No black sci­en­tist has ever won a No­bel – that’s bad for sci­ence, and bad for so­ci­ety

Saturday Star - - METRO - WIN­STON MOR­GAN

MANY in the sci­en­tific world are cel­e­brat­ing the fact that two women re­ceived this year’s No­bel prizes in physics and chem­istry. Donna Strick­land and Frances Arnold are only the 20th and 21st fe­male sci­en­tists to be recog­nised by the No­bel Com­mit­tee. Yet in over 100 years, we have never seen a black sci­en­tist be­come a No­bel lau­re­ate.

Ev­ery year, the an­nual Oc­to­ber No­bel Prize an­nounce­ments co­in­cide with Black His­tory Month, which is a painful re­minder that of the more than 900 No­bel lau­re­ates, only 14 have been black and none in sci­ence. Al­most all black lau­re­ates have been awarded for work in the fields of peace and lit­er­a­ture. Dur­ing that time, the clos­est a black sci­en­tist has come to win­ning has been so­cial sci­en­tist Arthur Lewis for his work in 1973.

By con­trast, there have been over 70 Asian lau­re­ates, the ma­jor­ity in the sci­ences, and since 2000 that num­ber has sig­nif­i­cantly in­creased. This is partly due to the in­creas­ing in­flu­ence and power of Ja­panese, Chi­nese, Korean uni­ver­si­ties and the suc­cess of the Asian Amer­i­can academy. To win a No­bel Prize for sci­ence, it helps if you are in a pres­ti­gious in­sti­tu­tion and in a po­si­tion to lead big, ex­pen­sive sci­ence.

The main rea­son no black sci­en­tist has won a No­bel prize is sim­ply a mat­ter of num­bers. Not enough bright young black peo­ple are choos­ing sci­ence. Along­side the more lim­ited op­por­tu­ni­ties for black Africans, black peo­ple in Western coun­tries are less likely to study sci­ence.

To even be con­sid­ered as a pos­si­ble No­bel lau­re­ate you must be­come a prin­ci­pal in­ves­ti­ga­tor or a pro­fes­sor in a lead­ing in­sti­tu­tion. Yet, once a black sci­ence grad­u­ate makes it to the first rung on the aca­demic lad­der, they face the same chal­lenges as any other black aca­demic around – ac­cess to pro­mo­tion and ac­cess to re­sources. For ex­am­ple, we know black sci­en­tists in the US are less likely to re­ceive fund­ing for health re­search.

It seems highly likely the per­cep­tion that black peo­ple don’t reach the high­est level in sci­ence has, in some ways, af­fected the suc­cess of black peo­ple. Re­search sug­gests fe­male role mod­els can en­cour­age women to pur­sue ca­reers in sci­ence, and the same seems likely to be true for black peo­ple. Hav­ing a black No­bel lau­re­ate would in­spire more black stu­dents to be­come pro­fes­sors, which in turn would in­spire more black peo­ple to study sci­ence.

Dur­ing my own un­der­grad­u­ate stud­ies, many cour­ses be­gan with a pro­fes­sor de­scrib­ing the in­spi­ra­tional work of a No­bel lau­re­ate, who was usu­ally a white man. These in­di­vid­u­als were el­e­vated to su­per­hu­man sta­tus, peo­ple we should as­pire to be like be­cause their work had tran­scended the field. This ap­pealed to me as it re­in­forced my de­sire to be­come a sci­en­tist.

But at the same time, as a black stu­dent, achiev­ing that level of suc­cess or even any­thing along that path ap­peared far more dis­tant as there was never a black lau­re­ate on the list.

More black sci­en­tists wouldn’t just be a vic­tory for equal­ity but would ben­e­fit wider so­ci­ety. For ex­am­ple, con­di­tions such as di­a­betes, heart dis­ease, can­cer and many oth­ers have a higher in­ci­dence in peo­ple of African de­scent. Yet re­search is of­ten bi­ased towards study­ing white peo­ple.

More black sci­en­tists, es­pe­cially in lead­ing po­si­tions, could bring greater fo­cus, un­der­stand­ing and dif­fer­ent in­sights to in­ves­ti­gat­ing these con­di­tions. They could also help lead the de­colonis­ing of sci­ence, with ad­van­tages to so­ci­ety. | The Con­ver­sa­tion

Mor­gan is Reader in tox­i­col­ogy and clin­i­cal bio­chem­istry, Univer­sity of East Lon­don

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from South Africa

© PressReader. All rights reserved.