Director’s Channel, July 2020

Humans, as a species, have a remarkable capacity to adapt rapidly to environmental challenges by cooperating in groups. Our group identities are based on shared norms and beliefs that get reinforced by the group. However, these beliefs are not necessarily egalitarian, fair, or even humane. Our country is currently facing several challenges simultaneously: COVID-19, economic collapse, systemic racism and police brutality. These crises are being exacerbated by clashes of beliefs fostered by different groups: partisanship, anti-science beliefs, xenophobia, nationalism, and racism. We need to combat these beliefs if we are going to adapt and thrive as a society.

As a community at UMass, we must do what is within our power to adapt to the challenges that we face. UMass has responded to the COVID-19 crisis with a series of measures that balance safety with the needs of students and researchers to do the business of the university. UMass has instituted a revised fall class schedule and moved all instruction on line if feasible. However, a new rule from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would cause many foreign students to lose their visas if they are not attending in person classes, needlessly putting them at risk and disrupting the university. UMass and other universities are fighting this arbitrary and frankly mean-spirited rule.

Racism is also costing lives through police brutality and through systemic affects that cause Blacks to be disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Fighting racism, like fighting the virus, requires people to change how they go about their business. We need to make structural changes in our institutions to protect Black lives and create equity for Black students and colleagues. The Neuroscience and Behavior (NSB) Graduate Program, led by students and post-docs, has been very active in working to eliminate racism from our community. Please read the article outlining those anti-racism actions. NSB has also launched an excellent website about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion that provides resources to combat racism as well as context for the problem and solutions. I encourage everyone to visit and take action. One easy action that you can take right now is to sign the petition to the Chancellor and Provost to demand structural changes to support the UMass Black and Brown Community. This petition was initiated by UMass graduate students, led by NSB student president Wayne Barnaby.

In this time of crisis, each and every one of us must make a concerted effort to influence the beliefs of others to reflect the best practices of science and to be humane. As academics and scientists, we have a special role to play in the larger community by joining discussions, writing letters, and combating beliefs that endanger people. As we have seen with infection rates, it’s not enough for you to change your own behavior, the whole country must come together to fight COVID-19 and racism or they will continue to spread. Our lives and our livelihoods depend upon us cooperating.

– Paul Katz, Director of the Initiative on Neurosciences.