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Racism in research: the personal, institutional and societal costs

Updated: Dec 9, 2020

By M.H & EKB

Over the past several weeks, different articles describing the pervasiveness of racism in health research have sparked intense discussions among our community. In addition to the examples of overt and more subtle discrimination reported in scientific journals and mass media, LSHTM alumni have come forward to share painful memories of their PhD and MSc research projects, describing racist and sexist supervisors who personally demeaned them, discredited their lived experiences, dismissed their relevant expertise, and treated them as inferior to their white peers. Such incidents have permanently clouded their views of LSHTM and of academia in general, and they stand in contrast to the positive perceptions held by others who have completed research projects at LSHTM.

These negative experiences are framed within outdated institutional practices that systematically undermine racial equity, equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in research. We have come to understand the harm caused by a common approach to research supervision and mentorship at LSHTM, whereby MSc and doctoral candidates are furnished with a list of predetermined topics from which to choose their theses. Novel research questions and methods, including those proposed by racially minoritized scholars whose perspectives are already underrepresented, may be scrapped in favour of literature reviews or other topics conceived to support (white) supervisors’ research agendas. This approach not only stifles students’ natural academic curiosity but also suppresses innovative approaches that may be more aligned with the priorities of the population being studied.

These troubling reports point to a general neglect of LSHTM’s primary mission as a centre of higher learning: to educate the next generation of public health researchers, practitioners and leaders in global health. They also have high personal, institutional, and societal costs.

  • Personal costs. Racially minoritized researchers at LSHTM have reported ‘shattered self-confidence’, ‘alarming levels of othering’, feelings of being ‘undermined and underrated’, and overall dampened enthusiasm for completing their dissertations. Such experiences – traumatic for the people targeted, while barely worthy of remembrance for perpetrators – have long-term impacts on graduates’ mental health and careers, discouraging their further studies and involvement in academia.

  • Institutional costs. Unfortunately, UK universities have few incentives to address equity, excellence and inclusiveness in education. In 2021, the quality of the research environment will account for only 15% of the weight in the Research Excellence Framework, the UK system that drives UK university rankings, far behind publications (60%) and impact (25%). Within this 15%, EDI is, for all intents and purposes, not even objectively measured. Additionally, the legal implications of continuing to tolerate racial bias by faculty members mean that LSHTM, as an institution, possesses a vested interest in silencing complaints, thereby perpetuating white supremacy. While it is an open secret among international partners and EDI advocates that LSHTM is a hostile environment for racially minoritized academics, the School has so far escaped the harshest consequences, including public whistleblowing to the media. However, protecting racist faculty from any consequences does an immense disservice to the many others whose genuine commitment to equality is overshadowed and undervalued by the (neo)colonial norms dominating the institution. More insidiously, school leaders’ mission – to protect the institution, even at the expense of the people it is meant to serve – entails corrosive moral compromises that stand in opposition to the School’s loftier public ideals.

  • Societal costs. The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights protects all people’s right to ‘share in scientific advancement’. Denying this right to anyone hurts everyone, as racist gatekeeping drives away talented researchers and squanders their potential contributions to society. Failure to assertively open research spaces to marginalized groups, moreover, results in the stagnation of science. The same dominant groups apply the same methods and models to increasingly multifaceted problems that demand fresh perspectives. Excluding these perspectives ultimately erodes the very relevance of academia, relegating science to the proverbial ivory tower, far removed from the everyday challenges it is meant to solve.

These forms of racism attack public health research at LSHTM like gangrene. As the FAIR Network believes that sunlight is the best disinfectant, we are opening a space for students, alumni and staff to publicly share their experiences of racism and other forms of intersectional discrimination in the research context. To keep the focus on actions and practices rather than on people, we will redact all names prior to publication; however, any names provided will be forwarded to LSHTM department heads to promote accountability.

We also invite researchers and alumni who have had positive experiences in research mentorship – at LSHTM or elsewhere – to share their stories. The many excellent mentors and dedicated supervisors at the School deserve to be celebrated, and we believe these good experiences provide a needed counterpoint to the bad ones, exemplifying best practices that all faculty may learn from.

Additional reading:

On the Agenda:

"Designing an inclusive and anti-racist summer project: questions and reflections" on December 10th, 2020 at 6pm (BST). Four alumni and/or staff will discuss with students (staff welcome as well) during this 1h round table discussion. More information on the event and the speakers coming soon.

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