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‘As Scientists, We Have Yet to Close the Racial Disparities’

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In 2010, Esther Ngumbi, then a young graduate student in entomology, appeared on the cover of a report on women and minorities in science, technology, mathematics and engineering that asked: Why So Few?

Since then, the situation hasn’t changed, particularly for black scientists. Only 9 percent of bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering go to black students, according to the National Science Foundation’s latest tally, a figure that has not shifted for two decades.

“It’s so clear that we, as scientists, we have yet to close the racial disparities,” said Dr. Ngumbi, now an assistant professor in food security and entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and one of few black women in her field. “We have yet to be inclusive in science.”

“I go to conferences, and I’m often the only person of color in the room. You sit in a classroom and all the scientists that are being introduced are white, white, white,” she said. “And then you sit there as a black student, and you ask, ‘Do I even have a place in science?’”

The voices rising up in protest across America against police brutality and systemic racism have been clear: Black lives matter. Now scientists are bringing that cry to their labs and research centers. On Wednesday, thousands of researchers across the country are on strike, forgoing research, classes, meetings and other work to instead spend the day calling for actions to protect the lives of black people.

The strike follows a reckoning, on social media, of how a lack of diversity in many scientific fields make black students often feel unwelcome, unsupported, or even unsafe. “Every time one of us is rejected, beat down, dismissed, ridiculed, or murdered, I question why I am still in academia,” wrote Cassandra Extavour, an evolutionary and developmental biologist at Harvard University. “I love science, but justice is more important.”

Research has shown that “green STEM fields” — the science, technology and math disciplines that span climate, conservation, environmental, earth and atmospheric sciences — are among the least diverse in science. That lack of diversity sits uneasily with findings by numerous studies that people of color are more likely to live in places that suffer from pollution, and are more at risk of developing associated health problems, like asthma or heart disease.

Scientists are racing to figure out the links between long-term exposure to air pollution and Covid-19, which has disproportionately claimed the lives of minorities. And, as my colleague Somini Sengupta wrote last week in her piece featuring black environmentalists, racial and economic inequalities must be tackled as the world builds a future in which humans drastically cut back on emissions of planet-warming gases.


Organizers urge nonblack academics to use the day to educate themselves and advocate for change in their communities, and to commit to eradicating anti-black racism in academia and STEM. How can you follow along? Look for #ShutDownAcademia, #ShutDownSTEM and #Strike4BlackLives on Twitter.


Credit…Anthony Wallace/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

At the same time, discarded protective equipment started turning up on city sidewalks and in the oceans. In a posting on Facebook in late May, a French environmentalist said there soon could be “more masks than jellyfish” in the sea.

It’s not clear how much of that waste comes from hospitals and how much comes from households. But, over all, some doctors and hospital managers say, the pandemic has raised awareness of medical waste and exposed an urgent need to make the system more resilient by shifting toward more reusable equipment and producing supplies closer to home.

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“I’ve never met a clinician who is OK with the amount of garbage we produce,” said Dr. Cassandra Thiel, an ophthalmologist and professor of population health at NYU Langone hospital.

In the short term, doctors caution, the pandemic response is far more urgent than the problem of medical waste. And nobody is suggesting reusing single-use protective equipment like masks and gloves. Rather, that idea is that more supplies like medical scopes and staplers could be designed for cleaning and reuse.

“Once the supply chain is restored, I expect there to be a massive push to make everything disposable, out of fear of infection transmission,” said Dr. Jodi Sherman, a professor of anesthesiology and epidemiology and director of a health care sustainability initiative at Yale University.

That, some doctors say, would be a bad outcome on several levels. Waste would increase and create more pollution at a time when the health care system ought to be reckoning with the urgency of dealing with climate change, a problem that many consider to be a public health crisis in its own right.

Dr. Sherman also noted that single-use equipment doesn’t necessarily lower costs and it’s not clear that more disposable gear would mean fewer hospital-acquired infections.

That has many hospital workers and managers thinking about what happens after the pandemic. “We have made significant strides in our sustainability work and we should not lose that ground as we restart,” said Kate Walsh, chief executive of Boston Medical Center.

“It’s what our communities need to be healthy,” she said. “This virus has exposed the relationship between the baseline health status of a community and its ability to fight off a virus.”

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