Scientists Call for a ’Justice-Centered’ Approach to Scientific Research

In a new review paper, researchers connect structural racism to a loss of urban biodiversity, while also addressing biases in academia.

Early in Christopher Schell’s career as an urban ecologist, he studied the behavioral patterns of the coyotes who roamed Chicago. He soon realized that previous research on the subject was limited—existing studies focused on coyotes in the city’s affluent North Side and northern suburbs. But the coyotes went everywhere, including the historically disenfranchised South Side, where scientists rarely visited to study the canids. 

“A lot of my academic elders would disregard areas of the city that certainly had coyotes but were also lower-income areas,” said Schell, who currently is on the faculty of the University of Washington-Tacoma, in a recent phone interview while on his afternoon walk. Those researchers, he continued, would make “broad generalizations about biological patterns in urban environments,” though animals in low-income areas were not often sampled.

Schell, who is Black, was not surprised that researchers in a predominantly white STEM field would have blind spots in their work. But he noticed that the omission of low-income neighborhoods in the Chicago coyote studies happened in other animal behavior studies, too. “Where [the animal subjects] exist and where is deemed OK [for humans] is oftentimes where society met the research,” Schell says. The observation struck Schell as a clear example of how uintended biases and limited perspectives can negatively affect scientific research.  

This summer, as tens of thousands of people across the country protested systemic racism and police brutality, Schell, along with seven other ecologists, released a review paper in Science calling for a "justice-centered" approach to science, one that investigates the full spectrum of influences and systems of power that have conspired to create the habitats we see today. The authors cite more than 170 studies as they appeal to academics, scientists, and other Science readers to recognize the ways that long-term, structural racism in cities—such as the segregating policies and practices known as "redlining"—results in harm to people, wildlife habitat, and biodiversity.

The authors also called out systemic racism in academic sciences and the American conservation movement, pointing out that limited worldviews are not conducive to thorough scientific inquiry. “Addressing systemic and structural racism both in cities and in the scientific community,” they write, “is necessary to comprehensively understand urban ecological and evolutionary dynamics.”

Cities, of course, are complex and ever-changing spaces heavily influenced by human activity—no urban ecologist would argue with that. But while the field has begun to study racism’s influence on urban environments, Schell and the paper’s authors contend that an exploration of the “true influence systemic and structural racism” has yet to unfold. In practice, they say, that will mean addressing the underlying reasons that cities look the way they do; how people, plants, and animals are situated within them; and how scientists are trained to study them. 

And they believe a frank discussion about race will make for better research. “It is, in fact, integral to the science,” Schell says.

For instance, urban ecologists acknowledge that wealth disparities in urban areas exist, and that they cause richer areas to have more green space and biodiversity than low-income neighborhoods. The phenomenon is known as the “luxury effect,” and it is frequently studied and discussed both inside academic circles and outside of them. But that is a lens Schell and his team considered limited: Why, their paper prods its audience, does a racialized wealth disparity exist in the first place in American cities? 

One answer is the government-sanctioned practice of redlining, which from the 1930s to 1960s effectively segregated minority groups out of desirable urban neighborhoods. Redlining, the authors propose, is responsible not just for entrenched structural racism, but it also had a lasting effect on the evolutionary biology of the people, animals, and plants in targeted neighborhoods. 

Reduced tree coverage in low-income areas, for instance, can limit the healthy gene flow of native animal species and cause urban areas to overheat (these are often called "heat islands"), which affect air quality. The lack of reliable municipal sanitation in poor neighborhoods can harm water quality and attract invasive rodent species, who in turn threaten human residents with zoonotic disease. And polluting industries have a longstanding practice of setting up shop in low-income areas instead of wealthy ones. The paper even argues that COVID-19 mortality rates, which are higher in Black and Latino populations in the U.S., may be traced back to this kind of environmental racism in urban policy, which relegates minority communities to underserved areas that foster unhealthy ecosystems.

Schell says that he and his colleagues focused on redlining and the limitations of the luxury effect because they were “the most profound and most repeated” examples of the need to examine racism in their field of study. But he and his colleagues hope that the review paper serves as a blueprint—a first step toward a new line of inquiry in research fields that does not shy away from structural influences like racism, colonialism, heterosexism, and others that have traditionally been siloed into the social sciences. Schell likens it to the Avengers movies. He and his coauthors tried to embed the DNA for future intersectional research in the framework of this first paper. Several sequels, he says, are already in the works.

“The history of our country has, in so many ways, put up barriers that has not allowed us to have these conversations,” Schell says. “So they are long overdue.”