The Human Cell Atlas and equity: lessons learned

  • Cell Atlas
  • Genomics
  • Alex K. Shalek
  • Majumder et al.▾
    Majumder, P.P., Mhlanga, M.M., Shalek, A.K.
  • Nature Medicine , Volume 26
  • December, 2020
Cell Atlas
Alex K. Shalek


Recent political and social events, mainly those originating in the USA, have triggered an intense desire for equity in all facets of the human experience. More specifically, actions engendered by the Black Lives Matter movement and others have led to the scrutinizing of equity across a wide range of fields, from politics and business to academia and scientific research. In science, in particular, several major journals have published opinion pieces and editorials seeking greater equity or relating to the ‘non-white’ experience. Many of their readers have been stunned by the revelations. Indeed, the scientific community is only now coming to terms with an unsettling and uncomfortable truth: structural exclusion of non-white people permeates all levels of the scientific enterprise. That being said, with awareness comes opportunity. New frameworks for describing and addressing these issues have recently emerged, creating a structure with which groups can each consider how to best internalize and embody the lessons in their own scientific initiatives.

In the Human Cell Atlas (HCA) consortium, equity has been a point of emphasis from inception in 2016 for one simple reason: the HCA’s success depends upon it. Fundamentally, the HCA is meant to be a foundational resource, inclusive of the many cell types and states found in healthy people across the globe. That resource can then be used to address a wide range of scientific questions and, in the future, to facilitate a better understanding of disease. This mission demands, explicitly, the inclusion of representation along axes of sex, age, ethnicity, environment, socioeconomic status and, in some cases, disease susceptibility in its biospecimens. Moreover, it requires broad participation to ensure comprehensive coverage and identify barriers to success and support continuity, and necessitates reciprocal, balanced benefit from the methods, data and results to ensure global engagement.

To this end, the HCA has set ambitious and dynamic equity goals for itself. Below, we describe key lessons learned through equity activities thus far, as well as our future plans.

The Human Cell Atlas and equity: lessons learned