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.



Taking back control

EUI was born in 1972, a year before the UK joined the European Economic Community. As I grew up, in rural South Oxfordshire, the idea of being part of a world beyond England helped keep me going, helped me believe things would get better. Half Indian and half Yorkshire, with a name that even I couldn’t pronounce properly, I looked forward to being part of a world with all the beauty and diversity of Europe, a world in which the threat of war and nationalism was receding not growing, war which had taken my grandfather before I knew him, before he knew me.

In 2016, the day after the referendum, I was giving a talk at a New Scientist event in London. I was up first, and began with some words about the sadness I felt about the result. Sadness about the UK turning away from the world with all its opportunities and challenges, and sadness about the national self-harm caused by the lies, greed, complacency, and desperation for power that had brought us to this point, to 52% vs 48%.

Now, despite myself, I am angry.

Apparently, Theresa May is preparing to bring her appalling deal back to parliament for a third ‘meaningful’ vote, running down the clock until there are no options left on the table, until there is no table. The deal on offer has not changed. To call the votes ‘meaningful’ is therefore the most moronic oxymoron I’ve ever heard. There is nothing meaningful in repeating a vote you lose (and lose by massive margins) until you get the result you want.

Of course, this is precisely the logic by which we are told it is unacceptable to go back to ask the people what they think. The people, we are told, have given their instructions, and we are compelled to carry them out whatever the cost. But while May’s ‘deal’ has not changed, the consequences of leaving the EU are now entirely and obviously different from the lies and false promises that people voted on during the referendum itself, in a campaign that is increasingly being revealed as riven with corruption and driven by dubious foreign and economic interests. (And yes, we need our own Mueller.)

To refuse a People’s Vote on the basis of it being a threat to democracy is hypocrisy of lowest form.

There are many other reasons for sadness and anger. The shapeshifting of our politicians as they jockey for personal advantage amid their self-generated chaos. The airtime given to the far-right headbangers stirring up regressive nationalistic passions to deepen the divisions that are already tearing our country apart. The pandering to the Ulster Unionists and the threat to peace in Northern Ireland. The blatant lies coming from the government as they pull votes, add votes, trot out the same garbage about ‘taking back control’, attempt shameless bribes to get their way, and plough on to the cliff edge regardless. The absence of any effective opposition to what is the most disastrous leadership I or anyone can remember. Cameron and his mates fleeing the scene to chillax in Italy or Portugal or wherever. The disenfranchisement of the young, the back-burnering of all the non-Brexit government business that might actually matter, and all the time and money and hopes and dreams already burnt to ashes on the Brexit trash-fire.

It’s time for all this to stop.

Our society was and is unequal and the dominant neo-liberal complacency needed shaking up. But this is not the way to do it. We are more divided than ever, half of us sold lies and promises of an impossible future, the other half increasingly disconnected from and despairing of the direction we are headed. The EU, while not perfect, cannot be blamed. We brought this on ourselves. And now it’s clear that parliament, once something to be proud of, cannot form a majority for anything – at least not without May’s deadline-day gun-to-the-head and the prospective horror show of her deal rising like a zombie until it finally staggers over the line. This would not be a triumph of diplomacy and democracy. It would be a travesty.

It’s time to go back to the people. Let them take back control.