I am a tenure-track researcher in STEM fields. On June 9th, I was told that all meetings scheduled next day were cancelled so that we can be a part of #ShutDownSTEM. I was not aware of it, and I actually thought it was a joke1 (I purposely isolated myself from real-world news). So I kept all the meetings. On June 10th, it was business as usual for my group. Other people certainly knew we were working on that day.

Will our disobedience lead to trouble later?

Update: Okay, it is actually slightly worse than how I initially described it. Originally I did not know about ShutDownSTEM. On the 10th, however, some graduate students did stop by our lab and explain to us that we should use that day to reflect on ...... someting. My postdoc and I, both being people of color, were somewhat annoyed by such intrusion. So we explain to them we support their cause, but we not are going to spend a day watching netflix, and send them on their way. We certainly tried to be as polite as possible. But I suppose it wouldn't be unfair to say we dismissed their demand.

  1. In my defense, if the president of the university tells me to take a day off so that we can BurnDownUniversity, I'd certainly think it is a joke.
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    What is shutdownSTEM? Jun 29, 2020 at 22:33
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    Who told you to cancel meetings? Your boss or some random colleague? Jun 29, 2020 at 22:35
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    @JonasSchwarz, it was a day intended to reflect on the issues of racism in the US: shutdownstem.com
    – Buffy
    Jun 29, 2020 at 22:48
  • How would anyone know that you didn't participate at least part of the time? Jun 29, 2020 at 23:57
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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Please see this FAQ before posting another comment. In particular, there is no way to move comments to chat more than once, so any further answers-in-comments or discussion of ShutDownSTEM's merits will be deleted without warning.
    – cag51
    Jul 1, 2020 at 1:37

4 Answers 4


Will our disobedience lead to trouble later?

Anything is possible, and some things are a lot more possible these days than they were just a couple of months ago. It’s quite reasonable for you to be worried.

But let’s be clear. You didn’t “think it was a joke”. That is a poor way to explain your outlook and increases the chance that you will be criticized, perhaps harshly, by people who don’t have patience for nuance, facts, and the intricacies of human nature in these turbulent times. It’s probably more accurate and more productive to say that the whole thing was so unexpected and took you so much by surprise that you did not immediately appreciate how important the shutdownstem event was as a way of expressing your support for an important social movement. Thrown off, unsure what to do, and being a creature of habit and passionate about your work and its importance to science and to society, you ended up sticking with your usual routine. ... Right?

Similarly, I think it’s a mistake to use the word “disobedience” to frame your behavior. Researchers in US academia do not take orders from anyone about when or with whom to hold meetings. If you carefully read the emails you received I am sure you will discover that none of the stuff about canceling meetings and participating in the shutdown day is phrased as a directive. It was almost certainly a “suggestion” or “strong recommendation”, or you were “encouraged to participate”, “invited to reflect on systemic racism”, etc. And indeed I am confident that you reflected on many important issues that day (and most other days in the last couple of months), as pretty much everyone has been doing. Do not play into the hands of overzealous activists who presume to see into your heart and know what you care about and what you don’t care about by professing to a willful disobedience you are not guilty of. Instead, anyone criticizing you for not participating should be forced to acknowledge that the invitation to participate was precisely that - an invitation, making it entirely reasonable and acceptable to decline.

I could go on with a few similar things in your post that suggest a somewhat cavalier attitude that opens you up to a heightened level of scrutiny and criticism. Please try not to give anyone asking about the shutdown the impression that you find the recent nationwide events uninteresting, unimportant, or not worthy of being thought about or taken seriously. When you write things like “I purposely isolated myself from real-world news”, “reflect on ... something”, and “send them on their way” you sound dismissive and create a serious risk of being misunderstood. Since you support the cause of the activists, it would be foolish of them to come after you, but if by your words you give them the wrong impression, it’s quite possible that some of them will not be as thoughtful or charitable to you as they should be.

Bottom line: think defensively about this. Your actions were reasonable, but much could depend on the precise way in which you explain what happened if questioned. Also, find allies who know you and would be willing to come to your defense if push comes to shove. I hope it doesn’t come to that though, and it very well might not. Good luck!

Edit: note that I am posting here using my real identity. In such times when discussing potentially controversial topics I’m always cognizant of the possibility that in the process of offering advice to some anonymous person I never met I may be inadvertently opening myself up for potential attack or criticism by anyone who disagrees with what I wrote or interprets what I wrote in a different way than how I intended.

Oh well, it is what it is I guess. But just to clarify in case anyone gets the wrong idea about what I’m saying: in this answer I’m addressing OP’s concern about possible criticism and/or career damage given their actions during the recent STEM shutdown day of protest, and only that. I’m not commenting on any political movements or points of view and their significance, worthiness, virtue etc, so please do not interpret any of what I wrote as commentary of that type.

