Cerebrum Fall 2020


Neuroscience Confronts Racism

Neuroscience Degree Awards by Degree Level and Race/Ethnicity in 2018

Bachelor's degrees Total: 6,191

Advanced degrees Total: 865

BY PHILIP M. BOFFEY T he Black Lives Matter protests have triggered an intense bout of soul-searching and frantic efforts to erase all vestiges of racism from institutions around the nation. With all this ferment, it is not surprising that the tides of re-evaluation have lapped into the field of neuroscience. Webinars sponsored by the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) in July and September laid bare the appalling lack of diversity in neuroscience and called for reforms to do something about it. Just as there was a moral obligation to end slavery in the 19th century and there is a moral obligation today to end police brutality against Black people, so too is there a moral and ethical obligation to increase the representation of minorities in neuroscience as part of a national effort to rectify the injustices still permeating many aspects of American life. There would even be a scientific advantage to doing so. But there is clearly a long way to go. Joanne Berger-Sweeney, Ph.D., the president of Trinity College, who moderated the SfN webinar, cited a startling and depressing statistic. She said that over the past 60 years, the percentage of Black, tenured professors in all fields (not just in neuroscience or other technical fields) increased by only two percent, suggesting that there is “clearly a problem in the system.” The percentage for neuroscience was almost certainly even worse than the two percent overall average, which would have been buoyed by faculty hired to teach social science and political science courses focused on race-related issues. A commentary in the July 23 issue of the journal Cell by an African American neuroscientist at Duke University asserted that “Even now, only one to two percent of scientists awarded major grants by the National Institutes of Health are Black.” He complained that the review systems used to select winners of these grants are biased against Black people. The National Science Foundation published the number of neuroscience degrees awarded to various racial minorities and white people each year from 2008 through 2018. At all levels, Black students showed minimal gains over that recent decade. Meanwhile, a report from the Association of American Medical Colleges on “Diversity in Medicine” said that in 2018, only 3.6 percent of the full-time faculty positions in medical schools were held by Black people, who comprised 14.7 percent of the population in 2019. The Black share was well below the 63.9 percent held by white faculty and the 19.2 percent held by Asian faculty, the two largest contingents.

SOURCE: National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, National Science Foundation, Integrated Data System.

The most distressing findings were analyses showing that years-long efforts to promote greater diversity by recruiting more "minority" applicants and using “holistic” measures, not just test scores, to evaluate them had made only a marginal difference in advancing diversity in medical education, with the number of Black faculty members noticeably lagging. Once on the job, practicing physicians from non-white backgrounds often confront racism and bias not only from peers and superiors but also from patients. Such implicit and explicit bias can only be countered by an all-out effort to develop an inclusive, equity-minded environment. A timely place to start would be to include many more Black subjects and physicians in the ongoing clinical trails for a vaccine to combat Covid-19. Four Black medical leaders have persuasively argued that participation by the groups most severely infected by the pandemic could build trust in the results and detect side effects not seen in white participants. The editors of Cell pledged to do their part to highlight Black authors and perspectives in an editorial entitled, “Science Has a Racism Problem.” They acknowledged that Black scientists were underrepresented among their authors, reviewers, and on the advisory board, and they pointed to the “extreme disparity” in the genetic and clinical databases that scientists have built. The overwhelming majority of data comes from white Americans of European descent, resulting in a dearth of understanding of health and disease in Black individuals. Meanwhile, the editor-in-chief of the Journal of the American Heart Association retracted a viewpoint article that had argued against affirmative action on the grounds that Black and Latino trainees in medicine were supposedly inferior to white and Asian trainees. He said that he and the


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