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Ruha Benjamin, Ph.D.

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Beyond Tokenistic Inclusion: Science, Citizenship, and Changing the Questions

Posted: 03/25/2013 3:30 pm

The old photograph struck me immediately. The caption read: "Ella Tyree, 29, inject[ing] atomic materials into animals to determine effects of radiation on humans."

The image, published by Ebony magazine, showed Tyree, a black female scientist trained at Spelman College, working in an atomic science laboratory near Chicago circa 1949. 1

Spelman, the historically black women's college in Atlanta, Georgia, also happens to be my undergraduate alma mater, and so naturally I was intrigued.

But before I could launch the photograph over my social networks, I happened to re-read the caption: "[T]o determine the effects of radiation on humans," it said.

Just as other scientists working at the time, Tyree and her counterparts were unwitting participants in a larger Cold War research agenda that, in shifting from military to peacetime applications, conscripted "hundreds of individuals [who] were exposed to radiation in experiments which provided little or no medical benefit to the subjects... American citizens thus became nuclear calibration devices."

According to declassified papers subsequently examined in a government report on "American nuclear guinea pigs", 31 experiments were conducted in the '40s, '50s, and "the supposedly more enlightened 1960s and 1970s" in which people who "experimenters might frighteningly have considered 'expendable'" were exposed to radiation. Animal-based experiments like the kind Ella Tyree was doing in the Ebony profile, could "not [be] readily extrapolated to humans" and so research was conducted on the elderly, prisoners, hospital patients, and even children. The report describes how a number of the human radiation studies were carried out at Argonne National Laboratories, the facility where Tyree worked.

Needless to say, Tyree was not in a position to raise critical questions about the nature of these studies. As historian and technologist Shane Landrum explains with respect to black atomic scientists, "The fact that there were so few of them testifies to the significance of structural discrimination against African Americans..." And while institutional review boards make the kind of blatant abuses documented in the "American nuclear guinea pigs" report less likely, it is crucial to note that even research deemed "ethical" has far-reaching implications for society.

As I explain in my book, People's Science: Bodies and Rights on the Stem Cell Frontier, tokenistic inclusion of the "right" kind of people in science has a way of placating public discussion about systemic forms of exclusion that shape who is at the table (making decisions) versus who is on the table (as research subjects) of contemporary life sciences. And this connection between science and citizenship too often gets reduced to a question of "science education" -- a one-way relationship where the public is imagined to be a receptacle and those of us in the sciences have presumably nothing to learn from nonscientists.

In rethinking this connection between science and citizenship, I happened to come across a different Ebony article that ran a few years later, in 1955, in which another black nuclear scientist George Johnson, is shown "in the lab, at the town's modern grocery store, near their church, at home playing cards with white friends." The town of Los Alamos, New Mexico is depicted as a more welcoming place to live for African Americans at the time, precisely because residents were scientists who operated according to reason and not prejudice (as if the two were mutually exclusive). In Johnson's words, "There is no racism at Los Alamos, the scientists mostly being very progressive people. In Los Alamos, I feel like I'm a real citizen."2

The town, like science itself, is depicted as insulated from the political ethos and social norms of the time. As Landrum contends:

Science was not merely a method of discovery about the physical world; it was also a key component of national defense, a rapidly-growing career opportunity, and a symbol of societal progress through rational thought. By articulating the idea that scientific worldviews could cure racism, Johnson and the Ebony editors who quoted him were participating in an optimistic discourse about citizenship and science. Because scientists spent their days observing facts and analyzing them without preconceived notions, they were ideal symbols of enlightenment within the struggle for African American political rights.

Indeed, this is an enlightenment ethos that continues to structure what many of us writing in and about the sciences can and cannot say about the impact and meaning of our research in the contemporary world. We inherit a discourse that assumes science is always and everywhere a straightforward "good"... if only we could just insulate it from politics, which is construed as a clear-cut "bad." We forget that the ability to raise questions tied to the complex history of science in society is itself an exercise in free and open inquiry, and that the scientific principles that we claim to hold dear emerged with democracy.

In the meantime, celebrating token women and people of color in science, like George Johnson and Ella Tyree, serves as a proxy for deeper investment in public participation in the sciences. It is as if to say, "Never mind what those living in Los Alamos were up to! Just look at how well the (few) black scientists among them are treated." Leaving this enlightenment ethos of science unquestioned, tokenistic inclusion can undermine our willingness to raise hard questions about the broader implications of our work.

That said, I still find it inspiring to see people thrive and excel against the odds. Like many of you, I relish in the success of those who are not expected to -- whether it's Jeremy Lin or Gabby Douglas in athletics, José Hernández, Mae Jemison, and Stephen Hawking in science and engineering. In an odd way, I even think Martha Stewart's felony charges are something to be celebrated. After all, how often do suburban housewives-turned-moguls get their day in court?

But precisely because the aforementioned individuals stand out to us as "exceptions to the rule," this tells us that there are norms in the first place that have shaped the experiences of the majority of people. As in other fields which profess to "support diversity," superficial forms of inclusion serve as a kind of moral prophylactic that makes it difficult to raise critical questions without risking the charge of being "antiscience."

Perhaps, then, we are overdue for a Second Enlightenment in which the idealized insularity of science gives way to a more socially robust relationship between scientists and publics? Harvard professor of science and technology studies, Sheila Jasanoff contends that, "Where democracy is strong today, there science also enjoys a respected place. In strengthening democratic values, we also renew the preconditions for scientific discovery and technological innovation."

The scientific community prides itself on free and open inquiry, and yet when it comes to raising questions about the social and political implications of our work, a peculiar form of self-censorship seems to be at work. In asking hard questions about the broader implications of pursuing various research agendas, thereby contextualizing science in the world around us, both science and democracy are strengthened in the process.

In the end, we not only need to broaden the range of people doing science, but we urgently need to broaden the range of questions that we are all asking.

2 "Secret City of Sudden Death", Ebony, November 1955.


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