Black Lives Matter—In Science and Everywhere Else

June 11, 2020, 4:47 PM EDT

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Above: IBM has encouraged all of its employees to take the “Emb(race)” pledge.

The cataclysmic protests that emerged nationally and globally in the wake of the videotaped killing of George Floyd at the hands of police are reverberating through the halls of science. Activists and allies alike are strengthening calls for systemic change to U.S. policing practices, as well as to address longstanding racial inequities within science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines.

Hundreds of scientists from various fields signed on to a Strike for Black Lives (#strikeforblacklives) that took place on Wednesday, June 10. Organized by a group of 15 physicists, the strike had gathered more than 5874 pledged participants from the research community as of noon EDT Wednesday.

“We recognize that our academic institutions and research collaborations—despite big talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion—have ultimately failed Black people,” said the organizers in a statement. “Demands for justice have been met with gradualism and tokenism, as well as diversity and inclusion initiatives that—while sometimes well-intentioned—have had little meaningful impact on the lived experiences of Black students, staff, researchers, and faculty….

“Every single institution around the world can and should get involved in this work, and the strike marks an opportunity to recommit to the humanist values which should underpin academic work, including the belief that Black Lives Matter.”

In recent days, a number of scientific organizations have issued statements and calls to action on racial justice, several of which were noted in a Capital Weather Gang article.

Mary Glackin, president of the 11,000-member American Meteorological Society (AMS), released a Special Statement on Racism and Inequality. “We acknowledge the pain our Black and African American community members are experiencing and hope our solidarity relieves a small part of the weight of that pain,” Glackin said. “In the AMS community, we promise to continue doing all we can to challenge and change systems of inequity that perpetuate racism and bias within our community.”

The AMS Council, of which I’m a member, voted last fall to establish a Culture and Inclusion Cabinet, a top-level activity with the charge to “accelerate the integration of a culture of inclusion, belonging, diversity, equity, and accessibility across the AMS and evaluate and assess progress towards culture and inclusion strategic goals within the Society.”

Sudip Parikh, chief executive officer of the 120,000-member American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), emphasized in comments on June 1 that “science, scientists, and science advocates are going to be critical to ensuring we successfully navigate this troubled time together” and called for recommitting AAAS to a set of relevant principles:

• Diversity, equity, and inclusion along every axis are critical for our organization, the scientific enterprise, and our community to progress

• Ensuring lasting diversity, equity, and inclusion requires going beyond intervention to systemic change

• Systemic change begins with everyone feeling safe and respected

• Hatred, discrimination, and injustice have no place at AAAS, in science, or in our community

“Like the rest of the world, when we watched the horrific killing of George Floyd, we were filled with a range of emotions, from anger to grief,” said a group of four past and present leaders of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in a statement on 31 May. “We also knew that the injustice and discrimination that we saw would be felt beyond Minnesota….Tragically, this is only the latest example of a systematic problem of rules, laws and cultures created so that some individuals are not encouraged or supported to thrive or even survive.

“We, an organization of 130,000 in Earth and space sciences, are working for equity for all as well as ensuring all cultures and institutions are more inclusive and diverse throughout our communities. We know that when we have a diverse and inclusive research community and workplace, we will find better solutions to major problems, like the climate crisis. We are geoscientists, and we are eager to work with others to solve societal challenges to meet the needs of populations around the globe. We have already removed some barriers within our community to be more diverse and inclusive, yet we know we have more work to do. Rest assured that this remains one of our key priorities until injustices and inequalities are eliminated.”

Listen, Act, Lead: A call from geoscientists

A group of ten scholars, primarily geoscientists of color in academia, have put together a comprehensive set of proposals published under the heading A Call to Action for an Anti-Racist Science Community from Geoscientists of Color: Listen, Act, Lead. Several of them are atmospheric scientists. The document includes specific calls to action for entities that include NOAA, the National Science Foundation, federal agencies such as NASA and EPA, and federally funded research and development centers such as the National Center for Atmospheric Research. It stresses:

“The time has passed for hand-wringing and inert sympathies. The time has passed for predominantly white scientific organizations to post photos of happy, multiracial groups on their websites in place of actually diversifying their leadership and members. The time has passed for academic units to use images of their isolated Black student/postdoc/faculty member to project more racial harmony than actually exists. The time also has passed for letting a misplaced sense of politeness silence our anguish. It is neither a time for reactive posturing nor the tired responses of ‘more research is needed’ and ‘this is a difficult problem.’ We are scientists. Solving difficult problems is what we do.”

I invited two of my colleagues on the AMS Council who are part of the “Listen, Act, Lead” initiative—Dr. Melissa Burt (Colorado State University) and Dr. Vernon Morris (Arizona State University)—to weigh in with their experience and perspective.

