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Amidst National Reckoning with Racial Injustice the Physics Community Reflects on Its Own Inequities

By Karmela Padavic Callaghan

Photo: statistical data on diversity in physics presented by Prof. S. J. Gates during an American Physical Society webinar on June 24th, 2020

“What does physics have to do with police brutality?” physicist Prof. Phillip W. Phillips asked in his opening remarks during an American Physical Society (APS) webinar on making physics inclusive and equitable. The rest of the panelists, all Zoom tiles taking up my computer screen, featured familiar faces from the world of physics advocacy, including the APS President-Elect Prof. S. James Gates, Jr. The moderator was

Prof. Lisa Randall, a physicist with significant public presence in her own right, and the event was co-sponsored by four other professional societies focused on physics. Physicists tuned in in thousands.

In the time of a global pandemic and nationwide protests, holding a webinar on equity and inclusion may not seem new or important, but it certainly was for the physics community. After about an hour, Prof. Gates read an email that Neil deGrasse Tyson sent him while watching the event – it was drawing unprecedented attention among physicists. I have attended equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) sessions at APS conferences in the past, and they were often small enough that I could recognize many other attendees. This was different. Another panelist and past president of the American Association of Physics Teachers Prof. Mel Sabella told me he didn’t think so many physicists would have been “in the room” had this event happened a few years ago. “APS had never done anything like this before” Prof. Phillips agreed. “APS doesn’t exist in a vacuum” he continued, answering both his original question and offering one explanation for the large interest in the panel.

Physics is definitely not immune to inequities. During the webinar, Prof. Gates shared that barely 5% of physics faculty in the United States are underrepresented minorities, and they earn under 15% of bachelor’s degrees in physics. Most Black physics students, in particular, move through their whole physics education without encountering a faculty member that looks like them. Arlene Modeste Knowles, the manager of the American Institute of Physics TEAM-UP (Task Force to Elevate African American Representation in Undergraduate Physics & Astronomy) project, was clear – underrepresentation of African American students in physics is a consequence of unsupportive environments in many physics departments.

Advocates like Knowles call for systemic change, but the webinar reflected how little many physicists know about EDI issues and how deeply rooted those can be. The lack of awareness was a common thread in panelists’ presentations. They often mentioned initiatives that already exist but have not been broadly recognized. As president of the National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP) Prof. Stephon Alexander reflected on the organization’s history: “we support the success of our students and our professionals in light of 40 years of not really having the resources”. For many panelists, EDI work has been not just a passion but a necessity way before current tragic events appeared in their colleagues’ newsfeeds. Can the present national conversation serve as incentive for everyone else to get involved?

Prof. Phillips suggested one action: APS should boycott cities with a history of police brutality when choosing host cities for its conferences. Ignoring issues of police brutality in this context would be “tantamount to placing the concerns of its black members outside the organizational mainstream,” he said. Another suggestion comes from the TEAM-UP report, calling for physical science societies to form a consortium and raise a $50M endowment to support minoritized students in physics. Yet another is for departments to stop using GRE Physics test scores for physics PhD programs admissions. Social scientists have shown that they fail to predict PhD completion but do have a discriminatory effect on traditionally underrepresented students.

Some of the reactions to the webinar, however, indicate that many physicists are simply not engaged with EDI issues enough to be ready for action. Prof. Phillips spoke about receiving negative responses to a letter in Science in which he and Prof. Michael B. Weissman outlined the boycott proposal. The webinar chat-box designated for questions from viewers also featured some troublingly simplistic asks. In response to the discussion of the GRE, an anonymous physicist asked how solving a problem on the Schrodinger’s equation on a test can be discriminatory. Having done EDI work as a physicist myself, I recognized such responses as a reflection of an unrealistic belief in meritocracy that is pervasive among academics that have not been incentivized to self-educate on systems of oppression.

At the same time, some younger physicists felt that the discussion did not go far, or deep, enough. Much of the discussion in the Q&A focused on outreach, causing Katrina Miller, a physics Ph. D. candidate at the University of Chicago to Tweet “It’s not only unfair but incredibly damaging to lure us into academic spaces without already having fixed the ideologies ad systemic structures that push us out.” Others agreed that the Q&A overemphasized recruitment of Black students to the detriment of discussing how they can be supported afterwards. The only student on the panel, Farrah Simpson, a Brown University graduate student and NSBP Executive Board Representative, raised the same concern. “It’s not enough to increase representation. How do black professors, postdocs and students feel within their departments?” she asked, “Do they have positions that reflect the work that they do?” Yet, the outreach discussion got granular enough to discuss mechanics of after-school programs, while the one concerning retention and support did not.

For his part, Prof. Phillips is optimistic. Together with Prof. Weissman he is now working with statistics experts to flesh out their boycott proposal. Were it to become policy, it would undoubtedly make for a strong stance. Nonetheless the more internal issue of reexamining and intentionally changing the culture of physics remains open. As Knowles emphasized, “Now more than ever is the time to act towards systemic changes.” This will require more than watching a webinar. “This was meant as a first step so the hope is that more of these discussions will follow,” Prof. Sabella told me, noting that this event being organized in the first place gives him hope for more focused actions in the future. True progress will be measured by how much of these actions and their impact can be reported in the next conversation that thousands of physicists set aside time for.

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