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COVID-19

A year of reckoning for science

Last week marked the 1-year anniversary of the declaration of COVID-19 as a pandemic, and although we learned many tough lessons about trust in science and science communication, the year also revealed an inability to convey observable facts about systemic racism to the public. The killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May last year revealed yet again the reality of police brutality in America. Several months later, Science published a detailed analysis of police encounters in Chicago that demonstrates clearly that white officers stop Blacks more frequently than Black officers do. Police brutality is real and has been confirmed by science again and again, yet its reality is not accepted by much of the public.

The problems don’t relate only to the inability of the scientific community to get its message across. Within science, the effects of systemic racism can also be quantified. A searing piece in Cell called “Fund Black scientists” documents the nearly twofold difference in the success rate for National Institutes of Health (NIH) single-investigator applications from Black scientists compared with their white counterparts. NIH Director Francis Collins has apologized for the fact that this discrepancy has not been addressed and launched the UNITE initiative to correct the differences. Science will continue to report on this through our news coverage and commentary to make sure progress continues, and we thank the courageous scientists who are speaking out.

We have also failed to stop the pandemic from disproportionately affecting the research programs of underrepresented minorities (URMs). In a striking Perspective for Science Translational Medicine, Carr et al. lay out the myriad ways in which the pandemic has exacerbated the inequities for URM researchers in academia. Among many other important points, they draw a convincing connection between the systematic underfunding of URMs and the greater susceptibility of smaller labs to losses in research productivity.

These challenges and many others pose a stark reckoning for science. All of us at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) are very excited about our new President-Elect Gilda Barabino, now president of Olin College of Engineering. Last year, Dr. Barabino wrote an editorial for Science on equity in education. I have had enlightening conversations with her about the intersection of science, politics, and race, and I look forward to many more. I asked her if she could see a connection among the scientific community’s failures in regard to police brutality and systemic racism in science funding. “In my mind, there’s a connection,” she said. “In this country, we have not had any kind of reckoning whatsoever with the original sin of slavery.” Barabino believes that the failure of science to gain a consistent voice on the issue lies in the inability to face up to the role that racism has played in our history. “The scientific community is culpable,” she says, “because there’s this idea that science is pure, that it’s quantitative and separate from the social dynamics, which it’s not, they are intertwined. If you never deal with systemic racism, its devastating consequences will continue, and it will manifest in different ways. So to me, it is all connected.”

Barabino is challenging the scientific community to look in the mirror. Until science gets its own house in order, it can’t expect to regain its influence. As Barabino says, “I believe AAAS is trying to put a mirror to itself and say, ‘We’re going to take a stand against systemic racism and we’re going to look at ourselves first. That’s the way forward.”