Vernon Morris had often felt invisible in a profession defined by observation. As a climate scientist, he's encountered racist behavior at every level of his field.
Feelings of isolation marked his early days analyzing atmospheric ozone chemistry, with virtually no Black peers. Morris has weathered groundless police harassment, been mistaken for a janitor and was once stopped at a science conference, despite wearing a speaker name badge, as he made his way to the podium to give a speech.
The geosciences, which includes climatology, is home to the least diverse population of Ph.D. candidates among the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines, said Morris. The problem with U.S. climate science, Morris said, is the cohort of scientists publishing in science journals was produced by schools that perpetuate de facto social and class filters. That means many of those in the higher echelons of climate academia have limited interactions with Black and other people of color, said Morris, who is a professor of chemistry and environmental sciences at Arizona State University.
The narrow demographic limits scientists' perspectives, and consequently their output. Research in critical areas has largely failed to address concerns of the larger population, Morris said. When scientists don't monitor air and water continuously and don't watch storm patterns, they can't help save lives and boost livelihoods. In this way, racism also generates an incomplete picture of the world that can limit policymaking, leaving many millions of people facing disproportionate harm from growing threats.
Morris has been working to right these wrongs. He's been encouraging students of color to enter a field that needs them; he was a founding director of the atmospheric sciences program at Howard University, and also started a networking group for minority students called the Colour of Weather. Last year, in the wake of George Floyd's murder, Morris published a call to action signed by nine other scientists to push the geosciences to break structures that keep people of color from succeeding.
Calls to address racism are echoing around the profession.
Federal science institutions are taking steps to address disparities. The National Science Foundation formed a racial equity task force in November. NOAA created a "talent acquisition" unit to help market job opportunities within minority communities. Last year, NASA started a Justice, Equity Diversity and Inclusion Group within its Earth Science unit. It's helping NASA work with historically Black colleges and universities on Earth-observation projects.
Black and other marginalized populations have disproportionately suffered the consequences of environmental hazards, be it so-called urban heat island effects — areas made hotter by buildings and roads retaining heat — or hurricane-prone communities along the Gulf Coast and the Carolinas. The problem is also visible through a glance at what parts of the world are most saturated with scientific monitoring infrastructure: The temperate band that includes North America and Europe. While satellites have made progress in monitoring weather and dust storms of West Africa, there is still a legacy of neglect that hamstring African countries from understanding their weather.
To Gregory Jenkins, a professor of meteorology, atmospheric science, geography, and African studies at Penn State University, writing journal articles for a narrow audience alone isn't enough.
During the dusty and wet seasons in West Africa, "my phone will just go crazy," Jenkins said, with calls from colleagues seeking information that they can't get elsewhere. Since October, he's met Sundays on video conference with scientists from Nigeria, Senegal, Cabo Verde and Angola to share forecasts as well as the effects of air pollution.
It's that kind of commitment to helping people in areas without scientific infrastructure that university faculties should embrace, Jenkins said, as a way to make the academy more responsive to human need.
Jenkins's trans-Atlantic collaborations are a contrast to the U.S., where he is tired of meeting after meeting where there's only one Black person. "You just want to get out of there because it doesn't feel normal," he said. "I should not be the only one in here. Don't tell me I'm the smartest person. I don't believe you. Other people have been locked out of this system."
Students of color are underrepresented in climate science in part because few have mentors, said J. Marshall Shepherd, a professor of geography and atmospheric sciences at the University of Georgia. More schools need to teach climate science and provide mentors throughout education, he said.
How do you change policy? Some researchers are applying their training to figure it out. A National Science Foundation-funded initiative created in the final months of 2020 may recommend some ways.
Vashan Wright, an incoming assistant professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, started building the Unlearning Racism in Geoscience (URGE) program last year while at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. It's an interactive workshop created to generate policies that can address the field's lack of diversity. URGE drew several thousand participants from the geosciences by the end of its 16-week curriculum this month.
Over the next few months, participants in the virtual program will hone policy proposals that they'll take back to their institutions. These proposals might include anything from mandatory anti-racism training to collaboration guidelines for conducting fieldwork with local communities. And after that, they will assess the work. That analysis is central to URGE.
"Without each piece, it would have been just another 'book club' full of people talking with no action," said Onjalé Scott Price, chief operating officer of Mizar Imaging, and a member of the URGE team.
Can small-scale action lead to broader systemic change? Wright's research may offer hope.
"I am a geophysicist," he said, a field he chose because, "I wanted to study how small-scale processes lead to big, observable Earth processes."