Posted on May 14, 2018

How Identity Politics Is Harming the Sciences

Heather Mac Donald, City Journal, Spring 2018

{snip} The STEM fields — science, technology, engineering, and math — are under attack for being insufficiently “diverse.” The pressure to increase the representation of females, blacks, and Hispanics comes from the federal government, university administrators, and scientific societies themselves. That pressure is changing how science is taught and how scientific qualifications are evaluated. The results will be disastrous for scientific innovation and for American competitiveness.

A scientist at UCLA reports: “All across the country the big question now in STEM is: how can we promote more women and minorities by ‘changing’ (i.e., lowering) the requirements we had previously set for graduate level study?” Mathematical problem-solving is being deemphasized in favor of more qualitative group projects; the pace of undergraduate physics education is being slowed down so that no one gets left behind.

The National Science Foundation (NSF), a federal agency that funds university research, is consumed by diversity ideology. Progress in science, it argues, requires a “diverse STEM workforce.” Programs to boost diversity in STEM pour forth from its coffers in wild abundance. The NSF jump-started the implicit-bias industry in the 1990s by underwriting the development of the implicit association test (IAT). (The IAT purports to reveal a subject’s unconscious biases by measuring the speed with which he associates minority faces with positive or negative words; see “Are We All Unconscious Racists?,” Autumn 2017.) Since then, the NSF has continued to dump millions of dollars into implicit-bias activism. In July 2017, it awarded $1 million to the University of New Hampshire and two other institutions to develop a “bias-awareness intervention tool.” Another $2 million that same month went to the Department of Aerospace Engineering at Texas A&M University to “remediate microaggressions and implicit biases” in engineering classrooms.

The tortuously named “Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science” (INCLUDES) bankrolls “fundamental research in the science of broadening participation.” There is no such “science,” just an enormous expenditure of resources that ducks the fundamental problems of basic skills and attitudes toward academic achievement. A typical INCLUDES grant from October 2017 directs $300,000 toward increasing Native American math involvement by incorporating “indigenous knowledge systems” into Navajo Nation Math Circles.

The INCLUDES initiative has already generated its own parasitic endeavor, Early-concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER). The purpose of EAGER funding is to evaluate INCLUDES grants and to pressure actual science grantees to incorporate diversity considerations into their research. The ultimate goal of such programs is to change the culture of STEM so that “inclusion and equity” are at its very core.

Somehow, NSF-backed scientists managed to rack up more than 200 Nobel Prizes before the agency realized that scientific progress depends on “diversity.” Those “un-diverse” scientists discovered the fundamental particles of matter and unlocked the genetics of viruses. Now that academic victimology has established a beachhead at the agency, however, it remains to be seen whether the pace of such breakthroughs will continue. The NSF is conducting a half-million-dollar study of “intersectionality” in the STEM fields. “Intersectionality” refers to the increased oppression allegedly experienced by individuals who can check off several categories of victimhood — being female, black, and trans, say. The NSF study’s theory is that such intersectionality lies behind the lack of diversity in STEM. Two sociologists are polling more than 10,000 scientists and engineers in nine professional organizations about the “social and cultural variables” that produce “disadvantage and marginalization” in STEM workplaces.


The National Institutes of Health are another diversity-obsessed federal science funder. Medical schools receive NIH training grants to support postdoctoral education for physicians pursuing a research career in such fields as oncology and cardiology. The NIH threatens to yank any training grant when it comes up for renewal if it has not supported a sufficient number of “underrepresented minorities” (URMs). One problem: there are often no black or Hispanic M.D.s to evaluate for inclusion in the training grant. If there is a potential URM candidate, the principal investigators will pore over his file in the hope of convincing themselves that he is adequately qualified. {snip}

The diversity mania also determines the way medical research is carried out. The NIH has onerous requirements that government-sponsored clinical trials include the same proportion of female and minority patients as is found in the medical school’s “catchment area” (its geographic zone of study). If some of these populations drop out of medical trials at disproportionate rates or are difficult to recruit, too bad. If these URM and female-enrollment quotas are not met, the medical school must “invest the appropriate effort to correct under-accrual,” in the words of the NIH guidelines.

That “appropriate effort” can cost a fortune. Schools such as the Mayo Clinic, located in overwhelmingly white areas, must still meet a diversity quota. Lung cancer and coronary-artery disease afflict adults. If a particular immigrant group in a research trial’s catchment area contains a disproportionate share of young people compared with the aging white population, that immigrant group will be less susceptible to those adult diseases. Nevertheless, cancer and heart-disease drug researchers must recruit from that community in numbers proportionate to its share of the overall population.

Accrediting bodies reinforce the diversity compulsion. The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education requires that medical schools maintain detailed diversity metrics on their efforts to interview and hire URM faculty. Medical school search committees go through lengthy implicit-bias training sessions and expend enormous amounts of effort looking for something that they often know a priori doesn’t exist: qualified URM faculty candidates. {snip}


Entry requirements for graduate education are being revised. The American Astronomical Society has recommended that Ph.D. programs in astronomy eliminate the requirement that applicants take the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) in physics, since it has a disparate impact on females and URMs and allegedly does not predict future research output. Harvard and other departments have complied, even though an objective test like the GRE can spotlight talent from less prestigious schools. The NSF’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program has dropped all science GREs for applicants in all fields.


Medical school administrators urge admissions committees to overlook the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) scores of black and Hispanic student applicants and employ “holistic review” in order to engineer a diverse class. The result is a vast gap in entering qualifications. From 2013 to 2016, medical schools nationally admitted 57 percent of black applicants with a low MCAT of 24 to 26, but only 8 percent of whites and 6 percent of Asians with those same low scores, according to Claremont McKenna professor Frederick Lynch. Individual schools have larger score disparities. {snip}


{snip} Yale has created a special undergraduate laboratory course, with funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, that aims to enhance URM students’ “feelings of identifying as a scientist.” It does so by being “non-prescriptive” in what students research; they develop their own research questions. But “feelings” are only going to get you so far without mastery of the building blocks of scientific knowledge.


Grading on a curve is another vilified practice for those interested in building “inclusive” STEM classrooms. The only surprising aspect of that vilification is that it acknowledges one of the most self-defeating aspects of black and Hispanic culture: the stigma against “acting white.” URMs may “reject competitiveness as an academic motivator,” explains a 2015 UCLA report on the undergraduate academic-achievement gap. Instead, URMs “draw strength in peer acceptance, nurturance, and cooperation.” Translation: instead of pulling all-nighters studying for a linear algebra exam, they may be inclined to hang out in the Afro-Am or LatinX center. This rejection of academic competitiveness is a “coping mechanism,” says the UCLA inclusiveness report, that allows individuals to “devalue” things that threaten their sense of well-being, such as high academic expectations. A grading curve contributes to academic competition by objectively ranking students. As a result, URMs will be further alienated and further withhold their academic efforts. The solution, according to diversity proponents, is to throw out the curve and grade students on whether they have achieved the expected learning outcomes. This sounds unobjectionable; but in practice, a curve is the only reliable defense against raging grade inflation.


The extraordinary accomplishments of Western science were achieved without regard to the complexions of its creators. Now, however, funders, industry leaders, and academic administrators maintain that scientific progress will stall unless we pay close attention to identity and try to engineer proportional representation in schools and laboratories. The truth is exactly the opposite: lowering standards and diverting scientists’ energy into combating phantom sexism and racism is reckless in a highly competitive, ruthless, and unforgiving global marketplace. Driven by unapologetic meritocracy, China is catching up fast to the U.S. in science and technology. Identity politics in American science is a political self-indulgence that we cannot afford.