Balancing the equation

Reviewing the Royal Institution’s first Black History Month event.


From left to right: Lathbridge, Kennedy, Fatumo and Satti. Image: RI, with permission.

This post is part of black mathematician month.

Sometimes, as scientists, we can be too focused on the details, and this clouds our vision when discussing broader topics such as diversity. The Royal Institution’s event ‘Balancing the equation‘, held on 8 October this year, avoided this pitfall and kept both eyes firmly on the big picture. The evening explored the far-reaching implications of structural racism on the past, present and future of science, and was hosted by Alex Lathbridge, a comedian, presenter and doctoral researcher in biochemistry.

Alongside Lathbridge were three guests: Lisa Kennedy, assistant curator at the Science Museum; Segun Fatumo, a senior scientist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine; and Riham Satti, an entrepreneur who uses artificial intelligence to improve the hiring process. The speakers’ range of backgrounds ensured that the evening was varied, and presented a well-rounded view of the issue.

Lisa Kennedy

Lisa Kennedy.

Kennedy set the context by speaking about her work on decolonisation, reminding us again how entrenched whiteness is in British science, and how the way that history is presented shapes the way that we see ourselves today. Museums, and therefore the popular perception of history, have been whitewashed—meaning, deliberately constructed to present a particular narrative, one which “attempts to stop people finding out the true facts about a situation”. In particular, historical whitewashing has obscured the achievements of black people and the role that racism played in scientific progress. This project has been incredibly successful: Kennedy’s talk began with her doing a Google search for ‘influential scientists’ only to be faced with a page of white figures, the majority of them male. “There is a grand narrative about these men and their contribution to science. But the enlightenment also ran parallel to the age of European ‘discovery’ and the development of a white superiority complex.” Museums were “born from collections of exotic objects, unique specimens of plants, technology and bodies from colonised countries” which served to frame black people as primitive and inferior. Enlightenment science, despite being based on ideals of objectivity and rationality, was not immune to this vision. Charles Darwin’s belief in the “inferiority of the negro”, and James Marion Sims, the ‘father of gynaecology’, performed shocking experiments on enslaved black women without anaesthetic, under the racist notion that black women could not feel pain.

Given that the very foundations of modern science are so rooted in racism, how can we begin to change the narrative and dispel two centuries of whitewashing? “Room needs to be made for people to present an alternative history.” We should not stop talking about Darwin (or Columbus, or Rhodes, or Colston, or Galton…) because of their racism, but “apply modern understanding to their work and lives.” At the very least, we should acknowledge their racism and reflect on the impact it has today. Kennedy concluded her talk by questioning the value of any museum that, today, celebrates only the achievements of white men. “If you’re not reflecting modern society, then people won’t want to visit you. And if people don’t visit you, you’re irrelevant. And what’s the point then?” There is no excuse not to represent black scientists. “I can go on Twitter any time and find black people doing great things. If I can do it on my phone then don’t tell me that you can’t too, with all of the resources that you have.”

Segun Fatumo

Segun Fatumo.

One of those people doing great things is Segun Fatumo, a senior scientist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine with a PhD in bioinformatics. Fatumo’s work in genetics illustrates that racial bias still has drastic consequences in science today. Over 80% of participants in genome studies are white people of European ancestry, and Fatumo has shown that this imbalance has caused gene-based diagnosis of certain diseases to be ineffective for black Africans. Put simply, some genetic markers that indicate the presence of a disease such as diabetes are different in black and white populations. Studies like the one that Fatumo published in 2016, where his team recorded data from 3000 people in Nigeria, are therefore crucial in understanding how we can give better diagnoses. As Fatumo notes, this paper was authored by three black scientists. The current drive for diversity is not, then, just about equality and fairness for the scientists: it is also about making sure that progress in medicine, technology, and artificial intelligence benefits everybody, and that black people are not locked out of scientific advancement.

Alongside his research, Fatumo is active in bringing more black people into science. From his own experiences as a youth “hawking all manor of things on the streets of Lagos”, Fatumo is uniquely positioned to understand the challenges that people face, as well as the potential that is hidden in what he calls “diamonds on the streets”. To this end, has set up the Boas foundation, which aims to “transform African street children into great scientists, innovators, entrepreneurs and world changers.”

Riham Satti

Riham Satti.

The evening’s final speaker, Riham Satti, offered a look ahead to the future. Satti, who has a PhD in neuroscience, is the founder and CEO of MeVitae; a company that uses machine-learning methods to improve the hiring process. Satti began her talk by listing several of the ways in which human brains are “not perfect”, the most relevant being ‘unconscious bias’—the way in which we unwittingly make judgements about people based on prior experience and/or prejudice. “Unconscious bias affects us all”, something extensively studied in Harvard’s Project implicit, and it has an impact on every stage of the hiring process. While there have been plenty of concerning stories about the use of artificial intelligence in human resources, Satti is convinced that carefully-designed algorithms can actually be used to overcome bias. At every stage of the process, computers could be invoked to make up for our natural shortfalls. This includes “using neuro-linguistic programming to write better job specifications”, “upskilling people in developing countries so that they have the skills to face the modern world” and “training a computer to base hiring decisions purely on who is best for the job”. This last point is of particular interest. Satti presented the results of an experiment that measured how much time (human) recruiters spent reading particular parts of CVs, revealing a clear focus on spurious details such as name, email address, hometown and school. While there is understandable concern that a machine would replicate these biases, it is surely easier and more secure to redesign a flawed algorithm than it is to try to overcome unconscious bias in every HR department around the world.

Solving the equation?

It’s clear that there’s no silver bullet for improving diversity in science. Prejudice runs deep, is widespread and in many cases, people working in science do not even discuss it. The event at the RI, however, gave several causes for optimism. Satti spoke of how she has found technology companies to be the most open to including AI in their hiring processes. With a young leadership that likes to be driven by data (and there is good data to support diversity) it is these fast-growing and important industries that will do much to change our perceptions. It is probably also significant that they are known to pay very well. Suddenly, more people are aware that a degree in computer science or mathematics can be as lucrative as one in economics or medicine.

There are also signs that institutions are taking these issues more seriously. The Royal Institution has never hosted a Black History Month event before, and it is meaningful that they did so this year, and opened their doors to black speakers presenting a critical, radical set of ideas. If we are to make any progress we must be aware of our past, acknowledge the present and look towards the future. But to do this, we have to listen.

A recording of the entire event can found on Youtube, here, courtesy of the Royal Institution. The RI are looking to host more events around Black History Month in the future, and currently have one scheduled for February 6th. Keep an eye on their website for details!

Sean is a PhD student researching geophysical fluid dynamics at UCL. He studies coastal outflows, but so far has been unable to persuade the department to send him on a research trip to the beach.

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