Science Policy for Racial Justice

Last week, our team virtually attended the 2020 National Science Policy Symposium, hosted by the National Science Policy Network. Each year, it is inspirational to be surrounded by early career researchers across the country who are passionate about using science to make better public policies. This year’s theme was “Science Policy for Racial Justice”. The speakers highlighted inequities across scientific disciplines and offered advice for how scientists can play a role in closing these gaps.

We also had the opportunity to share how we are engaging in policy conversation through the Missouri Local Science Engagement Network (LSEN), specifically surrounding the issue of maternal mortality. Dan English, LSEN Coordinator, presented a flash talk and talked with other participants about the work during a “poster” session.

Check out Dan’s flash talk:

Below, the MOST Policy Fellows reflect on what they learned and how they plan to use this information to serve the Black, Indigineous, and people of color in Missouri through their work with the Missouri General Assembly. 

Brittany: Inputs matter. Even with the best intentions, science is not inherently objective. When we pretend that it is, when we pretend that we don’t carry unconscious biases, people get hurt. This theme was emphasized throughout this year’s National Science Policy Symposium (NSPS 2020)- Science Policy for Racial Justice. While many of us are familiar with the most egregious forms of scientific racism- like polygenesis, eugenics, and phrenology- it is critical to evaluate how more subtle biases based on our life experiences and values impact how we develop new technologies and who we lift up in academia. I took pages of notes during each of the panels that I attended (and even tried some live tweeting). The most salient part of the conference, however, was the workshops that emphasized how to address bias and inequity when we write and talk about research and policy. At MOST, we make an intentional effort to evaluate how research and policy differentially impact minoritized groups. Still, through discussions with speakers and conference attendees, we challenged each other to dig deeper. When we use a model to draw conclusions, are we thoughtfully considering who the algorithm(s) are built to represent? How do we bring more people to the science policy table so that we understand how diverse communities are affected and what they need. There is a lot of work to be done to demonstrate that our discussions last weekend were more than just lip service. I am committed to doing the work and I’m encouraged to have met so many people that feel the same way. 

Josh: At the NSPN Conference, Dr. Ndidiamaka Amutah-Onukagha, a professor at Tufts University School of Medicine, kicked off the session titled “Achieving Racial Equity in Health Care” by providing an overview of a wide body of research focused on identifying and interrogating racial disparities in health outcomes. Along with Dr. Anjanette Wells, a professor at the University of Cincinnati, and Juliana Madzia, an MD/PhD student in sociology at the University of Cincinnati, Dr. Amutah-Onukagha explained that socioeconomic factors, such as household or neighborhood wealth, are often linked to environmental determinants of health, such as the presence of lead in local parks or asbestos in the home. These variables, in turn, are often linked to race due to historical patterns of discrimination in areas such as housing and the workforce. With this in mind, the panelists explained that it is often necessary to be race-conscious when analyzing health-related data, as pulling apart outcomes by race can reveal trends, such as disparities in maternal and infant mortality, that may require policymakers to allocate resources to particular communities in a focused and sustained manner.    

Eleni: My favorite session from this year’s symposium was the one on Racial Inequities in Food Systems and Agriculture. I enjoyed learning about the ways we can identify, acknowledge and repair racial inequalities and oppression in food systems and agriculture. I was always interested in the challenges that local communities face toward their efforts to affordable, healthy and sustainable food systems, and the panelists in this training really encouraged me to think more broadly and critically about how the current local food systems may be perpetuating the racial inequalities that exist in our society and within food systems.

Jenny: One theme that kept remerging at the National Science Policy Network was on trust in science. In particular, some speakers pointed out how trust has been lost when people used science to reinforce inequities. For example, Lorna Roth discussed how “skin-color balance,” a process to calibrate skin tones in photography for many years always used white women as references. Other speakers referenced the Tuskegee Syphilis Study and the keynote Ruha Benjamin brought up many current questionable machine-learning applications that mimic human biases. The lack of trust may have potent impacts for everyone. Cary Funk of the PEW Research Center showed recent polling data to show that level public trust in a potential COVID vaccine had fallen. 

To combat distrust, several speakers shared how they developed or changed their practices. Brandie Macdonald, of the Museum of Us, illuminated how the museum began decolonizing, with efforts to connect artifacts to the Indigenous people that they may have been coercively taken from. Similarly, Mónica Feliú-Mójer explained how she used storytelling techniques with Ciencia Puerto Rico to connect with local communities. To counter potential biases and highlight role models, Antentor Hinton created a list of 100 Inspiring Black Scientists in America. These efforts help engage different communities and ultimately can positively impact science with public input and encouragement of future scientists. As society faces challenges such as climate change and the pandemic, cultivating trust and inclusiveness is crucial to enable the success and effectiveness of science for solutions. 

Jill: The COVID-19 pandemic has placed a spotlight on science, policy, and health disparities amongst race and socio-economic status. The NSPN Annual Symposium had many interactive panels and discussions surrounding policy, science, and racial injustices that we, as communicators of science, need to bring forth and begin to resolve. I particularly enjoyed the panels “Public Trust and Racial Justice” and “Achieving Racial Equity in Healthcare.” It was interesting to hear the panelists perspectives on how racial injustice affects the public’s trust and engagement in science. As race is entwined with a variety of health outcomes, it was informative to hear actionable steps that scientists and policymakers can take to address these issues. I really enjoyed the 2020 NSPN Annual Symposium and feel I have learned a tremendous amount that can be applied to both my personal and professional life.  It can be challenging to sit in a virtual conference for two days, however, there were ample opportunities to engage in the workshops and network with other attendees. I am already looking forward to attending next year!

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