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Woke Science Is an Experiment Certain to Fail

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Woke Science Is an Experiment Certain to Fail

The Wall Street Journal September 25, 2020
EducationHigher Ed
OtherCulture & Society
Critical Race TheoryAll

Advancing knowledge, not imposing diversity, should be the goal of federal research funding.

President Trump has ordered an end to training on “white privilege” and “critical race theory” in the federal bureaucracy. The directive is a good first step toward removing identity politics from federal operations. Next up should be the millions of taxpayer dollars devoted annually to cultivating race- and sex-based grievance in the sciences. The National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have all embraced the idea that science is pervaded by systemic bias that handicaps minorities and women. Those agencies have taken on the job of extirpating such inequity on the theory that scientific advancement depends on a “diverse” scientific workforce.

Earlier this year the NIH announced a new round of “Research Supplements to Promote Diversity in Health-Related Research.” Academic science labs could get additional federal money if they hire “diverse” researchers; no mention was made of relevant scientific qualifications. This latest grant solicitation expanded the agency’s social-justice agenda into novel territory. Besides the usual preferences for blacks, Hispanics and women, the NIH would fund student researchers who were or had been homeless, who were or had been in foster care, who had been eligible for free school lunches, or who had received WIC payments (a food program for low-income mothers) as a child or mother.

The federal science agencies have absorbed the vocabulary of academic victimology—from “intersectionality” to “heteronormativity” and “stereotype threat.” Intersectionality holds that people who can check off more than one victimhood box are particularly burdened by American bigotry. Science labs angling for the latest NIH diversity supplements will increase their chances of federal funding by hiring a woman who is also an underrepresented minority, disabled or from a “disadvantaged background.”

The National Science Foundation is currently doling out $29 million through its “Advance” program. Advance seeks to use “intersectional approaches in the design of systemic change strategies” to combat bias in the STEM fields. Successful applications will recognize that “gender, race and ethnicity do not exist in isolation from each other and from other categories of social identity.” The NSF funders are particularly concerned about policies that “do not mitigate implicit bias in hiring, tenure, and promotion” and that lead to “women and racial and ethnic minorities being evaluated less favorably.” 

The real reason that science labs aren’t proportionally diverse isn’t bias. It is the academic skills gap. Blacks make up just over 1% of all SAT test takers who score between 700 and 800 on the math SAT, but 24% of all math SAT test takers with scores between 300 and 390. The average black math SAT score (454 in 2020) is more than a standard deviation below the average Asian math SAT score and nearly a standard deviation below the average white math score. Given that gap, it is unrealistic to expect proportional racial representation in STEM. The sexes don’t differ much on average math scores, but the variance grows at the high end of math ability. The proportion of male test-takers with perfect or near-perfect SAT math scores is twice as large as the proportion of female ones. 

The NSF also bankrolls the tortuously named “Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoveries in Engineering and Science” program, known by the acronym Includes. It has dedicated millions to develop a “bias awareness intervention tool” and to remediate “microaggressions and implicit biases” in engineering classrooms. It spent $300,000 incorporating “indigenous knowledge systems” into Navajo Nation Math Circles, in the hope of developing Native American mathematicians. 

NIH Director Francis Collins has urged his biomedicine colleagues to boycott any “high-level” scientific conference that doesn’t have women and underrepresented minorities in marquee speaking slots. Mr. Collins said the lack of such speakers results from “subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) bias” that prevents a fair evaluation of merit. But research on hiring in scientific fields contradicts the notion that unequal representation is the result of discrimination. For example, Italian physicist Alessandro Strumia in 2018 found that, in a sample of 70,000 physicists since 1970, women were hired with fewer citations on average than their male peers.

Mr. Trump should order that federal science initiatives return to a color- and sex-blind basis. All NIH, NSF and CDC projects targeted at alleged systemic inequities in STEM should be eliminated. Advancing knowledge, not the pursuit of diversity, should be the goal of federal science funding. America’s scientific competitiveness depends on supporting our most talented scientists, regardless of their race and sex.

This piece originally appeared at The Wall Street Journal (paywall)


Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith fellow at the Manhattan Institute, contributing editor at City Journal, and the author of the bestselling War on Cops and The Diversity Delusion. Follow her on Twitter here.

Photo by kali9/iStock