Making amends in science

On Saturday, April 22, an estimated 18-20,000 people marched and rallied in favor of logic, facts and the benefits of science at the March for Science, held at the California State Capitol in Sacramento. Three young scientists delivered speeches challenging the crowd that day on the inextricable link between science and politics, and urging them to action. This is the speech of Dahir Nasser, Health Program and Policy Specialist at the California Department of Public Health Office of Health Equity.

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Dahir Nasser

I was invited here today to be a truth-teller and a level-setter, as well as to bring my unique experiences and viewpoints to bear on the conversation we’re having today in solidarity with people across the country. As scientists and lovers of fact and truth I hope you can appreciate what I’m about to say: We got some growing to do. 

I hope you’re ready to have a courageous conversation. In these next few minutes together, I will pledge that my thoughts will be three things: steeped in data, fact and feeling. The perspectives I share are mine and mine alone and are not meant to represent the Muslim community, African-American community, first-generation immigrant community, or the millennial generation–although I am a member of each group. They are from your brother. A concerned soul. 

Who am I and how do I come to this work? I come from a long line of public servants and civic leaders. Soldiers, dissenters, educators and diplomats. And through colonization, discrimination and persecution we persist—with dignity and humanity and respect for all people. People with a fierce fire for change. For fairness. For justice. Folks who work hard, who make their own breaks while acknowledging that our system is rigged against specific groups. And yet they continue to work 9-to-5 and 5-to-9 to make our world a better place. I bring all my people with me everywhere I go in heart, mind and soul.

I must say, I love the scientific method. I love the method’s ability to bring clarity. To offer proof. Or to disprove our biases and assumptions, which can cripple our ability to progress. Even while holding on to that appreciation and gratitude, I often find myself frustrated with science and scientists. 

In his “Young India” treatise Mahatma Gandhi noted that there are seven social sins that could destroy us as a human race. The sins include knowledge without character, commerce without morality, and politics without principle. Most appropriate here, he also mentions science without humanity. You will agree that If all we do is superimpose new technologies on the same old problems, little change will come. We may see an evolution, and dare we dream, an occasional “revolution” in science. But without humanity we see precious little real human advancement. All the old inequities and injustices will remain.

We must also admit science is facing an existential threat in the form of postmodern conservatism, alternative facts and agent orange 45 (sounds like a bad soft drink), And we have no one to blame but ourselves. Isn’t it ironic that in this age we have more information than ever before in human history, but fewer facts? We share more about our lives than ever before, but make fewer connections. We freely give opinions, but rarely give new understanding. And over the past 90 days we’ve started to see huge cuts across the institution of science. This is likely just the beginning. At the National Institute of Health, billions of dollars already cut. The Environmental Protection Agency facing utter destruction. Climate change research being deleted from the websites and databases. Local jurisdictions losing precious grant funds. We could go on and on, but our time here is short. And the times we are in are clear. 

We must reconcile that science has been in the ivory tower but hasn’t been at the table. Hasn’t been in the streets. In solidarity and in partnership with others. Look at our demographics and the explicit and implicit sexism within these scientific organizations and the institution at large. The majority of professionals across the fields of science are white men. And we can anticipate why that might be, right? 

For example, one study from the journal National Academies of Science found that female applicants going for a lab manager position at Yale, with similar credentials as male candidates, scored lower in aspects such as competence and hireability. Starting pay was found to be lower, too. And this type of discrimination is nothing new.

So how did we get here? We must start at the beginning. Colonial genocide of indigenous nations through ideological and physical warfare, enslavement of human beings of African descent, non-existent space or rights for women, persons with disabilities, non-Christians, etc. Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japanese internment, the KKK and Jim Crow, redlining and white flight, mass incarceration, the school-to-prison-to-deportation pipeline, the Tuskegee experiment, police brutality, income inequality, the crack epidemic—the prelude to the opioids epidemic.

We must grapple with this reality. People have and continue to hurt. It’s not always about us. Millions suffer from TSD—traumatic stress disorder, without the post. It’s constant, consistent and continual. Real life in Standing Rock, on Martin Luther King and Del Paso boulevards here in Sacramento and on Main streets across the country. The situation is dire. We may want to propose a new diagnosis—DTSD, or daily traumatic stress disorder.

As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described, to be silent in the face of injustice is to be complicit in its perpetuation. In these days and times, every fact, every conclusion is political. Rather, every fact can be politicized. If you think you can be apolitical, you must ask yourself how’s that working out for you so far? 

And to show up for justice when it is politically expedient will no doubt raise questions of authenticity and integrity. I hope you answer those calls about your absences with humility and a renewed fervor for human rights for all, with a particular emphasis on rights for those who’ve been historically marginalized.

Science’s history of ableism, racism, sexism and sectarianism is deep and real. Maya Angelou said it best. People don’t care about what you know until they know you care. You can have all of the data, all of the reports, all of the information. They won’t care. They won’t be able to hear you.

We have a responsibility to ask the right questions, frame the discussion with its due context and draw the correct conclusions that provide full color to the root cause issues that underpin many of our systemic disparities we see, including poverty, crime and early disease and death. These issues are here not by chance but by choice–made by individuals and institutions looking to create and preserve castes here in America.

Here in Sacramento, We have black babies dying too young as a result of systemic racism, generational poverty, and social, political, and economic neglect that manifest themselves into preventable disease, injury, violence and death. To the level where an initiative like the Black Child Legacy Campaign is needed to galvanize efforts to reduce African-American child death. Tragically, in Sac County African-American children die at two times the rate of other children. And if they survive they are more likely to face preventable chronic disease, toxic stress, trauma and poverty.

Our Latino and Latina brothers and sisters living in fear, afraid to access their due services, emergency medical care, wages from employers, justice in the courts. ¡Si se puede! If these aren’t your issues as scientists they should be. Your humanity must drive you to care as much about the people who will drink the water and breath the air as you do about the water and air themselves.

Muslims. Native American brothers and sisters. Our mothers, sisters, nieces and daughters. LGBTQ rights. Needless to say, we have much to be troubled about.

So what should we do?

  1. Adopt an equity frame for your work.
  2. Continue your scientific exploits with the most vulnerable as your focus and innovate, experiment and replicate in the quest for evidence-based approaches.
  3. Many of you are teachers and leaders. Please be more engaging in your writing and your teaching. The recruitment of more ambassadors of science across demographic groups is critical.
  4. Show up for others.
  5. Expose and expel racism, sexism, ableism and the other -isms from your analysis.
  6. Take implicit bias training.
  7. Make your own organizations more diverse, inclusive and thriving to prioritize those who are currently and have been historically marginalized.
  8. Be an ambassador for equity, inclusion and justice.

In closing, I submit to you the words of a great leader, the former emperor of Ethiopia, Halie Selassie I, which he delivered in October 1963 as he addressed the United Nations.

He said, “This is the ultimatum presented to us: […] persuade men that their salvation rests in the subordination of national and local interests to the interests of mankind, or endanger man’s future. […] And we must look into ourselves, into the depth of our souls. We must become something we have never been and for which our education and experience and environment have ill-prepared us. We must become bigger than we have ever been: more courageous, greater in spirit, larger in outlook. We must become members of a new race, overcoming petty prejudice, owing our ultimate allegiance not to nations but to our fellow men within the human community.”

Thank you.

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Dahir Nasser
Dahir Nasser is the Health Program and Policy Specialist at the California Department of Public Health Office of Health Equity.