Biased Science: Scientists Can’t March Without Reckoning With the Racist History of Medicine and Science
February 04, 2017 at 8:04 pm
Modern science would be nowhere without a black woman from Baltimore County named Henrietta Lacks. She’s still not a household name, but cells stolen from her body in 1951 by scientists from Johns Hopkins University without her consent or knowledge paved the way for medical advances in cancer treatment, the polio vaccine, AIDS research, cloning, in vitro fertilization, and more. Suffering from cervical cancer, Henrietta Lacks’ cervical cells, dubbed HeLa cells, had the unique ability to not die --- they were immortal. Based on the research of author Rebecca Skloot, who wrote the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, more than 60,000 science articles and counting have been published based on work done with HeLa cells. For over two decades, Lacks’ family had no idea that her remains were being used for biomedical research and buoying a multi-billion dollar research enterprise, while they struggled to make ends meet in Baltimore. As old as white supremacy, medical and science careers were launched and prospered on the back of that Black woman well after her untimely death.
It is these oft-forgotten narratives, like the one of Henrietta Lacks, which prompted the good folks on Black Twitter to call into question the intent and merit of the recently announced Scientist March on Washington.
As the Trump administration takes the reigns of our nation, many within the scientific research community are not only afraid, but also up in arms at the explicit threats to the research industrial complex. This new administration has already asked the Department of Energy for the names of scientists who work on combating climate change, removed references to addressing climate change from the White House website, has stated they plan on slashing the EPA budget, nominated what can only be categorized as an anti-science Cabinet who undoubtedly believe in #AlternativeFacts, and has issued gag orders to numerous federal agencies including the Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services barring them from making any statements or sharing information with the public and press. My fellow scientists have said, “Enough!”
Remembering what can happen when even “sane” conservatives have an inkling of power (*cough* government shutdown *cough*), scientists are finally mobilizing in a show of resistance. Massive quantities of public research data from the United States will be stashed at the University of Toronto. Renegade Twitter accounts, presumably ran by federally employed scientists, are sprouting up to share information with the public in defiance of the Trump administration. And, now, scientists will be taking to the streets with almost 200,000 people following @ScienceMarchDC on Twitter and over 170,000 people liking the march’s Facebook page in 24 hours. In a statement to STAT News, Dr. Caroline Weinberg, a public health researcher and co-chair for the #ScienceMarch, wrote, “This is not a partisan issue — people from all parts of the political spectrum should be alarmed by these efforts to deny scientific progress. Scientific research moves us forward and we should not allow asinine policies to thwart it.”
But, the land of scientific research is not all sunshine and lollipops for people of all stripes, including those of color in the profession. Many have rightfully asked where was this fervor when Black bodies were strewn in the streets or being poisoned by their drinking water? Or, when Native Americans were being blasted with water cannons while standing in the freezing cold against an oil pipeline that would run through their ancestral lands? Or, when it came out that federal government officials ignored decades of noncompliant, toxic landfills across Puerto Rico?
This begs the question – is resistance from the collective scientific community only warranted when research dollars and jobs for predominantly white scientists are on the line?
Moreover, why should Americans advocate for a research industrial complex that has routinely dehumanized people of color, like Henrietta Lacks, and has seen them as nothing more than data and samples for the next biggest discovery?
Books, such as Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present by Harriet A. Washington, have chronicled numerous cases of gruesome, government-funded scientific exploitation of communities of color since this country’s inception. It is impossible to erase the political aspect of science that has been present since scientists have been science’ing on this planet. From medicine to conservation to anthropology to eugenics, science has never been impartial, especially when funded by oppressive systems. It has always and still does have a violent streak, even when that violence is silence.
Consequently, while many researchers are fired up, without any substantive atonement for racism, classism, and (hetero)sexism within the expansive field of scientific research – past and present – and without an intersectional focus, the #ScienceMarch will undoubtedly miss the mark. And, scientists of color made sure to take to Twitter to let them know it:
THREAD – also remember that national parks have their origins in evicting Indigenous peoples from their lands. https://t.co/eVWX9VFsHG— JESS ☁️ (@jessicasjiang) January 25, 2017
#ScienceMarch to protect scientists' voices but what bout BIPOC/queer/disabled scholars y'all silence everyday in academic institutions?— William J Richardson (@HoodAcademic) January 25, 2017
to deny the political nature of science is to deny a legacy of, yes, horror + genocide + war— Divya M. (@DivyaMPersaud) January 25, 2017