Who Produces Science During Crisis?

April 1, 2021 @ 3:53 pm
By Courtney D. Cogburn

With research on the social impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic now underway, Courtney Cogburn argues for examining who receives funding and conducts research, in particular with regard to the investigation of the racial dimensions of the crisis. Cogburn suggests that now is especially the moment for highlighting and supporting the work of scholars who have deep knowledge of and expertise on the racial inequalities embedded in the United States, as well as the inequities present in academic research.

Pandemics have historically most impacted those at the margins, from infection and mortality rates to the decimation of familial and social networks.1 The Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent uprisings sparked by ongoing racial violence at the hands of police and white vigilantes have exposed some of the deepest and most persistent inequalities in our society. The confluence of these events has spurred a collective engagement of systemic social inequalities with a particular focus on anti-Black racism. Systemic racism grounds the startling, but not completely unexpected, findings that Black people are 3–5 times as likely to die as a result of Covid-19 infection and that 31 percent of Black adults know someone who has died (compared with 9 percent of white people). Systemic racism also establishes the higher likelihood of Black people dying at the hands of police, when unarmed, sleeping, playing, shopping, and breathing. In spite of and because of these risks, Black youth have led millions to the streets in on-going, global protests (in what has been described as one of the largest movements in history) demanding radical societal transformations in the name of equity and justice. These global crises have forced a practical and existential reckoning with who we are and want to be—including in social science.

Researching racism in crisis

The very scholars who have built the canon of research best positioned to inform our understanding and action in this moment are also the scholars most likely to face the devasting personal and professional consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as state and vigilante violence. Black scholars are the reason we understand the nuanced ways in which Black lives intersect with systems of white oppression. But in this acute moment of a chronic crisis and beyond, whose scholarship will guide analysis, policy, intervention, and collective re-imagining? Who is most likely to have had their existing research and productivity derailed? Who is most likely to be engaging in applied scholarship—shaping public discourse and providing institutional guidance? And where would the discourse, institutions, and thus our society be in this moment without this applied scholarship? We could wait and see what the data will reveal, feel bad that yet another pattern of racial inequity has emerged and vow to be different—better even. Or, in taking an antiracist approach, we can ask these questions now and use the data already documenting the likelihood of Black people faring worse—in publishing, funding, Covid-19 infection, mortality, and all of the related social, economic, physical, psychological, and professional consequences, and in walking away whole from police encounters and other acts of racial violence—to immediately inform our decision making.

As president of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), Alondra Nelson has called for social science to reimagine the tools used to analyze and (re)construct our social communities. A part of this reimagining should include the tools and procedures we use to solicit, fund, produce, and publish science—particularly in moments of crisis. In 2019, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) issued important guidance for conducting science in times of crisis.2 The report calls for the availability of crisis funding at local, state, and federal levels, expand community and scientific engagement, and to establish a clearinghouse of relevant scientific information. The report does not, however, explicitly account for racism being embedded in the distribution and effects of social and environmental crises, as well as in our scientific systems and processes. The AAAS guidelines do not explicitly anticipate the possibility of inequity in this process, take no stance regarding scholarly voices that are important for informing the development of science in response to crisis, or address the processes we employ to guide funding procedures and publishing during a crisis.

Our processes of funding and publishing, for instance, are known to be fraught with racial inequity.3 Research topics focused on health disparities and patient-centered interventions are less likely to be funded through National Institutes of Health (NIH) and especially so when these topics are proposed by Black researchers. Gaps in institutional resources and career stage have also contributed to longstanding racial inequities in NIH funding. Even after modifying review criteria and procedures, recent research suggests that the most significant contributors to racial gaps in funding occur at the earliest stage of review: preliminary criterion scores.4 Blindly and rapidly employing similar procedures in service of understanding this critical moment in history will undoubtedly perpetuate the very inequities these calls for proposals and manuscripts aim to address.

Furthering equity in social science research

Without intervention, my magic ball clandestinely plugged into the information superhighway and the vein of lived experience predicts at least two scenarios. The first is that white and other non-Black scientists will employ a colorblind or bio-racist framing5 in analyzing the etiology of Covid-19, including the social, economic, and psychological consequences. The second is that well-intentioned white and non-Black scientists who are novices in this space will seek to act on their recent realization that racism not only matters in the world but matters in their science as well. These scholars will gather their teams of other mostly white and non-Black scientists to quickly establish a baseline of the existing literature or seek a primer of “the most seminal work in this area” in order to rapidly respond to calls for analysis and intervention. The sudden urgency of this topic will be met with favorable and perhaps even lenient reviews by panelists who are now coming to their own reckoning with racism, but have historically resisted funding research examining the social, political, psychological, and biological functions of racism.6 Indeed, these same panelists may now be inclined to review submissions from relative novices as clear, concise, and important while scholars with deeper expertise may review the same submissions as basic, reductive, redundant, and harmful.

The intention here is not to suggest that scholars who have not previously examined racism or once demanded “proof” of racism’s existence and function should not be carefully and thoughtfully moving in the direction of engagement—they should. Scientists and scholars who have not previously studied racism are not, however, best equipped to lead rapid scientific reviews and science during this crisis or to direct short-term action, intervention, or policy. The scientists and scholars best positioned to lead this work are those who have developed the canon of scholarship that has shaped our understanding of what racism is, how we measure it, how it functions, and what we should do about it. These scholars are deeply grounded in multiple decades of research across every social science discipline and thus are positioned to carefully examine the complex social ecologies presented in dueling global pandemics of racism and Covid-19 and to identify pathways forward.

