Statement From Carnegie President Eric D. Isaacs

August 12, 2020

At this pivotal moment in our nation’s history, it is appropriate for us, both as individuals and as institutions, to reflect on our pasts and take responsibility for the ways in which our actions have contributed to our society’s systemic racism.

For the Carnegie Institution, this process of discernment requires us to grapple with our history of eugenics research. Our involvement in eugenics dates back to 1902, when zoologist Charles B. Davenport received Carnegie support to establish a “Biological Experiment Station for the study of evolution.” His stated aim was the “analytic and experimental study of the causes of specific differentiation—of race change.” This became the Eugenics Record Office, and for more than 30 years thereafter, Carnegie researchers helped to lead the eugenics movement, with the expressed support of America’s mainstream scientific community. It was not until 1935 that a review panel convened by the Carnegie Institution concluded that our eugenics research lacked scientific merit; Carnegie closed the Eugenics Record Office in 1939 and wound down all eugenics-related research by 1944.

Since then, we have expressed our institutional distress over the impact of these actions by attempting to distance ourselves from our involvement in this morally reprehensible endeavor. There is no excuse, then or now, for our institution’s previous willingness to empower researchers who sought to pervert scientific inquiry to justify their own racist and ableist prejudices. Our support of eugenics made us complicit in driving decades of brutal and unconscionable actions by governments in the United States and around the world. As the President of the Carnegie Institution for Science, I want to express my sincere and profound apologies for this organization’s past involvement in these horrific pseudoscientific activities.

Now we have a new opportunity, and a continuing duty, to hold ourselves accountable for our history. As we move forward, we fully acknowledge our discredited past actions and learn from our institutional mistakes. To that end, we are undertaking a concerted effort to become a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive Institution, in every way and at every level. This is not a task that can be accomplished simply or swiftly; rather, we are called upon to ensure that we will never again abandon our moral compass and violate our mission of independent research in the service of all humanity.

We also are pledging to take action within the broader scientific community to ensure that the lessons we have learned from our history of involvement are disseminated, understood, and embraced throughout the American scientific enterprise. Our history requires us not only to bear witness to our own past, but to stand up and speak out whenever the cause of science is distorted by personal prejudice.

I am fully committed to leading these efforts. I have asked the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee for recommendations for how we can make this moment an inflection point for our Institution by taking real, substantive steps to dismantle the racism of our past and work together toward a more just, principled, and intellectually-honest future.