The death of George Floyd in 2020 sparked intense emotion, and increased recognition of the need to take active measures in matters of race within science and academia. This piece considers the field’s immediate actions with regard to Black representation at neuroscience conferences, and whether we are rising to the occasion in an area under our control.
In the spring and summer of 2020, there was a surge of emotion in the United States. Not only were we (along with the international community) dealing with a pandemic, but there was also a renewed focus on racial tensions, with a particular focus on Black and African Americans in the United States. This renewed focus stems from centuries-long issues of racial injustice that have been evident since the founding of the country. As a member (or past member) of several societies in my field, I noted great sorrow from colleagues globally on issues of American racial injustice, along with great energy regarding how science can be an active agent for change. As a Black person, I appreciated these responses. Following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, and others, there were numerous statements from scientific societies on diversity, equity, and inclusion that pushed their organizations and memberships to do better. Several of these statements included support of a fundamental fact: racial discrimination is toxic, and should not be tolerated by science or society. This is a logical extension of various laws centered around racial discrimination. These statements also included general support of the Black community specifically, with concerns about institutional racism, systemic racism, and explicit and implicit bias within the scientific ranks. The scientific field appeared highly mobilized to pursue progressive change. For example, the Society for Neuroscience offered a commitment to “promoting diversity and fostering excellence; to recognizing that many talented scientists, especially those from minority groups, have been excluded from our field; and to committing to do better”. The editorial board of Cell put it clearly: “Science has a racism problem”. The editorial board of Science committed to listening, learning, and changing any systemic racist practices it holds. The ‘diversity–innovation paradox’ was quantified, revealing that underrepresented groups produced higher rates of scientific discovery, yet their contributions were more likely to be devalued and discounted.
In the few years before the spring and summer of 2020, there were warning calls concerning race in science and medicine. Many of these warning calls were reminders of the long-standing racial troubles in science and medicine involving Black individuals, such as the pseudoscientific legitimization of Black inferiority and, by extension, slavery owing to the shape of the skulls of Black people; the disregard for consent from persons abused under the Tuskegee Syphilis Study experiments; and disregard for ethics and privacy when obtaining and monetizing tissue samples from Henrietta Lacks. In 2016, following the death of Philando Castile, an effort was made to evaluate how continued racism affects health equity and biomedical research. Working with colleagues in Atlanta, in 2017, I joined the call for researchers to consider how biomedicine has been impacted by race and racism and identified tools that we can use to move forward. In 2018, Camara Jones launched the National Campaign Against Racism through the American Public Health Association, which challenged health practitioners and researchers to consider how racism influences health outcomes and scientific discovery.
One actionable remedy to these problems has been a focus on broadening participation by Black scientists in conferences and seminars. This is a clear way to support Black scientists and their careers, as scientific presentations contribute greatly toward career advancement. The Society for Neuroscience hosted an online event, “Black Lives Matter and Neuroscience: Why This Moment Matters” in July 2020, which emphasized the need for increased representation by Black scientists speaking at neuroscience meetings and symposia, among other things. So, how are things going?
The goal of the following data is to assess the number of Black scientists giving talks at select neuroscience meetings. As the former program chair of the American Society for Neurorehabilitation (ASNR, 2019 and 2021), I have been interested in ways to promote increased diversity and inclusion among our conferences and symposia. This serves as an opportunity to reflect on how are we doing since we have all ‘said their names’.
Using BiasNeuroWatch and the Society for Neuroscience meetings calendar page (https://www.sfn.org/meetings/calendar), I identified platform speaker slots across a number of conferences listed before (posted 15 May 2019 to 31 January 2020: 17 conferences, 480 speakers) and after (posted 27 October 2020 to 27 May 2021: 17 conferences, 448 speakers) the spring and summer of 2020. Conferences that predominantly took place in other countries and did not include speakers from the United States were excluded. Conferences were also excluded if the conference program was no longer accessible on the internet, if it was difficult to differentiate speakers from co-authors, or if programs were not finalized (for future meetings). To normalize the data, I report the percentages of Black speakers (number of Black speakers/total number of speakers (× 100)). Black speakers were identified through visual identification using conference programs or a Google Images search. While this method is imperfect, it is a comparable approach to how conference and symposium organizers could identify potential Black scientists for speaking invitations. In a few cases where visual identification was difficult, speakers were notified of the goal of this effort and were asked whether they identify as Black or African American (n = 3). Additionally, I compared these percentages against the data from the 2019 (32 speakers) and 2021 (31 speakers) ASNR Annual Meetings, for which I served as program chair.
The left panel in Fig. 1 shows the results for conferences held before the spring and summer of 2020. Only two out of seventeen conferences, aside from ASNR, had any Black speakers (filling 0.6% of all speaking slots). For ASNR, around 10% of speakers were Black. For all 18 conferences, 1.2% of all speakers were Black.
The right panel in Fig. 1 shows the results for conferences following the summer of 2020. Here, six out of seventeen conferences (aside from ASNR) had Black speakers (filling 3.1% of all speaking slots). For ASNR, just under 19% of speakers were Black. For all 18 conferences, 4.2% of the speakers were Black.
Considering all conferences, of the 991 speaker slots, 26 of the speakers (2.6%) were Black. Of these, 38% were from the two ASNR Annual Meetings. Out of the 36 conferences identified, 26 (72.2%) had no Black speakers. Both before and after the spring and summer of 2020, the median of Black speakers was 0%.
