For a Day, Scientists Pause Science to Confront Racism 1

Galvanized by the reaction to the killing of George Floyd and continued reports that minority researchers feel marginalized and disrespected, almost 6,000 scientists and academicians said they would participate in a one-day strike on Wednesday.

The event was organized by a loosely affiliated group of physicists and cosmologists operating under various hashtags, including #Strike4BlackLives, #ShutDownStem and #ShutDownAcademia.

Participants planned to cancel classes, lectures or committee meetings, hold off on reporting any breakthroughs, and forgo engaging with email and reading draft articles for peer review. Instead, they would devote the day to a close examination of how science does business.

“Racism in science is enmeshed with the larger scheme of white supremacy in society,” said Brian Nord, a physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois and one of the organizers of the strike, repeating a phrase he attributed to his co-organizer, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a cosmologist at the University of New Hampshire. “We need to rethink what scientific collaborations should look like. Black people need a seat at the table.”

He added, “The idea is to disrupt the system, at least for a day.” As of Wednesday morning, some 5,700 scientists had signed a pledge to strike, and registration was closed. The petition reads, in part: “We recognize that our academic institutions and research collaborations — despite big talk about diversity, equity and inclusion — have ultimately failed black people.”

Demands for justice have been met with gradualism and tokenism, the organizers said, and black students still often feel unsupported and unwelcome at predominantly white college campuses and laboratories.

Many leading scientific journals, including Science, Physical Review Letters and arXiv, an online platform where physicists post their pre-prints, have all said that they will be silent on Wednesday.

In a notice sent to reporters on Tuesday, the prominent journal Nature, which publishes new research papers every Wednesday, said that it would hold off on doing so until Thursday, with the exception of breaking news about the coronavirus.

Nature condemns police prejudice and violence, we stand against all forms of racism, and we join others around the world in saying, unequivocally, Black Lives Matter,” their statement read. “We recognize that Nature is one of the white institutions that is responsible for bias in research and scholarship. The enterprise of science has been — and remains — complicit in systemic racism, and it must strive harder to correct those injustices and amplify marginalized voices.”

The American Astronomical Society said that its offices in Washington, D.C., would be closed on Wednesday and that no news releases would be issued.

Dr. Nord said the idea for the strike arose a week ago in conversations with Dr. Prescod-Weinstein, a friend. Both scientists are “Black with a capital B,” as Dr. Nord put it.

“We decided we needed to make a strike for black physicists,” Dr. Nord said in an interview.

Elsewhere, Brittany Kamai, a physicist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the California Institute of Technology, and Jedidah Isler, an astrophysics professor at Dartmouth, were also pondering how to shut down the digital highways of both science and academia.

“There is no way that ‘business as usual’ can continue while police and other agents of the state murder black people and are not held accountable,” Dr. Kamai said in an email.

Drs. Nord and Kamai and the other physicists have all known and supported one another for years, Dr. Kamai said.

“From the beginning, the groups of Particles for Justice, ShutDownSTEM and VanguardSTEM” — which Dr. Isler leads — “were in close collaboration to develop what this would look like,” she said.

Although the impetus for the daylong pause came from astronomers and physicists, the effort is aimed at all academia, not just science.

Dr. Nord, who received his Ph.D. in 2012, said that as far as he knew, he was only the third tenure track black physicist at Fermilab. The first one had retired around the time that he joined the lab and another left.

“We’re being replaced once per generation,” Dr. Nord said. In a personal statement on the Particles for Justice website, he wrote: “When I was a child, I wanted to grow up to share the beauty and gifts of a scientific understanding of the universe with the world. I’ve had the privilege to find and create knowledge for my fellow humans. I’m one of the ‘lucky’ ones. How many have shared my dream, but never got this close, because of the science community’s complicity through inaction?”

Dr. Prescod-Weinstein had a similar story. “When I was 17 and starting college, it was not my dream to balance doing dark matter research while also organizing against police and vigilante murders of black people,” she said in an email. “Like all teen particle physics and cosmology nerds, I just wanted to be a theoretical physicist.”

She and Dr. Nord said that they wanted more than just another seminar on diversity and inclusion. Rather, Dr. Nord said, the point was to “do something, join a protest.”

A notice posted on the Particles for Justice website suggested actions that scientists could undertake to educate themselves and advocate for change. “The strike is not a ‘day off’ for nonblack scientists, but a day to engage in academia’s core mission to build a better society for everyone,” it reads, in part. “Those of us who are black academics should take the day to do whatever nourishes their hearts, whether that’s protesting, organizing, or watching ‘Astronomy Club.’”

On Wednesday morning the #ShutDownStem and #Strike4BlackLives Twitter feeds were full of announcements on the suspensions of classes and research while scientists engaged in introspection and education.

Daniel Holz, an astrophysicist at the University of Chicago, said that the strike was being taken very seriously on campus, and that there were plans for an afternoon march organized by the astronomy and physics department. “The day will be full — and difficult,” he said. “Speaking for myself, I see members of our community coalescing and really trying to engage. Things have been so bleak, but this feels hopeful.”