The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Scientists speak out against racial injustice and discrimination amid national protests

Several groups representing Earth, atmosphere and space scientists issue statements

Demonstrators kneel and raise their fists during a protest on June 2, 2020, in Washington over police brutality and the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

While their work in labs, classrooms, field locations and research centers may seem far removed from the killing of George Floyd on the streets of Minneapolis and subsequent protests, scientists and organizations representing them are speaking out to highlight racial injustices and discrimination.

They are also shining a light on the challenges that minorities face in the sciences, and the discrimination that prevents some from advancing in their careers.

The organizations voicing outrage and concern over recent events include those representing meteorologists, climate scientists and astronomers, fields in which African American and other minority groups have long been underrepresented. For example, only 2.1 percent of the 13,000-plus members of the American Meteorological Society (AMS) are African American.

These groups have at various times spoken out about the need to ensure more diversity to their ranks and to improve their record on sexual harassment. But this is among the first times they have been so vocal in addressing racism and its impacts nationally.

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In a “special statement on racism and inequality,” AMS President Mary Glackin wrote that for “AMS members of color, these events highlight the marginalization and exacerbate the fear and frustration they live with each day based solely on the color of their skin.”

The statement continues: “We acknowledge the pain our Black and African American community members are experiencing and hope our solidarity relieves a small part of the weight of that pain. In the AMS community, we promise to continue doing all we can to challenge and change systems of inequity that perpetuate racism and bias within our community.”

For Tevin Wooten, an on-camera meteorologist at the Weather Channel, the recent events underscore “the lack of attention or care we’ve historically provided to the issues of the African American community; and how they’re disproportionately weighed.”

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Wooten, in an email, pointed to suffering among blacks during environmental disasters such as the Flint, Mich., water crisis and Hurricane Katrina.

For the upcoming hurricane season, he pointed out, some minority groups may not have the financial resources “to leave their job, board up their home, pack up and evacuate out of harm’s way.” Data indicates that the coronavirus pandemic is disproportionally hitting African American communities. So, too, is the economic crisis that has hit in the pandemic’s wake.

“I implore all Americans to closely examine what we choose to ignore; and not turn a blind eye to a neighbor in need,” Wooten wrote.

In addition to the AMS, the American Geophysical Union and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which boast 60,000 and 120,000 members, respectively, issued statements expressing outrage over Floyd’s murder.

“Like the rest of the world, when we watched the horrific killing of George Floyd, we were filled with a range of emotions, from anger to grief,” several AGU current and past leaders wrote.

The AGU is “working for equity for all as well as ensuring all cultures and institutions are more inclusive and diverse throughout our communities,” its statement said.

Sudip Parikh, chief executive of the AAAS, called for scientists to take on leadership roles in promoting diversity and inclusiveness.

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“The past few harrowing days have laid bare how a lack of trust, respect, and leadership can tear at our social fabric. In these times, we must pull together and provide leadership in our own communities,” he wrote.

Parikh said the AAAS would “recommit” to principles of diversity, equity and inclusion, as well as to combating hatred, discrimination and injustice.

Marshall Shepherd, past president of the American Meteorological Society and a professor at the University of Georgia, told The Washington Post in a Facebook message that these organizations can serve as an amplifying voice for good in these fraught times.

“Some may question why science and professional organizations are speaking out,” Shepherd wrote. “The reality is that science is done by humans, and the process is much more enriching when there are diverse voices and ideas at the table. Additionally, it is just morally the right thing to do.”

Shepherd, the first African American to receive a doctorate in meteorology from Florida State University, recalled the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. imploring the majority communities, organizations and clergy to speak out on injustice in his famous letter from a Birmingham jail.

“What AMS and others are doing, is in that spirit,” wrote Shepherd, who in a recent commentary at Forbes recounted examples of being personally discriminated against.

Other science groups, such as the American Astronomical Society, also issued statements in response to the recent events. “I would like to express our unwavering support for those in our community who are rightfully concerned for their safety or that of their loved ones, and who have experienced or continue to experience bias and institutional racism in their personal or professional lives,” wrote AAS President Megan Donahue.

The American Physical Society also issued a statement condemning racism and pledging action in support of its members.

Other leaders in the scientific community have also stressed that now is the time to speak up.

“The scientific community must loudly and unequivocally step up right now,” tweeted Gretchen Goldman, research director for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “We must call out these violent acts and take immediate actions to change our institutions and power structures that have long perpetuated injustice and violence against our Black colleagues.”

Laura Boykin, a computational biologist and TED fellow, tweeted Tuesday that the statements from different scientific groups don’t go quite far enough and that even more attention must be paid to the lack of diversity among their members.

“My goodness. All your #BlackLivesMatter statements. Nah. You all know you are as white as snow,” she wrote. “You are scientists. Analyze the data. Post your diversity stats along side your message.”