The Role of Science in Advancing Racial Equity
Scientific and technological advances have profoundly transformed our longevity and quality of life. Many of these transformations have been immeasurably beneficial in curing disease, creating safe food and water supplies, powering our economy, and so much more. However, as with all change, scientific and technological progress has left some people behind and had destructive consequences for others. In general, people of color have received fewer of the benefits from these advances and borne more of the destructive consequences, both within the United States and around the world.
We believe science can and should be applied to reduce racial and economic inequity.
Years of research show that, for example, the health burdens of uranium mining, coal-fired power plants, freight terminals, and unhealthy food are disproportionately borne by poorer communities and communities of color. Research by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has demonstrated that these same communities are at heightened risk from climate change. While some people attribute these inequities solely to poverty or other social factors, the scientific evidence is clear: people of color bear greater environmental harm even when factoring in income or wealth.
Solutions that reduce inequities
At UCS, we believe science can and should be applied to reduce racial and economic inequity. It is not enough to develop solutions that improve health, security, and the environment at a general level; we must ensure the solutions we pursue do not cause additional harm, and favor those solutions that can alleviate existing inequities. It is not enough to build a food system based on more sustainable farming practices; we must ensure that all Americans have access to healthy food. And it is not enough to reduce pollution nationally; we need to make sure all communities receive the health and environmental benefits from pollution reductions and share in the opportunities created by clean energy.
Science and bias
Science is a human endeavor, and as such reflects the biases and power structures prevalent in society at any given time. All people, including scientists, fit somewhere within the existing power structure and are subject to biases. Failing to examine and address these biases can lead to science and policy that have potentially harmful consequences. Unfortunately, there are far too many examples in US history when racism—intentional or not—clouded scientific judgment and actively harmed people of color: from the forced sterilization of the eugenics movement, to the Tuskegee study (which intentionally withheld from African American men both the diagnosis of, and treatment for, syphilis), to the siting of polluting facilities in African American neighborhoods without first assessing health and safety risks, to the toxic chemical exposure of crop workers—more than 80 percent of whom identify themselves as Hispanic.
There are far too many examples in US history when racism—intentional or not—clouded scientific judgment and actively harmed people of color.
But scientists and other technical experts can put history on a better course. Although scientists in the United States are still predominantly white and male, they can work to reduce bias by considering “Who identifies the problems and asks the research questions?,” “Which questions do they ask and how are they framed?,” “What is the important context for the study,” “What methods do they use?,” and “How will the results be reported?“ For example, for many years, medical researchers investigating heart attacks primarily studied men, but because of researchers who challenged assumptions and asked different questions, we now understand that heart disease manifests differently in women.
And, to reduce racial inequities, scientists need to reject the historical tendency to conduct research on or for people of color, and start doing research with these communities.
Strength in difference
We cannot hope to solve problems that threaten all people by working only with some people.
The scale of the problems threatening our health, security, and environment demands the best minds. We are more likely to develop effective solutions to these problems by tapping into the skills, talents, and experience that people of different races, ethnicities, and economic classes can bring to bear. Multiple studies show that diverse teams do better at problem solving than teams made up of similar individuals.
We must build a broad coalition of voices—representative of the entire nation—calling for action and change.
Furthermore, the solutions to such complex problems will often be opposed by powerful interests that prioritize their own profits and interests above public health and safety: major fossil fuel producers that fund disinformation about climate science, politicians and military leaders who cling to nuclear weapons policies that do not protect us against today’s threats, agribusiness conglomerates that profit from subsidies that incentivize the production of junk foods. To overcome such opposition, we must build a broad coalition of voices—representative of the entire nation—calling for action and change on these and other issues.
UCS is committed to asking questions about racial and economic inequities, and furthering the scientific community’s discussion of these issues. We believe doing so will help create stronger scientific work and ensure that the benefits of science are shared more widely.