Calling Out Racism In The Scientific Community

12:06 minutes

Weeks of protests across the U.S. and around the world have led many people to reflect on racial injustice in their own lives and communities. In academia, Black academics and STEM professionals used this momentum to call out institutional racism in the research community. On Wednesday, thousands of scientists participated in a day of rest for Black colleagues, and learning for allies.

Meanwhile, in the midst of ongoing conversations about police brutality, IBM has announced the company is shutting down research and development of its facial recognition technology. The controversial tech has previously been called out for bias and inaccuracies, and is sometimes used by law enforcement agencies. 

Joining Ira to talk about these stories and other science news is Sarah Zhang, a staff writer at The Atlantic.

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Segment Guests

Sarah Zhang

Sarah Zhang is a staff writer at The Atlantic, based in Washington, D.C..

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira FlatoWw. I want to talk about something for a few minutes before we get started today. Here at Team SciFri, we support the protests demanding racial justice, because Black lives matter.

We know in the long history of Science Friday, we haven’t included diverse voices as much as we should have. As a media platform with a large audience, we recognize our equally large responsibility to act in service of social good. We’re sorry, and we know we can do better.

A few years ago, we made it a mission to seek out the voices of Black and minority scientists to show you, our listeners, a wider range of perspectives that, a lot of times, is missing from science news. We made talking about racial disparity research a focus for our radio and digital reporting. We aired stories about how Black communities have unequal access to health care, how climate change harms the communities disproportionately, and the unfair and racist hiring practices in academia.

But we fell short and need to do more. So we’re doubling down on elevating and amplifying Black voices and experiences in science. It’s our duty as journalists to represent Black perspectives in science, and I know you would expect nothing less from us. Now, back to the program.

Later in the hour, we’ll talk to Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, about the future of the pandemic, and why so many states are seeing spikes in cases. But first, here to talk about scientists going on strike around the world and other news headlines, is Sarah Zhang, Staff Writer at The Atlantic, based in Washington. Welcome back to Science Friday, Sarah.

SARAH ZHANG: Thanks, Ira. Nice to be here.

IRA FLATOW: I want to start by reading this astounding headline in the journal Nature, which is the most prestigious journal, I think, in the world. And it said earlier this week “Thousands of scientists worldwide will go on strike for Black lives.” How well did that strike go on Wednesday? And tell us why they did this.

SARAH ZHANG: Yeah, exactly. The strike has kind of gone by a couple different names. As you say, “Strike for Black Lives.” Also, “Shut Down STEM,” or “Shut Down Academia.” And they’re all, as you say, taking the same action, which is stopping work for a day to get educated on, to reflect on, and to talk about racism inside and outside of academia, which is, of course, a field that is still very dispassionately white and disproportionately male.

So what does this strike mean? What does this mean concretely? It meant no classes, no lectures, no research, no “business as usual,” which I think is a phrase that is pretty key.

We’re kind of living through this fairly extraordinary moment of reckoning with the racial injustice in our country. And whether that’s in policing or in the media industry. And I think science is no exception.

And you were reading a headline from Nature. I think it was fairly extraordinary to see that Nature as a journal also came out and said that they were not going to publish. They, as an institution, were going to join in on the strike.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I think that’s what was so surprising for me, is that they would join in. And obviously, thousands of scientists did join in this week. It was a success.

SARAH ZHANG: Yeah, yeah. I would say so. I think nearly 6,000 scientists signed a petition saying that they would join in. And scientists were talking about canceling seminars, canceling virtual sessions and classes.

A lot of the initial activism came from the physics community. So you saw a lot of the physics associations in the US and the UK and Canada canceling events and closing their offices. But also Nature and also Science, another big journal, they all decided to join in on this.

IRA FLATOW: Mm, very interesting. Let’s move on to some other pieces of news from the tech world. IBM announced they’re shutting down research and development of facial recognition technology. Big step. What prompted this move?

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, that’s right. I think this is connected to everything else we’re talking about, which is that IBM sent a letter to Congress saying that they would stop using– stop developing this technology as part of a larger letter on reforms about racial injustice and policing rate.

And so the reason that facial recognition is especially tied to this issue is that for the past few years, researchers have really found that facial recognition is not very accurate when it comes to identifying Black and brown faces. These algorithms are trained on a data set of thousands and thousands of images, and they’re kind only as good as the data that you feed it. So there have been studies in the past where– for example, the ACLU, which has been a critic of facial recognition technology, they’ve run pictures of members of Congress through these algorithms, and found that 28 members of Congress, who were all people of color, they were mistakenly matched with people who had been arrested for crimes. And these are actually members of Congress, of course.


SARAH ZHANG: So it’s not very accurate. But I would think it’s also an important point to point out that critics of the technology, they’re not looking for more accurate facial recognition for Black people, for example. They’re saying, take a step back and let’s think about how this technology is being used. And we know policing already disproportionately impacts Black communities, so let’s take a step back and think about how the technology is actually being used.

IRA FLATOW: And facial recognition technology is also made by Amazon, right? And other smaller companies. Is there any other indication that giant Amazon would follow IBM’s lead?

SARAH ZHANG: Yeah, that’s a great question. So on Wednesday, Amazon actually came out with a statement as well, saying that they would stop selling this technology to law enforcement for a year. So when IBM first came out, there were some critics who were saying, it’s easy for them to make this decision. They weren’t really a big player in facial recognition. So it’s good PR for them, right?

I think Amazon coming out and saying this, I think it really is telling us that there is a moment where we’re really rethinking how to use facial recognition. Though Amazon, it’s a year. Who knows what’s going to happen after that. And I think those who want to talk about regulating facial recognition, which is a conversation that’s happening at the local, state, and federal level, maybe this is the time to do that.

