Stepping up

What started in Minneapolis has swept across America and now spreads around the globe. This moment is delivering a new opportunity to deal with an old enemy, to begin setting right many old wrongs. One thing that has become abundantly clear is that it is not enough to whisper support from the sidelines, to take solace in the self-assessment that ‘I am not racist’ and then sit back to see what happens. Each one of us must look to what we can do to make things better.

I am a Professor of Neuroscience in a medium-sized University in England. My research focuses on the neuroscience of perception and of consciousness – the science of how we experience the world (and the self), and of how ‘experience’ happens at all. These questions are deeply fascinating and have many practical implications. I am lucky to have a career that revolves around such interesting topics. I am keenly aware that this luck has not been equally available.

In my research group of nine, there are no Black people. There have been no Black people among the 22 doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers I have mentored since arriving at Sussex University more than a decade ago. There are no Black people on the editorial board of the academic journal I oversee – a board consisting of 29 researchers from around the world. I am co-director of an international research program: the CIFAR program on Brain, Mind, and Consciousness has no Black people among its 34 Fellows, Advisors, and Global Scholars. This is not acceptable. Unfortunately, it is also entirely normal for neuroscience as a field. When wandering the halls of the Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting – which regularly draws about 30,000 people – seeing a Black person is always a rare event. This is wrong.

Beyond its exclusionary effects, this systemic bias has a pernicious influence on how neuroscience is done. In studies of brain disorders in America, minority groups make up a tiny percentage of the cohorts on which studies are conducted (less than 5%, according to 2018 figures from the Lieber Institute for Brain Development). When neuroscience excludes Black researchers, neuroscience neglects Black people.

How did we get here? For those of us in comparatively senior positions, it is tempting to put it all down to a lack of qualified Black applicants, and to the scarcity of Black researchers in neuroscience more generally. There is some truth to this, but simply re-describing the situation does not solve the situation.

What can be done? There is an urgent need to encourage and support Black students and researchers at all stages of their education, training, and professional development, through scholarships, mentorships, networking events, and so on. Here, organisations such as the Society for Black Brain and Behavioural Scientists are doing excellent work. But progress will be too slow if action is left only to those who have a direct stake.

I will make a commitment. Recognising that exclusion starts early, I will make time to mentor and advise Black students who are keen to find a way into cognitive neuroscience. The opportunities we take are defined by the opportunities we see, and having a personal connection into a new world can make a real difference. If anyone wants to take me up on this, all you have to do is email me here – include ‘stepping up’ in the subject line.

Besides this, wherever I have a leadership role I will develop strategies to encourage greater participation from and representation of Black people, extending the active programmes that already exist to promote equity, diversity, and inclusion. I will also sign up for bystander intervention training – a step that many of us can take to make sure we are not left useless on the sidelines when something goes down.

I was a brown-skinned boy growing up in white rural Oxfordshire. I’m not a stranger to racism. I had hoped that things would get better, that the future would naturally tend towards diversity and inclusivity, to the benefit of all. But I now understand that history doesn’t write itself.  It’s time for each of us to do what we can to make things better.