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Nobel out of reach: Black scientist yet to make it to Nobel

THE ASIAN AGE. | DR WINSTON MORGAN
Published : Oct 21, 2018, 1:37 am IST
Updated : Oct 21, 2018, 6:33 am IST

Change can only be achieved through strong and effective government action, but by definition marginalised groups have little political power.

This year I was asked to write an article on prominent black scientists who I thought could have been awarded the Nobel Prize and young black scientists who are important players in their fields today.
 This year I was asked to write an article on prominent black scientists who I thought could have been awarded the Nobel Prize and young black scientists who are important players in their fields today.

Every year in North America and the UK for one month, there is a celebration of black history and other contributions to society by people of African heritage. This is primarily undertaken under the umbrella of Black History Month. The idea is to remind both the wider society and the black community that they have a proud history and continue to make a contribution.

This year I was asked to write an article on prominent black scientists who I thought could have been awarded the Nobel Prize and young black scientists who are important players in their fields today.

In researching the piece I started with the Nobel Prize as this has traditionally been seen by scientists as the ultimate recognition for a lifetime contribution. It confirmed what I already knew, that there has never been a black scientist Nobel laureate.

In recent years there have been many campaigns for more black professors and senior managers in UK universities, sometimes under the slogan of ‘Why isn’t my Professor Black?’ In the article I argue that statistics confirmed glaring inequalities that were harming young black students wanting to become scientists. This failure means that society is also missing out on benefits of the vast untapped pool of scientists from Black and other underrepresented groups. The paper was designed to stimulate discussion about what should and could be done.

Although I do not know in detail the history and structure of the Indian caste system, I can see a similar journey in terms of both groups having a long history of marginalisation and fighting for social justice. And both face similar challenges in trying to overcome centuries of prejudice and entrenched negative views about what we can achieve. These views are embedded in social, religious, racial and political narratives and are proving almost impossible to change. There have been several laws aimed at redressing the balance but these have proved ineffective. If we start by accepting that the idea of a hierarchical society, based on ethnicity, religion or race is deeply rooted at all levels of many societies and is seen as immutable, then everything makes sense. This creates a polarised and unstable society which affects primarily those at the bottom.

Change can only be achieved through strong and effective government action, but by definition marginalised groups have little political power. When some limited action is taken, it is described as “social engineering” which is a pejorative label aimed at undermining and damaging any positive outcome linked to policies. Consequently any gains from these policies will not be fully appreciated by the wider society and, ironically, even many in affected groups. Over time, a negative narrative prevails and policies are seen as failing or not very effective regardless of facts. Again, part of a subtle campaign to undermine these policies by those who want to see them fail or stop.

Ideally strong and effective government action is the solution. However, when governments put in place policies to reverse historical injustices in social, economic, educational and other areas there will be a natural pushback from those who are currently benefiting from the status quo. So as an example, if there is a government policy that says 10 per cent of the government civil engineering posts should be reserved for individuals from a certain underrepresented group, this has to be accompanied by similar policies in the educational and training pipeline. Otherwise, where will the new engineers come from? A good number of university engineering places must also be reserved for these groups. Ideally, similar policies need to be in place at high-school level. In addition, the approach of school and university teachers towards students from these underrepresented groups would have to change to enable them to progress through the educational system. Another aspect involves changing attitudes within underrepresented groups so they feel confident to take on roles from which were traditionally excluded.

If we look at the relative successful progress of females in politics, education and business in Europe, it has been driven by easily enforceable legislation. Organisations are not left to themselves, they are given quotas and change is closely monitored and audited. Policies are accompanied by campaigns to show the need for a more diverse and representative workforce.

(The author is Reader in Toxicology and Clinical Biochemistry, University of East London)

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Hurdles in research for black scientists

The main reason why 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, less likely to achieve a top degree and less likely to progress to scientific careers.

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.

This is also something of a circular problem. 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 in science. 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 black professors, which in turn would inspire more young Black people to study science.

Dr Winston Morgan in The Conversation

Tags: black history month, nobel prize, black community