Who “does” Science?

Recently I was told that there are very few black people in Los Alamos, New Mexico because “Blacks don’t do science”. This idea was repeated twice, on separate occasions but using slightly different wording, by the same person.  It seems that what underlies this is a basic idea that black people are not capable of being scientists. In fact when I put forward the name of a scientist he was dismissed as “not having done much”.

This whole discussion, if it can be described as such, set me thinking as to why so few African Americans would be involved in the sciences. Was this proportionate to the numbers of Black people in the population of the USA ? (No doubt the same question could , and should,  be asked in every “First World” country with a black population).

As the original observation was about Los Alamos,which,you will remember, gained notoriety as the centre of the Manhattan Project in WWII , I decided to start there. I discovered that,  of the 200, 000 people who worked on the project in its many laboratories scattered throughout the United States there were only six African-American scientists employed. One of these, Lloyd Quaterman, worked with Einstein himself at Columbia University. He later worked with Fermi after the war.

Only six? Why? The answer seems obvious. This was a time of segregation in the U.S.A. few black people would have had the opportunity to become educated to degree level. In fact it would not surprise me to discover that they were actively discouraged. It had been that way for many long years all over the “West”.

I have recently become aware of papers being published that point to an ongoing situation regarding Science funding and Black scientists in the USA. If you are black and you submit an application for funding to the NIH you are significantly less likely to be made an award than the probability for the whole sample examined. If you are white then you are significantly more likely. Asians are also less likely, though more likely than Blacks, and Hispanics equal the sample, probability. A complex situation which may well be indicative of a deep-seated problem in our societies. (Science 19 August 2011: Vol. 333 no. 6045 pp. 1015-1019 DOI: 10.1126/science.1196783 0) This deals with only part of the article.

Comment has been made in Scientific American about this research which is worth reading. I found the small number of responses made on line to the SA article very interesting and some very frightening because they reflect stereotypical ideas and attitudes which should have been consigned to the dustbin of history (can’t remember who on Earth first used that phrase) along with the other ill that has coloured our past and is becoming more prevalent today under the old Stalinist cover name of anti-Zionism, namely anti-Semitism. Perhaps more of that another time.

One of the points that I picked out from reading the S.A. article was that of mentors. Why the lack of mentors for Black scientists? Well, what do you tHink?

Meanwhile, to my original correspondent and others, perhaps on making such observations as “Blacks don’t do science” you should, as educated people, ask, “Why? Why don’t Blacks do science?” and put your own prejudices to one side whilst seeking an answer.

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10 Responses to “Who “does” Science?”

  1. wisechile Says:

    Patricia Bath, George Washington Carver, Marie Daly, Garrett Morgan, Shirley Ann Jackson to name but a few.

    I am well used to hearing some people saying that Black people dont do a variety of things, science is just one in a long list of things that Black people “dont do”.

    Those who say such things are simply showing their ignorance & signposting us to who they are

  2. padmum Says:

    This is …well I really don’t know what to say.Thanks for bringing this matter to light. I am going to forwrad this article by you to all my contacts.

    There is a huge discussion now on in India about the lack of a scientific temperament and inventive intelligence. Many have gone away out of the country and there has been a visible brain drain of the intelligentia.

    The reason being given is that big companies have only made money, the government has helped them make money bu subsiding land, import of equipment etc. No great focus has been directed to doing original reserach. In universities to lack of proper funding and favouritism is shackling original thinkers. The need to make a living has stopped people from turning to research.

    Now I see an innovative, inventive mind blossoming in kids especially at grass root levels.

    Great article.

  3. Grannymar Says:

    Plenty of food for thought there.

    I never had the chance to ‘do’ science – my maths were weak. Instead I ‘did’ Domestic Science, aka cooking and sewing. That involved some maths since I needed to count inches, feet and yards, ounces and lbs, and know about oven temperatures! Does that make me a scientist? 😉

    On a serious note, I am sure that segregation in the U.S.A, played a major part in the lack of black Africans being educated to degree level.

    The Ireland I grew up in was white. Very WHITE! In more recent times, the days of the Celtic Tiger brought people of every race and creed to her shores, many doing work that natives saw as not worth getting out of bed for. The visitors worked long and hard for what they earned. They brought their customs, their foods and a whole new flavour to the Irish way of life. Long may it continue.

  4. magpie11 Says:

    Wise: they are among the well known ones…. there are a lot more to be found.
    Padmum: It is interesting that this seems to have rung a bell on “the sub-continent”. I had an unverifiable request to post it onto a website for “elderly” Indians. The interesting thing is that “Asians” are often seen as more scientific than others.
    GM: That was the British experience back in the 50s and 60s and is now the experience with regard to other groups: I was ashamed when I heard an Englishman on benefits say (with regard to working on the land) “I’m not going to do that for seven pounds an hour.” I understood what Tebbit meant about getting on ones bike to find a job.

  5. padmum Says:

    I was the one who forwarded this blog to my friend Ishita who runs Verdurez..a website for over 55’s Indian diaspora.

    I told her to ask your permission to put it on her website. Thanks.

    • magpie11 Says:

      Oh dear, I spammed it as i had really no idea where it came from. Please apologise for me and suggest that she puts a link on her site.
      i have had some requests on here from really weird places so am ultra cautious.

  6. Looney Says:

    The overall situation is much more complex now if you happen to work in Silicon Valley or even Detroit. When I did training classes in Detroit, there might be 20 to 30 Chinese and Koreans another 20 to 30 Indians and a white or two who may or may not be European or Middle Eastern. Blacks don’t do engineering but Whites increasingly don’t do engineering either. That was oversimplified, since I did one engineering project with a Black engineer and we put a paper out together. (I am White.)

    As for grants, there is a relational component in getting them. There are plenty of people who can write outstanding proposals, but not deliver, thus reputation and relationships determine what will be awarded, not simply numbers of proposals submitted.

    It is always fun to speculate about the factors involved. The OECD’s PISA organization tracks education performance by country. The US does not come out very well.

  7. magpie11 Says:

    I have always thought that PISA is on a hiding to nothing as it is not comparing like with like.
    Over here we have people who hold up various Scandinavian systems as examples of perfection….. their populations are so much smaller than ours that you cannot compare them.

    As for who does or who does not “do” science: I suspect that there is something operating in the background.

  8. blackwatertown Says:

    Sounds like racism to me – and then using the result of that same racism to justify it.

  9. magpie11 Says:

    I took the original comment to be racist and feel I hit the nail firmly on the head considering subsequent events.

    Although I find all these figures and what they appear to point to abhorrent none of it surprises me in the least.

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