Quirks & Quarks·Analysis

Science strike for Black Lives Matter

Bob McDonald's blog: shutting down research for a day to focus on how to eliminate anti-Black racism

Bob McDonald's blog: shutting down research to focus on how to eliminate anti-Black racism

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - JUNE 6: Demonstrators calling to defund the Minneapolis Police Department march on University Avenue on June 6, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The march, organized by the Black Visions Collective, commemorated the life of George Floyd who was killed by members of the MPD on May 25. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images) (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

An international strike on June 10 by researchers at universities and other institutions called #ShutDownSTEM and #ShutDownAcedemia was an initiative to raise awareness of institutional and systemic racism against Black people in academics and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). 

The organizers called for a day with no classes, no research, no business as usual. The strike had thousands of participants from many Canadian universities including the University of VictoriaUniversity of British ColumbiaUniversity of CalgaryMcGill UniversityDalhousie University, and McMaster University, to name a few.

The strike was meant to allow the institutions time to examine their operations, and to generate concrete steps to eliminate racism and biases in their hiring practices, and their administration, right across the scientific community. As the organizers of #ShutDownSTEM write on their website: "Unless you engage directly with eliminating racism, you are perpetuating it. This moment calls for profound and meaningful change." 

Activists, some wearing face masks as a precautionary measure against COVID-19, hold signs as they attend a Black Lives Matter protest in London England. (TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images)

The strike has gotten widespread support. Several scientific journals, including Nature, published articles in favour of the initiatives, writing

"Black researchers have long been denied a space and a platform in established institutions and publications such as this one. We recognize that Nature is one of the white institutions that is responsible for bias in research and scholarship. The enterprise of science has been — and remains — complicit in systemic racism, and it must strive harder to correct those injustices and amplify marginalized voices."

To that end, the magazine says they will commit to publishing a special issue that will examine systematic racism in scientific research, research policy and publication.

Historically, science has been dominated by white males -- you can hear about some of that history on this week's episode of Quirks & Quarks. And while there is more diversity in academia today, in part, thanks to the global nature of scientific research, there is still much more work to be done. 

A banner promoting the ShutDownSTEM strike on June 10. (ShutDownSTEM)

Biases persist and have become embedded in the culture of science. Among the most problematic are the implicit biases - the ones we may not even be aware we have.

Harvard University has developed a self-test where you can determine your own implicit bias not just towards people of colour, but also towards fourteen other categories such as, age, gender, weight, disability and religion. Taking the test yourself may reveal some implicit biases you may not know you possess. 

Science, ideally, knows no borders. Scientists from China have shared their data on the coronavirus with other countries, astronomical telescopes are scattered around the globe including in South Africa and Chile, the Large Hadron Collider is a multinational project and the International Space Station receives astronauts from many nations who work together in space. Yet still it is subject to implicit racial bias that is sometimes so ingrained that it is invisible, except of course to the people it affects.

Let's hope this period of reflection will make science truly an endeavour for all.



Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC-TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.