This week, a special issue of Nature was released, focusing on racism in the scientific community. Therein, African-American and Indigenous researchers, clinicians, and scientists discuss the ways in which they have been subjected to racism while performing their jobs. Many of them faced bias and retaliation as they broke into their fields of choice and again when they spoke out against wrongdoing. To put one’s pain out there like that takes courage. The stories they tell are heartfelt and eye-opening.
This special issue of Nature is the result of the publication’s commitment to addressing racism. In the wake of the fatal police shooting of George Floyd in 2020, many people spoke out against racism in all walks of life, including the academy and the scientific community. There will be a “Strike for Black Lives” protesting in the STEM fields in June of 2020, and Nature “recognize[s] that Nature is one of the white institutions that is responsible for bias in research and scholarship,” the journal wrote in an editorial. It vowed to publish a special issue “exploring systemic racism in research, research policy, and publishing.”
This week’s special issue of Nature features five articles written by Black and Indigenous scientists who have fought for greater diversity and accountability in their fields while encountering horrific racism. While seeking funding to advance genetic treatments for Indigenous children, Canada’s first Indigenous female general surgeon Nadine Caron was horrified to hear on a conference call, “I don’t understand why you’re spending so much money and so much time applying for this grant when your people are killing themselves.”
Hearing the value of human life so cavalierly and cruelly dismissed is shocking.
The casual and cruel dismissal of human lives is shocking, but it is quickly put in context with other examples of discriminatory language that have come to light recently, such as the leaked audio exposing racist statements made by Los Angeles City Council members about Indigenous and Black people.
The research lab and the data used to develop new technologies are not immune to the pervasive racism that plagues the rest of society. Another piece in this issue reflects on the legacy of groundbreaking research that exposed bias against certain groups in facial recognition software. Based on their research from 2018, Joy Buolamwini and Timnit Gebru concluded that women of color had an error rate of up to 34.7% when using facial recognition systems developed by IBM, Microsoft, and Face++. There was less than a one percent margin of error for white men.
The Verge covered the study’s publication and subsequent repercussions. The researchers’ efforts prompted the tech industry to create more precise systems, which can be improved by providing the AI with training data that features a wider variety of faces. A follow-up audit conducted a year after the paper was published revealed that error rates had been lowered across the board for Microsoft, IBM, and Face++. Not only did the researchers raise concerns about the potential misuse of facial recognition technology, but they also raised new questions. To develop facial analysis technology only to have it weaponized seems pointless. In 2018, as the field struggled with the potential of the technology to exacerbate police surveillance and racial profiling, Buolamwini told The Verge. IBM has said that it will stop working on facial recognition technology come 2020.
That’s why it’s important to tell stories like these, whether through factual investigation or fictional retelling. The ebb and flow of big and little deeds brings about change. Numerous people are taking to the streets to demonstrate. Moreover, there are people who explore secluded towers of knowledge and document their findings. Check out the special issue of Nature.
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