Racial controversy around plant genetics conference puts Australian scientists ‘on notice’

What does the postponement of a plant genetics conference in the Australian tropics have to do with the death of a Black American at the hands of US police?

They couldn’t seem further apart, but there’s a thread that connects them — a thread that became a lit fuse.

In late January, an Australian organizer of the International Congress on Plant Molecular Biology (IPMB), due to be held in October in Cairns, tweeted a poster.

It showed 94 faces, made up of headline speakers and session chairs.

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While some people were impressed by the line-up, there was also swift criticism.

“International and no Africans!” tweeted one science communicator from Africa.

When the Congress organizer tweeted back “Look harder” and provided a link to the one African on the collage of faces, a storm of protest kicked off.

African-Americans and other people of colour, in particular, labeled the response “disrespectful” and “tokenistic”.

The tweet was deleted, and profuse apologies were made, but two weeks later a key US-based organization involved in the conference pulled their support.

And not long after, the meeting — expecting thousands of attendees — was postponed.

The organizers say the main reason for the deferral of the Congress was COVID-19 restrictions on travel. But the withdrawal of support didn’t help matters.

Some suggest Australian scientists are feeling the heat of what is now a global movement against racism — and that they’re “on notice” to take cultural diversity more seriously.

The backstory

The man in the hot seat of the Twitter storm was IPMB conference committee chair Josh Mylne, from Curtin University in Western Australia.

He’d been working on the conference since the start of 2018 and was proud of the diversity of faces shown in the poster he tweeted.

“We had one of the best gender balances I’d seen, career-stage diversity with younger and older scientists, so much different science — more than ever before — chairs from all around the world, including for the first time Africa and India, “he told ABC RN’s Science Friction.

Josh Mylne in white labcoat in lab smiling looking at camera
Josh Mylne says the experience has been a big learning curve.(supplied)

Ros Gleadow, from the Global Plant Council, who wrote in support of the bid to have the Congress in Australia, happily retweeted Professor Mylne’s poster of faces.

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