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    "You didn’t “think it was a joke”." Are you saying that the OP reacted inappropriately, or are you literally saying that you know what the OP thought or didn't think? I find it... problematic... to tell people what they are thinking. Especially since two paragraphs later you discuss people presuming "to see into your heart". Jun 30, 2020 at 7:12
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    @StephanKolassa The point is that the OP can think whatever they wish, but if questioned, they shouldn't tell that they thought it was a joke. That's a recipe for disaster. Jun 30, 2020 at 7:38
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    @StephanKolassa I am trying to help OP with what seems like a tricky (and potentially career-threatening) situation to navigate. I think it’s clear enough what I mean, let’s not be literal to the point of ridiculousness.
    – Dan Romik
    Jun 30, 2020 at 8:28
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    @AnonymousPhysicist an owl on the hunt does not always fly in a straight line to intercept its prey.
    – Dan Romik
    Jun 30, 2020 at 8:44
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    I agree with Stephen that that paragraph is confusing in context of the "see into your heart" line. But I agree with the notion that the OP probably didn't see the email, laugh out loud and think "thanks for the funny joke, Dr. Chair." But I think this answer is ultimately correct that this is a bad attitude to portray if the OP does, in fact, support the general movement. Although I am wondering where in the world people are just stopping by labs to chat now. +1 Jun 30, 2020 at 16:35

In short term

Will our disobedience lead to trouble later?

No, I really doubt that. I don't think the OP will get into any trouble for not following the strong recommendation. There are only a few thousand researchers signed up, which likely means a majority of people did not actively participate. So at least you are not alone (not saying it's good). If you are in trouble, so will much of STEM.

Will you be in trouble for poor explanation? Almost surely! If your public explanation is anything like your question here, I'd say you will certainly get into trouble. Dan Romik's answer already highlighted all the "wrong" keywords in your question.

In long term

I can see a real risk of this incident resurface years later when the OP seek higher position.


I doubt there could be any official consequences at all under the circumstances. Of course if you did so to support racist policies or denigrate BLM (Black Lives Matter) then you might be castigated for that. But the thing was put together very quickly and I'm not surprised that many didn't know of it or understand the purpose, though many universities promoted it quite heavily.

You may have a bit of explaining to do if questioned on it, but if rules aren't properly promulgated they can't fairly be enforced. The name itself, requires a bit of explanation, so thinking it was a joke shouldn't be an issue.

I'm a bit surprised, though, that no one in your group knew of it or bothered to explain it.

And some of the explaining you might have to do is to your students if they think less of you for what occurred.

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    About the last paragraph: if I was a PhD student or postdoc under the OP, I would avoid talking with them about matters that could be perceived as political, especially if they just received a uni-wide email and seemed not to care.
    – UJM
    Jun 29, 2020 at 23:50
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    "The name itself, requires a bit of explanation..." A bit explanation? That's an understatement. The name is literally ShutDownSTEM. I'm surprised that the STEM community as a whole is not alarmed by the name alone.
    – user39093
    Jun 30, 2020 at 2:02
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    For people like us who spend a lot of time on the internet, it's hard to imagine that people don't know. But remember the alt left are a tiny minority, and the vast majority of people will never hear about stuff like this--there are people who still don't know who BLM are.
    – user124605
    Jun 30, 2020 at 8:15
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    @ssquidd, actually it originated within the STEM academic community. It wasn't something imposed by "outsiders". There was a lot of discussion in my field about how to make the best use of the day.
    – Buffy
    Jun 30, 2020 at 11:21
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    @MSalters Support of a one-day work stoppage is not the same as being "anti-STEM," lol Jun 30, 2020 at 16:38

In your update you mention that you are a person of color.

In my observation, ShutDownSTEM was largely aimed at white people -- who have not experienced structural racism, and who may not have thought about it deeply.

Several of my professor friends on Facebook are social justice activists. A consistent point that they make (via sharing blog posts, etc.) is that white people should do more of the work, carry more of the burden, of ending structural racism. In general, their criticism is not aimed at people of color.

Although I cannot predict how people will behave, I would be very surprised if you faced negative consequences.

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    "largely aimed at white people..." Unfortunately, this does not agree with my experience. On the "day of reflection", I was told I should reflect on my white privilege. They told me this over Zoom. They can see my face and hear my accent. I'm not white, atl all.
    – user39093
    Jun 30, 2020 at 17:02
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    People of color get cancelled every once in a while (particularly if they don't belong to the currently fashionable mascot minorities, but sometimes even when they do). While I don't think the OP will be in trouble, I wouldn't assume their ethnicity is automatically a shield. Jun 30, 2020 at 19:56
  • The distinction most common drawn in the context of STEM in the United States is not "person of color" versus "white" but "underrepresented groups" versus everyone with greater representation.
    – Rococo
    Jun 30, 2020 at 21:14

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