“This moment has been incredibly exhausting, frustrating, triggering and, at times, isolating. I’ve had my moments of feeling alone,” said Burt, who is a research scientist at CSU’s Department of Atmospheric Science and Assistant Dean for Diversity and Inclusion at CSU’s Walter Scott, Jr. College of Engineering, in an email. “In contributing to ‘Listen. Act. Lead,’ I’ve also felt empowered to continue to make our voices heard, to make the community value our voice, to make our community truly see us. These aren’t new experiences as Black people in America, in STEM and in the geoscience community.”

While in college, Burt participated in the SOARS Program, an undergraduate-to-graduate bridge program based at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. (I had the great pleasure of serving as a SOARS mentor for several years during my time at UCAR.)

“The exposure to the research enterprise that SOARS provided many people of color has been impactful, and their foundational mentoring model is one that has been replicated in a number of places,” said Burt. “Replicating best practices not only from SOARS, but other REU programs (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) and HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) would be a great success.

“I think we can look to many of the current and forthcoming leaders who have passed these programs to see what new approaches rise up. My successes, along with my leadership experience, are due in part to my SOARS experience, which helped to launch my network of incredible scientists, colleagues, and friends.”

As the founding lead of the AMS Culture and Inclusion Cabinet, Burt looks forward to looking deeply and strategically at how the AMS is evolving. “How do we integrate and weave a culture of inclusion, belonging, diversity, equity, and accessibility across the AMS, and how can we disseminate this to the broader atmospheric science community?”

Morris, a chemistry professor and researcher at Howard University and Director of Howard’s atmospheric science program, has carried out extensive field work on atmospheric aerosols and chemistry while also launching several major outreach programs, including a series of NOAA-sponsored CAREERS Weather Camps for high school students. Nearly 70% of participants have been Black, Latinx, Indigenous, or Asian/Pacific Islander. (See the 2017 profile in Chalkdust magazine for more on Morris’s life and work.)

“I am emotionally exhausted,” Morris said in an email. “It is hard to express the frustration, trauma, and pain that magnified over the last two weeks. While it is a sort of ‘unveiling’ of racism for much of the white community, it is a profoundly painful reminder of racism for the Black community that tears open old wounds and threatens multi-generational destruction of lives, dreams, and destinies.”

Morris has participated in civil rights efforts since his teens, including voter education drives in south Georgia, anti-apartheid protests in Atlanta, and environmental justice initiatives and anti-Klan rallies in Washington, DC. After 25 years at Howard, he will soon start a new position at Arizona State University as the Director of the School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences at the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences. He is also putting his energy into other forms of activism, including working on the “Listen, Act, Lead” effort as well as serving on boards and councils that might influence policy. (Along with the AMS Council, Morris is a member of the AGU Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council.)

“The energy and activity of direct action draws and inspires me,” he said, “but I feel that my greater contribution is now in other forms of strategically targeting power.”

Along with Burt, Morris points to the development and strengthening of science programs at Howard and other HBCUs as one major step forward in the last 10 to 20 years. A group of just six HBCUs have produced the majority of Latinx and African American talent entering the atmospheric sciences in the last few years, Morris said. “If those models were propagated, there would be a sea change,” he added. Programs such as the CAREERS weather camps for high school students are also vital, said Morris.

“New approaches are needed, but we should also be sustaining, extending, and translating some of the best practices from these successes.”

IBM speaks out

In a letter to Congress on Monday, IBM chief executive officer Arvind Krishna launched the first step in an IBM push for public policy changes to advance racial justice and combat systemic racism. “We realize these measures are only a beginning,” Krishna wrote, “but IBM wants to help advance this nation's pursuit of equity and justice and we stand ready to work with you to advance policies that will help unify our country and advance our national purpose.”

The letter conveyed IBM’s interest in working with Congress in three areas:

—Police reform: new federal rules should hold police more accountable for misconduct

—Responsible technology policies: technology can increase transparency and help police protect communities but must not promote discrimination or racial injustice

—Expanding opportunity: training and education for in-demand skills is key to expanding economic opportunity for communities of color

The letter noted that IBM no longer offers general-purpose facial recognition or analysis software, a technology found to be prone to widespread racial bias. “IBM firmly opposes and will not condone uses of any technology, including facial recognition technology offered by other vendors, for mass surveillance, racial profiling, violations of basic human rights and freedoms, or any purpose which is not consistent with our values and Principles of Trust and Transparency.

“We believe now is the time to begin a national dialogue on whether and how facial recognition technology should be employed by domestic law enforcement agencies.”

The Weather Company’s primary journalistic mission is to report on breaking weather news, the environment and the importance of science to our lives. This story does not necessarily represent the position of our parent company, IBM.

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Bob Henson

Bob Henson is a meteorologist and writer at, where he co-produces the Category 6 news site at Weather Underground. He spent many years at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and is the author of “The Thinking Person’s Guide to Climate Change” and “Weather on the Air: A History of Broadcast Meteorology.”

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