The silver lining of this well-worn territory is that we already have insight into what should be done. Black scholars have shared personal accounts of their lives as scientists, providing vulnerable insights into the personal and professional barriers related to their work.7 Our response to these barriers should not be pity but rather accountability and action. In the world of grant making, leaders of our scientific institutions have considered anonymizing applications or in early stages reviewing applications without investigator information (e.g., publication record, citations, and institutional resources, which are factors that are themselves rooted in the cumulative effects of structural racism).8 We have also been challenged to elevate our expectations for racial competence in scientific research and to stop producing and publishing research that essentializes racial categories rather than examining the role of systems when racial differences are observed.9 There have also been noble calls for a reimagining of social science and to a greater extent a complete dismantling and rebuilding of our scientific systems and norms.

In the shorter term, there are specific considerations for how we solicit, review, and apply science in moments of crisis.10 Science during crisis is inherently human-centric and conducted in service of application to decision-making, resource management, and ultimately mitigating current harm and future disasters.11 The speed of science and decision-making during crisis can also “jeopardize careful consideration of challenges, risks and ethical protections inherent in scientific undertakings.”12 Rapid responses and crisis science will only perpetuate and escalate the racial inequities engrained in our scientific processes. Let’s consider rapid grant review processes. We can think critically about the criteria we use for these applications: Is polish more important than substance? Are four pages better than two? Should we fund fewer proposals but offer additional support or consultation to promising but currently underdeveloped proposals?

Concluding thoughts

We do not need another study documenting inequity in our scientific processes. At what point will being aware of a problem and not doing anything about it become unsatisfactory or untenable for you in your spheres of influence?13 Failure to address these predictable inequities, particularly in this moment of crisis, will stifle scientific progress, innovation, and meaningful social intervention. There are no easy solutions here but resigning ourselves to continued failure is unacceptable. Actively questioning how to avoid perpetuating racial disadvantage (and subsequently advantage) and acting accordingly is an excellent place to start.

1. Lizzie Wade, “An Unequal Blow,” Science 368, no. 6492 (May 15, 2020): 700–703.
2. Rita Rossi Colwell and Gary E. Machlis, Science During Crisis: Best Practices, Research Needs, and Policy Priorities (Somerville, MA: American Academy of Arts & Sciences, 2019).
3. →Donna K. Ginther et al., “Are Race, Ethnicity, and Medical School Affiliation Associated With NIH R01 Type Award Probability for Physician Investigators?” Academic Medicine: Journal of the Association of American Medical Colleges 87, no. 11 (November 2012): 1516–24.
→Donna K. Ginther, Shulamit Kahn, and Walter T. Schaffer, “Gender, Race/Ethnicity, and National Institutes of Health R01 Research Awards: Is There Evidence of a Double Bind for Women of Color?” Academic Medicine: Journal of the Association of American Medical Colleges 91, no. 8 (August 2016): 1098–1107.
→Donna K. Ginther et al., “Race, Ethnicity, and NIH Research Awards,” Science 333, no. 6045 (August 19, 2011): 1015–19.
4. Elena A. Erosheva et al., “NIH Peer Review: Criterion Scores Completely Account for Racial Disparities in Overall Impact Scores,” Science Advances 6, no. 23 (June 1, 2020).
5. Jessie Daniels and Amy J. Schultz, “Constructing Whiteness in Health Disparities Research,” in Gender, Race, Class and Health: Intersectional Approaches, eds. Amy J. Schulz and Leith Mullings (Wiley, 2005), 89–127.
6. Erosheva et al., “NIH Peer Review.”
7. →Neil A. Lewis, Jr., “What I’ve Learned about Being a Black Scientist,” Science, June 16, 2020.
→C. Brandon Ogbunu, “For Scientific Institutions, Racial Reconciliation Requires Reparations,” Scientific American, June 12, 2020.
→Whitney Pirtle, “Black Women Need to be Free,” The Grio, July 1, 2020.
→Jasmine Roberts, “White Academia: Do Better,” The Faculty, June 8, 2020.
8. Donna K. Ginther et al., “Publications as Predictors of Racial and Ethnic Differences in NIH Research Awards,” PLOS ONE, November 14, 2018.
→Erosheva et al., “NIH Peer Review.”
9. →Rhea W. Boyd et al., “On Racism: A New Standard for Publishing on Racial Health Inequities,” Health Affairs blog, July 2, 2020.
→Courtney D. Cogburn, “Culture, Race, and Health: Implications for Racial Inequities and Population Health,” Milbank Quarterly 97, no. 3 (2019): 736–761.
10. Colwell and Machlis, Science During Crisis.
11. Colwell and Machlis, Science During Crisis.
12. Colwell and Machlis, Science During Crisis, 4.
13. New York: Basic Books, 2018
book: Faces at the Bottom of the Well

This essay was originally published in Items: Insights from the Social Sciences, a digital publication of the Social Science Research Council. Courtney D. Cogburn, “Who Produces Science During Crisis?” in “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences,” series, Items, Sept. 17, 2020. Reprinted with permission.