know, for example, that students need to decide that they like physics in like grade 10. In grade 10, you have to decide, you know what, I'm going to take the courses that are going to lead me into a physics degree in my undergrad year because I love those subjects. If you're not excited by physics in grade 10, and you decide to drop it, it is really hard to get into a physics program in university. 

Now you add to that what we know, which is that Black students are being discouraged from university entry programs and courses. And what you get is this perfect storm where in hard sciences and math, Black students tend to be excluded at a very early stage and therefore they don't have the prerequisites they need if they do go to university. 

So it seems like you have both some good news and some not so good news about the changes in racism in science. What changes would you like to see happening over the next three years?

I would really like to see efforts at ensuring that we make good decisions based on excellence, which is 100 per cent what I'm talking about. I'd like to see the equity pieces of those infused throughout all of our processes rather than living with one particular person or with one particular department. So remove this ring fence around EDI. 

The other piece is I would like to see a shift in how our young people say they are experiencing our systems. And I say that because I was really floored by the response to our first Black Excellence in STEMM Conference, when young people, they were literally crying because they had never seen more than one Black person at a conference, some of them in their entire professional lives, and that was sending them a message. So representation is important and it matters, and changing our systems can be done, but we need to actually do it.

And do you think that's truly possible?

I do think it's possible, and I think it's possible because I basically believe in the goodness of my colleagues. I do actually think that most of my colleagues are people of good will who want to do things the right way, who want to be on the side of justice. I just wish more of them had the courage to do what's necessary, even if it makes them uncomfortable, and even if it means decentering their own experience to some extent.