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Would You Care if a White Man Cured Covid-19?

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Would You Care if a White Man Cured Covid-19?

The Wall Street Journal April 17, 2020
Health PolicyOther

Hiring researchers by sex and race rather than scientific prowess is dangerous nonsense.

Scientists at Oxford University and King’s College London are racing to develop an inexpensive ventilator that can be quickly built with off-the-shelf components. Should it matter that all the lead researchers on the project are men? If you believe university diversity bureaucrats and many academic deans, the initiative will be handicapped by the absence of women among the project heads. If there is a silver lining to the Covid-19 pandemic, it may be to expose as dangerous nonsense the practice of hiring researchers by sex and race rather than scientific accomplishments.

Mandatory diversity statements are now ubiquitous in hiring for science, technology, engineering and mathematics jobs. An Alzheimer’s researcher seeking a position in a neurology lab must document his contributions to “diversity, equity and inclusion.” At the University of California, Berkeley, the life sciences department rejected 76% of the applications it received last year because they lacked sufficiently effusive diversity, equity and inclusion statements. The hiring committee didn’t even look at the failed applicants’ research records.

Were the remaining contenders the best scientists in their field? Apparently it doesn’t matter. What matters is how good they are at discussing “distinctions and connections between diversity, equity, and inclusion” during their job talks, in the words of UC’s diversity guidance. The rejected applicants showed insufficient knowledge of the “dimensions of diversity that result from different identities, especially URMs”—underrepresented minorities. Perhaps some were so rash as to suggest that racial and sex quotas in STEM hiring are antithetical to the university’s research mission.

The diversity culling at UC Berkeley continued throughout the process, resulting in a 75% drop in white scientists from the original hiring pool to the final contenders, while the proportion of Hispanic and black applicants on the final short list rose 450% and 325%, respectively, from their initial shares of the hiring pool. 

Few of Berkeley’s Nobel laureates in medicine, physics and chemistry would be hired today under the diversity, equity and inclusion test. It is hard to imagine that Ernest Lawrence (1901-58), inventor of the cyclotron, would have “provided evidence” of having informed himself about the “personal challenges that URMs face at academic research institutions.” Lawrence would have been too focused on understanding the behavior of nuclear particles.

Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, announced in June that he would no longer participate in scientific conferences that showed insufficient “attention to inclusiveness.” Mr. Collins challenged his colleagues in the biomedical field to join his boycott of predominantly male scientific panels, or “manels.” Never mind if the most cutting-edge researchers working to decode the RNA of a particularly pernicious virus might happen to be white or Asian men. 

On Jan. 30, CNN blasted President Trump’s coronavirus task force for being too white and too male. Would Mr. Collins have turned down an invitation to participate on that team unless Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, or another white male scientist was replaced by a Native American epidemiologist? His challenge would suggest so. 

Antimeritocratic preferences are ubiquitous throughout the sciences—in student admissions, awarding of grants and scholarship money, and hiring and promotions. In February, Harvard’s dean of sciences announced that he would be hiring two junior STEM faculty based on their ability to “strengthen diversity, inclusion, and belonging” in the sciences division. Cornell University gets about 2.5 times as many male as female applicants to its undergraduate engineering program. Yet women enjoy a 300% admissions advantage, resulting in an admitted class that is equally split between the sexes. That rebalancing doesn’t reflect women’s superior math qualifications; in fact, women have lower average math scores than men. 

CERN, Europe’s nuclear physics consortium, last year fired Italian physicist Alessandro Strumia for pointing out that female physicists, far from being discriminated against, are hired with a thinner research record than male physicists. Academic research scientists spend countless hours on diversity committees drafting drearily repetitive reports that promise to spend yet more research money on programs to engineer race and sex proportionality in STEM and medicine. 

Science education is being watered down in the hope of graduating more women, blacks and Hispanics. Do we want the best molecular biologists and pharmacologists working on a cure for Covid-19? Or do we want the best female, black and Hispanic molecular biologists and pharmacologists working on it? Sometimes the same person will occupy both categories. But when that isn’t the case, it is reckless to treat sex and race as superior qualifications. Given existing disparities in math and science skills, proportionality in STEM can be widely achieved only by lowering standards. 

If we are in a war, as our leaders tell us, we should act like it. Diverting scientists’ attention, time and funding away from research and toward identity politics is a decadence that we can no longer afford. Reviving the economy will be as urgent a task as fighting the pandemic. Yet an early Democratic version of last month’s $2 trillion relief package required corporations to bulk up their diversity bureaucracies if they want aid. The only qualifications that should matter for both science and private enterprise are knowledge, insight and drive.

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 sanjeri/iStock