Although the overall percentage of Black speakers has gone up modestly following the summer of 2020, the overwhelming majority of conferences had no Black speakers. The percentage of Black speakers at the conferences studied following the summer of 2020 is comparable to the estimated number of Black graduates from Neuroscience PhD programs and Black faculty within the United States. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, of all full-time faculty in degree-granting postsecondary institutions in fall 2018, 40% were white males, 35% were white females, and 3% each were Black males and Black females. These numbers have been acknowledged as unacceptably low. Similarly, the proportion of Black faculty speaking at these conferences was, and continues to be, lacking. It is notable that the proportion of Black faculty speaking at conferences following summer 2020 is largely driven by three conferences at which more than 10% of speakers were Black, indicating that it is possible to have substantive participation of Black speakers in our conferences. Unfortunately, this analysis was far more likely to identify conferences with no Black faculty than any number of Black faculty. The numbers of Black speakers in this assessment would be much more impactful if all conferences had more than zero Black faculty on their programs.
Of course, I cannot know whether program committees tried to invite Black speakers but were unsuccessful. In addition, this was an unbiased, incomplete sampling of conferences, so it is possible that some conferences that may have had several Black speakers were overlooked. It is worth nothing that several (but not all) of these conferences were diverse in other ways. Several included strong participation by women (as assessed by BiasNeuroWatch) and had global speaker participant lists. Nevertheless, somehow the number of Black speakers has continued to fall short. While there may be no magic or ‘correct’ proportion of Black speakers at our conferences, zero certainly feels like the wrong number.
The value of diversity in our societies and conferences is obvious. Diversity at our meetings bolsters innovation in the areas of research we are conducting, and the lack of diversity has led to a call to action from our national scientific leaders. A recent editorial in Nature Methods commented on the need to be intentional in establishing stronger communities at our conferences that are diverse and inclusive of those in attendance. This approach does not impose quotas, but requires a genuine ability to know the full landscape of our fields, and to identify outstanding scientists from diverse backgrounds. Crucially, diversity at meetings is an active way for your scientific organization to correct historical injustice toward Black people in science and society. Excellent Black scientists exist all around you. However, if the scientific community fails to identify them, we will be stuck in the same loop of feeling bad about the treatment of Black people, recognizing the need to do better, making compelling statements, then failing to exert the full control within our societies to change how we move forward. This only fuels the cyclical problem of devaluing the contributions of Black scientists. As stated by my friend, colleague, fellow Black scientist and Georgia Tech faculty member Manu Platt, “We exist. We are your peers”. I recommend web resources such as BlackinNeuro (https://www.blackinneuro.com/profiles) and 1,000 Inspiring Black Scientists in America (http://crosstalk.cell.com/blog/1000-inspiring-black-scientists-in-america) if you want to discover your colleagues.
So how do we move forward? While it is unclear how many of these conferences invited participants as opposed to having sessions submitted by authors, in either case there is the opportunity to do better. I will reflect on my role as program chair of ASNR in consideration of one way to move forward. Within ASNR, most of the speaking opportunities are 3–5-speaker symposia that focus on a specific topic of scientific interest. A symposium organizer must submit the topic and speakers, which are reviewed by the program committee. Since 2017, ASNR has asked symposium proposal submission teams to discuss the diversity of their speaker panel proposal. This provides not only the opportunity to identify the racial, ethnic, geographic, academic and/or scientific diversity of their proposal, but also the opportunity for symposium organizers to reflect on whether their symposium is diverse before submission. The program committee is tasked to evaluate these statements in the review process. In cases where the diversity of the panel is lacking, it is not atypical for the program committee to reject a proposal, or to ask participants to reconsider their diversity before it can be approved. This approach is not perfect, and we acknowledge that we can do better. There are resources to help, such as the intentional process described in the Guide to Organizing Inclusive Scientific Meetings. This guide outlines steps that all program chairs and committees can take to improve the diversity of all meetings.
We can all play a role in moving forward. Graduate students and post-docs can help by normalizing the presence of Black scientists in their developing networks and including them as mentors, not just because of race, but because of their research. Faculty members can also invite Black scientists to be collaborators or to be connected to symposium proposals with intention. I am thankful for the colleagues that have directly reached out to me about identifying Black faculty to include in their proposals because of their excellence in research. Program Committee chairs and members can take ownership of their meeting and consider bold approaches to improve racial diversity. Finally, Societies (Executive Boards and Boards of Directors) can focus on sustainable initiatives alongside (or instead of) statements and committees. Several conferences that were analyzed as part of this Commentary were from societies that had issued statements with their reactions to racial injustice and the desire to be responsive to Black colleagues, but had no Black speakers. This can lead to questions about the commitment of the society to being active in change. The NIH Scientific Workforce Diversity Toolkit (https://diversity.nih.gov) is a great resource for improvement. Let us put in action that which we desire to express in our words. Colleagues from outside the United States (and those from the United States that are less aware of these social issues) can, I hope, appreciate the complex history of the country, and understand how the lack of representation of Black researchers in scientific meetings only serves to reinforce stereotypes and structures that have long perpetuated the perceived inferiority of Black scientists, and also make changes in their own networks.
In the wake of international headlines in the first half of 2020, exposing the deep racial fractures in the United States, science stood strong and ready to get involved, and change. Yet, this sampling of neuroscience conferences failed to identify any real change in the one area that we can clearly and readily control, our own scientific meetings. I hope other areas of science are doing better. As this is an incomplete listing of neuroscience conferences within a short period of time, I encourage scholars to replicate this analysis with a larger set of conferences or in other fields over the next several years to monitor our progress in the days moving forward.
For the good of science, be intentional. Let’s all go beyond words. Do.