IRA FLATOW: Hm. Let’s move on to some other COVID-adjacent news, related to something most people would rather ignore. And I’m talking about some cities are using sewage to track coronavirus cases. We have heard a bit about this in the past. This is getting serious now.

SARAH ZHANG: [CHUCKLES] Yeah. It has a name. It’s sewer epidemiology. So a couple of cities, like New Haven, Connecticut, and Carmel, Indiana, they started taking daily samples of the sewage sludge to look for evidence of coronavirus. So the idea is that when you are trying to track coronavirus cases, you can really only do it when people get sick enough that they come in to get tested.

There have been some studies though that show that, yes, coronavirus is fecally expelled. So you can’t go in everyone’s house and test everyone, but maybe if you just collect everyone’s toilet flushes, essentially, that’s what you’re doing, this is kind of a way to maybe– as a leading indicator. So before people start showing up the hospital, before people start showing up for tests, cities can maybe be ready for uptick in cases.

IRA FLATOW: Mhm. In other moderately-strange COVID news, horseshoe crabs are going to be a key part of developing a vaccine. Tell us why that is.

SARAH ZHANG: [CHUCKLES] This is one of those really wild stories. So horseshoe crabs have been a really important part of the pharmaceutical industry for decades. And that’s because their blood, which is this kind of bright blue color, has this really special property where it coagulates, it turns solid right away, when it encounters bacteria or bacterial toxins. For horseshoe crabs, this is part of their immune system.

But for humans, we found that this is a great way to test to make sure that vaccines, for example, are not contaminated. So if you go back decades, it used to be not uncommon that if you got a vaccine you’d get a little bit of a fever. And that was because the vaccine itself was maybe not entirely pure. So now, every year, almost half a million crabs are bled, essentially, for their blood so that our vaccines can be tested. And the coronavirus vaccine will be no exception.

IRA FLATOW: And is there any possible backup to the horseshoe crabs? Anything that we could substitute? Any chemical that might work?

SARAH ZHANG: Yeah, so there have actually been a lot of efforts to develop a lab-based alternative, and there actually is one. And pharmaceutical companies have kind of been working towards that, especially in Europe. But recently, a group in the US states, they set the standards for our pharmaceutical industry, they actually decided we don’t have enough data on this synthetic alternative yet. So for the foreseeable future, we’re still going to be using blood from horseshoe crabs.

IRA FLATOW: OK. Let’s move on to a pretty disturbing study that came out this week. It turns out that microplastics have been found in unexpected places. What kind of places are we talking about?

SARAH ZHANG: Yeah, so these scientists went out into pretty remote places in the American West, in national parks such as Joshua Tree, and Grand Canyon, and Bryce Canyon. And they essentially set up collection boxes and waited and saw what deposited in these boxes. And so when we’re talking about microplastics, we’re talking about really, really tiny pieces of plastic. Less than 5 millimeters in size. So really, the size of dust.

And what they found is that, yes, you can find microplastics in these places where you don’t really have people walking around. And the reason they’re getting there is actually probably through the rain and through the atmosphere. And these microplastics are so tiny they can basically travel through the air and the water cycle.

IRA FLATOW: You know how there’s a layer of dust on Earth where the meteor struck us and killed all the dinosaurs? I think a few thousand years from now when other civilizations come and dig up our geology, they’re going to find that layer of dust of plastics.

SARAH ZHANG: Yeah, like the Plasticine or something that we’re living in, right?

IRA FLATOW: The “Plasticine.” That’s a great word. Let’s end with a story you reported for The Atlantic, and that is, with all of us inside during lockdown, animals are behaving differently than we’ve seen before.

SARAH ZHANG: Yeah. So one animal I focused on is, of course, the rat. So I spoke to some pest management experts who told me about what it was like when restaurants shut down at the beginning of our shelter-in-place orders. And one of the management experts, she actually services a lot of fancy, high-end restaurants in Chicago.

And she was saying right when they shut down, she went to go check them out. And they had dumped a lot of their produce that couldn’t be eaten. So she just found these boxes and boxes of avocados that were just, like, knawed by rats, and teeming with rats.

So they kind of got this one final buffet before everything shut down. And since then, she’s spent finding fewer rats in those restaurant locations. On the other hand, restaurants that have stayed open, they’ve kind of been the ones that have been generating more of the trash. So sometimes, they’ve seen an influx of rats, unfortunately.

IRA FLATOW: So they’re seeing, like, an infestation of rats from the places that are open, and the rats are fighting each other in places that are not open?

SARAH ZHANG: Yeah, exactly. So rats are going to go where the food is. So if you are, for example, the only restaurant open on a block, they’re all going to be coming to your dumpster.

IRA FLATOW: You know, there was a famous picture of a rat years ago in New York City dragging a pizza slice down the subway steps. And maybe down there they’ll be fighting over that.

SARAH ZHANG: Yeah, it might be like three rats dragging with pizza. [CHUCKLES]

IRA FLATOW: Did the experts you talked to have predictions about what’s going to happen when things go back to normal for the human population?

SARAH ZHANG: Oh, yes. The rat population go back right away. [LAUGHS] Rats are able to have dozens of baby rats every year in a single year. So don’t worry, they’ll be back.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, and maybe we’ll see other animals. I know in my neighborhood we’re seeing all kinds of other animals that are coming out from the wild. Thank you very much, Sarah.

SARAH ZHANG: All right. Good to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Sarah Zhang, staff writer at The Atlantic, based in Washington.

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Kathleen Davis is a producer at Science Friday, which means she spends the week brainstorming, researching, and writing, typically in that order. She’s a big fan of stories related to strange animal facts and dystopian technology.

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Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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