Solidarity in science

Jane Ama Mantey, Ph.D.

On Saturday, April 22, an estimated 18-20,000 people attended 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 Jane Ama Mantey, Environmental Scientist at the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle).

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I hear and endorse the words of fellow scientists across the globe exclaiming that we need the voice of science at the table to reaffirm that science is important and that it should help shape our state and federal policies.

But I want to be clear: science is and has always been a political tool. And if you think I am wrong, I strongly encourage you to read Harriet Washington’s book, Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present. If we, as scientists, want a seat at the table, we must accept its political nature and decide whose side we are on–the side of humanity or the side of fascists and oligarchs. We cannot have it both ways.

I stand here today a product of the efforts to diversify this tool known as science, after centuries of this nation, including its scientists, locking black people and other oppressed populations out of the profession despite our scientific brilliance, and using us as lab rats. Black people, for example, only make up two to three percent of the scientific workforce, despite being around 13 percent of the population. It’s not much better for my Latinx brethren either, and that is no coincidence.

My science training was made possible at my historically black alma maters–the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and Meharry Medical College–where I was able to be funded through the very few tax payer-funded training grants specifically for underrepresented minorities. Despite the barriers, I believed this tool known as science could empower me and others who look like me to right the wrongs of those who came before us.

Now, you can apply the principles of science to more than just your research; it’s also really useful for understanding people and the world around us. And what I came to understand is that science alone has not and will not erase racism in the ivory tower, in medicine or in society at large. Because science is not just about objective data. It is also about the subjective people funding and conducting the research, as well as the people being impacted by said research. We do ourselves a grave disservice when we pretend we can separate the science from the people.

Which means that as scientists, if we are truly in this profession to ask wondrous questions, solve problems big and small, right history’s wrongs, and make the world a better place, then we must also deal with the human element of science, which again, is and has always been political.

  • A man rallies at the March for Science in Sacramento, CA on April 22, 2017. [Photo Danessa Mayo]

Therefore, yes, even scientists must address the race question, as well as the gender question, the sexuality question, the immigrant question and the disability question within the academy, our workplaces and beyond in regards to access to data, ethical research practices, hiring and professional advancement, board and committee appointments and funding distribution.

We must be cognizant and intentional about ending the macro- and micro-aggressions that cause individuals from marginalized backgrounds to not pursue science careers. If most people in your office, department, committee, panel or laboratory look like you, something is wrong and you must diversify that space immediately if you sincerely want to strive for objectivity.

We must be vigilant and visible to ensure that our tax-funded research–whether it’s focused on curing diseases, protecting natural resources, exploring outer space, feeding the world or developing more efficient technologies–is actually used to help people instead of harm people here and abroad. That includes acknowledging and rejecting our hand in creating drugs and medical devices that working class people can’t afford because of capitalism. That includes our hand in surveillance, biological warfare and militarism.

We must demonstrate our commitment to public scholarship and science literacy to ensure that all communities have full access to and participation in science. And, in doing so, we must decolonize science by highlighting and centering the contributions and achievements of disabled scientists, queer and trans scientists, indigenous, Middle Eastern, Pacific Islander, black and Latinx scientists, women scientists, and so forth.

Finally, if we want the public to support us and science as a public service, we must openly support the public in return. We must poke our heads out of our laboratories and show up for historically oppressed communities in times of crisis. Be in solidarity, join a social justice organization or union, and do not wait until bad policies impact you directly. And do not mansplain or whitesplain away inequities and injustice, but instead I urge you to make space and listen to the voices of the oppressed for information and direction on how you can and should help.

Thank you.

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